Blog post written for Meural.com
"Today we're with Shelly Leavens—a curator, artist, and oral historian—in discussion of the crossover of architecture and contemporary art, specifically Iole Alessandrini. Alessandrini is an Italian-American artist (based in Seattle) who, as Shelly put it, "is trained in architecture and doing some fascinating conceptual work with light, structure and tessellation." When did you first come upon Alessandrini's work? Why do you find her especially exciting?"
It’s likely that I saw my first Iole Alessandrini installation at Soil, an art collective and gallery in Seattle, where I believe she has been a member for some time. The gallery is known for housing some of Seattle’s best contemporary artists and hosting work that is challenging and stimulating, so I never miss it when I’m out looking at work. For a curator like myself, interested in artists who take risks and experiment with materials, I’m instantly attracted to work like that of Alessandrini’s. My original understanding of her work was that her medium was light, and she still uses it as a primary element, but after curating her into two very different shows over the past several years, I now understand the depth of her ability to work with a variety of materials. Ultimately, her work is about connecting our physical space, with its layers of history and human influence, to our emotional and psychological space, equally layered. Since I came to art curation through the back door, via the humanities and history, I’m excited by her work because she pulls history and research into a very central role, as it pertains to how her work interacts with the built environment. In addition, she is often testing out a new method of fabrication or utilizing industrial materials in her work, so I never know what I’m going to get at first glance. Her latest project installing LEDs into a road surface in Edmonds, Washington, Luminous Forest (2016) is a perfect example. There is much more than meets the eye. Lastly, I appreciate that she imbues meaning in a way that is simple enough to be accessible, yet emotionally connected enough to feel profound. When the lights come on at dusk in Edmonds, people have literally been stopping traffic to dance in the street.
"How does Alessandrini's background in architecture show in her work? How does it (surprisingly) not show?"
The ideas of architecture are prevalent in many Alessandrini works but not always obvious. Certainly, there are large scale public works like Winter, Season of Light (1999) that connect the viewer’s experience directly with the architecture incorporated into the piece, since constructed light is washing over the architectural space creating a new topography. In Winter’s case it is a topography that has changed dramatically because of development. Several of her laser pieces also provide direct connections to architecture in that they promote and provoke other artists and viewers to play with the light inside a particular space, making one very aware of the surrounding architecture that creates a boundary within which the body can perform. The installation Untitled (2004) is an example, which resulted in a performance piece and later, a set of chine colle and screenprints abstracting the shapes made by the lasers.
This type of work is truly what Alessandrini has become know for, and yet, some works, like several using beeswax and sometimes wood, are departures from architecture specifically but are highly personal and still promote interaction and introspection.
"What do you (speculatively) count her influences as?"
Alessandrini is closely connected to her family and to her Italian identity. Her mother was an herbalist and her father a cabinetmaker in a small Roman town, so she was exposed to craft and creativity from a young age. In a recent conversation with her she told me about some of the reasons why she decided to pursue visual modes of working (whether architecture or fine art) versus a career geared more towards writing. She is the youngest of several siblings and growing up she looked up to her siblings as geniuses, particularly with their ability to write. She always felt her writing was inferior to theirs, and her ideas were better expressed visually. Tangentially, she also described how her mother’s childhood home was taken over by the Nazis as their headquarters in her town during WWII. At one point her brother (Alessandrini’s uncle) joined the Partisans in resistance and plotted against the Axis occupiers. He was found out. Just as he was about to be executed in front of the family, Alessandrini’s mother stepped forward and pleaded with the soldiers to have mercy. She was successful and her brother was released. Long after the War, during Alessandrini’s childhood, she wanted to keep a journal and her mother discouraged it. She recalls her mother pointing out that anyone could find it and it could be incriminating in some way. This, no doubt, contributed to Alessandrini’s hesitance towards writing and a focus on expression through visual art.
"What differentiates her work from others experimenting in light and space?"
Light-based work is rather ubiquitous, particularly in the Northwest, and much I enjoy. It tends to vary from merely decoration within a space (and fall on the spectrum of design as much as fine art), to installations that evoke awe and wonder, and perhaps make one even more aware of the all-encompassing nature of darkness. Our region is known for its subdued, particular light (cloud filtered) and we endure many dark months in the winter and fall, so in Seattle we are very aware of the presence and absence of light. Many artists in Seattle, while perhaps not focusing an entire practice on working with light, are working with ideas around light in some way. Wendy Orville, Jasmine Valandani and the venerable Norman Lundin all come immediately to mind. In relationship to my experiences with Alessandrini’s work, her use of light and ongoing dialog with architecture is not only built on a structure of research and history, it pulls the viewer into becoming a participant; a doer and activator in the world she has created around the piece.
"Can you think of anyone else doing exciting work in the space between architecture and contemporary art?"
A few I am paying close attention to right now (mostly local) are Rodrigo Valenzuela whose practice utilizes basically every medium, Chris Fraser, whose installation at Disjecta in Portland a few years back kept me at the gallery for two hours, Leo Saul Berk, whose recent Frye Art Museum solo show set the bar for meticulous craft in conceptual sculpture, and Mary Iverson, who reveals the matrix between natural and built space in her striking paintings.
I recently took a trip to San Francisco for the opening of SF MoMA and had an opportunity to tour through the newly opened home of David Ireland, one of the pioneers of in-situ conceptual work who saw his house as one evolving installation. As a new homeowner myself, it put a lot into perspective for me. Just as I appreciate art that is not necessarily “precious” in terms of its material choices or concept, the architecture we live in can be approached in the same way. As impermanent, as a palette and as a reflection of who we have been, who we want to be.