Walking through the low door, into Michael Alan’s basement studio, is like falling down the rabbit hole into a room full of colorful chaos. The small space is crammed from floor to ceiling with his work. Multicolored masks hang from the bookshelves, large canvases protrude from the walls, and neat stacks of drawings line the circumference of the floor, the bureau, and every other available space. His drawings, that dominate the room, are an ambiguous medley of lines, scrawls and squiggles that morph into characters and scenes on closer inspection. There is a whimsical movement to the pieces, almost like the figures will peel themselves off the paper and play when you leave the room.
Michael Alan, 36, sits among his work, dressed casually, in Nike sneakers, grey trousers and a plaid shirt, a barbed wire tattoo runs up his left arm. He is tall and burly and his blue eyes are ringed with faded purple bands that indicate little sleep. He seems intimidating until he smiles, a shy child-like grin that moves around his mouth for brief moments at a time. Alan is preparing for the next Living Installation – a performance art spectacle that he has ran for the past 10 years.
Alan’s studio is in the basement of his parent’s house, a modest, two-story home on the side of the I-278 commuter belt that links Staten Island to Brooklyn. Alan was left incapacitated after a series of accidents last year and moved back home from Manhattan. “We had to find a way to get all this art in here,” he explains. “We’ve put stuff upstairs, we sold stuff, galleries are taking stuff, so now it’s workable, more than workable… But I get nervous when I make more,” he laughs, looking around the room.
He’s amused because he’s always creating more. He spends every conceivable waking hour at work, carrying an arsenal of tools wherever he goes. He draws at home (in his studio or upstairs with his elderly parents) and when he goes out to meet friends and when he’s at the gym. Even now, as he answers questions, he is scratching his pen on a number of half finished pieces. Alan contorts every now and again, fixing his body into a new position. Since his surgery, he has found it difficult to remain comfortable after too long.
Alan was first injured during a Living Installation performance at the Dumbo Arts Center in August of 2012. “I got there about an hour before and nothing was set up,” he explains. “I had to move everything, and by the time the show started I had slipped a disc. I was the main performer so literally I couldn’t stop. I’m like, ‘Fuck this hurts’ but I just kept going faster and harder.”
The injury was severe but manageable, until Alan was further maimed in a car crash. He suffered a concussion and his disc shattered, damaging some of the surrounding nervous tissue. It was a dark period for Alan, who underwent a number of surgeries, physical therapy and spent time wearing a back brace and walking with a cane. “They gave me Vicodin, with Percocet, with muscle relaxer,” he recalls. “I felt like I overdosed a couple of times from it. It was just a bad period.”
Alan used his art as a coping mechanism during the recovery, and many of his friends think his work has become more sophisticated in the process. “Everyone goes through really hard times, be they mental, physical or the loss of so many things,” says Alan’s close friend and fellow artist, Kenny Scharf. “I think he’s definitely using the pain to help him grow stronger. Sometimes art is all you have to turn to when you’re in pain or when things are going bad. It can help even though it’s painful.”
Alan’s father, a Korean War veteran, first introduced him to art. When Alan was young, he bought four Dali lithographs that still hang upstairs in the house. “I was pretty angry because we didn’t have a lot of money,” he explains. “Like, what are you buying this crap for? I need clothes.”
But it was also his father’s appreciation of modern art that spurred Alan’s passion. “Every time I would draw something, he would be like ‘That’s not good. If you want to draw, draw as good as Dali,'” Alan says. “I’d come home and look at the Dali, stare at it and think, ‘how does someone do that?’ It changed my life. My dad was honest. He was like, ‘You’re either going to be a bus driver or join the army’ – there’s not that many jobs if you are born in New York and you don’t have a big income. I remember the moment when he was like, ‘Wow, I don’t know what you did, but you got it.’ That was it for me.”
After Alan finished high school, he spent some time working the New York club circuit as a promoter. He still has flyers from shows in 1996 when he brought Foxy Brown and Jay-Z to Staten Island. “I was the first kid doing real big hip hop shows at the Palladium and Club Expo,” he remembers. “I was so young and I was meeting everyone. But I would bring my book and I would draw. Everyone who came to the party would say to me, ‘Your drawings are so good, what are you doing this for? Go to art school. Get out of here.'” After a patron at one of the shows was shot, Alan quit the club scene and enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He earned his degree through a low cost, night school program that no longer exists.
The idea behind the Living Installation grew from his work at the club and his time at SVA. “I was always trying to get people together,” he explains. “In college, they used to give you a budget for models. I would get two models to come to my studio. I always wanted to get people – graf writers, artists, poets – to come together to make art, because that’s what I did at the clubs.”
Alan organized the first Living Installation at the now defunct Fix Cafe in Williamsburg, with his then-girlfriend, Diana, and his best friend, Odin, who passed away shortly afterwards. Artist Michael Kronenberg remembers happening upon the first show. “I went into the craziest Berlin-style environment that I had ever seen,” he says, laughing at the memory. “There were beautiful naked girls and people prancing around in cardboard cut-outs. I had done an awful lot of figure drawing in college. It was always some bored individual under fluorescent lighting standing on a platform and you would “switchy switchy” away with charcoal. This was an incredibly congenial environment. It was probably the best thing I had done artistically at that point. I told everyone I knew about it. That was about 10 years.”
After the success of the first Living Installation, Alan began to organize these performance gatherings on a regular basis. Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Cavern, The Whitney, The New Museum and Gasser Grunert were among the many venues that hosted the Living Installation.
Alan often cites New York’s DIY scene during the ’60s as the blueprint for the Living Installation. His goal is to create a multifaceted, inclusive environment where there is no barrier between the artist, model and spectator, and where there is more than one art medium at play. Alan incorporates music, film, photography and his own art into the spectacle. “His performances are out there,” Scharf says. “He’s a weirdo and I just like his extreme. He’s taking it. He’s living it. That’s what his obsession is. I believe if you’re a real artist, then that’s the way you make it. You’re obsessed.”
The Living Installation that Michael has been working towards takes place at the Pandemic Gallery in Brooklyn on a temperate Saturday night. From the door, you can hear the clatter of a cymbal, the thud of the bass and a Halloween screech echo through the sound system. Alan has collaborated with Kenny Scharf, Tommy Ramone, Meredith Monk, Ariel Pink and others, to create a seven-hour soundtrack for the performance. The music switches from ’90s hip hop to punk rock back to the obscure instrumentals.
A varied crowd mills from the open bar to the performance space. A group of young guys in North Face windbreakers, beanies and jeans huddle together signing graffiti tag books and chasing beers. They seem unfazed by the main spectacle.
The rest of the crowd is facing the performance piece in varying degrees of repose and concentration. Some text, some watch, others are sketching the human sculpture.
In the center, nine bodies covered only by dripping and dried white paint gesture, shift, and twist to the changing music. Some of the bodies are adorned with masks, papered talons and crumpled sculpture pieces. A papier-mâché duck, a framed photograph and a flag of rags are among the few props. Everything is flecked with white paint. On the wall behind the spectacle, large prints of Alan’s work hang side by side. One reads a list of half sentences with the words ‘positive,’ ‘give,’ and ‘actions’ highlighted.
Michael Alan is in high spirits. He divides his time between the patrons and rearranging the sculpture of bodies. He seems pleased with the turn out and the show. “I want to create a visual language through my art,” he explains. “A long dialogue for people not just for me. Through the music, the art and the Living Installation, I want them to be able to skip chapter two and read chapter ten and still get it. When you see a Keith Haring or a Basquiat you know. In five years, I want to still be evolving.”
The Living Installation is a strange but fascinating experience. Turn away for a moment and the spectacle has completely changed – the models have adjusted, the music has lifted and the atmosphere has transformed. It forces you to remain present. “The Installation is conceived from my work,” says Alan. “It’s a collaboration with the performers but there would be no Installation if there were no drawings. I put one form on top of another form, that’s how this Living Installation came to be.”
The feeling in the gallery is reminiscent of Alan’s studio, his drawings, and that sense of mischievous capriciousness that inhabited the room. Watching the performance – the music, the models, the art – all come together, I find myself wondering… is this what happens when you close the door and the drawings come down to play?
Photos: Joseph Meloy