Genuine Nature: Q + A with Allyce Wood

Allyce Wood’s new works on paper feign modesty. The watercolors and pencil drawings that comprise Latent Utility, Present but Not Active Worth at SOIL in Seattle, WA pose as straightforward flora studies from a forlorn time and place, but the depth is in the details.  Against a backdrop of the overtly “small batch” and “hand foraged” aesthetics characteristic of the urban crafting currently in vogue across the Northwest and beyond, the artist steeps this body of work in restrained, carefully considered elements of the natural world that feel rich in their compositions while representing hollow, decaying remnants of traditional craft processes—cavernous driftwood, crumpled leaves, dried garland, woven shoots. Working without direct physical references, Wood’s new series promises an authentic, if imperfect, strive for genuineness that resonates against the trends it quietly defies.  I caught up with the artist to find more about these ideas and processes behind Latent Utility. - Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor

Allyce Wood | Ornament, 2013 watercolor on paper, dimensions. Image courtesy of the artist.

Erin Langner: Your work has a deep range of mediums—prints, sculpture, works on paper, installations, and public works.  What made you decide to focus on watercolor and pencil drawings for this series?

Allyce Wood: My conceptual origins usually determine my material choice, and having studied sculpture, environmental work, and printmaking at school, I have a lot of options.

Latent Utility came from a solid month of simultaneous drawing and maquette making. I would fabricate loose versions of my subjects and their pairings while making grease pencil reference drawings. I work without direct visual references—my challenge and pleasure come from my ability to keep the renderings plausible. Both gestures were clumsy and thick, but when the final forms were decided upon and translated into formal drawings via my light-table, the softness that shone through was the perfect cinch. Watercolor’s transparency and fluidity perfectly preserved that softness while referencing the milky ghosts I imagined.

Historically, water based mediums were what I used for life drawing, so returning to what my hand knows to be a ‘body’ material was very natural. Both Ornament and Garland function as personal pieces partly due to their precise, yet unsaturated presence on the fleshily toned paper.

When such particular nostalgia wasn’t the focus, I chose to work in pencil. The decisiveness of graphite is perfect for schematics, which is the ultimate purpose of pieces such as Dryer, in which I illustrate a potential system of grain production or thatch making.

Allyce Wood | Garland, 2013, watercolor on paper, 12" x 20.” Image courtesy of the artist. 

EL: Compared to some of your more densely textured ink drawings and installations, the imagery of Latent Utility feels restrained and paired back to more focused forms—was restraint a conscious element of your process?

AW: My usual level of detail comes from many places— the earlier series Plantbodies- Indicators and Reactors, embodies many specific organisms becoming corrupted, their selves dramatically taken over by toxic material. To express the degree of hurt, and how thorough the hurt was, I had to include every detail, thus the accurate and present pen.

In Latent Utility, many of those narrative elements are held outside of the images. With these pieces, I admit to my own lack of knowledge about the historical procedures of plant-based industries. The lists of what we use for textiles, food, and shelter are long, but the actual tricks to complete a bolt of cloth from the raw hemp are so abstract. So, I draw the components I do know, or might know, or could understand to be feasible.  When there is fruit, it must be picked; when grain grown in must be thrashed; before there is fabric, fibers must move “over-and-under.”  The people who were responsible for these tasks, the places that developed them, even the specific plants used are all kept out of these images, forcing the focus to be on the processes and their universality.

I still use a fair amount of depth, pattern repetition, and commitment to gradient to enhance the beauty of my subjects—tools for amplifying visual interest, as well as producing nostalgia for the aesthetics of past efforts. By restraining my hand to the foreground of the images, my subject isolates into a perfect specimen, an ideal that may inspire others to reconsider their own ‘making” efforts.

Allyce Wood | Dried, 2013, watercolor on rag, 6” x 8.” Image courtesy of the artist.

EL: The idea of “present but not active worth” in the show’s title captures a complex intersection between time, value and practice.  Did a particular experience instigate your exploration of this idea?

AW: “Present but Not Active Worth” was a mantra I used I my studio constantly to remind myself that the subject I was imagining used to be useful. I have been enamored by the tools, agriculture, and customs of earlier civilizations and appreciate their inventiveness and their social complexities. It comes from a place of awe that I reference their accomplishments, and it is with a heavy heart I comment on their achievements of being exclusively “in the past.”

interwoven fronds
Allyce Wood | Interwoven Fronds, 2013, watercolor on paper, 27" x 30" framed. Image courtesy of the artist.

There is also a connection between my subjects and my feelings about making art—these images and their subjects exist to have their value appraised afterwards. I am reminding viewers of the materials featured, quantifying them as “present” (physical) elements of our culture. Their validation however, is an argument that cannot be fully backed, thus theirs is an “inactive worth”. It is from a place of personal nostalgia that I wish these products and processes will once again become necessary and that culture’s future demands will reactivate their value.

There was a particular moment in making this work when I realized the watercolor was also susceptible to this validation system. With the advent of digital media software and the ability to source nearly every possible image throughout time, the paintings I make are, in many ways, as antiquated in their usefulness as their subjects.  Flowering leis are things of the past, and in many ways, so is watercolor painting.

Allyce Wood | Polarity, 2013 watercolor on paper, 9" x 12." Image courtesy of the artist.

EL: Latent Utility’s emphasis on the processing of nature into objects implies a more solemn tone than some of your work in the past.  This darker undercurrent seems continuous from your show Plantbodies… at SOIL earlier this year that focused on human intervention in nature. Do you feel like you are working in a darker place with these shows?

AW: Dark realities of ecological downfalls have always been the driving concepts behind my work. Since the beginning I have focused on subjects such as population decline, environmental corruption, and competition for resources. I preserved the inherent beauty of my subjects with the intention to make my subjects as easy to appreciate and empathize with as possible. As my work progresses, I am less concerned with the “victims” in these scenarios and am more focused on the consequences that entrap them; this shifts my aesthetic decisions.

The increased severity seen in Plantbodies… was born from a dramatic risk. My subject dealt more directly with the faults mankind makes against the natural world (i.e. the improper disposal of radioactive material) then any other work I’ve made so far. Enhancing the blackness was necessary and provided an accurate, sinister quality.

Latent Utility comes from a place of personal sadness due to our societal evolution away from old processes and the cultural events that surround them; gifts of braided garlic or plant-based body ornamentation occur so infrequently. In the rare instances of a boutonniere being placed on a loved one’s lapel, we are distanced from the object’s production and history, so the ceremony is lessened.

My intentions are not to follow a “path of darkness.” This conceptual arena is very tied to my ethical ambitions, and it is intrinsically fraught with negativity. As I continue on, if work seems darker, it is because I am admitting more of my own sympathy, fears, and aggression at those who cause such brutality. These emotional reactions are becoming increasingly important to address in my work.

Allyce Wood | Crosscut, 2013 watercolor on paper, 9"x12." Image courtesy of the artist.


Latent Utility, Present but Not Active Worth is on view at SOIL Gallery in Seattle, WA through June 29, 2013.  Allyce Wood lives and works in Seattle, WA. She received her BFA in printmaking and sculpture from Cornish College of the Arts.  Her work has recently been shown in Glasgow, Scotland; Oakland, CA; Seattle,  WA; and Milan, Italy, among other locations.

Erin Langner is a writer based in Seattle and is Manager of Adult Public Programs at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM).


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