Liam Allan

Liam Allan in dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: It is great to do an interview with you, for we have been friends for almost a decade. Though, for our audience, can you tell me a little about yourself, your background and what led you to pursue a career within the arts?

Liam Allan: It’s great to be doing an interview with you Steve. I come from Dunfermline, Scotland and studied at Edinburgh College of Art, then The Glasgow School of Art. I moved to New York in 2016. I was originally interested in becoming an Architect but after showing a talent for drawing at high school my final year art teacher gave our small art department oil paints, huge canvases and an endless supply of paper and art materials. We were left completely to our own devices, there were no still lives or set practices and it was one of the best things that I’ve ever been involved in. My friend and I were in the department constantly and we’d return to his parents’ house and look at their collection of art history books. We were making paintings and music all the time.

SC: You have moved away from Scotland and are now based in New York City. Can you tell me about your current studio and working routine? Do you have any morning rituals or habits that contribute towards a productive day within the studio?

LA: I wake up at about 7am and make a coffee, then have another about an hour after the first; I have a specific percolator that’s one of my most prized and required possessions. My studio is in my apartment so I’m able to work immediately and I really like the flexibility of having a studio space available with no commute. I play football once or twice a week and it’s a welcome break as the day progresses.

SC: This is certainly advantageous, though how do you retain a healthy work/life balance? Do you limit studio time?

LA: It depends on the weather, if it’s a nice day I’ll find any excuse to get out of the house and cycle somewhere. I end up staying up late a lot and working into the night.

SC: Whilst you lived in Scotland you were always active as a drawer, though can you discuss what it is about the discipline of drawing that has continued to capture your attention?

LA: I like how drawings can engage a broad spectrum of people. You can reveal that representational works are in pencil (and not photographs) to people outside of the art world and it’s as if you’ve told them a secret. Everyone at some point has attempted to draw something so I think they’re more readily available to study a drawn object and then consider the concepts behind it. Drawing is quite easily seen as a practical skill and isn’t as isolated as painting, the history is less severe and the varying applications are obviously different.

Drawings, especially historical or archived drawings, seem more evidential than other mediums. This gives them a distinctive depth but also inhibits them and places them within quite an uncreative context. I’d almost make the argument that ‘realistic’ drawing is the most restrictive artform, it begins with the amateur learning to draw and ends with the artist who can copy anything but has no creative ideas. It can be hard to remove the technical elements of realism from the amateur level - something that I occasionally try to play upon.

I always struggled with the connotative nature of mark making in painting and the restrictive quality of my practice allows me to focus on the conceptual implications of the depicted object.

SC: Has living in New York altered your approach in the making of new work? And, to what extent has NYC influenced you?

LA: It’s made me work harder and realize that I can create work faster than I thought I could. I think New York has made me feel more comfortable with the idea of picture making.

SC: In 2011 you were shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize, which is a great accolade that champions the best of contemporary drawing. I feel that this achievement early in your career accurately highlights the boundaries that you continue to push with your practice. Though, what I am fascinated to learn more about is your thoughts on drawing today? Do you feel that contemporary drawing is given enough of a stage within the art world?

LA: I do, but I think I look for it. Personally, I’m really engaged by drawing, and although it’s a cliche, I feel that work on paper is often a more intimate description of an artist’s practice than a large canvas or sculpture. As much as drawings can be visually intense, there’s often less critical or contextual intensity.

Exhibitions of good conceptual drawing are probably my favourite shows to visit and I’ve always been interested in bringing a kind of relational element into my work - I once posted 100 Koi carp colouring books to people and the resulting responses were great. Outsourced or applied drawing in an expanded field produces really interesting but approachable work. I don’t know if my practice is within that bracket any more but someone like Jeremy Hutchison, for example, is making great work that utilises drawing and the audience in uncommon, contemporary contexts.

SC: Whilst living in NYC, you have worked for Jeff Koons. What roles did you hold whilst working at the Koons Studio, and how did this gradually affect your own need to focus solely on your own work?

LA: It made me want to spend as much time in my own studio as I was spending in his. I can’t really talk about it, though I did learn a lot about production. I met lots of friends there and played a lot of ‘soccer’.

SC: Can you discuss a typical day in your studio? Is there a specific process you go through when planning a work, through to completing a work?

LA: I spend a long time thinking about what I’m going to draw, I like to work in series so it’s important to be really firm on the idea before I invest a lot of time in the execution. I’ll have a couple of ideas and try to work them out by writing notes during a research period, usually short sentences that sometimes become titles. Once I’ve settled on an idea I’ll create the image physically, photograph it and alter it digitally. I then work out how much of the image I can complete in one day, this becomes a routine and quite a dedicated production schedule. With the clay drawings I could create all of the images quickly and set aside a really accurate timeframe to make them.

One series that I’m working on, ‘Unknown Monograms’, requires a particularly slow process of gathering source material: finding stone monograms with no attributed craftsman or patron. These are the pieces I’m most excited about moving forward, the research is varied and it’s extending the scope of the works beyond my initial concept. This stage is as big a part of the work as the actual act of drawing.

SC: Do you also consider the type of paper and type of pencils that are most suitable for your idea? Or, are you loyal to the same materials? How flexible are you with exploring new and alternative materials?

LA: I’m very loyal to the materials that I draw with - it’s the easiest way for me to execute an image. I like finding things to work alongside the drawings, however, and there are lots of objects and photographs in my studio that might be used to accompany works. Scale is important to me and I really like the intensity of small, visually similar works being shown together.

One of the most important things in my work is isolating the object in empty space. For me, that’s similar to a decision about materials. It’s about how best to communicate an idea and how to get an audience to engage with the image.

SC: Whilst studying, your process of working was more controlled and restricted by a preconceived concept or area of investigation. Though now, it seems that you are taking a more responsive and creative approach. Can you discuss this change?

LA: During graduate school I spent a year researching one subject, Soichiro Honda, and creating a body of work around the ideas that I encountered. It was amazing to have such a rich source to support my practice but in some ways it held back my own ideas and opinions.

Trying to find similarly rich and interesting subjects wasn’t the path I wanted to take because I felt like it was reducing my output and potential creativity. I prefer the act of naturally finding a source and forming a theory, relevant to my practice, around it.

SC: I am also curious about the documentation of an artworks creation. Within my own studio, I regularly take images of paintings in progress so I can note specific points in the creation of a new work. How regularly do you document the making of your own works?

LA: Almost never on a level that would constitute documentation. If I like what I’m doing I’ll take a picture on my phone but the process is quite slow and it’s almost pointless to document it on a day-to-day level. I have drawings on the wall that show me how to execute the technique; they probably serve a similar purpose to your process based documentation.

I think in your work there’s a lot to find in each stage of the work. For me it’s found out in the research and creation of the source image.

SC: Focusing on the titling of your works, how do you choose your titles? Do you feel that a title has the potential to alter a works interpretation?

LA: They usually appear during the research stage, as part of the general concept. When the work is as simple as mine titles are really important. I suppose it’s similar with the kind of painting that you do...

SC: You have just recently held a solo exhibition in Edinburgh at Ltd Ink Corporation. Can you tell me more about this body of work and the exhibition itself?

LA: It started with a conversation in a bar with Kevin Harman when he was in New York for Frieze. Kev liked one of my drawings and wanted to show it on it’s own at his new space, Ltd Ink Corporation. I explained an alternative proposal for an exhibition that I’d been working on and he liked it.

The idea for “Arrangements” began with research into a found image documenting a sculpture from an amateur artists’ workshop, a group of students were asked to create towers of clay tiles that stood without any additional support. My work is mostly centered on aspiration and for me the workshop examined talent, precarity and resilience. I created similar, temporarily self-sustaining clay sculptures, photographed them and gave them time-based subtitles: Minutes, Hours, Days... The objects are perfectly isolated in empty space and were made to study aspirational impermanence and the idea of the “constant temporary.”

The physical sculptures were destroyed before the drawing process took place and I reformed the clay to create a further six sculptures that will at some point become a second exhibition; I think there’s something in the idea of remaking a show based around aspiration.

SC: In relation to social media and more specifically Instagram, what are your thoughts on this as a platform to engage with new audiences? Do you have a love/hate relationship with Instagram or other online social media platforms?

LA: There are obviously different Instagrams for different people and I think that I’ve gained quite a lot from Art Instagram, being able to see international practices all in one place and using it to promote my own relatively obscure work. It can definitely make you miserable at times, comparing yourself to what others are doing, but I suppose that depends on your personality.

I think what you’ve done with Hunted Projects is a good thing, bringing carefully curated work to an audience. I also like the act of posting something, on both a personal level and when posting newly completed work; but I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with why I like posting things. I like seeing other people’s work, especially friends’ and especially when it’s good.

Instagram gives people a timetable of photographs that show they’re achieving a successful life: holiday photographs, expensive meals, home cooked meals, healthy lifestyles, indulgent lifestyles. Something that I find interesting is the notion that digital technology leads to people having their aspirations tailored or diluted. There are lots of easily renewable goals in social media and these seem to be spreading further and further into people’s lives.

SC: To you, are there any specific artists that have been both inspiring and influential?

LA: Mostly people working with photography and realism: Eberhard Havekost, Julia Wachtel, John Gerrard, Lucy McKenzie, Sara Cwynar, Peter Wachtler.

SC: Any last points or thoughts you would like to share?

LA: Thanks for the interview!


Liam Allan

Images courtesy of Liam Allan & Ltd Ink Corporation