From the Studio to the Gallery: Surface Tension with Alison Elizabeth Taylor

Alison Elizabeth Taylor in her Brooklyn studio


Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball
                                                Ralph Waldo Emerson

I went to visit the studio of Alison Elizabeth Taylor a couple of weeks ago and was blown away by her down-to-earth and easy going personality.  Ali, who was raised in Las Vegas, works from her studio in Brooklyn –which is large and quite illuminated- and has been represented by one of my favorite galleries in the world, James Cohan, since 2005.  She’s a mother of two, a wife and a very accomplished artist.  I’m always so curious, and bombarded her with questions that she gladly and graciously answered.

The beauty and uniqueness of Ali’s pieces lies in that sublime juxtaposition of materials used in an unusual way: wood veneer that Ali has treated with her own hands and transformed into marquetry, blended seamlessly with oil paint on wood panels. The moment that inspired Ali to work with wood came when she visited a room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art called the “Studiolo of the Ducal Palace in Gubbio” and which was designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini six centuries ago.

The process that Ali uses to turn the wood veneer pieces into marquetry is complicated and requires a lot of time and physical dexterity: after she has created a digital image of what she wants to paint, she cuts the veneers with patterns that fit the exact usage that will be meaningful for the wood panel, then she carves the veneer giving it shape and depth, then there’s also a vacuum pump press that presses the veneer flat, and finally there’s sanding and shellacking.  The concept behind Ali’s pieces for this particular body of work has to do with nature and how it adapts to the urban environment, which expands all the time and seems to be leaving less green spaces around us, yet, nature always seems to find a way to grow and prevail. The colors are mostly those found in the dessert, the ones reminiscent of Ali’s upbringing in Nevada.  She also mentioned that she’s inspired by Emerson’s essay “Nature” published in 1863 and according to which in order to truly appreciate nature, one must not only look at it and admire it but must be able to feel it taking over his/her senses, like a transparent eyeball.  

This is the digital image that Ali first creates before working at a much larger scale and with the veneer and oil paint. 

This is the final piece in Ali's studio, which she first conceived in the digital image above: a wood panel that has been transformed with oil, wood veneer and shellac and which is called "Sebastian II".  

And this is the piece already installed at James Cohan Gallery. 

I’m also crazy about the limited edition prints that Ali produced with the Lower East Side Print Shop, one of which, Schilderachtig, a gorgeous collage with wood veneer and glitter, has been fixated in my mind ever since. 


Last night was the opening of Ali’s fourth solo show at James Cohan Gallery, which is aptly entitled “Surface Tension” – as in the tension that exists between the contrast and textures of oil paint and the wood veneers coexisting in one same surface - and which runs until November 30th.  It was such a treat to see some of the pieces that I had seen at the studio, beautifully displayed at the gallery. There’s so much ahead for Ali, I’m truly excited for her. Below are some images of the show too.