August 28, 2013

Spotlight: Alana Questell

Reduce, reuse, collage: a story of reincarnation.

As you might've seen with our June moodboard and other personal ravings, I adore the Pop Art movement of the mid-fifties. While to some it's seen as "kitsch," to others it's a breath of life into a slowly dying image. That haggard model? She's limping across the desert now. And that fighter pilot – he's an astronaut, soaring past the planets and stars. The new artist takes control of the art and makes it into something new and beautiful, and repurposes what had the potential of being meaningless. Though collage as an art form will always have a following of crafters, scrapbook moms and middle school teachers, there are a distinct few who truly transform the process into a living, breathing art form.

Alana Questell is one of these people. She presents fantastical images filled with emotion, color and landscapes that somehow work closely together to make you think they were meant to be that way all along – almost as if sitting on the moon were possible, or small children were always tucked away in purple flowers. And maybe in some far off dimension, they are. But for now, we'll have to make do with finding these strange places amongst Questell's art, patched together as if they've come not from magazines and old shoe boxes, but from her brain and, in turn, reality.

THE LE SIGH: To begin, how did you first get involved with making collages specifically? What drew you to them over other mediums?

Alana Questell: I honestly couldn't say how I got involved with making collages. I was recently doing some deep cleaning in my house and found an old box of paper clippings from when I was little. I found a cut-out of a yawning chimp's head glued to the body of a kid in a Gameboy advertisement (possibly a soft social commentary on my peers??). I couldn't have been older than ten when I made that, so I've been doing collage on and off for almost a decade now.

As far as what drew me to collage, I have busy hands, and a moment of stillness is rare for me. Collage puts my manual flurry to good use. And there's something about physically altering images that's rewarding to me. Like, after I've cut something away from a background, it's free. I can hold it in my hands and completely change its context. I can put an elderly woman who was minding her own business and trimming a tree into space and instead be clipping a giant space owl's wings (i.e. "Wing Clipping").

It's like a puzzle that doesn't have a nice finished picture on the box, and I really like that part of it. With other media like paint or sculpture or digital work, you have the opportunity to make potentially any shape any color from any angle doing anything. In collage, there's a certain level of limitation involved. You only have these certain objects or landscapes or people that exist in these really specific environments. Moving around pieces that have (mathematically) a more finite amount of possibilities than other creative media is kind of exciting to me. It's like, "there's a new image to be made from all these little pieces, I just have to move them around and change them a bit to find it." And when I eliminate the constraints of images that already exist, I feel like I can see them for what they really are, in a way. Their most basic components.

TLS: Where do you find your images? I read that you find them scattered and discarded over time, but do you ever go in search of them or do they ordinarily find you?

AQ: A large amount of my images come from discarded National Geographic [magazines] and literally the most random books I can find in thrift stores/used bookstores. Sometimes I do look for them because I might want a certain kind of image or texture, but I've found and used books from my attic and from garage sales and things like that. I really just use things people don't want anymore.

TLS: What do you think collages accomplish over drawing the images yourself, or what do they say differently?

AQ: I don't know that they accomplish anything different from drawing or any other medium; it's all about self-expression and what you feel comfortable doing. I just happen to like cutting paper. I like taking real people our of their real life situations. I'm altering who they are, where they are and what they're doing. At the same time, I'm not creating the individual images from scratch. I feel there's some sense of realness/humanity that's preserved from the original images and moments in time because of that. It's a certain sense that I personally wouldn't be able to recreate through drawing or otherwise.

TLS: How did you get involved with creating album images for [the band] SALES?

AQ: Jordan Shih and Lauren Morgan (aka SALES) are really close friends of mine. For a lot of this past summer, Jordan, Lauren, my boyfriend Guillermo and I just hung out in Jordan's room watching music videos from the 90's on Youtube and eating junk food. They'd show us songs they'd just written an hour before we got to Jordan's or they'd record songs while we were finishing Thai leftovers on Jordan's bed. After a little while, the topic of the artwork for their releases came up and I just kind of did them. They didn't give me any direction with their covers. I replayed the specific song I was making the artwork for for a while and made something that I felt reflected it visually. They put their trust in me (which I really, really value and am so thankful for) and gave me the artistic freedom to represent their songs in a way I felt was visually compatible. It was an amazing summer.

TLS: When creating artwork for others, how do you balance your artistic preference with their ideas?

AQ: Well like I just mentioned, SALES didn't give me anything to go off of besides their tracks, so their "ideas" were a non-issue. When I'm asked to do work for anyone, I assume they're asking me because they like my work already, so they have a general idea of what the outcome might look like. If they want something specific though, I don't have trouble incorporating that. Sometimes going off of someone else's idea or vision is easier than completely inventing one yourself. I also think it helps that I'm stylistically flexible. I like to do really minimalistic stuff, but I do complex stuff too.

I recently did the cover for Out Go the Lights' upcoming "Big Balloon/Real States" release on Relief in Abstract. The only visual input they really gave me was "we liked what you did for SALES and we're looking to juxtapose our music with darkness." Alex Clements, the lead singer, shared the stories behind his lyrics with me and I considered them while listening to the tracks/making the cover. I listened to the songs repeatedly (which I would have done anyway because they're great) and made a cover that I felt represented both of them. I've been really fortunate in that sense. The people I've worked with so far have given me total freedom, so balancing my preferences with their ideas has been smooth sailing.

TLS: What's the reasoning behind creating collages in a diamond form, as opposed to sticking with a traditional square or rectangle?
AQ: Simply put, I've never seen them done that way. One day I was working on a square wood panel and after some time, I wound up rotating it a bit. I really liked the outcome, so I made more that way. Maybe it has something to do with my affinity for puzzles too. I think it's more difficult to fit pieces into a diamond than a traditional square or rectangle. I like the challenge.

TLS: You describe your collages as being "paper collage(s) on wood." I'm probably a total bonehead, but what does that mean exactly? Can you describe that process in more detail and why you chose to take that route as opposed to others?

AQ: "Paper + glue + a wood panel" is the usual formula for my collages, but Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction--Chemical X.

The wood is usually just a regular art board/panel, not like, stolen fence posts or old signs or stuff like that (but maybe I'll get more adventurous, keep your eyes peeled). The panels are sturdier than paper, so I prefer them. When you collage on paper, it's possible for the paper to warp after gluing or to get accidentally folded and ruined when you're cleaning off your desk or something. The chances of that stuff happening are significantly reduced when you collage on wood panels instead of paper.

TLS: If you could create album artwork for any band (dead or alive), who would it be?

AQ: Stereolab. My scrobbles don't reflect my love for Stereolab because I had a bunch of their CDs that I used to listen to in my car. Tied for 2nd: Broadcast/Os Mutantes/St. Vincent/The Sundays/Thee Oh Sees/The Breeders.

TLS: To an outsider, the names of your images might seem a little hidden, almost as though they don't pertain to the subject matter at all, though I suppose that's true in a lot of artistic movements. How do you decide on and come up with the names of your pieces?

AQ: It's a different process for all of them, really. I'll admit to some names seeming cryptic but most directly relate to something in the piece. I'm aware of the ambiguity at the surface. I like to leave it up to the viewer to decide what I mean by the title. I know what it means to me, but that meaning isn't going to be what everyone gets out of it. I don't like to dictate precise emotions or ways that I want things to be perceived because I think that distracts from a viewer's interaction with a piece. If I give you something (seemingly) abstract to go off, then you'll interact more with the work by trying to figure out what I mean. You can put more of yourself into it. I think that makes the process more introspective to a viewer, and sometimes more meaningful. Ambiguity is a funny thing. To explain a few:

"Pronoia" is a variant of "Pronoea," who in Greek mythology was a goddess of foresight. I imagined what the girl above the mountains might be seeing through those lenses, and she reminded me of an oracle so I figured she might see the future. So, that's where the name comes from. It's not meant to be a reference to the concept that's opposite of "paranoia" nor as a nod to Salinger's Seymour Glass. I chose that variation of the spelling because it lends itself to either interpretation though (ambiguity!).
"Tricardia watsonii" is this really rare desert flower that only grows in certain regions of the southwest US. I thought it was eerily appropriate that I'd made a flower cluster with these three kids (and thus three hearts [cardia]) in it that happened to be situated in the desert, so I named it after that flower.

"Stitched Serpent with Fine Gold Wires" is a modification of a line from Virginia Woolf's The Waves, which I was reading at the time. The line describes how the sunlight crept into this incredibly mundane atmosphere and made it a spectacle, inch by inch. ("It sharpened the edges of chairs and tables and stitched white table-cloths with fine gold wires.") Light is central in her description and in that piece.

"Moment of Clarity" is a little more conceptual than the others. I imagined this person suddenly coming to a realization and this piece is meant to show how she feels in that exact moment. The truth is this totally unobstructed, undeniable, immovable thing that's right in front of her, red and loud. And it's bigger than she is; she can't do anything to change it. Kind of serious, actually, hah.

My most recent piece is called "Birth of a Moon (for Loup)." It's kind of a myth I made up about how a moon comes to be (a wolf/spirit/mountain/whatever yawns and from this whole mystical, flowery process, a moon is produced). I made it for this really brilliant French animator/illustrator called Loup Blaster Druelle, hence the centrality of the wolf ("wolf" en francais is "loup"). What I'm listening to at the time has some influence on me too. "Same Old Pastimes" is a lyric from a song Lauren and Jordan had just written that'd been stuck in my head all day. This is the only piece I've made whose title doesn't relate to the subject matter at all, and it just so happens to be a line from a SALES song.

Check out more of Alana's work here.

Written by Molly Morris