Perpetual Alchemy: Allison Bogard Hall at BAYarts

Allison Bogard Hall, Sister’s Truce (Painting Unfinished), oil on canvas, 48 X 60 inches, 2023-24.

Imagine a turbine always in motion; it spins quietly and eternally in the background, barely humming, gathering energy and transforming it into something else. It’s a sort of mechanical alchemy: a cool, perpetual transmogrifier that harnesses power from one source and outputs something completely different.

Welcome to Allison Bogard Hall’s creative process. For the past eighteen months, Hall has immersed herself in creating a series of oil paintings for Alchemy Dreams, her solo show as the 2022 CAN Triennial Prize winner, on view June 7 through July 6 at BAYarts. And while immersion implies an artist never leaving her studio, that’s not what happened here.

Hall works full-time as the studio manager for Foundation and Continuing Education programs at Cleveland Institute of Art, and is the mother of four-year-old Archie. Her partner, Andrew, ensures that Hall has all Sundays in the studio alone.

U Okay? U Sure? I Am, I Will Be., oil on canvas, 22 X 28 inches, 2023-24.

“The momentum behind this show feels great,” says Hall. “I am passionate about painting and making it work—I work full time and am a mom—but with this body of work in particular, when I’m not at the studio I’m thinking about painting, reading about painting, and planning what to do at the studio—so I’m in this creative frame of mind all the time. I’m lucky to have a full-time job in the arts; thinking and talking about art all the time—that feeds my practice.”

Hall’s work is at once intimate and massive, both in the range of the actual size of pieces—from four-inch-square glimpses to panels stretching over six feet—to her subjects: remembered landscapes pulled from fever dreams, shimmering figures wearing white in the hot and dappled light of a summer afternoon, a child setting off on an eternal road.

And then there are the swans. Colossal swans overtake several pieces, their magnificent curves spilling over the sides of the canvas, those repetitions of sinuous necks and arched wings simultaneously terrifying and entrancing. It’s all swan, here, all while balanced on top of rich, saturated colors: the green that only exists in the wicked eyes of fairy-tale royalty; a cinematic yellow of cream before it shifts into butter.

Allison Bogard Hall, Yellow Dress II (Four Swans), oil on canvas, 8 X 10 inches, 2023-24.

Hall begins her work with drawings and deep research. She was drawn to the “messy” charcoal drawings of DaVinci’s Madonna and Child sketches, as well as his rendition of the classic myth of Leda and the Swan. But Hall turns the Leda myth on its head and takes that violation back, flipping the stereotype of swans as delicate, elegant, gliding creatures inside out. “In reality, swans are fierce and protective,” notes Hall. “They are a pure, feminine image, but also strong, tough, and not going to be pushed about. Swans have interesting shapes; they are fun to draw and have energy in the way they move. In my work, swans are taking up space—sometimes soft but large, and graphic.”

The Nabis painters of the late nineteenth century (Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, among others) are another important influence on Hall, who was drawn to their practice of positioning their partners and animals throughout their work. Hall’s son Archie appears in her work, and he sometimes accompanies her to the studio every few weeks, drawing while she paints.

Hall also read voraciously throughout this period, about both art and philosophy as well as fiction to feed her work (see sidebar for a complete list). “My work has always been interested in my relationship with the sublime—the terrifying, noble, splendid sublime that Rothko and Kant talk about—and I dive into all three of these meanings in the show’s paintings, in different ways.”

From this research and immersion into others’ creative work, Hall produced ink and pastel drawings to uncover the ideas for her larger works in the show. “All of my work emerges from repetition. I have to work through them and through them until they come out; running with different ideas to see what works.” Her larger works investigate the tension between interior and exterior spaces, what captivates us looking out and looking in.

Now add trusting one’s intuition to this heady mix of research and preparation. Hall says she was initially intimidated by the first large canvas she worked on and decided to approach it in an unplanned, intuitive manner. She began & When We Meet Again I’ll Bring You the Whole Sky, by tracing the shadow of the sun through a projected slide onto the canvas. This led to her investigating what was really shadow and what was the projected shadow through a surreal landscape of vibrant reds. What is the real landscape? What’s the imagined one? Does it unsettle or comfort? Is it hard or soft? Real or fiction? Yes. And that little hidden shadowy figure? That’s Hall’s best college friend, Heather Winchell, whom Hall lost in 2021 and to whom the show is dedicated.

Hall credits Karen Petkovic, artistic director at BAYarts, with shaping the show by suggesting she focus on oil painting—Hall works in printmaking, collage, and installation in addition to painting. She ended up producing more work than she thought was possible, trying different media, speeding up drying times, and playing with color by mixing layering techniques. Painting over old paintings allowed the textures of the old work to influence the fresh work; working in the photography darkroom as part of her job led to creating images that inspired more paintings.

Allison Bogard Hall, Gasp! & Then the Moon Appeared!, oil on linen, 24 X 36 inches, 2024.

“For a community arts center, the story of how we know Allison and watched her grow as an artist is remarkable, and is what we want to foster,” says Petkovic. Both Hall and Petkovic were classmates in an oil painting class taught by Jeff Yost. Hall was in high school at the time, and rode her bike to class from her Westlake home. It was Hall’s first formal oil-painting class, and she credits BAYarts as an amazing, supportive place to learn what led her to a successful arts career in college and beyond. Having a solo show here, now, is a triumphant homecoming.

“I think the paintings still surprise me,” says Hall. “It’s like I have this vision in my head and they still manage to amaze me when they are finished. It’s why I called this show Alchemy Dreams: taking something plain and making it a transformed object—not decorative, not to be consumed—but something higher, something almost holy. The practice has become so ingrained in me—it’s transformed me. And I’ve transformed the work.”

BAYarts is located at 28795 Lake Road, Bay Village, Ohio 44140. Alchemy Dreams is in the Sullivan Family Gallery, open 9 am to 3 pm Monday through Friday; 10 am to 3 pm Saturday; or by appointment. Closed Sunday.

The Artist as Reader

Allison Bogard Hall’s reading list while working on Alchemy Dreams:

Fairy Tales and Stories, Hans Christian Anderson

Turner Watercolors, Martin Butlin

Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889-1900, Mary Weaver Chapin and Heather Lemonedes Brown

No Foreign Lands, Peter Doig

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

Clarence H. White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895-1925, Anne McCauley

Circe, Madeline Miller

Beloved, Toni Morrison

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney

On The Sublime, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, James Turrell, Mark Rothko, Tracey R. Bashkoff, Yves Klein, James Turrell

The Bandit Queens: A Novel, Parini Shroff

Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures, John Wilmerding

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