Alice Zinnes: Inner landscapes of Light

Alice Zinnes in her studio, with charcoal drawings behind

Alice Zinne‘s paintings draw from literature and mythology to create dramatic landscapes in which light and dark interplay as main protagonists. Her oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings often depict floods of light intertwined with fragmented darker patches, evoking dense and fluid inner spaces.

Tell me about yourself and what brought you to art.

My parents loved and collected art. My father was a physicist and classically-trained pianist, and my mother was a poet and art critic. Before I was born, they lived in the Village, and knew all the artists, writers and musicians. Nell Blaine and Theodoros Stamos gave them art as wedding gifts, and it is the Nell Blaine India-Ink wash drawing that I think inspired me to be an artist. I loved its light and soft atmosphere.

At around age 10 my mother took me to MOMA for weekly art classes, where I saw Pollock’s Number One. I loved its movement, and felt the spatial infinity of the cosmos lurking between its meandering lines. At around age 11, I studied independently with an old-school Austrian artist who had me use the most beautiful pastels I’ve ever seen. He declared, “No one can teach Alice anything about color,” something that became family lore drilled into my head until I almost believed it.

In high school I got involved in environmental causes, and in 2007, when fracking invaded the east coast, I became a central figure in the anti-fracking movement. When I’d painted landscapes, I’d felt my art was political, but didn’t know how. This recent anti-fracking activism showed me that my lyrical and poetic work was also political in that it aims to counter our cultural anxieties by taking us to a spiritual center where we value interconnection over commercialism, our shared humanity over exploitation. My art simultaneously suggests a nostalgia for our disappearing securities, and a hope for renewal.

You observed that your early and recent paintings are mirror images of each other. I love that idea – can you elaborate on that?

For about 10 years after graduate school, I painted landscapes during the summer, and described these paintings as Cezanne meets Pollock. They had the intertwined lines of Pollock, but the intense looking l found in Cezanne. Despite my focus on observation, however, I was aware my paintings were much more than mere studies. They were lyrical metaphors of states of mind, expressions of my relationship to the world, visual poems of my inner life, and statements of hope made public.

My current art begins with a story, most recently from ancient mythology. Rather than illustrating the story, however, I imagine a dreamscape in which the space, light, color and rhythm suggest the emotional drama of the story. Unlike much contemporary push-pull abstract art, my space is that of a landscape, with a ground plane, gravity and specific things populating it.

I feel my earlier observational paintings are consciously landscapes and unconsciously dreams, while my current paintings are consciously dreams housed in a landscape space unconsciously found.

Alice Zinnes, Rain, 1990, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches

You mention poetry and myth. Mythic Paintings draws on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. You say that you suggest the emotional state rather than illustrate it. Can you reflect more on that?

I wish I knew exactly what happens. When I read, I tend to create pictures for the narrative: trees on the right, people close together in the center, etc. I also imagine the light, space and colors that suggest the emotional drama of the story, a tendency perhaps related to kinesthesia’s color and sound connections. Much as landscapes informed my painterly marks when I worked observationally, telling me what to do in problematic areas, the emotional drama of the story now informs my artistic decisions. When the artwork begins to swim in chaos, I return to the story’s emotional center, and in visualizing that center eventually find my artistic solutions. As a result, I’m never only responding to the needs of the painting, but also the abstract needs of the drama. In other words, my art is not illustration, but rather expressions of emotional spaces for viewers to explore their own inner stories.

Alice Zinnes, Lost in the Fog of Hope, 2020, oil on canvas, 36 x 44 inches

Let’s look at Ancestral Fire from your other series, Ramayana. What is it based on and what is your approach to color in this painting?

Ancestral Fire was made in response to the ancient Indian epic, The Ramayana, a story about Rama, who is the god Vishnu come to earth to cleanse the planet of evil. Through many exploits the reader experiences the power of love in all its forms, plus loyalty, bravery, patience, hope and defeat between all creatures. Because my paintings are not illustrations and because I want viewers to create their own stories, I rarely say the exact part of any narrative I have worked from. Ancestral Fire was inspired from events at the relative beginning of the tale, and involves a dramatic episode of extreme loss, renewal and inner strength. As with all my paintings, the color comes out of a felt response to the emotional qualities of the drama.

Alice Zinnes, Ancestral Fire, 2009, oil on canvas, 38 x 38 inches

You draw with charcoal and with ink. How does the media inform your approach and what is the relationship between your drawings and paintings? I am also curious to know about the difference in your approach to watercolor and oil.

Generally, my drawings and watercolors relate to specific paintings. Since these media are more direct than painting, I can enter a dreamspace more easily with them than when I paint. They allow me to wander through amorphous images and feelings, searching for concrete visualizations of my intention. Watercolor’s watery flow also creates surprises that lead to new discoveries of form, color and emotions. I also love how the whiteness of the watercolor page creates atmospheric openness, in contrast to the heavier and darker tonalities — and thus darker emotional states — of my oils.

My ink drawings are small – about 4×6 inches – and are made while holding the pad, giving them a direct connection to my body that allows intimate journeys into my deepest self. My charcoals are much larger – about 27×36 inches – and have broader strokes than my ink drawings. That charcoal can be erased also allows for bigger changes than does ink, and my charcoals can go through drastic revisions.

The drawings and watercolors, however, rarely look like the paintings, although they may have vague areas that relate. For instance, in both the drawing pictured below and its companion oil painting, Loss of the Past, there is something in the lower right, but the overall organization and lighting are quite different.  Similarly, though both the watercolor shown below and oil painting, An Open Center Speaks to the Clouds, share a cross-diagonal movement pointing to the center, the colors and larger structures are entirely different. In effect, the drawings and watercolors are not rough sketches for the paintings, but rather avenues to understand inner feelings that otherwise might be too ambiguous to hold on to throughout the long painting process. The drawings and watercolors remind me as I paint what it is I am aiming for, rather than an underlying formal structure. 

Alice Zinnes, It Can’t Be, 2020, pen & ink on paper, 3½ x 5 inches
Alice Zinnes, If It Were Only So, watercolor on archival paper, 7½ x 10 inches

It seems to me that light and movement are central in your work as channels to reach a state of transformation. There is something deeply romantic in that and yes, also an aim to reach a spiritual realm, without any shade of cynicism. I am thinking about Turner (painting) and some old masters (drawing) within art historical context for instance. What are your thoughts on that?

Light is the magic of life. It is the sun’s rays and the energy of all that lives. I continue to be amazed at how the same motif can look dull or exciting, just by changing its light. Light creates color and it creates space. It expresses metaphor and it organizes. Starting with my childhood love of that Nell Blaine wash drawing, with its mysterious lights and darks, and later being mesmerized by Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso etchings, I have become convinced it is through light that my romantic spirit can best be expressed.

Years ago, I read Suzanne Langer’s book, Philosophy in a New Key, where she explores how rhythm, or as you say “movement,” is the root of all art forms, that rhythm creates an art’s power. Langer looks at the rain dance and wonders why, when the dance clearly has no causal effect on rain, these very bright tribesmen still exert extraordinary amounts of energy just when the drought has sapped that energy. She determines these people’s need for rain is so great, and their need to express their anxieties so powerful, that only the elaborate rhythms of the rain dance can suffice. Simply saying “We need rain” does not express the gravity. This book had a fundamental influence on me, turning me into an abstract painter, because rhythm is at heart what abstraction is.

What are you working on now?

I feel I am going through a transition. Recently I changed my oil painting medium, and this new one is letting me bring out more color variety and details, but it’s also making me change how I structure my space. I’m scared to let go of the process I’d become relatively comfortable with, but excited to see where my new explorations take me. I am working on small canvases as I experiment with the possibilities.

Alice Zinnes, When It’s Possible, Or Maybe Not (unfinished), oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

All photo courtesy of the artist.

Alice Zinnes has had seven solo exhibitions in NYC, including at Causey Contemporary Fine Art, Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, Tribes Gallery, and The Art Center at Queens College, CUNY, a number of solo shows upstate NY at the Alliance Gallery (Narrowsburg) and CANO (Oneonta), as well as been included in many group exhibitions. Her work has been reviewed in The New York Times, New York Newsday, New York Arts Magazine, Art New England, The Queens Tribune, Revolt Magazine, Art News, The Indypendent, Abstract Art Online and From The Mayor’s Doorstep. She has twice been interviewed on NPR’s affiliate station, WJFF. Zinnes has received awards from the National Academy of Design, and fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Arts, and Cummington Community for the Arts. She is in many private and public collections. Currently Alice Zinnes is a tenured adjunct Full Professor at The Pratt Institute.