Studio Visit

Oliver Beer on Painting With Sound and Making Spine-Tingling Music With Paleolithic Caves

The setting for Oliver Beer’s studio, nestled beneath a set of noisy railway arches in South East London, didn’t feel like a natural fit for an artist whose work deals with the music and barely perceptible sounds.

Then again, as he greeted me wearing a boiler suit with a pair of ear defenders around his neck, the location means he’s likely to never to get a noise complaint from the neighbors. 

Although the workshop part of Beer’s studio was cluttered with broken instruments and differently shaped objects, the rows of clear plastic boxes, meticulously labeled, felt more in line with the personality of the artist, who seems carefully articulate and attentive.

Beer has a gift for being able to hear the natural resonance of any room or hollow object. He can also tell you, just by listening, what key a sound is in. He channelled this talent into studying composition at university, and had a stint as a member of an indie rock band before making his name as an artist.

As he toured me around the workshop, he introduced some of the objects in the room, picking up an elephant shaped vessel, singing its note into it, and causing it to hum right back at him in harmony. 

His eclectic collection of vessels is dear to him, and has formed the basis of many bodies of work; perhaps best known is a project created using 32 objects from the Met’s collection. Beer built a playable orchestra out of the natural resonance of the artifacts. A kaleidoscopic collection of cats in another part of the studio gave away that he is now working on a cousin of the Met project, a “cat orchestra” inspired by a 17th-century da Vinci-style polymath’s unhinged designs for a cat organ

Another work, currently on view at the London Mithraeum, allows visitors to amplify the acoustic resonance of vessels found on the former site of the historic Roman temple. Also on view in that exhibition are a series of new paintings he has dubbed “resonance paintings,” which are created without ever touching the canvas. By blasting sound beneath a canvas covered with pigment, the particles of color come alive like tiny little ravers, dancing across the canvas to create remarkable abstract paintings.

He expands more on this process in the conversation below.

Oliver Beer's studio. Photo by ©Jason Alden.

Oliver Beer’s studio. Photo by ©Jason Alden.

Music is obviously a big part of your life. What’s on your playlist at the moment?

I’ve been listening to very diverse things. Everything from pretty hard electronic slash ambient slash classical [sic]. I think because I studied music, and because I’ve worked with so many musicians of different genres, I have a very eclectic taste.

Last night I was listening to an incredible Shostakovich prelude, a song by this group called Low, which is super intense electronic—their song Quorum [features] a Haitian singer called Melissa Laveaux, who I’m working with at the moment. She’s incredible and sings her own contemporary interpretation of Haitian music.

Tell me about the “resonance” paintings—is this a new body of work? 

This is a body of work that started during the lockdown, though it originated in a piece that I made in around 2008 or 2009 when I was still at Ruskin [College], in my second year. I put a handful of flour on an Irish drum and I put a speaker underneath it, and because I studied music and music is a big part of the way I experience the world, I was able to essentially tune the music to the drum and make that flour go into the most beautiful cosmic patterns through the vibrations. 

For these new works, I have taken a horizontal blank canvas rather than a drum, and placed the finest possible pigment on the surface so the sound moves the pigment into that same geometric shape. I’m able to paint very deliberately and carefully on the canvas without ever touching it, by using sound as my paintbrush. 

What I’ve been working on for a long time is the form of music—the fact that music really has a shape, literal geometric shape, which people don’t really understand or appreciate. Usually when you go to a concert, you think you’re only listening to vibrations, but if you could see the vibrations like on the surface of water, you would be able to see that the music is coming at you, filling the room with the most beautiful geometric, three dimensional patterns.

Oliver Beer. Installation images from "Albion Waves". ©Marcus Leith.

Oliver Beer. Installation images from “Albion Waves”. ©Marcus Leith.

 What would you say is the most indispensable item in your studio?

A lot of the work I’ve done is to do with the voice. Human voice is the most deeply charged, instrumental area. It’s both a musical instrument, but it’s also your most fundamental means of communication. And what gets me about the voice when we talk to each other is that like all those vibrations in the “resonance paintings,” our voices are doing the same thing in the air between us. So we’re actually constantly sending geometry and form at each other, and our brain interprets that geometry as intelligible sound. 

Our voices are also making every single atom vibrate in synchrony. So when I speak, every single atom in your body is moving in synchrony with that vibration. That’s an incredible way of being in touch with each other, like literally touching each other with our voices. I think when you have a singer, for example, it becomes all that much more compelling because you go to a concert and everyone in the room is literally being moved by that same sound, which is just the vibration of the vocal cords, it’s so simple.

Oliver Beer studio. Photo by Naomi Rea.

Oliver Beer studio. Photo by Naomi Rea.

You’re working on a pretty special project at the moment, for the paleolithic caves in the south of France. Can you tell me more about that?

I’m shooting a video opera in the famous painted caves, home to the oldest art in the world. I managed to get the keys from the French government. I was just rehearsing with Rufus Wainwright last weekend here; he’ll be in it.

The caves are closed to the public now, because they are so fragile, aren’t they?

Lascaux is closed. The part that I have access to is very limitedly accessible. They have a very strict amount of time that you can spend in there, calculated in hours of breath. So it’s particularly exceptional that they’ve let me in with singers.

Caves are just like giant vessels. And I found a way of making the caves sing, just by whispering to the walls. And when you do that, they sing back so loudly that you cannot even hear your own voice anymore, you just hear this incredible sound coming from the caves. I’ll go down seven times with seven different singers and they’ll all sing a duet with the cave. And when I cut it together, they’ll all be perfectly in tune with each other. Because the cave has never changed its note, it becomes like a tuning fork, keeping everyone in tune.

What will they be singing?

The principle behind the caves opera is that every singer who I’m working with will giving me the earliest musical memory that they have in their entire lives, which will almost always come from a parent or grandparent, and I’m weaving those seven melodies into seven part polyphony, which the cave will force into harmony with each other. So even though they’re from the most diverse possible backgrounds—from Haiti to North America to France to Lebanon—they will be singing their inherited music in perfect harmony thanks to this space. The space becomes this cultural unifier in some way.

Oliver Beer in the studio. Photo by Naomi Rea.

Oliver Beer in the studio. Photo by Naomi Rea.

How many studio assistants do you work with to pull off projects like this?

We have so many different projects so that number grows and shrinks according to what we’ve got going on. The video opera obviously is a major project—it’s actually a prize from the French government. Macron put €30 million behind post-pandemic projects and part of that has funded this very ambitious film work. I’ll work with a production company on that. 

I’ve got a show with the Museum of Modern Art in Paris next year, “Reanimation Paintings,” and it’s going to take a lot of organization as well. It will be inspired by seven paintings in the collection—ten thousand different children will each redraw one of the seven paintings, and those thousands of drawings will be scanned and printed onto celluloid film and projected to become like living canvases of each original painting seen through the psychedelic originality of the children’s vision. At the same time, I’ll record thousands of their voices in a recording studio that I’ll build in the gallery. And I’ll work all these sounds into a very intense musical soundtrack for the final seven screen immersive installation which will represented in 2024. 

So the studio has to be very nimble.

Is there a typical day in the studio for you? 

I have so many things that I want to make so I have to try to carve out time to do them whenever I can. The process for the “resonance paintings,” is very musical. It’s quite emotional, and it’s actually quite exhausting because I need to be very alert. It’s a bit like jazz improvisation, with a clear structure and lexicon though new possibilities can arise in the moment. So I’ll try and find a few times in the week where I can really quietly do that for several hours. Actually it’s not quiet, I’ll be making loads of noise.

Oliver Beer. Installation images from "Albion Waves". ©Marcus Leith.

Oliver Beer. Installation images from “Albion Waves”. ©Marcus Leith.

Vessels are a big part of your practice and you’ve involved different kinds in different ways—how do you go about sourcing them?

Originally I used objects from my own family, [like those] in the British Art Show [which closed in December] in Plymouth. That’s nice because it’s like a portrait of my family, but obviously you only have so many vessels in your life. That’s why the show at the Bloomberg Space [at the London Mithraeum] has become a portrait of British vessel-making going back 2,000 years.

The [institution] has these incredible objects from different periods of history that they found on the site of the Roman temple. It has been really fun to delve into the nature of British taste and object-making. I’ve collected a pretty democratic cross section of objects going back 2,000 years. They are suspended from the ceiling, and activated by movement sensors that detect the body’s presence: people will stand under them and the vessels will sing their notes.

It’s a really nice opportunity to do what I did at the Met, which is to take this acoustic principle and apply it to a collection of objects. At the Met, 21st-century objects were alongside sixth millennium BC objects, and they were perfectly coherent together, which was very museologically challenging for the museum. They have a hierarchy and protocol as to how objects are presented and why, and it took a lot of conceptual convincing for them to recognize that this way of understanding the objects was really valuable. I had to individually coax each of the conservators and curators from each department to collaborate on the project. Once we had achieved it, it became a playable instrument that harmonized objects from diverse cultures and civilizations.

What do you do whenever you are feeling stuck or in a rut? 

I haven’t really had time to feel stuck or in a rut for forever. I think if anything it’s the other way around. There’s so much that I want to build. During the lockdown I designed 12 acoustic pavilions, where the form of the architecture will create the most incredible natural sounds—now I’m working on finding places to build them.

The lockdown was amazing for me. I was very fortunate that it was a very productive time because I wasn’t able to go out, so I was able to compile all my drawings. Now, really, I’m burning to make everything, I just need the time and the resources to do it.

Oliver Beer: Albion Waves” is on view through July 15 at Bloomberg SPACE, London Mithraeum.

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British Art Duo Gilbert and George Are Drinking Champagne in the Studio and Signing Posters for Their Next Gallery Show

The English art collaborators Gilbert and George, known for their graphic photo works and for wearing dapper suits, have been on a more than 50-year “visionary and moral journey,” as they describe their creative practice. That journey has most recently led them back to their own doorstep, London, where they’ve been steadfastly working through the lockdowns.

For their latest body of work, going on view in the exhibition “New Normal Pictures” at Lehmann Maupin in New York on September 9, the pair combines seemingly prosaic scenes of London life with jolts of day-glo color.

We spoke with the duo about where they’ve been finding inspiration lately and how they’ve managed to stay busy during this period of upheaval (hint: it involves champagne).


What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

Our brains, our souls, and our sex.

Is there a picture you can send of your work in progress? 

WORK IN PROGRESS, 2020. The artists, Manuel Irsara the architect, Yu Yigang, and the team at the future Gilbert and George Centre. Photo: Tom Oldham.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

Signing thousands of posters and catalogues in preparation for our Lehmann Maupin New York exhibition of “New Normal Pictures.”

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

The Cosmic Void is our ideal studio. Music is against our religion.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

We admire works of art that have something to say for themselves with great visual/human power. We despise willfully obscure art that looks down its nose at the lovely viewers.

What snack food could your studio not function without?

No snacks—only champagne.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

As always, Darwin, Alan Turing, and Charles Dickens.

Gilbert and George, BATTLE ROAD (2020). © Gilbert & George. Courtesy the artists and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

We are never stuck. Rather, we are always bursting with more pictures than we will ever be able to create.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

A display of art at the studio of that great, yet-to-emerge artist Oliver Hemsley.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

Expectations, hope, desire, and determinations.

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Artist Alison Elizabeth Taylor on Making Intricate Wooden Tableaux While Her Kids Zoom for School in the Background

Marquetry—the age-old technique of applying small pieces of colored wood to create decorative patterns—is a word that conjures up visions of antique stores and auction house catalogues; it feels like a craft enthused over by connoisseurs, not the makings of contemporary art. Brooklyn-based artist Alison Elizabeth Taylor, however, knows otherwise. Over the years the artist has transformed marquetry into something wholly her own in a signature process that incorporates inlaid wood, painting, and collaged textures. 

A native Nevadan and a witness to the boom and bust of Las Vegas, Taylor uses marquetry to create poignant scenes filled with the landscapes and misfit characters of the Southwest. A tension exists on the works’ very surface: the intricacy of the marquetry, associated with the decor of upper-class homes, entices the eye to linger on oft-overlooked subjects. We recently caught up with Taylor in her studio (in a building, her neighbors have told her, that used to be a coffin factory) as she was putting the final touches on “Future Promise“, her forthcoming solo exhibition at New York’s James Cohan Gallery.  

Courtesy of Allison Elizabeth Taylor.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor in her Brooklyn studio. Photo: Vincent Dilio, courtesy of Alison Elizabeth Taylor.

What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

I love the MONO Zero eraser. I erase as much as I draw, probably one out of every two marks gets the ax. I’d also be lost without the generic #11 blade in my knife, it allows me to draw with a blade on all kinds of material, like an extension of my hand. Finally, my Epilog laser cutter. It’s only 18 by 12 inches, so I still have to hand-cut larger pieces of wood veneer, but I’ve used it for almost every artwork I’ve made in the last 16 years. At this point it’s like an old car: it breaks, I open it up and tug on a belt, and it’s good to go. It’s actually quite simple technology. Any line I can draw, I can then cut with this tool.

Is there a picture you can send of your work in progress?  

Courtesy of Allison Elizabeth Taylor.

A work in progress. Photo: Vincent Dilio, courtesy of Alison Elizabeth Taylor.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

Making a cup of coffee when I get in. I try to only have a few sips when I wake up, just enough so that I don’t get a caffeine headache and I can save the buzz part for working. The pacing and maintenance of my coffee addiction are a good distraction. The studio task I’m most looking forward to getting done tomorrow is the glue-up of a marquetry skin. I’ve taped thousands of little pieces of wood veneer together and now I need to glue them to a plywood substrate, which I build into a panel in a second glue-up. It’s a little nerve-wracking as the piece is very brittle; the veneer is 1/32 of an inch thin, and when all taped together it’s like a giant potato chip that is 5 feet wide and 8 feet long. I have to spread just the right amount of glue on the panel, wrap it all in plastic, and put the piece in the vacuum press before the glue starts to set up. I do this part in total silence and try not to forget any of the steps. Painting and adding textures is my favorite part; after the heavy production is done, the possibilities of adding materials to the surface are endless.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

It depends on what I’m doing that day and how loud the cacophony of self-doubt is in my head. If I need to drown out the voices I’ll listen to the news, but that often backfires, and then I go to music. Santigold is always good for oil painting. Other reliables are Joanna Newsom, Digable Planets, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the I May Destroy You playlist. I’m also looking forward to listening to the next season of the Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast.

Over the last year, I often couldn’t choose what I wanted to listen to in the studio because I had the soundtrack of my kids’ school Zooms, which was pretty surreal. I’m all freshened up on how to do long division with a remainder. One of the teachers was really strict about what went on in the kids’ backgrounds as not to be distracting, and we tried to be cognizant of this. One day movers came to take a painting for a show and when they removed it from the wall, I heard the teacher say, “Now I’m seeing too much movement in your background.”

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

When a work of art has a meaningful relationship between the subject and the way that it is realized. I love to see complex content rendered in a medium that conveys determined commitment but also a personal viewpoint. I like work that draws from life. I think references to other art and art history are interesting and I enjoy the spark of getting those allusions, but there needs to be more to it. Basically, I want art to create meaning on a few different levels. I love it with people transgress their known discipline and nail it in another medium. That’s a hard bar to reach.

I don’t bother with despising art, it’s just as easy to not look at it. I save all of my despising for the misinformation and corrupt political actors that are prolonging this pandemic.

Courtesy of Allison Elizabeth Taylor.

Photo: Vincent Dilio, courtesy of Alison Elizabeth Taylor.

What snack food could your studio not function without?

Coffee. I’m more of a first and second lunch type of person rather than a snacker, as my hands are always covered with epoxy or paint, so if I’m going to scrub them clean, I’m going to sit down to a whole meal. I love Ethiopian food from neighborhood restaurant Bunna. There was a restaurant on the block called Guadalupe Inn that sadly closed for good during the lockdown. They had hot churros covered in caramel sauce. I really miss that place.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

I’m not online much. It was actually my New Year’s resolution to spend more time on social media, as during lockdown I just wanted to connect with all of the people I’ve missed. For me, social media is more about giving the many talented artists I know likes, rather than any deep thinking.

I have been reading some amazing fiction, like Circe by Madeline Miller, where the witch from The Odyssey is banished by a family she doesn’t fit in with to an island where she learns what she is capable of. It had echoes of what it’s like to be in the studio trying to create something. She experiments with unknown herbs and flora and sees what materials and processes can work. Circe’s alone, experimenting with no known starting point, trying to make something magical happen.

There are so many nonfiction books full of necessary and critical thinking to read right now, although I recommend going back to 1963 and reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time instead of spending too much time on Twitter. Reading deeper to try to understand the currents in society that create the more abbreviated and louder conversation on social media is maybe a way forward?

Courtesy of Allison Elizabeth Taylor.

Photo: Vincent Dilio, courtesy of Alison Elizabeth Taylor.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

I engage in productive procrastination—cleaning the studio, flattening wood, sorting veneer scraps, priming paper for paint. I’ve been trying to think of ways to get to a zero-waste studio, which is probably impossible. But sometimes this leads to serious procrastination, like attempting to make paint out of ground waste, crumpling bits of wood into compostable crumbs. Other times I’ll just go on an epic walk around Brooklyn. I try not to use alcohol to deal with these periods anymore.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about Greer Lankton’s installation at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. I’ve only seen images online, but look forward to seeing it in person.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

A cool pond in the forest—it’s super hot in NYC today—a utopian community that worked, globe thistles, and blueberry scones that are soft.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s “Future Promise” is on view at James Cohan Gallery, 48 Walker Street, New York, September 10–October 23, 2021. 

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Artist Mandy El-Sayegh on Making Her Studio Into a Bedroom, and the Kind of Art She Doesn’t Care for

The Malaysian-born artist Mandy El-Sayegh’s large-scale, layered canvases, which are constructed from “found fragments” and call attention to a world in flux, have caught the attention of the art world in recent years.

Her first solo exhibition in Seoul at Lehmann Maupin, titled “Protective Inscriptions” (through July 17), features “an immersive installation, combining painting and soundscape to activate a formless language of flesh and vibration,” according to the gallery. It also includes the everyday items that have become common in her work: old copies of the Financial Times, iconography from familiar advertisements, doodles, and pages of Arabic calligraphy taken from her father’s home in London.

Altogether, the works prod the artist’s fractured experience of identity, and suggests “the intricacies of growth and decay as they happen in real time,” El-Sayegh said.

“I’m interested in this idea of lost time and the impossibility of finding a moment of origin,” she said. “My work builds fragmented histories into absurdist bodies and forms.”

We spoke with El-Sayegh about life in her studio, being a night owl, and why great art demands “a sense of honest vulnerability.”

Mandy El-Sayegh, "Net-Grid" (2020). Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

Mandy El-Sayegh, “Net-Grid” (2020). Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

Impossible to answer, as I hoard everything and need every little scrap around me and in my periphery.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

Steam cleaning the lino floor after days of using it to prime surfaces.

You have a show on in Seoul. What can people expect to see? 

Interesting biomorphic textures and forms.

An installation image from El-Sayegh's show, "Recombinance," with Lee Bull. Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

An installation image from El-Sayegh’s show, “Recombinance,” with Lee Bull. Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? 

I am a night owl, so I emulate a bedroom situation with all my creature comforts: bass-heavy music for at least 8 hours, lots of warm LED lamps. Though there are times that call for silence.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

A sense of honest vulnerability in testing an idea that teeters on the edge of failure, where there is something at stake. Conversely, I tend not to like anything too virtuoso and sure of itself.

What snack could your studio not function without? 

Something salty after the night shift: nocellara olives, lebne, zaatar, unpasteurized OJ, and milk thistle to detox the vodka.

Installation view of El-Sayegh's "What’s it called? Nothing, I just collect stuff, I’m a yard man" (2020) at the Busan Biennale in 2020. Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

Installation view of El-Sayegh’s “What’s it called? Nothing, I just collect stuff, I’m a yard man” (2020) at the Busan Biennale in 2020. Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

A lot of the curators and thinkers I follow don’t have a big social media presence. The few that do are: Novara media, Natalie Wynn, Daniel Tutt.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

Run, shower, leave, tidy, start another thing.

Installation view of "Mandy El-Sayegh & Lee Bul: Recombinance" (2021). Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

Installation view of “Mandy El-Sayegh & Lee Bul: Recombinance” (2021). Photo courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

I honestly cannot recall.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

DNA sequencing, xerox fanzines from the ’70s, blunt force trauma wounds.

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How Artist Ellen Altfest Built a Fully Functioning Studio Outdoors—and Manages to Resist Cell-Phone Distractions While Painting There

Ellen Altfest paints her subjects—gourds, armpits, male anatomy—in such painstakingly fine detail that it can take months, or even years, to realize a single composition.

In recent years, Altfest, who is based in New York, has increasingly turned her eye toward the natural world, painting scenes of moss, trees, and other features of her outdoor environment, always in natural light. A selection of these new watercolor works are on view now in an online solo show at White Cube titled “Nature.”

We spoke with the artist about how she learned to paint outdoors and where she’s finding creative inspiration now.


What are the most indispensable items in your studio and why?

1. My skylights. I make all my oil paintings from direct observation in natural light.

2. My 6/0 sable brushes are indispensable when making fine detail in both oil and watercolor.

3. A man-shaped tailor’s dummy that I use to pin still life objects to so they don’t move when I paint them.

4. The platform my husband built for me that keeps me level when painting outside.

5. My extensive leaf collection.

6. A tall wooden painting stool that I inherited from [the late New York City-based painter] Sylvia Sleigh, which is the perfect height and shape for painting.

Ellen Altfest’s studio. © Vincent Dillio.

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

I am enjoying spring and returning to my painting site, which is next to a stream. I have been making a painting of a tree with moss, which I began in spring 2019 and have worked on since, on days that are not too cold or wet. I’m at my favorite part of the painting, when many of the small pieces of bark are in the right place and mostly painted. After taking a break for the winter, I get to go back with a fresh eye and pull it all together, which should only take two or three more months, I hope. I will finish the trees in the distance at the end of October, which I can only see clearly when the leaves have fallen again.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

When I’m indoors, I like to make a little nest around myself of natural objects and books. I need visual information and texture to feel creative. I like parsing an abundance of subject matter, like what I see when I’m outside. Painting in the elements is in turn stressful and stimulating, but I like the sense of urgency that natural conditions provide.

I love listening to music when I work, but I can’t trust myself with the phone. It interferes with my ability to focus. Podcasts are an especially slippery slope, because they seem to offer a way to buffer the stresses of making a painting. The Daily is my gateway drug—I innocently want to check in with it at the start of the day, but pretty soon I become curious about something else I subscribe to, and then hours have passed and I find myself in the grips of Casefile, or some other dark and dispiriting true crime program that seems to wriggle its way into my subconscious mind and reemerge when I’m sleeping. So it’s best for me to abstain.

Altfest’s outdoor setup. © Vincent Dillio.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

I think great art has a combination of qualities that all need to be present. In painting, there is a formal inventiveness, singular execution, an intensity and complexity of ideas and impulses, and evidence of a personal sensibility. I like when I can feel that something is at stake. When I see a work that is fully what it’s supposed to be, that I connect with, I feel energized and humbled.

I can’t really think of anything I despise. But I have a short memory, so when I see something that’s not to my liking, I will probably forget it.

What snack food could your studio not function without? 

Matcha tea! I order it from the Sazen Tea Company in Japan. Matcha is made of ground leaves, the best of which are a bright green, like springtime. I whisk the tea into water, mix it with almond milk and raw honey, and heat it.

Altfest in the studio. © Vincent Dillio.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

@artsmagazinedotcom: A successor to the legacy publication Arts Magazine, it makes insightful, nuanced, and funny art reviews in video. These three-to-five-minute productions appropriate an eclectic mix of source materials, high and low, old and new, creating a space somewhere between video art and art criticism. Full disclosure: the editor-in-chief is my husband.

@oumanijacobstudio: Ceramics that use glaze in such beautiful ways that they are as much paintings as useable objects. With just 432 followers, his work feels like a discovery.

@davidrisley: I first admired the gumption of David Risley for going back to art-making after owning a gallery, and then I was won over by his guileless watercolors. Now I’ve begun to follow his absurd insights into the art world and pretty hilarious visual essays made while recovering from a broken back.

@special_plants_world: Not about art, but plants that I find mysterious and surprising. I used to be a loyal succulent and cactus lover (even painting them), but the patterns on the variegated varieties are so good that I may have new favorites.

Ellen Altfest. © Vincent Dillio.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

Seeing other art and travel are what I turn to when I need inspiration. Some people get ideas in the shower, but I find that kind of mental hum in museums. Years ago, I went to a Mantegna show in Paris that was mind-blowing to me, and I stood in front of each work and made myself fully present to absorb what I was seeing. Then, in the hallway outside of the the exhibition, I had the idea to paint part of a leg on the ground. I still don’t exactly know where this came from.

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

I saw this amazing Lee Krasner show at Kasmin gallery last month. I had read about her work in the book Ninth Street Women, but hadn’t seen her collage paintings before. The works from her 1955 show are so bold and raw, in color and composition. The fearlessness needed to rip up and reconfigure her own paintings (and some of her husband’s) was inspiring. I’m hoping for collage to work its way into my paintings, in its own way.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

Compositions made of combinations of leaves as they have been arranged by water and wind on the forest floor.

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