Alisa Margolis


Alisa Margolis was born in Kiev in 1975. She studied art in New York, where her family had settled in 1979. Eventually Margolis found herself back in Europe. Since 2009 the painter has been living and working in Berlin. Unsurprisingly, impressions and traditions from both Europe and the United States feature equally in her art.

Initially, after graduating from Columbia University, American pop culture became a frequent element in Margolis’s paintings. There were recurring groups of cheerleaders, layered and interlocked to sculptural effect. With fine, precise strokes, the artist estranged the bodies of her protagonists, conveying a sense of shifting states: body parts seem to liquefy, dissolve, or proliferate. Soon, however, Margolis turned her back on this decidedly American motif and the slick technique used to portray it, and she embarked on a quest for a universal motif and a new idiom to match it. Exploring expressive techniques with a broader appeal, the artist began to test the potential of site-specific installations outside of traditional art institutions, seeking to extend the reach of her artistic message.

During a two-year stay in Amsterdam, Margolis discovered the paintings of the “Golden Age”— the 17th-century Dutch art that articulated the cultural, social, and political identity of a trading nation that had become a world power. More paintings were produced during that period than in any time before or after, and until this day they are numerously and prominently displayed in museums and private collections. Consequently, we are still very familiar with the meanings of the symbols they deploy. Margolis was fascinated by the lasting popularity of this Baroque art form. She developed a critical preoccupation with its floral still life paintings: the works are decorative and colorful, but there are also enigmatic vanitas compositions, in which insects and wilting plants testify to the transience of all earthly life, thus calling for obedience to God. This contradiction between beauty and decay tempted the artist to tackle the theme herself. She began to use Dutch floral still lifes as a springboard for her own works. With a special focus on dramatic lighting in her compositions, she eventually created a neo-Baroque way of painting, combining the methodical painting from the Low Countries with the gestural impulsiveness of Abstract Expressionism in the United States. To this end, Margolis would contrast, for example, triangular filigree compositions containing countless thin layers of almost translucent paint with gestural, at times impastoed pigment and entirely non-representational brushwork. This gave rise to mostly large-format compositions of brightly colored bouquets, based on illustrations of historical paintings, often in black and white.

It is not only in this way that secondary sources play an important role for Margolis; relying on them is very much part of her modus operandi. Her studio floor is often littered with pages taken from magazines and books. Occasionally, printouts of reproductions are glued to her canvas and integrated into the work with thick overpainting.

Not all the sources depict flowers. A second thematic pillar of the Margolis spectrum involves scenes from American glam rock and heavy metal. Many of her paintings portray highly abstracted concert scenarios. Only on closer scrutiny do the sweeping streaks of color reveal light beams, a mass of spectators, or microphone cables. And anyone familiar with the milieu might even identify the protagonists: most frequently Axl Rose, lead singer of the hard rock band Guns N’ Roses. Like other motifs the artist deploys, Rose is emblematic of an era and an attitude — and is depicted by Margolis as a hero of pathos and nostalgia.

At first, the two series seem connected only by the distinctiveness and universality of their respective motifs. But the approach to composition is another common denominator. For one thing, in both these series the professed motif takes a back seat to form, such that many of these creations initially strike us as abstract paintings. For another, the musical element is also central to the floral bouquets in a metaphorical sense: the artist claims that all her compositions transpose personal impressions and memories of rhythm and melody. Margolis’s intense use of dramatic lighting also unites both bodies of works. It is precisely through the element of light that sublime Baroque still lifes are transformed into painterly spectacles and concert spectacles into vibrant, neo-Baroque paintings.