Interview with Alison Yip



Waiting Room, oil on canvas, 24 x 20″ 2014

Alison Yip is a painter from Calgary, now studying at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany. Her paintings blend muddy dreamscapes, diverse painting treatments, and elements of mundane common space while meditating on interiority. They are also so exploratory in colour and style, that it’s difficult to comment wholly on what they are doing. For me, stylistically, they bring to mind a slew of artists and movements, as well as interior and graphic design history, art deco mural work and visual tropes of the 80’s and 90’s. They are sharply relatable, yet impenetrable in their mysteriousness. They could sneak into an older art history, yet feel completely contemporary. 

If you have ever read the Chronicles of Narnia, or admired a garish fountain at a suburban mall, you will likely find strains of both experiences in this work. The paintings unearth and enliven feelings and visual cues tied to particular moments in time. Spaces you once visited, the wallpaper at the strip mall hair salon, the slow pain of growing up, the texture of the ceiling at a family member’s house, the empty train station. The homey-bizarre quality of the work is only further elevated in her wall paintings, where black lines connect and house canvases, or vast murals engulf rooms. My favourite, Vomitorium, a collaboration with Nicole Ondre, Frieda Toranzo Jaeger and Sarah Mirza, at HFBK Rundgang (Hamburg, Germany 2015), is a mural room with a classy strangeness that forges a swift blend of funhouse and stately lobby from a time long passed. 

What mode of working suits you best? What is your working routine?

In chunks— alternating between blocks of time, a few months in the studio, then a few months as a waitress/studio assistant. At the moment I’m a student again and it feels a bit luxurious.

Where did you grow up, how has childhood effected your art practice, or your ethos in general?

I grew up in the suburbs of Calgary close to the university and the river and spent a lot of time at the local malls. Market Mall was a massive concrete fortification against the harsh winters there; the interior was made up of dirty pink and green tiles and sad potted palms. My mom would take us there and we would split up and make our rounds. My favourite spots were Le Chateau, Kernels and San Francisco—the Canadian novelty store chain that sold worry dolls, boob mugs, mood rings, black light posters and Garbage Pail Kid cards etc. Also in the mall was a ‘gallery’ that sold paintings of exoticized tribal women and utopian worlds where humans and dinosaurs lived in harmony and this is what I believed art was for many years and I would take home the brochures and study them carefully. At home there were self-help books, TV dinners and fake ivy. There were long hours spent indoors; the carpet was vast and I had to use my imagination a lot. I’m not sure how much all of this directly affects my practice. Maybe my relationship to materials is less selective. I like very common materials; things that imitate or look passable from a distance like fake wood panelling or simulated bacon bits. My paintings tend to veer into tidy harmonic packages, something that I resist or go along with depending on my mood. It’s how I dressed in the 90s, matching my socks to my shirt to my hair scrunchy. For my last show, Footsie Chain at Monte Clark Gallery, the main motif of the show was dreaming oneself out of the more soporific aspects of suburban life, while at the same time incorporating its textures, imagery and ideas. Incidentally my dreams at night almost always take place in the confinements of a mall or my house or the eerily still neighbourhood it was all a part of.


Pause, oil on canvas,24 x 20”, 2015


Guilt with Unknown Origin, oil on canvas, 24 x 20”, 2014.

What did/didn’t you learn in art school?

In ACAD I learned how to observe light hitting objects and what art had been in the past, two very important things. But I also missed a lot of stuff because I had severe epilepsy and my short term memory was constantly being zapped and I was on a lot of sedatives etc. But anyways I think you just go to these schools and you teach yourself and in the end your education is largely self-tailored and depends on the chemistry you develop with fellow students. In Düsseldorf I studied with Lucy McKenzie and she imparted some very concrete techniques in decorative painting and that was really great. I learned which brushes do what and how to take care of these tools and treat it like a discipline. It was a kind of role playing, but now I also have these very applicable skills and a memory of how they exercise the hand and eye. In the context of The Kunstakademie this was quite a radical thing and it was perceived by many as being provocative. At the same time I was studying with Peter Doig. So I was oscillating between two very different approaches and I think I’ve absorbed aspects of both. Now I’m in Hamburg doing my Masters. German art schools are very open and unmodular and unbureaucratic compared to North American schools. There is no tuition and not much of a time pressure. Sometimes it can feel like a relaxed residency, but it opens up a different kind of space and mode of working which is also valuable. Not to mention you are exposed to a lot of both historical and contemporary exhibitions.

What are your favourite books, films, cultural artifacts…?

Right now I am reading Clarice Lispector’s collected short stories and I think they’re really great. The kind of subjectivity described by her characters and the derangement found in the everyday is something I find reassuring. And a film I really enjoyed was Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room which I saw twice at the Berlinale last spring.  It’s like surrendering to someone’s psycho-sphere and being pulled through stories within stories, up to 11 stories deep, and it celebrates shadows and camp and other endangered styles. A few days ago I went to the Prado Museum for the first time. I spent over 10 hours there and I also had a really bad cold. I would have these waves of almost delirium, scraping the last reserves of attentiveness for so much that deserved attention. It was room after room of rearing horse asses and tapered can’t-even fingertips. In my exhaustion the images became generalized: warm, glazed, and antique black forms started to recede and all I could see were the white highlights spitting across the surfaces like a creeping gossamer. The El Greco room was my favourite.


Ariel, oil on canvas, 24 x 20”, 2016


Neither, Nor II, mixed media, 50 x 40”, 2016

What are you most confident about?

Once in a while I’ll have a good idea for an invention or app. Unfortunately, I just can’t get in touch with the right people in time or I’m just not methodical enough to move things along. Once I had a very good idea to invent a honey cube…a cube of dehydrated honey that you can drop into a hot drink to avoid the sticky mess from liquid honey. I contacted honeybee associations around BC with little or no response. I made sketches for a logo and tried to get in touch with a patent lawyer and then four months later my mom emailed me to say that a team of scientists or some company on the East coast had come up with this same product. They are called ‘Honibe’ and they even got investments through CBC’s Dragon’s Den! It was bad timing. I had fantasies of the high life.

What does your next year look like?

I will finish my Master’s degree this summer, probably I’ll visit Canada, but continue to live in Germany for a while. I would like to properly learn the language. I hope to organize a series of talks called ‘Midnight Congress’ with friend/collaborator Agnes Scherer on the topics of sleep paralysis and psycho-geomagnetism. And I hope to make some more wall paintings and show some new work.