A Conversation With Melissa MacAlpin, Whose Lit-Up Works are Part of _gaia’s Latest

Many artists find inspiration in great works of literature. Melissa MacAlpin, thank god, is not one of them. Charles Nelson Reilly is her muse, not David Foster Wallace. So if you love pop culture, as I do, I urge you to visit her new solo show at _gaia gallery.

Known for comics and drawings, MacAlpin is now constructing lo-fi neon signs. Her new body of work is inspired by illuminated manuscripts as much as 1970s-era game shows, B-movies, and country music. We recently caught up with her to learn more about her work, and her appreciation of one-time film star Doris Day.

_gaia gallery presents “Then you, my dear friend, are a damn fool” and other illuminated manuscripts by Melissa MacAlpin
Artist reception: Saturday, April 14, 6-9 pm.

Jersey City Independent: Hi, Melissa. Tell us about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?

Melissa MacAlpin: I am a professor of graphic design at Felician College, where I’ve been teaching since 2003. It’s a rewarding job, I get to talk about something I love all day, and because I’m constantly presenting new information to students, I always have my eyes open for new projects, so it’s easy to stay in the loop.

JCI: Like you, I, too, attended University of the Arts (but for my undergraduate degree). How did you like the school? What did you think of Philadelphia? In regard to art and culture, how does the City of Brotherly Love compare to Jersey City?

MM: I went to University of the Arts after getting my BFA at Rutgers. I loved Rutgers, which is where I started seriously making my own comics and mini-comics, and so I went to UArts for their Book Arts and Printmaking program to learn how to make my projects better. While Rutgers was more focused on critical theory and concept, University of the Arts was invested in hands-on production. I think these two schools together was a happy marriage for me.

Philadelphia is a great little city, one of my favorite parts was going to see concerts at the Trocadero, or Silk City, or all the little bars where small bands would play before they got to NYC. There was a lot of great music going on when I was there.

There are similarities between Jersey City and Philly, but in Jersey City I feel much more connected to the community here, and to the projects people have. I’ve lived here long enough now that it really feels like a neighborhood, even just running errands around town I run into people I know. There’s always a new restaurant or bar opening, and First Friday is great because it gives you a good reason to go out and see everyone. I liked Philly, but it just didn’t have this feeling of community I have now.

JCI: How long have you lived in Jersey City and where are you from originally?

MM: Since the summer of 2009. I grew up in West Caldwell, N.J.

JCI: You are a member of _gaia, correct? When did you join? What brought you to the collective? How have you benefited from membership?

MM: I no longer share the _gaia studio space, but I am still very close with the organization and the women there. Once you’re in _gaia, you’re always in _gaia.

I was in one of the _gaia residency programs, WWIII. I’d made a comic book about my sister, her military experience, and her friends that served in Afghanistan. When the _gaia call came out, it seemed the project would fit nicely into the residency, and it gave me the chance to learn how to take comics and put them in a gallery.

It’s been a great experience. The women of _gaia are very supportive, and really encourage you to show work as often as possible, and to develop projects as often as possible. On some level it’s more about friendship than being part of a business, and I feel very close to the women involved, they have grown into my dearest friends. Since joining I don’t think a week has gone by where I don’t see them or talk to them in some way.

JCI: Let’s discuss your upcoming show “Then you, my dear friend, are a damn fool” at _gaia gallery. How did the exhibition come about?

MM: Each of the women involved in _gaia are encouraged to take over the gallery for the month and put a project together. As April came closer, the girls asked me if I would like to put something in, and I was excited to put a show together.

JCI: The exhibition title is a line from Wes Anderson’s 1996 film Bottle Rocket. Am I correct? Why use dialogue from a Wes Anderson film, and why now?

MM: Yes, it’s a line spoken by Owen Wilson’s character Dignan.

I love this movie, it is my own personal Citizen Kane. So much of that film to me was perfect. It might be an obvious choice as a Wes Anderson film, but there’s something about how the characters are so painfully earnest that it just breaks my heart. I think there’s a quality in all of the material that I picked to work with that has that quality to me, they’re hilarious, but they’re also very earnest. That’s something that I find very appealing. That’s a quality in any kind of work that I find appealing. Every line is about someone being scared of something, or hurt by something, but turning it around and finding the comedy in it.

JCI: How many pieces will be in the show? 

MM: So far there are 11 pieces, but only because I broke one. That seems to happen with a lot of my installs.

JCI: How long have you been working on this new body of work? Does the body of work have a title or name?

MM: It’s something I’ve only been working on in this form for the past few weeks. I think it’s too early in the project to nail it down, but I like the idea of it being like illuminated manuscripts, as a play on what I’m constructing visually.

JCI: I am accustomed to your comics, drawings and paintings. The new work is a bit of a departure from your previous projects. What can you tell us about the transition?

MM: The more I’m teaching about typography and letter forms, the more I’m interested in type as it stands alone, as opposed to my earlier work in comics where it is used as a second narrative to the images that accompany it. I think it’s an easy transition. I’m not one for longwinded dissertations; I like short, succinct sentences that say a tremendous amount. Country music lyrics, one-liners from 70’s game shows, these are the kind of simple statements I’m always looking to capture when I’m doing comics, or illustrations, or titles. I think it’s still kind of like sketching for me, but instead of drawing pictures, I’m playing with the words on the page and the ideas they represent.

JCI: This is more of an observation or comment than a question. Your illuminated sculptures function as dollar store epigraphs or headstone inscriptions. I find this appealing. Why? You do not immortalize the prose of great literature, but one-liners from pop culture. For example, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum,” is a bit of dialogue from John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live. Does the viewer have to get the cultural reference to appreciate the work? 

MM: I don’t think the viewer has to know the cultural reference at all, but it’s like having a kind of shorthand you share with people that have similar interests. I love that people would recognize an obscure line by Rowdy Roddy Piper, but I think the line is clever enough on its own that you don’t have to have seen They Live to find it amusing. In fact you don’t need context for any of the pieces, but if you do that’s like the icing on the cake.

JCI: What type of reaction do you hope the new work elicits in the viewer?

MM: To be honest, when I started this project, the primary goal was to amuse my friends.

JCI: How would you describe the new work to someone that has not had the privilege of seeing it in person? To me, they read like neon epigraphs or tombstone inscriptions.

MM: I like the idea of them being these neon signs, but they’re these catch phrases, these simple little quotes. The idea is that they’re meant to be seen in a dark little room, where they’re almost like night lights, and I like that they’re cozy and warm to look at, they warm up the space around them.

JCI: I am curious about the design and construction. What are the made of? How did you conceive the design? Is the design based on anything—shoebox, LED screen, billboard, or commercial advertisement? How did you build them? 

MM: The pieces are made out of glitter paper, with LED lights inside that were made for floral arrangements, mounted on wood frames. The wood base gives a good amount of depth, it feels more substantial and it lets the light play more.

JCI: How would you refer to the Roddy Piper artwork? Would you call it a sculpture? The title of the work is “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Am I correct?

MM: I don’t think of them as sculptures, I still think of them as drawings. I just drew them with an X-Acto blade instead of a pencil. There’s a sculptural element, but they’re still pretty 2D.

Right now the titles of the pieces are just the text that I’m quoting. I think maybe as time goes on it will be more of a conversation between the title and the text.

JCI: When did you begin to paint and draw?

MM: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t paint and draw, and I think I was always interested in stories and storytelling. For me it was a natural way of communicating with people. Also, when you’re not a very popular kid- it’s a great way to spend lunch.

JCI: When did you first consider yourself an artist?

MM: I have a lot of trouble with that word, because it seems so big. I like to think of what I do as projects. When I was little, my parents always had projects around the house. The way my dad would approach a painting was the same way he’d approach building a deck. It’s just how I grew up with it, it’s a fun puzzle you give yourself, I don’t think it always has to be this beautiful ethereal thing.

JCI: Do you listen to music, radio, or television when you are working in the studio? If so, how does it affect your work?

MM: I am obsessed with audiobooks. I have to have something on while I work, it’s a great way to fight studio fatigue, and if I have a book on tape I want to find out how the story goes, so it encourages me to stay in the studio and figure out problems in what I’m making.

During this project, Doris Day was Star of the Month on Turner Movie Classics, and they would play her movies in all-night marathons. I’m a night owl, and likely to be in the studio until 4am, so it was comforting to watch these movies as I worked on my project.

There’s times I can listen to music, but more often than not when I’m working I prefer having something story-based.

JCI: When you contemplate or think about your work, where do you sit or stand in the studio?

MM: Usually when I’m thinking about my work, it happens when I’m driving, or going for a run, for me inspiration doesn’t really hit in the studio.

JCI: How much of your work in planned and how much of your work is intuitive?

MM: In the beginning I usually have a structure in mind, be it scale, or object, or color palette, but there’s something great that happens when you’re drawing or painting or actually making something, and things go off in directions you didn’t plan on going. But if it feels right, and it works for the project, you’re happy with it. There’s only so much planning you can do.

Photos courtesy of Melissa MacAlpin

Brendan Carroll

an artist and a writer. In 2006, he cofounded Agitators Collective, which creates site-related installations in urban locales that have fallen into neglect or dereliction. He has exhibited his work at a number of museums and galleries in New York and New Jersey, and his work has been featured in several periodicals, including The New York Times, Village Voice, Art Fag City and Time Out New York. Find him online at brendanscottcarroll.com.