Alli Conrad Talks About Her Painting Identity, Multi Nationalism & Her Endless Possibilities of Narratives

by Sera Aksoy
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Alli Conrad (b.1995) is a Chinese-American contemporary artist living and working in Los Angeles, California, specializing in figurative surreal oil paintings.

Conrad’s work actively explores historic eras in the form of paintings through the lens of modern society. Her body of work uses both female and male subjects incorporating a blend of pop culture and contemporary life to represent identity, time and culture – prizing color and symbolism to embody emotion and mood. She confronts the past to give meaning to the present that transports through the evolution of cultural trends that portray the past as not fixed and unchanged, but as connected to the present moment. Femininity and culture play as key themes across her works through absent features as well as blank and void human-like figures that have been formed by her own imagination, experiences, and long periods of reflection – resulting in the contemporary timeless notion that all that any of us want is to be “seen”. She leaves the viewer to look within themselves and identify who they really are, keeping above all “to thine own self be true”. Through the absence of her faceless characters, detailed close ups, and snippets of human forms, Conrad conveys an endless possibility of narratives and an empty page for one to write their own language.

Profile picture by Hadley Rosenbaum.

Hi Alli. Thank you for sitting down with me. Here’s my first question to you. What was your childhood like? 

Happy, loving, free and full of travels. I was recently looking back at old family and childhood photos (as I always do) and I couldn’t help but notice how darn happy and smiley I was. My mom even made my childhood AOL email, “Smiley Alli”, because I was just such a happy kid! 

I’m also curious about how you spend your day. Do you have any daily rituals aside from your painting practice that hold any importance?

Coffee and working out. The smell of caffeine in the morning is a ritual and a signal to my brain that it is time to start the day. I treat coffee as a reward to myself for getting out of bed…!

In terms of working out, I am not speaking of going to the gym or taking classes. I simply mean any aspect of physical exercise, which for me, I have recently become obsessed with tennis, swimming and pilates. Working out is a pure privilege. To have the ability to make the time is a privilege. I am very crucial about exercising or my mind will spiral into a dark space. I work out for the mental reward and stability of it. The physical and exterior rewards are just a bonus! Cliche as they say, “it all starts within”. Gotta maintain the engine 😉 

You’ve mentioned before that a visit to Israel impacted your journey as an artist heavily. If you hadn’t taken that trip, do you think you still would have embarked on painting as you did? 

Wow you did your research! I definitely don’t think I would be where I am today had I not gone to Israel. I don’t know if I saw it was Israel that impacted my journey but more so to a painting I randomly stumbled upon in a gallery in the small cobblestone streets of Tzfat. It was there and then that my eyes lit up like never before. It was literally “love at first sight” with a painting by Ilana Gal. Her works inspired and helped me while I was a recent college graduate completely lost with “what I wanted to do”. Her works gave me guidance and a sense of comfort. Her works put my soul at ease. To which points me to the aspect of how powerful art can be. Her work was exactly what I needed at the moment. 

Ok, let’s talk about your work now. How would you describe your work, personal to you?

Personally I would describe my work as figurative surrealism that explores themes of identity, femininity and culture through the evolution of cultural trends that portray the past as not fixed and unchanged, but as connected to the present moment. 

While we’re on the subject. How has being a multi-national artist influenced your work? Do you think you take parts of inspiration from one region more than others?

Being a multinational artist has a huge impact on me. I am half Chinese, half American and I have always struggled with this sense of community and identity. I’ve always felt like a floater ethnically and culturally which I find as an advantage because it allows me to throw myself into any situation and simply adapt. It allows me to mentally keep myself open and jump into anything that I find myself effortlessly drawn towards. 

In terms of taking parts of inspiration from one region more than others, I don’t limit myself. Whatever I am curious about, I will go and explore. Recently, I finished a new series for an upcoming show I have in Hong Kong that is influenced by my Chinese upbringing and the culture of Hong Kong. This was the first time ever tapping into my Chinese roots and translating them into my works and it undoubtedly opened a new window for me (metaphorically speaking). Overall, my works do naturally gravitate towards American and Chinese culture based on my background, but again, who knows where my curiosity and life will take me! 

What is the driving force behind your paintings?

Oh wow that is a loaded question. There are so many forces that drive my paintings – pain, death, control, fantasy, femininity, identity, culture, time, desire, emotions, love, happiness, the past, the present. My works are always embodied with an element of playfulness and vibrancy, yet filled and masked with nostalgia. Recently the word, theatrical, keeps being expressed to describe my work and I actually really like that word because I find that art, in any medium, is an escape from reality. It is one’s own stage, platform, theater to write their own acts, scenes, prologue and epilogue. From movies to books to art to music, it brings you into a different world. It stops you for a certain amount of time and takes you into another world regardless if it may be fiction or nonfiction. I jump out of reality into this theatrical world that serves as a place where I can imagine all my desires, pain, grief, happiness, reality and fantasy. I can exaggerate it. Simplify it. Modify it. Mystify it. I can do whatever the heck I please – as for any one else. 

Your recent works showcase detailed close-ups, faceless figures, and a blend of snippets of the human form. What is the process in picking your compositions? 

I love the mystery behind a painting. A photograph. A book. A letter. A composition is viewed and you understand what it is but what does it mean? Who is it? The endless possibility of narratives. Take away the ability to see one’s face and expressions, you are left with analyzing what you are given. The body language. The gender. The tiny hairs on their arm. The type of shoe they are wearing. The type of clothes. The size of their hands. The color of their hair. The pace of their foot. The subject of a face with all its features is too generic. It triggers too many automatic sensories to the eye. An absent face or no face at all leaves one with so much abundance of their own imagination. Faces are a written language. The absence gives one an empty page to write their own language. Their own story. Their own interpretation. However, I will always include elements of human forms because the human body is what we all share and what unifies us in our curiosity. The human form is an object of sensory delight and as an expression of the intelligent mind. The zoomed in isolation of my compositions allow a calming sense of the present, though linked to the past. These characterized, fictional and real figures are an escape from reality portraying elements of desires, fears and griefs. A fantasy narrative. Just like books, music or films, they can transport one into a different universe just for a gratuitous amount of time, and that is what I hope my recent works of detailed close up, faceless figures and snippets of human form can give to others. 

Do you draw your compositions before painting, or paint intuitively? 

Hmmm.. it is a little bit of both and browsing through millions of images and writing. When I do a drawing before a painting, it is the most simple and unconventional drawing, just to get the idea down for my own sake, so the idea doesn’t sneak away. More importantly, I write down my thoughts and ideas that make up the painting. The words are just there to support my vision, but I never know how a painting is actually going to turn out, until I start working. The general idea is there. but the work evolves and comes to life intuitively while working from start to completion. 

To your point of painting intuitively, whenever I am diving into a new topic that I have discovered, I completely strip myself of all preconceived notions and take on this identity. Just how actors prepare for a role, they embody this character entirely. I embody every element of inspiration that I have researched in order to successfully translate it into my works.

What does your studio space look like?

1920’s Spanish Style. High ceilings. French windows. Charming. Warm. Cozy. I work out of my own home and it is just absolutely perfect for me right now. Besides the limitation of size of work I am able to create and the ability to get really dirty, but I can not complain as I am very grateful for the setup I have built for my practice.

Your work showcases a blend of pop culture and contemporary life. What is your favorite pop culture moment?

I wouldn’t say I have a specific pop culture moment, only because there are just so many grandiose and iconic cultural moments!! However, I am mesmerized by The Golden Age which occurs from the late 1920’s throughout the early 1960’s! 

I know you talked a little bit about this earlier. But do you have any exhibitions coming up in the future, where readers can take in your work in-person? 

I have a solo show called, ‘Alter Boy!’ that consists of nine works coming up soon in Beirut, Lebanon, with Août Gallery, and then I will also be showing five works in Hong Kong with Young Soy Gallery at an art fair called Art Central Hong Kong! So if you find yourself abroad or local in these beautiful cities, stop by! 

Are there any contemporary artists that your work would be in conversation with? Do you take any inspiration from them?

I am not too sure about what contemporary artists my work would be in conversation with, but I would be entirely humbled and honored if my works were to be in conversation with the artists I am inspired by.

To answer your second question, a few artists that I am influenced by are: Dominico Gnoli, Louise Bonnet, Philip Guston, Rene Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Alex Katz, and Julie Curtiss, Helen Lundeberg, and Artemisia Gentileschi. 

Deterring from the question a little bit, I also take inspiration from simply just living! It is what you feed your mind, eyes, ears and soul, that effortlessly and subconsciously spills into the work I create. I paint whatever I am drawn towards and let the intuition take itself where it pleases. I express what I find or wherever I find myself in life.

You also have experience working with large scale murals. How do you think such large scales affect your work in comparison to your canvas?

It’s been a while since I’ve done a mural and that is with conscious effort, as I realized after my last mural that it is not the route that I see myself personally going down. I very much enjoy murals and have an enormous amount of respect for muralists, but it is a completely different medium and artistry that goes into being a muralist. I want to focus my career as a fine/studio artist and put my time and effort into growing on the canvas. Large scale murals are extremely labor intensive and operate on the act of executing. I find there is less room for intimacy when working with large scale murals. It would be fun to do a mural here and there but I do not have a vision of going down the path of being a muralist.

What is your favorite time of day?

Golden hour! 

If you weren’t painting, what medium do you think you would’ve chosen to embark on?

Oh boy…I’ve never really thought about that, however, I’d say I would be getting my hands dirty in the medium of writing. Since I was a child, I have always kept a journal and I still have all of them. They are so detailed with dates, times, taped in trinkets, etc. I’ve always found that pen to paper brings out such a different layer of emotion that I don’t find any other medium brings out for me personally. 

Where do you wanna be in 20, 30 years from now? 

Oh wow, let me think…! There is a great deal I aim to achieve, obtain and strive for in 20 to 30 years from now artistically and personally. I’ll keep the personal ones private but artistically, I want to be supporting myself exclusively as an artist, as I am currently working at an arts non-profit organization called FOCA (Fellows of Contemporary Art) along with growing, evolving and mastering my craft. 

To be honest though, life is full of lovely surprises and all that I know is that I want to be waking up healthy every day with the privilege of being able to create and paint. 

Could you say ducks are your favorite animal? If not, what animal is?

Hahaha! Apologies for the laughing! I only laugh because most people ask me this too but ducks are actually not my favorite animal. The common reference of the ducks in my works is in honor of my father. A symbol if you must. He always had this saying that with each year I strive to embody, just as he did, which was, “water off a duck’s back”. If you are not familiar, it is a common saying meaning something has no effect on a person or situation.

To answer your second question, I think I would have to say dogs…!

I see.. talk to me a little bit about that. How has your father inspired you and your work? And what has he meant to your artistic development growing up?

My father has a huge influence on my work and my personal character. His life story was filled with such imperfect beauty, love and strength. However, the last eight to nine years of his life weren’t the most “hunky dory”. They were quite dark and painful. As well for myself. There are times I feel I am still trying to unriddle those years and quite frankly his entire life – from childhood to the end.
My work acts as a liaison to connect and communicate with him in the other world. He always told me while getting in these artistic ruts or blocks that it was just absolute baloney, as life served as the most perfect stomping grounds to influence the work and to simply just do the damn work. To get it out of the head and just do the damn work! I couldn’t agree more. To this day, I don’t believe in artist blocks, as one can realize a block is just fear. Inspired by my father’s favorite movie, there is a saying I live by, and I’ll wrap this question up and leave it with that – “if you build it, he will come”.

You say your works feed off a timeless inspiration behind faceless characters. Is this an opportunity for viewers to place themselves in your compositions?

Most definitely! 

Lastly, if the whole world was full of blank faced characters, do you think you would’ve more heavily painted figures that did have faces?

Wow what a great question. This is really good. To answer your question, I do believe I would indeed paint human figures with these features.

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