Q&A with Julie Alpert: Tableau Vivant

Today Julie Alpert’s Tableau Vivant opens at Gallery4Culture. The installation feels restrained and spare (it doesn’t cram too much into the space), yet also dizzyingly rich, clashing with zigzag textiles, candy-colored wallpapers and scintillating watercolor sketches. You’ll want to eat it. Patterns collide rentlessly, reminiscent of Kaleidoscope Dressing Room at the City Arts Fest Culture Club. Here’s what she had to say about the direction her work has taken lately.

It’s like this installation consists of preparatory notes for a theater to take place in the gallery. You also mention dollhouses in your statement. What was your thinking behind all this?
I like the psychological tension of going to the theater. You are surrounded by complete strangers all facing the same direction in the dark. At a certain point your consciousness of things offstage melts away and you are fully engaged in the onstage spectacle. Once in awhile someone coughs, a cell phone rings, or you need to use the bathroom, and you are startlingly yanked back into the offstage world. Like I imagine most people do, I find transitions difficult and uncomfortable, so I guess that’s why I want to explore them. This installation has a lot of interrupted edges. It also asks the visitor to split their attention between the micro and the macro. They move through the larger public space to then have quiet moments with small illusions. Physical tension between a viewer and a work of art is also of interest to me. There is an imaginary line that we’re not supposed to cross, yet sometimes we need to get really close to see a detail.

You’ve done lots of large installations before—using bright colors, cardboard—and you’ve done many studies of alleys and backyards. You’re certainly conscious of space. Is the study of space becoming increasingly important to you?
Responding to specific space is at the core of my work. I am very sensitive to space, light, and sound, and I think this sensitivity helps me make the kind of work I do. The way I respond to any space is the same process, whether it be an overlooked alley full of garbage or a highly trafficked white walled gallery. I zero in on the most dominant feature or something funny or strange that stands out to me. Then I make decisions about what to strip away and what to keep, what’s necessary to telling my imaginary story of the space. I like to think that every space is a receptacle or container of all the past, present, and future experiences that happen inside it.  

Why is everything melting? It’s lovely.
Thank you. I wanted to depict frozen motion. Dripping is caused by gravity and gravity is proof of motion. There are some things in the show that are literally affected by gravity like paint dripping down the side of a panel or the way the curtains hang, while other things are representations of dripping. I also like the drama of things that look forlorn and tired. They elicit an emotional response, demanding sympathy and compassion.

Matt Offenbacher recently explored the psychology of decor in surroundings….on imaginary interstellar flights! He’s interested in the Arts and Crafts movement and similar modernist movements (Bauhaus, etc) that emphasize the fluidity of art, everyday design, objects, etc. Do those ideologies or movements have any influence on the direction of your work?
While I can’t say that those movements are direct influences, I am certainly interested in everyday spaces, objects, and costume. I was listening to the Ladies and Germs episode of This American Life and a historian theorizes that our living spaces have gone from lushly carpeted, draped, wallpapered, and decorated in Victorian times to minimalist, tiled, and cold as a result of germ paranoia and personal hygiene. It’s interesting how much our ideas of living and working spaces are taken for granted or ignored, yet I’m sure have psychological effects. You’ve been to my house. A different color for every wall!

True! You also mention fashion in your statement….who’s your favorite designer?

When I mention fashion I mean it in the sense of trend, the stuff that trickles down from high fashion and is marketed to the everyday person. I worked downtown in the epicenter of Seattle’s commercial shopping district for three years and you can ask anyone who’s worked down there: once the thrill of Pike Place Market wears off the only thing left to do on your breaks is window shop. I watched how the trends would shift from season to season and how every clothing retailer presented some version of the same look. I’m happy that pattern has been a focal point for a while and that people seem less afraid to wear wild outlandish colors. I also love to peruse my J. Peterman catalogues! The way the patterns and folds are illustrated is beautiful.

Will you be designing ready-to-wear anytime soon?(!)
My husband took a great class at Stitches on the Hill. He made pajama bottoms! I’m actually borrowing his sewing machine for my projects. I think I’ll sign up for a class and see where it takes me. As of now my capabilities include rectangles and…rectangles. There is a wearable piece (rectangle) featured in my 4Culture show that will be worn for an opening night performance, so I guess you could say I’ve already ventured into ready-to-wear.