Aliza Morell is a painter based in Brooklyn. A graduate from Rutgers, she has exhibited with Castor Gallery, Trestle Projects, Nancy Margolis Gallery, and more. Her work captures and translates artificial light to a flat surface through layering of gradients. We met her at her Bushwick studio to talk about light as a medium, color gradients, and nail salons. Her work will be shown in an upcoming group exhibition, "You Drain Me," at Tempus Projects in Tampa, FL (opening January 16). She will be featured in "New American Paintings, Northeast" out in February.
What's your background?
I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I lived there through my first year of college at the University of Michigan art school and then transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When I graduated I got a studio I loved above an old lumberyard in Wicker Park and ended up living in Chicago for ten years. There’s a great local arts community in that city. I did residencies across the Midwest at Ox-Bow, Harold, and ACRE. In 2012 I did Vermont Studio Center, then started my MFA at Rutgers in New Jersey. I moved to New York after that.
What materials/mediums do you use?
Right now I’m mostly working in oils. I put a lot of time into mixing my colors and often put them into new tubes before starting a piece, so I have enough of each color ready and can paint more quickly without stopping. I’ve started using oil of spike lavender as a solvent, which is supposed to be less toxic than OMS. I also labor over my surfaces, which are either canvas, panel, and canvas over panel.
I’m always building little contraptions in the studio to help me in different ways. Dust free drying boxes, crude jigs, brush washing innovations. My newest favorite is this velcro “bridge” that attaches to the wall and straddles over the painting in whatever position I need. Since I often work wet into wet, I use it to steady my hand.
What are the main themes you work with?
Color, light, and mood.
Do you follow a narrative?
No, I think much more about sensation. I want the paintings to function on a sensorial level. The kind of light, the kind of touch. Orchestrating harmonies and rhythms. The sense of gravity. I want the read to be open, but these are the qualities that I have in mind while working.
It's interesting that if light is major element to your work that you paint images of something that is the opposite of natural light, such as neon. How do you feel about this dichotomy?
It doesn't feel like a dichotomy to me in terms of subject. The landscape I live in is illuminated by artificial light. The difference is that my neon signs are totally made up. They’re more about the idea of blazing neon than an actual representation.
I will say, however, that I did a fair amount of landscape painting outside with a French easel when I was younger. To get things right, I learned that you have to totally divorce yourself from the “objects” you see and commit to copying the negative shapes and light (think Fairfield Porter). Through this lense of total abstraction, the painting will coalesce into an accurate depiction. My work has changed completely, but this idea is central to my obsession with painting, and with the poetics of vision itself. This lense made me feel like there was beauty everywhere.
How did you start painting nail salon and floral imagery?
There a several nail salons near my apartment in Brooklyn that I pass all the time. They all have amazing neons. Most are some variation on an airy, extended hand holding a rose. One day I had this idea to invert the image - to show a clenched hand from behind, as if it were walking away (or into the picture plane), gripping a downward-pointed rose. I saw it clearly in my mind but it took me forever to figure out how to paint. It was a huge point of departure in terms of the imagery and process. When I was done, there were drawings and dead roses all over my studio. It was so exciting when I finally got it right. I just let one painting lead the next.
What is your favorite nail salon?
I haven’t gotten my nails done since I’ve lived in New York, but the salons that inspired me are on Broadway in Bushwick.
Would you ever consider venturing into working with physical neon?
I don’t think so. I’m interested in the translation. My work is so involved with the materiality of paint and the interaction of color.
How do you choose the colors for your gradients?
For a long time I was working with a spectral gradient, like the light coming through a prism. It was an outgrowth of the work I did in grad school, painting lenticular party streamers. I was looking carefully at the streamers and trying to replicate the effect in paint. Eventually I lost the streamer because I realized what I really cared about was the reflective, iridescent color.
That particular palette is very “daylight.” I’m working on new gradient paintings now in more crepuscular palettes. I don’t have a reference point for the colors in the same way. It’s more like I have a feeling of what I want, and I just keep mixing and adjusting until the colors snap into place.
What are you working on now? Do you have any upcoming projects?
My main focus is on a series of new gradient paintings, which I mentioned in the last question. They’ll all be different colors and I’d like to hang them serially. I’m also working on new oil paintings of neon roses and hands, and on a similarly themed side-project of acrylic paintings on unprimed black canvas.