Experiencing Light: Interview With Alison Kudlow

Alison Kudlow lives and works in Brooklyn. She has BA from the University of Southern California, a post-baccalaureate degree from Brandeis University and is currently an MFA candidate (2019) at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has shown her work in group and solo shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Istanbul.

Alison Kudlow translates ephemeral sun events into physical forms, experimenting with how materiality impacts our experience of light. In her studio, she arranges liquid-filled vessels in front of a west-facing window to refract sunlight, and then creates a series of sculptures, drawings, photographs, and cyanotypes of the resulting refracted sunlight (Sun Interpretations). About two hours before the sun sets, the light passes through the vessels of liquid at an angle such that the spectrum of its light is pulled apart and reassembled. As the sunlight lands on the table surface it is reduced to a colorful two-dimensional projection. While the Sun Interpretation sculptures transform the light back into three dimensions, they are a representation of the projection, not the light itself, and are therefore a further distortion. Moreover, the sculptures transform fleeting and ethereal light events into lasting and tangible objects. Using a variety of materials, Kudlow has developed an intuitive visual language to create a series of sculptures that often reject objecthood—sheer lightweight silk sways as the viewer approaches and disrupts the surrounding air, intricate glass webs veer in and out of invisibility, texturally rich surfaces beg for a closer look but remain mysterious upon inspection. The sculptures then function not as representations of light, but as stand-ins for light that evoke their own sense of wonder.

Her process is an enactment of a ritualistic proto-scientific studio practice of sun worship. Invested in the feminist history of pagan worship, Kudlow emphasizes the female form in her photographic renderings of sunlight. While in Western cultures the sun is generally seen as masculine (as opposed to the feminine moon), historically the sun’s perceived gender has changed to suit the needs of the culture interpreting it. For instance, a nomadic culture that relies heavily on hunting for food will generally describe the sun as male; but as that same culture develops agriculture and settles in one place, they will begin to describe a nurturing female sun. The fluidity of the sun’s gender, and of gender in general, can be seen in Kudlow’s aluminum dye sublimation prints. The spectral forms and slivers of variegated color on the metal surface suggest a chemical process as their origin. The bilaterally symmetrical compositions alternatively suggest a womb, a tunnel, a protrusion, a shaft. When the images are inverted (converted to a negative), they do not become opposites but rather similarly ambiguous apparitions. The works question traditional notions of “natural” and its associated binaries and hierarchies.

Kudlow investigates the sun because of its singular universality. She feels that a common visual language, one that articulates the few universal truths, can be arrived at via the sun. As Harold Hay, a pioneer in solar energy states, “Once we begin to go back to a closer understanding of nature and man’s relationship to the Sun, we’re going to start developing whole new concepts of who and what we are, and why, and what our rightful place in the universe really is.”


When did you first develop an interest in sculpture?

That's a great question because I actually came to sculpture late in my art-making trajectory. I made paintings for many years, but then was invited into a few group shows in some unusual domestic settings--a refrigerator, a swimming pool, a cellar--where it made no sense to show paintings. And so instead I created installations in those spaces that looked a bit like the paintings I'd been making and explored the same ideas. I had so much fun making those pieces and felt so energized by what I could make outside the confines of a canvas that I basically never went back. Now working in three dimensions feels very much like home to me, and is integral to the ideas I'm investigating.


Your works have a beautifully meditative feel to them. In your statement, you mention an interest in sun worship. How important is spirituality in your process?

I grew up in an atheist home in the Bible Belt. So I was surrounded be deeply religious people, but was always an outsider looking in. I could see that for some people religion brought them peace and clarity in an otherwise distressingly chaotic world. I yearned for a way to make sense of the world, but couldn't buy into any religion. While my father and my brother dedicated their lives to science, I found even that reasonable and fact-based inquiry made for a shaky foundation. In a way my art practice is my way of making sense of life. And my current practice in particular, which involves a ritualistic process of observing refracting sunlight, makes me feel deeply connected to greater forces, to the cosmos, and to the history of solar study and myth.


What would you say your work is about?

My work is about materializing light. It's a sort of utopian idea, to take something ephemeral and fleeting and make it concrete and lasting, but that's the point. What happens to light that is made solid--what qualities remain and what is gone? I've also been exploring the gender of sunlight, its fluidity and expansiveness. 


What do you hope the viewer learns or experiences by looking at your sculptures?

I hope my work pushes people to question binaries, to ask themselves how sure they are of what they know, and to feel a sense of great appreciation for their place within an infinitely complex world. Sometimes when people are visiting my studio, particularly if its at night, I ask them to imagine a world without sunlight and that my work is an ode to sunlight remembered. Would interacting with these pieces feel at all like sunlight on your skin?


Do the materials you choose have a significance to the overall meaning of your art?

Of course. Considering the universality of the sun as both our literal source of life and as mythic symbol, I like to consider myself in conversation with all people before and after me who have wondered at it. I like to blend natural substances (sand, silk, glass) with modern fabrication materials (resins, enamels) to create a sort of anthropocenic blend that is not easily read as coming from a specific era. 


What is a typical day like do you? How do you find balance and prevent artistic burnout?

I usually have multiple projects going on at the studio at once so when I show up I never know exactly what I'll be working on that day. I rotate around the room, working on different pieces. Practically, that means I'm never doing nothing while I wait for something to dry, but it also prevents me from burning out on one particular way of working.

What are you currently working on and what should we be on the lookout for?

Is it weird to tell you that I think I'm working on the best thing I've ever made? hahaha . . . I guess as artists we're always most excited about whatever we're making now, but I've been working on a complicated sculpture for about three months and I'm genuinely so excited to see it finished!!!