Ali Naschke-Messing

Installation Artist, Marin CA // November 2011
I work with light and reflection to talk about perception and presence, to illuminate what is always there but is not necessarily obviously visible.

We visited Ali just across the Golden Gate Bridge at the Headlands Center for the Arts where she is an Affiliate Artist for 2011. It’s incredibly beautiful out there— far-reaching grassy hills, sweeping views, and an inspiring sense of space and stillness. Ali was lucky enough to be given two workspaces at the Headlands, though there was a bit of shuttling back and forth before she finally began to settle in to both of them. Truth be told, when we visited her it was pretty obvious she didn’t feel completely at home yet in either space, and she was a bit rattled by the time spent in limbo. She appeared fragile, exposed and deeply ruminative. Her sensitivity to shifting locations makes sense though because so much of Ali’s art comes about from the deliberate and thoughtful time she dedicates to simply inhabiting a place, fully taking in its singularities and offerings, and becoming familiar with it. This takes hours and hours of patience, and the ability to recognize the smallest of revelations— the shift in light, the shape of shadows, the angles of a reflection. Ali waits for an environment to present itself to her, and then she sets about to highlight these discoveries, these particular characteristics that might have gone overlooked. There is an interactive quality to the work; an invitation to “step into” space and place differently, and to use time purposefully. Ali brings a light but enduring touch to her work; in composition it’s often reduced to the bare essentials, in feeling it’s stark, but its intentions are somewhat abstruse, so long after you’ve left the work, it still lingers in your mind the way an unsolved puzzle does.

Ali will be showing new work that involves a lightwell inside Alley Cat Books on 24th Street (in between Treat and Harrison Streets). The group show opens on Dec. 2nd from 6-9pm. Go see her work!!

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I’m an artist.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I am primarily a site-specific installation artist. I often think of these installations as tributes, works made responsively for various environments. I work with light and reflection to talk about perception and presence, to illuminate what is always there but is not necessarily obviously visible. Being present in the making and hopefully creating environments and work for others to be present in. I have also been making videos of: “action drawings,” using glass vessels and raw pigment; strange videos of myself and others dancing, spinning, and singing; meditation pieces on light and color with/for the camera, as well as more vulnerable self-portrait pieces of meditating/breathing/being. I have also been doing a series of drawings I call “daily drawings.” My practice is really varied, has always been so – I tend to work on multiple things at once. Themes in my work: things that are present but go unseen (color, architecture, history), transmission that occurs through gesture and trace and residual intuition, creating objects or atmospheres that hint at what is here all around us, viewers as part of the work, human sensory understanding and physical/perceptual hook-ups. And overall, an aesthetic that is subtle and quiet.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I am reading: The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings and Gift Songs by France Morin, Be Here Now by Ram Dass, Emptiness Dancing by Adyashanti, Everyday Mystics edited by Andrew Harvey. In my to read pile are: The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, Fire in the Mind by George Johnson. I am also looking at old Time Life books and National Geographics for articles/books on the universe, crystal formations, bioluminescence, auroras (hoping to go to Iceland this year to see them!). Also looking at religious movements— Sufi spinning, Shaker gift drawings, songs, and dances. And also bugs— I’ve been watching “Life in the Undergrowth,” a David Attenborough/BBC film series. Mostly what fuels the work these days is presence itself. A lot of meditation; and a radical shift in consciousness.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Sometimes it is hard to get to the studio, though much less than when I was a younger artist. Now I am more inclined to go, rather than feeling like it is a struggle. The studio is a hermitage, and a playspace. No pun— but there is so much more lightness now in my practice. A lot of exploration, and accepting that exploration is an important aspect of making. Navigating the art world is something else. I think I’m getting better at that as I mature as a person and an artist; there is less insecurity, more willingness to put myself out there, less fear, more confidence. The art world has all sorts of tiers, and I am climbing my way through some/one? of them. I don’t know where I’ll end up as an artist— capital “A” or lowercase “a”— but right now I am just making work, excited to show when I can, and putting myself out there and hoping for the best.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
A physical space is really important to me, as I am such a tactile artist. I need to be in space to understand what it is I am making. I actually need to see ideas in 3D before I can understand them. I am not a realistic drawer, and I don’t render anything on the computer, so a lot of the work comes from hand exploration. For larger installations I’ll make maquettes out of cardboard. The studio space itself dictates the work a lot of the time. My first studio at the Hunter’s Point Shipyard was responsible for moving me from my language-based series ThreadWorks to my abstract LineWorks. Seeing a shadow of threads on the wall inspired the question: “What is the least I can do? What is the most subtle action?” That moment moved me further in my work than all of grad school. And, I didn’t start making work with light until I moved into a new studio that had amazing afternoon eastern exposure and showed me what was possible with simple materials to create reflection. Light entered the work on its’ own.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
My meditation practice has steadily creeped into the work. Studying with Adyashanti, and nurturing a daily meditation practice has led to a radical shift in being. At the beginning of this shift I began with questions such as, “How can dimension be given to something that has no physical shape,” and “Is it possible to create a visual language for that which lies outside (and prior to) language?” Since then, I have stopped asking questions. I prefer to have it just do what it does in space. Though I still do ask questions of the materials and how they might be able to do what I want. Talking about consciousness is impossible, and for whatever reason carries an “ick” factor in the art world. I write statements about the work that are very roomy and abstract, and make work that is also roomy and abstract, because that is how it comes to me, and consciousness isn’t didactic. This interview is the first time that I am showing work that is unavoidably related to spirit and having to speak about it in a formal way. At the same time, I don’t know how to talk about it.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am trying to figure out work for a show that opens in early December in a really raw space for a lightwell that doesn’t get direct light, but is more diffused. It is a challenge. I am tossing around all kinds of ideas and materials and won’t really know until I can spend some concentrated time in the space. Part of my process is spending time in a place to feel comfortable and get to know the place.

What do you want your work to do?
Engage with its surroundings. Get people to stop, look, be present. To have it touch a core place.

What advice has influenced you?
Keep at it. Just keep making work. Be dedicated.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I’d like a museum show.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
The lightwell piece is for a show called “People are a Light to Love” which is curated by Veronica De Jesus, and is in a brand new space inside Alley Cat Books on 24th St (in between Harrison and Treat Streets). It opens December 2nd 6- 9pm. I will also be part of a three-person show at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art in March 2012 and in a group show in LA at Arena 1 Gallery in September 2012.

To see more of Ali’s work: