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State of the Arts: When Memes Meet Manet, the Bold Work of Allison Zuckerman

Allison Zuckerman in her studio
Photo by Peter Koloff
Artist Allison Zuckerman, of New York, poses in her studio. Her new show "Pirate and Muse" is at the Akron Art Museum.

A New York-based artist is reimagining some of art’s beloved masterworks and creating something completely new with pieces from the internet age. On this week’s State of the Arts, WKSU's Mark Arehart talks with Allison Zuckerman about her new show, "Pirate and Muse," which is on display at the Akron Art Museum through Jan. 21.

Zuckerman's work is captivatingly big and bright. She uses images from the everyday mixed in with bits and pieces torn and reshaped from works by Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Edouard Manet. It's kind of like sampling in modern music.

"I really do liken it to a DJ sampling hip hop music. There are all sorts of visual imagery at once playing with itself. So we will have something from the Renaissance alongside an emoji teardrop," Zuckerman said while walking around the giant exhibition. 

Allison Zuckerman's paintings
Credit Courtesy of Akron Art Museum
Courtesy of Akron Art Museum
Allison Zuckerman's paintings, which are on exhibit at the Akron Art Museum, are a menagerie of art history and internet culture.

Her Process

It's this mixture of high art and modern culture that makes Zuckerman's work so different. She'll use digitally airbrushed flowers and butt them up against seemingly random pixelated shapes. She gets inspiration from almost anywhere, grabbing images from internet searches or going to museums armed with her phone's camera.

"And I'll use those photos in painting. So to me that is a somewhat irreverent act, taking photos of these masterpieces, using an iPhone to do so and then printing portions of them. It's kind of like my way of poking fun at art history," she said.

Her work is a layer cake of images built for the digital age. She gets inspiration from the way a text message could be misconstrued or the shorthand she has with her friends and bakes it all right into her paintings.

She said it helps to eliminate hierarchies of visual importance, daring the viewer to take the flood of information at once. 

"I think that’s what the internet does, and I seek to represent that in my work," she said.

Printing and Painting

Since the exhibition is called "Pirate and Muse," it's plain to see where the "pirate" part comes from, as Zuckerman copies, pastes and recreates. She said she was deeply influenced by her use of Microsoft Paint as a kid.

Allison Zuckerman's painting "Assembly of Voices"
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU
Like all of Allison Zuckerman's work, "Assembly of Voices" brings together dozens of layers from high art to pop culture.

Zuckerman now uses more advanced software to piece together her menagerie of images. Then she prints them out and reworks them with a paintbrush. She then uses an industrial printer to produce her sharp and seamless final work.

"I also consider the printing component an underpainting. So that gets me started. And I'll paint things in, paint things out, refine what is underneath. I'll paint tightly rendered paintings of body parts, eyes, noses, hands, feet. I'll photograph those and then I'll integrate them in Photoshop into the composition I'm working on," Zuckerman said. 


The "muse" part of the exhibition comes from Zuckerman's re-imagining of the female form, wrestling it away from the eyes of the all-male artists she uses in her pieces.

"I believe that women have largely been left out Western art history," she said. "They have been the subjects of most of the paintings, or countless paintings, but they have not been the authors of them, mainly because women weren't allowed to paint the nude. So the ceiling for their success as professional artists was very low. So I am, yes, reclaiming the nude, presenting it from a feminine perspective."

She brings the once Madonna-like figures into a more real-world perspective.

An Allison Zuckerman painting
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU
Allison Zuckerman reclaims the female form in her work from classical art history. No longer are women either just Madonna or prostitute.

"Like I'll accentuate veins on their feet or their legs or have a somewhat of a misshapen core. That's because I think as people, men and women, nothing is that easy. Everyday can be a performance," she said.

Mix that with her surrealism of the technology age and you have a world seen through Zuckerman's eyes.