Art x Interview: Michael Alan

This interview is long, LONG overdue. I talked with the revered Brooklyn-based (and Brooklyn-made) visual and performance artist Michael Alan, whose work varies from drawings, paintings, sculptures, prints, collage, murals, installations, music, and performance.

He has been featured in 9 New York solo shows, over 200 group shows, over 200 Living Installations, and discussed in over 200 publications, books and media sources—including the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Bomb Magazine, etc. 

Has that piqued your interest?  Get to know Michael Alan here.

So, let’s start by discussing where you’re from?

I’m from New York, born and raised. I was born in the blackout of ’77 in Bushwick.

And what’s your family like?

My dad just passed away, he was a big part of my life. He was in the military and then he was my dad. He inspired me to make my work and he did some of the music with me for my performances … he was really supportive. He was a really good dad. Same for my mom.

Is your mom an artist?

I see her as one. People see her as an artist, but she won’t take any credit. She sees herself more as an Evangelist. She’s very religious.

Where did she grow up?

She grew up in Bushwick.

Have you been making art all of your life? When did you start?

It’s my first memory as a kid—drawing and doodling and coloring. I didn’t play any sports, I hung out with Odin R.I.P and Kevin Maher R.I.P. and stayed inside drawing and making my own comics and shirts. 

My dad was doing some drawings too. I wasn’t really watching TV, I was just with my parents doing drawings, that was my life as a kid and as an adult. 

So it sounds like you knew what you wanted from the very beginning.

I went to the School of Visual Arts and studied Fine art. [Back then]

I was running different clubs in Manhattan and I was always known as the kid who was always drawing. I was running different clubs in Manhattan, BK, Staten, all over to pay my way through school. I would just draw during my time working and just meet everyone from ICE T, Wu-tang, MUTZ AA, to punk bands, famous artists, drunks lol, club kids, everyone. It was just an endless random non-intentional way to deal with life … and it just became what I was, and who I was. 

How old were you then?

 … I started doing that when I was 16-17

I guess it was a way in but I didn’t plan it that way, I was just bored. I was like I’m gonna draw here instead of dancing.

Credit: Z

What was happening in New York then? What was it like?

A lot of it was based on graffiti or pop art or surreal art like Basquiat, people like Keith Haring, Madonna, and Palladium (nightclub) was kind of part of that, or The Limelight. You had experiences going on in the street like Moondog was walking around the city and people just thought he was crazy. The trains were covered by graffiti, the highway … everything. It used to be really colorful. You had punk and CBGB. You had poets on the corner. 

I felt it was more true … now it’s like gentrification in Bushwick and Dumbo and artists leaving.

What happened to the city?

I think a mixture of trying to clean up the city, with Mayor Giuliani. [He] had an assault on culture and clubs, even galleries were getting tickets (for noise violations). How do you pay 50K a month to be a gallery on Bleecker street? They couldn’t make it … The culturally interesting iconic New York, the old New York, kind of died out.

I found Matthew silver was good. It was really hard for me to find this person was truly driven not just for money or power or ego. Or just making a product cuz it’s easy to sell/ and I think the market got flooded with dumb art.

I ended up teaching at SVA when I was 30 and I had this Ramones shirt on and they were like ‘you look exactly like what we want … our students would have a crush on you’. And I took the job and I was like what the fuck.

Dumb art?

You have a lot of artists around 2000 that kind of dumbed out and made it cliché. Maybe the buyers were like I don’t want to look at anything intense or stimulating, I just want this red painting and I want someone to pick it for me.

“I don’t think there’s really any culture fighters. Visual Aid society. Judson church. It’s really hard to win.”

So what do you think the outcome is going to be?

Troublesome. I compare it to Trump. Him being president is so bad and I compare it to the Amazon rainforest and if you flood people with bad art and they don’t care to go to the show, I think the human race will decline. If people aren’t aspiring to be the greatest or try hard, [and] it’s all about money. It beats the point of the integrity of Van Gogh, the push to change and grow.

Don’t you think there will be people like us to keep alive?

Yeah there will always be some but how long can that hustle last. 

So true.

I’m not dissing anyone but you see the funding at museums and you see the galleries and … they aren’t like who is the greatest New York artist, they are like who is giving us funding.

Credit: David Bowles

It’s happening in the graffiti culture. The social structures that give permission for the walls mostly reach out not to the graffiti writers, but the graffiti muralist … and then you create a misinterpretation of graffiti, what it is, and the source.

Things are changing at a rapid rate that no one can follow. It’s too much, too fast, with no responsibility. Things are always gonna change. New York doesn’t look the same. You still have the West Village …

… and the East Village 

But it used to be the focus of the city. That’s why I’m still here. Otherwise, I would have left. A lot of people go to LA, I don’t know. Maybe to find some peace and harmony with some trees or whatever. I see people go to Portland or Florida. My friend JC, a graffiti guy, just moved to Florida. I guess people come and go in New York but he’s a New Yorker. 

I’m gonna stay because I grew up here and I know what it smelt like and I knew what it felt like… if you leave who is gonna tell the truth about this place. 

You can get prints for 5 off the internet, and everyone is an artist underselling and flooding the scene verse keeping value.

Catch him this weekend in New York at Bushwick Open Studios.

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