Sometimes, missing the mark is exactly what you need to become a success. That was the case for Alison Van Pelt.
Van Pelt studied art at UCLA, Art Center, Otis Parsons and the Florence Academy of Art in Italy and was influenced by a range of disparate sources, from Agnes Martin to Paramahansa Yogananda and Hunter S. Thompson, but Van Pelt ultimately found her distinctive style trying to copy Francis Bacon’s, 40 years ago.
“I was searching for a pathway in painting, and I didn’t have a direction. I was trying everything,” Van Pelt said, adding that when she saw Bacon’s paintings, it was the first time she ever felt envious of an artist. “I tried to make little portraits that looked like Francis Bacon’s, and it didn’t work. It just had no resemblance. No matter how hard I tried, it came out another way. I was upset, so I put them aside, but people were commenting that they looked like holographs.”
Eventually, she decided to accept her paintings for what they were and see the beauty in them, “And once I did that, I was on such a high, and I knew my path in life, and I have been doing it ever since, she said.
But she still hasn’t attained her ideal, which she thinks keeps her art fresh.
“It stays exciting with the more mastery I get over the technique, because I’m getting closer to my objective,” she said. “It’s a moving target. It’s like beginner’s mind. I feel like I’m getting prepared to master it, so I come at it with a lot of excitement and vitality every time.”
That enthusiasm, as well as the practical fact that she must work fast to “move the paint around till it takes on another life” like Bacon did, keeps her up for 24 to 48 hours working on a piece. She begins in the morning, works all day and all night, and continues into the next day.
She doesn’t prefer to push through sleep deprivation, but it’s the only way to achieve the blurred effect she creates before the paint dries to a sticky stubbornness.
She begins by drawing a portrait of notable subjects, from animals to prizefighters, celebrities, spiritual leaders, Native American warriors and heads of state. After drawing and painting a classical portrait, she blurs and rebuilds the image with oil on canvas, adding and disintegrating paint until she reaches her desired effect.
“The goal of this process is to connect with her subject and humanize the subject,” said Robert Casterline, co-owner of Casterline|Goodman Gallery in Aspen. “The result is a beautiful, purposely degraded, mystical evocation of her subject. Her paintstaking technique, with its exquisite light and shadow, layers upon layers of paint, ambiguous yet meticulous brushstrokes, coalesced by her discipline and meditative touch, brings out the best in her subjects.”
From a distance, the image appears blurred, so viewers are “forced to complete the image, and everyone is going to fill in the blanks differently, and that makes for an interesting conversation,” Van Pelt said.
As viewers examine the piece closer, they see a weave of brushstrokes. Van Pelt feels particularly “proud” of the brushstrokes in her latest pieces.
“I feel I’ve hit a new refinement,” she said. “Some almost look machine-made because they’re so straight. There’s just a fineness to them, and there was such an ease. My body’s conditioned to these brushstrokes, and I just found an ease in the application. It’s almost like the paintings were just happening, and I was helping them happen.”
Her ultimate objective involves creating a holographic style of painting “that looks like you can reach into it,” she said. But whether or not they’re holographic enough for her, the paintings remain captivating.
“Alison’s unique style of original paintings are beautiful,” Casterline said. “The soft style of diverse subjects allows the paintings to fit well in our gallery.”
In fact, the gallery, which just recently signed Van Pelt as a primary artist, re-created a wall from her studio, down to the number and length of shelves, to showcase her small paintings.
Van Pelt’s exhibition, titled “The Wild,” also highlights her powerful large-scale statement pieces, ranging from hummingbirds and trees to horses, spiritual leaders and women’s graceful and energetic bodies in motion. Each painting reflects some form of wildness, perhaps depicting aspens quaking in a summer breeze, the flow of a wild horse, or the vibration of a hummingbird in mid-flight.
“I am using art and beauty to slip my message to the public. I’m primarily compelled by emotion,” Van Pelt said. “I can be moved by joy, desire, longing, nostalgia, awe, admiration, love, sometimes anger, even outrage. … There are so many reasons why I paint, and often I don’t understand the meaning of a painting until years later. But the impulse to choose a subject is visceral. I will feel drawn to an image.”
Some pieces also convey a clear evolution from her original blurry paintings, highlighting the more holographic image for which she strips. Yet all her work inspires reflection.
“Alison’s paintings are infused with light and shadows inspired by the California sunlight, which feels very connected to the natural beauty and glow which is specific to the mountains of Aspen,” Casterline said. “Her blurred-oil-on-canvas paintings encourages the viewer to think deeply, which allows each person to find their own interpretation of every piece of artwork. There are many layers to Alison’s paintings, which reflects her impeccable technique, as well as creates great conversation and contemplation for the observer.”