Artist Interview: Alicia Piller
Piller in her studio. Image credit: Rudy Falagán.
Having spent the morning in the Huntington Gardens with a friend, I rushed down the freeway and across Los Angeles to get to Alicia Piller’s studio in Inglewood. As I drove, I watched the scenery change from greenery to concrete and felt the buildings close in on me, bringing back the anxiety that sticks on me like a soaked wool sweater I can never take off.
Piller’s studio is tucked away, the door feeling like the entrance to a cave hidden from view. I, anxious from the buildings and nervous about my questions, stepped in with tense shoulders and lowered eyes.
The moment I was inside, that feeling pressing down on me melted away.
Piller welcomed me in with a smile, warmth radiating from her. I walked in and was immediately in awe of the sculptures in front of me. Their organic forms created their own garden – different than that of the Huntington in their embrace of the leftovers and materials of the city, rather than attempting to shut the environment away.
There is something mesmerizing about being surround by Piller’s work. The crevices, the colors, the discoveries of photographs and recognizable materials – all working together to create a balance that feels heavy with emotion yet light, suspended in midair as if about to move. They breathe on their own, feeling as much like living things as Piller and I sitting down, talking about our cats and sharing clothing finds.
When it came time to start recording, I realized my shoulders had relaxed and I was looking around freely. It felt as if I was safe. It felt like a warm hug.
I’d like to thank Piller for her time, her energy, and her openness. Now, as I watch her install her work in our gallery, I hope that others can be as captivated by her installation as I was that day.
R: I wanted to ask – because I know that you have helped us with the teen program previously – how did you working with the museum get started?
A: I - how did this happen? Oh! Andres [Payan Estrada]. Basically, because I went to CalArts, I had that connection. I actually TA’d for Andres when he was teaching. He taught a sculpture class, and that was the moment of me connecting with him - and then him remembering me later and being like, “Oh, Alicia might be a good person for this!” Which I was like, “Yay! You thought of me!” and that was really sweet. So, it was great because it was the beginning of me doing a little bit of teaching, but it was weird because of Zoom.
Oh! Okay. I didn’t know that.
Yes, because it was during the height of the pandemic, but they still wanted to do something. It was challenging but it was a good challenge, because – in a fun way – they were able to come and pick up materials, a little box of materials, and then take it home. It was definitely, just, doing a class on Zoom.
It was the beginning of me teaching, and then that led to some other things. Because of that class, a woman that worked at the Craft Alliance in St. Louis reached out to me. She was like, “Oh!” She saw I was teaching this class on Instagram and then looked at my work and asked me to do a whole solo show – and paid for me to be there for three weeks and do a whole jewelry line while we put up the show. So, this work on the wall, and this other work on the wall were part of that St. Louis show. So, it was just this crazy string of things. It was like Andres started the whole thing and it led me to St. Louis – which I was so happy to go there, shockingly. Nobody was traveling, and it was like, “Finally, I get to get out of here!”
Psychological seeds overgrown. Wildflowers blaze a path., 2022. 75″H X 85″W X 11″D. Vinyl, laser prints (Blazing star flowers, Paw paw tree flower, protests 2020, & scraps from all other exhibitions works), slides, gel medium, foam, latex balloons.
It’s just so crazy how things happen, one after the other. I’ve learned to just let things happen and not freak out and hope for things to happen. I just kind of allow it to flow.
So yeah, it was such a great class. The teens were actually – I hate to say it – but almost more creative than some of the college students that I’ve taught. Way more thinking outside the box and experimenting. It’s like once the other people went to college there’s this, “Oh my god, I’m looking around at what everybody else is doing,” and there’s a fear, but the high school kids were so fearless.
I was just talking with my friend about how an artist that he had worked with was a professor at two different universities; one was art-focused and the other wasn’t. They talked about how the students that weren’t majoring in art often had more creative freedom. They were able to think a bit differently.
I think it makes sense! That’s why I – especially when it comes to grad school – tell people “Wait! Do some life things! Experience something else. Get a job that you might, well, you need money, and you hate it.” All of that feeds the work. I don’t know, there’s something that happens with like, “I just started school and now I’m freaking out!”
Psychological seeds overgrown. Wildflowers blaze a path. (detail), 2022. 75″H X 85″W X 11″D. Vinyl, laser prints (Blazing star flowers, Paw paw tree flower, protests 2020, & scraps from all other exhibitions works), slides, gel medium, foam, latex balloons.
So, now you’re back with us for this exhibition and we have a guest curator for it.
Yeah, jill moniz. That actually was such a long thing, but I met her in 2020 right before the pandemic – literally, it was February. It was just this weird thing of, you know, I hadn’t talked to her, but I think she started to see my work and hear more about what I was doing. When I had a solo show at Track 16 in January, it just happened that Sean [Meredith] was like, “Oh, let’s do an artist talk with her.” So, she has really been a champion of my work, which is so amazing because in that artist talk we were able to dive a little deeper into all of the things that I’m doing and researching and am interested in. I was like, “Oh my god, she really gets where I am coming from.” We both have this anthropology background, that was what I studied in undergrad – and painting, I thought I was going to be a painter – but that anthropology background is what really ties us together. Thinking about objects as artifacts, and talismans, and this sort of “magic” side of an object.
So, this show is so different from the past things I’ve been doing because I usually have this full idea and I’m flushing it out through the bodies, through the work. Literally, through the beginning and the end of [past] shows I’m thinking about past, present, future, thinking about this journey, this narrative, this sense of time. This show is pulling from all different bodies of work from the past five years-ish, and we’re going to do an immersive experience where each of these sculptures are connected by this thread – a literal thread, which makes sense because in my own mind everything is connected by this ethereal thread. We are all connected; everything affects everything else.
It was just so cool that she was curating me but also had this idea to do this connective thread with the work, and that was the whole show for my thesis show at CalArts in 2019. It was me looking at American history and my own personal story, but literally each body, each sculpture was connected physically throughout the gallery. When she suggested it [for Within] I was like, “Oh, we’re on the same page!” We were in the same brain, the same universe.
Blue Memories, Flooding Back. Navigating Tongva Waters. 2021. 116″H X 119.5″W X 75″D. Vinyl, foam, latex balloons, resin, gel medium, plastic, paper, rope, wood, wire.
This show is going to be interesting because I’m reconfiguring; that’s the key. Instead of me making new things, I’m taking these other ideas – I don’t want to say “older” because they’re all still current – and literally reconfiguring, reshaping –
[Alicia’s cats start messing with each other] Hey! No fighting. [laughs] For instance, there’s this one work that I did specifically for Angels Gate in San Pedro. It was a site-specific work and all about the history of San Pedro Port, this global port. I was really diving deep into going way back in time, but [still] coming into the future. When I get that work back, what do I do with it? So, this was this perfect chance for me to play with it and figure out what is another narrative, what is another form that we can create with this site-specific piece that has now been pulled away from its original setting. I’m excited that I get to – I get to play, a little bit.
Yeah! Back when you were first talking with jill you mentioned that your work was focused on different concepts. Are you using some of those works [in Within] and have you found that their relationship with each other has changed or reflect now some of your newer ideas? Have they changed in some way, have you been able to recontextualize them?
I think that I’m always sitting in this same place, even if each work might be a little different, I’m always talking about history and always connecting humanity to the planet, humanity to nature. Societal issues are at the same level as my concerns for nature, and so those are always in the work regardless – but then there’s levels and layers because some things are more geared towards me talking about the past, and to do that I’m using imagery and photography and news headlines. Just, for example, the works that will be in the show that were in that body of work from St. Louis – there was me doing a chronological look at the city itself, and so that is still me dissecting the Americana. That’s still me, at the end of the day, questioning how we got here today. So, some works speak more to looking at that past, some still speak more to the present and you see that through news headlines.
Actually, all three of these here [in my studio] are from that “future”, and I say that because these works couldn’t have been made if those “past” and “present” works weren’t made because I was using scraps and all the trash and all the remnants from those works and then they literally get fused into this new form that then becomes this “future” form.
Like I said, it’s all in that same universe of me talking about the state of humanity, you know? What I love is that it’s going to be sort of a - it’s called Within, and it’s literally looking within me, like looking within my crazy world of forms and shapes. What I try to do is [ask], “What does the energy surrounding something look like?” If you’ve got a trauma situation, if you could see the electricity around it working, what does that energy look like? Is it ugly, is it beautiful, is it rainbow? Is it gross? So, I try to capture that energy in any work.
You mentioned scraps from previous pieces becoming part of newer pieces and newer bodies of work – have you found that, beyond the scraps, your materials have changed? Have you kind of stuck with the same materials?
That’s actually the fun part, is that it’s a constant discovery of new materials. Even though I do have signature materials that I use, like the vinyl – you can see it in every piece because I’m wrapping every single object no matter how tiny, no matter how big. Everything gets wrapped, because that’s the sinew – that’s the meat that ties it all together to create this organism, this new being.
For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was dissecting Polaroid cameras and I was doing industrial screenprinting; I was playing with screenprinting trash. No matter where I am, I’m looking. If I’m walking, I’m seeing seeds on the ground and collecting them. If I’m walking and I see a giant piece of trash that I might need I will get it. [laughs] That’s, for me, the opening of the my practice, where I get to explore other things. How can those objects, those things, those whatevers tell the story I’m trying to tell?
I have so much storage of things, and I kind of organize things into color or by metals or woods or whatever, and I go into that zone when I’m ready to start something new. I’m pulling out all the puzzle pieces and laying them in front of me to figure out, “Do they work? Do I need to find another material that tells the thing I need to tell?” So, yeah, I love being able to not be tied to certain things. You can see some balloons [points at sculpture] these are latex balloons, and I love using them because they feel like the inside of a body. They have this human, weird, gross but celebratory, but [also] not; it’s this weird energy that they create.
Piller’s studio, detail of center piece.
But that has changed! Instead of me resining the heck out of these balloons, I’m not even resining that much anymore! I’m doing other things, but I’m photographing. Photography is a huge part of the work. I’m experimenting with making a form of balloons and then photographing it, then using the photographs in a sculptural work instead of trying to preserve them, because it’s actually – oh my gosh – it’s so much resin to do it. I’m not going to lie, I’m also thinking about the planet, so I try to change a little bit or just be better.
Also, recently, a new element is me collecting trash – which is not necessarily in this show, but just in recent times – from the Bendix building, because it’s all those little fashion factories in there, and there’s so much trash. Like, they will have reams of just a trim that nobody used, and you’re like, “Why are you throwing this away? Donate it, or something!” I’ve been able to get so much trash, and it’s so exciting, but also awful.
It’s always interesting to see the difference in trash from different areas. It has its own geography when you’re trying to find all these resources.
Well, I did scenic art right after I graduated. That was like, oh my God. I just didn’t know how much waste was happening. They will build something for a show that may not even go on the air, and then it’s trashed. It was actually heartbreaking. I came with a van when I finished this one project to collect giant chunks of foam and whatever else I could get from the trash bin – they just have ship container-sized trash [bins] that they dump everything into and are like, “Yeah, you can go in there and get whatever you want.” Like, wow, this is a treasure trove, but also so sad. I don’t know how to feel about it, but one day I will have five of these warehouses, and then I can have one just for storage of stuff I find. [laughs]
Consumption. Overproduction. Saturating landscapes. ~93″H x 226″W x 50″D. Recycled fabric, eyeglass boxes, rope, & vinyl (collected from the fashion industry in downtown L.A.), digital photographs on paper (News headlines, holding cotton picked in GA, sycamore seeds), plastic, gel medium, recycled bustiers’s (from past fashion background), assorted beads. *’Dirty Laundry’, San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, Dec. 2022 – Feb. 2023
I think it’s also really beautiful to see – especially since you were talking about scenic design, these locations that are really liminal – to see you take some of these objects, this trash, that’s moving between locations and make it into something that’s not preserved, but instead kind of encapsulating it and giving it its own moment.
Encapsulation is a great word for my work! Yeah, I’m excited. [Within is] also going to be really interesting because of the height of the ceiling. Another part of me just being an artist is like, the architecture of a building and having to think about that. We think, “Oh, we’re just making this sculpture,” but where is the sculpture going to be? Does it being next to a window or whatever matter?
The second floor is a seven-foot ceiling. So, in a way, it feels limiting, but it also creates the setting of more encapsulation. That’s the energy that we want for the viewer to walk in and feel like they are submerged in this world of mixed media, and when they step in closer to a work I want them to get clues about what’s going on.
I don’t like to spell everything out, and my titles usually give more clues, but in this case we’re not going to highlight the titles. It’s more about this feeling, it’s about you stepping into this new labyrinth, this new world. That’s going to be really different for me, because I’m so used to being like, “This one is this poetic title!” So, I’m being pushed in some ways that are like a beautiful opening; I’m being pushed to the next level, which is what jill is really great at.
You were talking [outside of the interview] about how these pieces are going to be connected – is that something you’re also thinking about with the titles not necessarily having as much importance?
Yeah, because it takes that individual – what word is it I’m looking for? It’s stripping away the individual when you put them all together. What can it be, you know? I think that there’s a magic to creating this world. It’s almost like worldbuilding, but it’s not a “real” world – it’s my world. [laughs] Well, it is a real world then, I guess.
I think it’s real!
[laughs] Thank you.
Blue Memories, Flooding Back. Navigating Tongva Waters. 2021. 116″H X 119.5″W X 75″D. Vinyl, foam, latex balloons, resin, gel medium, plastic, paper, rope, wood, wire.
It’s also the act of constructing it in a space for people to come visit. I think it’s something really amazing about having a solo exhibition – it’s your space.
I’m so excited! Yeah, that’s the coolest thing. It’s my first museum show. I mean, Craft Alliance is not a museum, you know - it’s like I’ve gotten really close. This is so special, and for me it’s really special because my background – even though I thought I was going to be a painter, so I was in that contemporary world – but [during] childhood and everything I was in the craft world, with my great-grandmother teaching me how to crochet – just all of these home, functional craft stuff. Like, we made all the ornaments on the Christmas tree one year. You know, stuff like that is such a big part of my practice and my life. For me, there was this stigma before – in, maybe, 2017 I remember doing a sculpture program and them being like, “You’re a maker,” almost like it was a dirty word, or like, “You know, you’re kind of in the craft realm, do you know that?” It was almost like a threat, and me being like, “Ok…? Yeah, it’s great!” You know, like not being intimated by it but also embracing it because it’s the basis of so much work.
It’s just such a wonderful full-circle thing for me to be like, “Oh, I get to show here,” as opposed to somewhere else that may not appreciate it. The cool part is that I get to sell my jewelry in the gift shop – which is still connected, even though it’s a separate practice, because that jewelry really started the sculpture. I would not have any sculptural work unless [I made jewelry]. It was the fashion – that jewelry background – that really was the cause because I never thought I would be doing this. I thought I was going to be a painter! I was going to work in a museum! This is so wild to me, now doing sculpture and wanting them to be bigger. I’m like, “everything’s too small!”
That’s another reason I’m so excited about this show is because it’s almost like I’m making one giant sculpture, and that’s my real dream – to make something freaking huge.
I remember you being really excited about that when you came in to speak with us at the museum.
It’s really nice that you’re going to be both in the exhibition space as well as in the shop, because even your [previous] talking about the term “maker” is something I’ve noticed a lot while doing marketing or promotional stuff for different events – like the holiday marketplace we just did – versus exhibitions. It’s sort of this weird distinction of like who we are calling an “artist” and who we are calling a “maker”.
Even within a museum that focuses on the idea of craft within the art world, there are still those divides that we are fighting against, and at the same time end up participating in just because the words we choose change the audience that we are targeting.
Adornment by Piller.
And I get it! I mean, I was vending every week for ten years. I was in that world, and I was an “artisan”, I was a “maker” – but I’m not going to lie, deep down I hated it because I knew that I was an “artist”, and to me the distinction is that I want to talk about something more. I felt like the jewelry was so limiting, and I was stuck in a world of “I just want to wear this high fashion thing,” and I’m like, “I don’t care! What do we care about? What are we talking about? Do we care about looking cute?” I love fashion for the artistry, but it’s this world that I just wasn’t connecting with, and I felt like I wasn’t being seen. It’s like somebody would see me and be like, “Ah! You make jewelry,” and it immediately put me down, put me in a weird box, and I was like, “No! There’s more!”
I haven’t made jewelry in a while – I took a very long break because I was burnt out – so being able to put the jewelry in the gift shop for this whole show is almost like, “Awwww, I missed you, jewelry!” I missed it! I missed the design element of it, and the sort of mindlessness – that sounds bad, but it’s less emotional. When I’m doing these big sculptures, I’m thinking about hardcore topics. I’m thinking about slavery, and capitalism, and oppression, and all of these heavy things. So, I’ve realized that me doing this jewelry now is almost like a weird reprieve; it’s like a nice balance. I’m a workaholic, so it’s like I still get to make stuff with my hands, but I’m also taking a breather from the heavy stuff. I’ve realized that I need both, and even if I’m not doing the jewelry my craft side comes out, like, “I need to make this weird hand-painted dress!” I have a lot of weird – well, not weird, but just, you know, side projects. [laughs]
Do you find that it helps keep you from feeling burnt out, or getting exhausted of the larger pieces that you do?
I don’t know, it’s weird – to me, they are all part of the same story, if you will. I, just, I don’t even think about this old stuff. To me, I’m like, “Oh, ok, I did that, and it’s out there, and it’s out of my brain,” but the new work is like, I don’t even know yet! It’s this exciting moment of expansion where like, “Let’s see where my brain is going to go now that all of this has been made! Where can it go now?” It’s like this beautiful challenge, a fun, crazy challenge of “what are you gonna do?” But it’s also very scary to do because I get into these modes of fear, and I have to get over the fear hump. Every time I make something, I’m like “I hate this, I don’t know if I like it,” and then I love it. It’s like I have to go through this emotional roller coaster with making.
The new work better not look like anything – that’s my thing. I’m not that kind of artist where I’m in the same brain all the time and making the same shape. What are the new shapes? What are the new experiments? What are the new forms that are in my brain that haven’t been seen yet? In that way, I’m always in competition with my past. So, if anything, the new work will be better, in my mind, because I’ve gone through these experiential steps of, “I’ve done this thing already. What more?”
I think that’s where my brain is awesome, but also dangerous, because I’m just constantly like, “What next? What giant thing can I make?” and then I need a bigger door! [laughs] I need five of these studios! So yeah, it’s connected but they – whatever it is, whatever I create – will be completely in its own world, a new world, a new universe.
For those, do you have new materials that you are excited to be working with?
Uhm, a little bit. I collected this giant – oh my God, it’s this huge palm frond that fell. It’s the biggest one I’ve ever collected. So, I have some objects that I’m interested in. I have a pipe from when my pipes burst and we opened the wall. It was this 40-year-old pipe that’s all corroded. I just have some things that are percolating in my mind but not a clue in the world, and that’s sort of the scary part but also the exciting part.
Sometimes I do drawings of ideas. That happens here and there. Sometimes I have a specific idea and I have to get it out, but a lot of times I just like for things to happen organically or start off organically and then go in and do some sketching. I’ll photograph it and sketch from there. So there’s this mixed bag of methods, but yeah!
Did you find yourself doing the drawings or different methods when planning out the installation of the exhibition?
Yeah! On this wall, you can see me mapping things out. I’m a perfectionist sometimes, and I needed to have an idea of how it is going to flow, literally, as so I was staging. I was unwrapping things and staging them here [in the studio], photographing them; if they didn’t work, reconfiguring them. So, it was a different brain – instead of me making a thing, I was making a flow. I’m making a new narrative and it had to make sense physically and compositionally.
Mappings of Within in Piller’s studio.
I forgot what the original question was! [laughs]
[laughs] It was just about if you were using those methods as well when you are preparing for the installation.
Yes, and that’s been super helpful, me doing a mock-up. For instance, I had an idea of doing certain forms and certain shapes that I wanted to create with different parts and pieces, but it didn’t work! I was testing out and was like, “I don’t like it!” There was a lot of mapping out that [had] to be done, but, you know, it’s been exciting in a great way because me doing that is not something that I always do. Like, when have I done this, you know? Each time I do something new it’s just feeding the next thing, literally.
Mhmm. Especially because the second floor is a really unique layout.
It’s super unique!
Yup, with the column, or also the sort-of hallway leading to the office, where people usually feel lost if they’re in that area.
Yes, it’s a weird place, but the more I’ve been in this show and planning for it, the more I know the space. I literally know the walls, like, “All right. It’s my baby now, it’s my capsule.”
That’s really wonderful. I’m excited to help out [with installation] and the vinyls and everything to see where it all fits in.
Yeah! I can’t believe it’s happening! The fact that this year is almost over is crazy to me, because I was like, “I have plenty of time!” and now they’re going to be picking up everything in the second week of January, which is literally around the corner. [claps] But yeah, I’m ready, because I’ve been looking at all of this stuff for months, and I’m like, “I don’t want to look at you anymore! I need the world to see you guys!”
It’s going to be really great, and I’ll be excited because I have lots of friends and family flying in to see a totally new thing, because I know they’ve seen some of these pieces but not in this way. So, I’m excited.
The museum would like to thank Alicia Piller for her time and her answers.
Within is open to the public from January 29 to May 7, 2023. Learn more about the exhibition here.
Interviewed and edited by Rudy Falagán. Images of studio also credited to Falagán.