Fantastical theater meets fine art within the installations of Julie Alpert

Julie Alpert’s performance background lead her uniquely into the production side of creating space for the imagination — her playful takes on installation create environments for people to walk in on and explore.

Alpert’s installations play off our ideas and anticipations of memory and experience. Her spaces feel like a rose colored reflection upon a faded memory of parties, childhood, and play. The undertones of knowing that people need to walk into the space to activate it feels like an eerie unraveling of the beauty that surrounds you. You become invited in and guided around visually through the bursts of color and textures, but there is nothing to participate in physically. You can only speculate the happening that could have existed, or that has the potential to exist.

Alpert uses found materials ranging from cardboard to flashy craft papers and streamers to tempt you into her festive arena. All of the exquisite attention to detail draws you in close while also conjuring up questions of culture and who these symbols are intended for — or for what celebration? The installations do a charming job exploring absurdity and the meaning of rituals and expectations we have within our cultures at large without telling us explicitly how to feel about them.

AMM: Can you tell us about your background in the arts and how you feel it lead you to where you are now?

JA: I’ve been making and inventing things since I was a child. I wrote, directed and acted in plays for my parents and collaborated with my sister and our friends in video productions of dramatic soap operas and newscasts. I was always taking some kind of creative class or summer camp – art, theater, ballet, gymnastics. I acted in my high school theater productions and spent the last year of high school in community college art classes. While I eventually ended up earning degrees in painting, I originally entered college as a theater major. That early interest in theater and performance definitely informs my approach to making art. My work is imbued with a sense of theatricality and there’s emphasis on the proscenium stage, shadow and light, false fronts and exaggeration of scale.

AMM: Can you talk about your artistic relationship with femininity?

JA: Femininity has always been fraught for me, and yet there are certain traditionally feminine traits that I adopt in the way I present myself to the world. Traditional symbols of femininity such as ribbons, bows, ruffles and the color pink, have always felt like oppressive body decorations that turn women into objects to be admired or judged or made small. I’ve always tried to subvert femininity in my personal style and the way I engage with the world. In my work, I use materials and imagery that reference women’s work like ribbons and bows, craft paper, curtains and home decorating imagery, and chains that suggest jewelry but also confinement. I love hot pink duct tape because I can make it look like fabric (women’s work) and because, while it is pink, it is an abrasive, glossy, artificial kind of pink.

AMM: How do your materials inform your expectations of the installations you create?

JA: I use found materials like fabrics, furniture and cardboard in combination with art and craft supplies like craft paper, colored pencils, house paint, string, tape and sharpies. While my work is very labor intensive and meticulous, it is also immediate and temporary. Because everything is temporary, my expectation is that I will create a room-size thing, through improvisation, that previously didn’t exist in the world, that will in the end disappear and never exist again. By removing the necessity to make something archival, something you can possess, I believe the work has an openness and playfulness that would be difficult to replicate within the confines of some other more contained space like a canvas. The process is an exercise in loss and letting go.

Julie Alpert: ‘Backdrop’, 2015 wood, paint, paper, doilies, found objects, fabric, mylar, mirrors, tape, markers, magnets 45x54x15 ft Site-specific installation at MadArt commissioned by The Seattle Art Fair Photo credit: James Harnois

AMM: Do you feel that the rich and indulgent colorful environments you create feed into a personal nostalgia or a hypothetical one?

JA: Nostalgia is tricky. I was just having a conversation with another artist about how nostalgia isn’t just the remembering of something in the past, but a remembering through rose-colored glasses, basking in a memory.

I think what I’m tapping into in my work is a loose memory of the home decorating styles and fashion of the 60s, 70s and 80s. I am remembering the outrageous wallpaper patterns, faux brick linoleum and yellow-green appliances from my childhood in the 80s, but also the homes of my grandparents which contained objects and decorations from earlier decades. While I have a difficult time remembering specifics, I have a very powerful memory of the ambiance and atmosphere of these spaces. In my work, I’m attempting to conjure and reproduce the feeling of these spaces using a visual language I’ve invented. I guess I’m interpreting my memories through the unreliable lens of a child.

AMM: Do you think there is a darker side of your work that exists within the relationship to a room waiting for people to experience it?

JA: I’ve always gotten comments about the dark underbelly of the festive arrangements I create, but I’ve never had the question phrased quite this way. How interesting! In short, yes I do think there is a darker side to the relationship of a heavily decorated room waiting quietly for people to experience it. And people mostly don’t experience it since it only exists for about a month and then only in photographs. I find that kind of longing and sadness very satisfying, like unrequited love.

AMM: Can you talk about the ideas of decoration and interiors that we all experience—and how these are transformed for you into a completely new potential space?

JA: I find the choices we make about decorating our spaces is fascinating. And not just the things we select, but how we place and arrange them. I see decorating as a way to control a space, to guide people through it in terms of where to look, where to sit and how the room functions. Rooms are just empty shells that are totally transformed through the collection and arrangement of things. And yet arranging is a temporary act – things feel fixed in space, but they can be easily moved, knocked over or broken. The shifting of the objects in a room can completely change the atmosphere and use of the space. And it’s all temporary.

When I work in a new space, I borrow the most interesting imagery and materials from the previous installation, reimagining, arranging and responding them in a totally new way. So I’m not just commenting on decoration, but I’m literally decorating the new space, for a party that will never happen, will only be observed by a few visitors who happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Julie Alpert: ‘Vanity Party My, My, My’, 2016 house paint, found furniture, duct tape, craft paper, photocopies, plastic bags, cardboard 30x8x20 ft Site-specific installation at The MacDowell Colony Photo credit: Sara Fox

AMM: How do you anticipate people to react within your installations once they are finished?

JA: I want people to see the installation as one large visually satisfying composition and then move in closer to discover small moments of humor and illusion. I want people to decode the symbols and arrangement according to their own set of experiences in the world. I want people to be entertained and delighted.

AMM: Do the reactions of the public become a continuation of the suggested performance of a party or event that you imply happened?

JA: Yes they do! It’s all a little surreal because the installation insinuates human interaction, but doesn’t encourage it from the viewers, aside from using their eyes and minds to interpret it. So it’s like a party that you can only speculate on but not join.

AMM: How important is the location of your pieces? Have you considered working with installation outside—or other intimate interior spaces?

JA: Interior neutral spaces, especially those with high ceilings and more than one corner, are the best spaces for my work. My installations are so flashy that they tend to compete with more active spaces or spaces with too many flourishes or colors. I have considered working outside, but haven’t had that opportunity yet. It would be funny to create a three-sided room, like a diorama, and place it in an outdoor setting. I think it would be quite a learning curve to try to incorporate more permanent materials, but the possibility is exciting to me.

AMM: Do you start your drawings with the installations in mind—or the reverse?

JA: I start a new series of drawings in-between each installation. It’s a way to work on a smaller scale, to reflect on the installation, and to use stream-of-consciousness to discover new shape and color relationships that I can weave into the next large-scale piece.

AMM: What are you working on now?

JA: I’ve just completed a collaborative installation with my husband, Andy Arkley, that will be shown in Seattle at Bridge Productions this December. I spent about 2 months drawing, cutting and suspending cardboard and craft paper forms in my studio. Then Andy spent spent some time responding to the arrangement through drawing. He digitally manipulated selected shapes from the drawings and built them with wood and paint in real space. I then took his painted wood shapes and arranged them inside my installation. It’s been a really fun experiment and I’m excited to reconfigure it for Bridge Productions.

Find out more about the artist: www.juliealpert.com

Interview by Megan St.Clair for ArtMaze Mag.

Julie Alpert: ‘Prizes’, 2017 craft paper, cardboard, duct tape, vellum, plastic, photocopies, tracing paper, marker, colored pencil, house paint, found objects 20x12x10 ft Site-specific installation at Roswell Artist in Residence Program