LA based artist Alicia Piller creates multi layered sculptures and installations in which material, media, form, and color metamorphose into alluring environments filled with cultural, political, and biographic references—latex balloons, sycamore seeds, silkscreen images fuse into a cosmos with visually complex and open ended layers of meaning.
Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got to art.
I have been making art of all kinds since I was a small child, but there was one defining moment that changed the trajectory of my life. Surviving a freak bicycle accident in 2013, this moment of trauma was a reminder of how short our time here is on earth. Severely severing my right bicep, with one twist of the body I could have lost my entire arm or my life. This incident became a defining moment, the recovery time allowing a chance for reflection and honesty about what I feel I am here to do on the planet— make large scale sculpture. There has always been an inherent and obsessive need to express myself creatively, specifically working with my hands; experimenting since childhood with painting, latex balloons, Object assemblage, and functional crafts. After undergrad, fashion called to me allowing me a chance to explore my creative abilities with objects and functionality, but never quite giving me the intellectual conversation, the social critique that I was craving. This accident was the catalyst for change; time for me to release the limitations of the fashion world, elevating those skills into sculptural work.
You have been living a decade in NYC, working in the fashion industry, and you also lived in Santa Fe, NM. How do you think these locations and working in fashion have impacted your work?
I started my adult life on the east coast, studying oil painting & anthropology at Rutgers in New Jersey. There, I would take explicit inspiration from my own 35mm photographs, documenting and interpreting the emotional world of my friends, family, and community. After graduating I moved straight to Brooklyn (my dream since I was 12 years old). I longed for the excitement and freedom that NYC seemed to offer. While in Brooklyn, my paintings derived from photographs, quickly transitioned into a need to escape reality. I created fantasy worlds reflecting my own internal feelings; bodily landscapes built from layers of detailed painted line work. These 2-D works began to feel like a limiting way to express these inner worlds.
To support myself in New York, I worked within the fashion world. The techniques developed while working within this world, creating sculptural jewelry and costume pieces, moved to the forefront of my interests. Flat fibers incasing a range of objects, including photographs not only informed my understanding of three-dimensional shape, but became a solution to my desire to bring forms to life. Painting gradually became a skill to pull from and include within a dimensional work when needed. My inclusion of photography became less about looking at singular moments in my personal life and more about capturing the history of the planet through the lens of humanity. Playing with how to capture a sense of time within a sculptural form, I began to employ a repetitive use of photographs as objects; highlighting news headlines, political cartoons, and images of nature. Sculpture naturally has become the foundation of my art practice, feeding all my creative needs, allowing the freedom to mix in any type of medium I want into one structure. Moving to Santa Fe, NM really allowed my work to grow, physically, having more space to begin experimenting with scale.
It seems that material, process, and response to space take central stage in all your sculptural pieces. Let’s start with your approach to material and take for example 2 sculptures: Cultivating Through Cracks, Movements Towards The Light, and Tectonic Plates, Shifting, Polls. What made you choose these materials, what was your process and what is the idea behind them?
Vinyl, digital prints, balloons (real or photographed), and nature, have become signature to my work. Together, combined with a variety of found objects, I have cultivated a unique language with material that allows for full expression of content and form. Wrapping each object, including photographs with vinyl (and other flat fibers) has developed into a ritual aspect of my practice; the vinyl becoming the membrane, the sinew, connecting one or more sculptural works. Playing with a range of form, the vessel like, sometimes phallic structure of latex and mylar balloons, invokes a feeling of something inherent and biological. I can literally breathe life into a piece and equally take it away; drawing on nostalgic properties and focusing on the sadness in the act of preserving any celebratory object; creating a deeper range of emotion in the work.
The space in between the sinews of vinyl are curated images and objects. Photographic elements are a mixture of personal photography, patterns in nature, internet sourced prints of headlines, images of historical accounts of traumas. Combining objects sourced from local and global treks, with these images is crucial to creating a narrative within a work. Hiking through an area, whether urban or otherwise, I gather seeds, fallen branches, stones, and patterns found in nature; along with scavenged items like ceramics, slides, and various possessions from both the living and dead. The goal of this collection is to later utilize these charged materials in combinations that form something new and universal, but also speak directly to the past.
In the work, Cultivating Through Cracks, Movements Towards the Light, I was inspired by the materials before me at the time, dried sun flowers and chunks of a factory floor (from a previous screen-printing job). I began to think about the grass and sometimes flowers that pop up between the sidewalk paths; the growth that can still happen even if squeezed in between concrete. So, with this work I was really considering perspective, looking down to the floor as these flowers, seemingly dead flowers, rise into the sky. Anchoring this work is a clear balloon and individual seeds All from one sycamore seed pod. Here I was considering the possibilities of joy of rebirth, of planting new seeds into the world.
For the work Tectonic Plates, Shifting, Polls, as well as all of the works in the series Atmospheric Pressures, I was comparing the weather to the shifting political climates. Having this in mind, I was particularly inspired by two main materials, a chunk of baked powdered paints and a round green circular electrical part. There are many other interesting components to this work but those were the catalyst to the idea of the overall form. I see it as a chunk of earth, the powdered paint striations becoming a geological stratification of time. The electrical parts including the green circle, become a monument to obsolete ways of thinking. The blue vinyl base, a sweeping ocean of energy corroding the earth form gradually into something new.
In your extensive installations you engage wall, floor, ceiling. Tell me about your approach to site responsive installation. For instance, let’s look at your installation Atmospheric Pressures?
For this installation I was really considering the audience. The orientation of the gallery forces the viewer to walk a certain direction, I wanted to create a dramatic moment once you turned the corner, literally metaphorically ‘turning a corner’ into something new, something born through rough weather and acid rain. I was interested in generating sweeping motion, or energy pushing towards the viewer. The central sculptural form, Diversity of Voices, Re-hydrating. Resisting Contamination is a bubbling of energetic growth, made up of images of balloon forms and sculpted pages of the LA arts newspaper Full Bleed. A mushrooming of energy growing over decay, sprouting the sculptural form Hydroponic Solutions, Atmospheric Changes, hanging from above. In this work, a giant dried sunflower and palm frond are reinvigorated and celebrated. Again, I was really considering perspective, from the earth to the sky, from the sky down to the earth, this cyclical movement.
Your color ranges from monochromes to lush colors. Let’s take 2 sculptures that embody these 2 color sensibilities. What is the relationship between material and color in them?
When it comes to color it is never the first thing that I am thinking about specifically. Usually it is the content first and the color happens sometimes unconsciously. For instance, in certain bodies of work, where I am dissecting colonialism and US capitalism, I tend to stay in a color range of red, white or blue, sometimes branching out into pink, and baby blue. An example of this can be seen in the work, Colonial Panspermia. Over time, the use of blue has come to represent water/the ocean: as a symbol for life force and original method of travel sparking the pillaging of civilizations. An example of this can be seen in the hanging sculptural work, Cartographic lines, counter-mapping. Plotting movement.
When the pandemic hit my work began to visibly change color wise, stripping down to black and white. Again this was something that was unconscious it was not a direct choice in the beginning, I was working with materials that I had available like Polaroid cameras, film, and discarded screen printing materials (from my pandemic factory job), rather than purchasing new vinyl etc. In this body of work it became more urgent for me to look at the current situations rather than diving back into history. Disruptions. This is not a film. Is one of the many works from this time.
Your titles are evocative. Tell me about them and how they relate to the themes that I see throughout your work – history, geology, ecology. For instance, Biblical Proportions. Mask Making Fear or Blue Memories, Flooding Back. Navigating Tongva Water. ‘Portal’.
Titling for me are extremely important. Each one becomes a window or a clue into the works content. I am not interested in spelling out every aspect of the work, but I do enjoy giving the viewer a way in. The titling method is very similar to the way I construct a work. When it comes to sculpture I bring out tons of materials, have them in front of me, and almost like putting a puzzle together, pick and choose which words feel right for the piece. This same system comes into play with my title creation. Once the work is complete, I speak key words into my phone off the top of my head. The second step is sometimes finding words and phrases from news headlines, scientific journals, history, adding them to my brainstorming list. Just like my material collection I am collecting these words and like a puzzle piecing them together poetically to tell a story.
Biblical Proportions. Mask Making Fear or Blue Memories Is a work that was part of my pandemic series, 2020 Visions, which is dealing with the immediacy of time, the crisis at hand— pandemic deaths, gun violence, racial violence. I started this wall work in the Spring of 2020, when we were all watching the Covid deaths increase on the news. I remember specifically thinking, wow there has been 11 deaths and then in the following weeks there were too many to count. ‘Biblical proportions’ referencing the loss of lives.
The installation Blue Memories, Flooding Back. Navigating Tongva Water was an exciting break out moment within my practice. Here, I was creating a site-specific work, one that fit within the framework of the Angel Gate Cultural center in San Pedro, CA. The show that this piece was a part of was called Portals. In this installation I dived deep into the history of the port of LA, which is in San Pedro, a global shipping hub. This work moved counterclockwise in motion, gradually telling the history of this area through photographic imagery; highlighting Tongva land and use of the port, then moving through time, the area as a military zone, and finally to its current status as a global port. This work considers the history but also the implications of that history, the destruction of communities as well as the environment due to globalization. So, here I am using my title to get the public to remember what came before.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I am working on a few installation projects. One is a large freestanding sculptural work, that will be displayed at the Orange County Biennale at the end of the year. This work contains images of a woman name Helen Jones whose son was murdered by the cops here in LA in 2009. The 2nd major installation that I am working on is for the San Luis Obispo Art Museum, for Fall of this year. I was asked to do a site-specific installation that deals with fast fashion, the toll that it’s taking on our global environment.
All photo courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated
Los Angeles based artist, Alicia Piller was born and raised in Chicago and received her Bachelors in both Fine Arts (Painting) & Anthropology from Rutgers University in 2004. While working in the fashion industry; living a decade in NYC and three and a half years in Santa Fe, NM, Piller cultivated her distinctive sculptural voice. Continuing to expand her artistic practice, Alicia completed her MFA focused on sculpture and installation from Calarts in May of 2019.
Alicia’s work is a part of the Hammer Permanent Collection, Glendale College Collection, Forrest Kirk Collection, the Pam Royalle Collection, & Janine Barrois Collection. Her sculptural work was featured on the cover of Full Blede Magazine, Issue 10 (Fall 2019) and drawings of sculptural work in the Lumina Journal (Sarah Lawrence College) (Jan 2020).
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com