There’s a lot to see in Rachel Alman’s Walter F. Dexter Building studio.
Stacked in one corner are metal shards, bits of springs and piles of fabric. In another stands a headless mannequin child covered in paper cutouts of cat heads. A large, jagged hole is smashed into the mannequin’s back. Alman said she cracked it open once to see if anything was inside. There was not.
This trove of randomly collected items is central to the artistic process of Alman, an art and design senior. Alman assembles bits and pieces of found objects, transforming the familiarly mundane into the unrecognizable and bizarre.
“I can create something that is more absurd and humorous by taking things from reality and turning it into this alternative reality,” Alman said.
Alman sits in an office chair, fiddling with a simple musical instrument she just created from bits of metal. It makes a sound similar to a rubber band being pulled when she taps on it.
Behind her looms a large painting thick with layers of material. Hardly identifiable coils of silly string peek out ridiculously from behind coats of dark oil paint. A few weeks later, the same painting would change unrecognizably from deep blues and blacks into bright oranges and yellows — a change that parallels the spontaneous, instinctual nature of Alman’s process.
“It’s [different] by the minute,” Alman said when asked to describe her art.
“It’s a lot of philosophical things that pop into my head, or things that I observe that I want to think more about,” Alman said. “I’ll go on these long trains of thoughts; the problem is making those ideas and thoughts [into art].”
Working in both two and three dimensional mediums, Alman’s art stands out. Studio art professor Elizabeth Folk said she has taken notice.
“Rachel is absolutely one of a kind,” Folk wrote in an email to Mustang News.“She has a wicked sense of humor and is known to make the whole department laugh.”
After instructing Alman in four different classes, Folk took Alman on as a personal research and studio assistant.
“Her works take risks,” Folk wrote in an email. “She is not afraid to be too gross or too honest in her explorations, and for this reason the work is refreshingly real, potent, and direct.”
“Rachel creates from a place of deep earnestness and curiosity,” Folk wrote.
Unlike many artists, Alman does not create artwork with a specific political or social message in mind. Instead, Alman said her work is intentionally open-ended. She is interested in seeing the different meanings other viewers construe in her artwork.
“The fun part is seeing people’s responses,” Alman said. “If I make work that doesn’t really mean much, hearing those responses is interesting. It gives a story, or tells more about what people think in society as a whole.”
Alman does this by taking everyday objects and using them in a way that uproots the viewer’s normal perception of them. For example, what will an audience think when a person becomes part of a table?
Recently, Alman explored this concept in an untitled video project with art and design junior Lukas Wegmüller.
“We built a table top that you wear as a backpack,” Wegmüller said.
In a video filmed with three cameras from various angles, Wegmüller is seen hunkered down on his hands and knees, wearing a wooden table on his back. Randomly assorted items are perched on the tabletop. Alman interacts with the objects, seemingly oblivious to the living person the table rests upon.
“We were trying to make it strange,” Wegmüller said. “I think people reacted how we wanted because they were picking up on it not quite going how they thought it should.”
The video is edited dissonantly, with disruptive cuts and unsettlingly reversed clips. Wegmüller said the aim was to destroy any resemblance of the video to a linear story structure.
“People had trouble responding at first, because it is kind of absurd and doesn’t have a narrative,” Alman said. “Without formal structure and narrative, how do you respond to this?”
During the video’s critique, many interpretations fixated on power dynamics, Wegmüller said. Classmates discussed themes of dominance, control, subservience and agency.
Others contested the video’s unconventional aspects.
“A lot of feedback was advice on how to make it almost more like a movie you would see,” Wegmüller said. “I wanted to think about the formula that most videos and movies follow, and then try to be antithetical to that. I feel like Rachel and I are both interested in how we [can] disrupt.”
Alman seconded this.
“You’re taught traditional things like painting and sculpture, but with the route I’m going on, it’s a lot less clear-cut,” Alman said. “Where I’m trying to take my art is somewhere where you don’t have that sort of guidance as easily. It’s not in the books.”
“I feel like so many things have been explored and done in the art world,” Alman said. “What else is there?”
Although Alman has long had a creative mind, her unique style was catalyzed a couple years ago when her boyfriend introduced her to an older artist with an eccentricity of his own.
“He was just doing random shit like lighting [his art] on fire.” Alman said. “[He was] doing crazy things, and I was like, ‘You can do that?’ That’s when I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to see where I can take this and not necessarily be bound by what the rules are.’”
“Because there’s not really rules to anything,” Alman added.
Alman said she wishes this philosophy was emphasized more within the studio art curriculum. She said she noticed how students are often hesitant to get truly experimental.
“The way we got here is we had to be good students and get good grades,” Alman said. “We obviously followed the rules pretty well. And there wasn’t so much of being a rebel, or doing things differently. I think it should be encouraged a lot more.”
“I’ve noticed, and I don’t know if it’s how the curriculum is taught or just how us art students are, but people are definitely searching for content and intention behind [artwork],” Wegmüller said.
Wegmüller notices how Alman often resists this, both in her work and during art critiques.
“I see how Rachel handles critiques as kind of a performance art, in not giving the viewer everything they want to hear,” Wegmüller said.
Currently, Alman is making art for the senior studio final project to be displayed in the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) show this spring. Many of her hours are spent in the studio, fiddling with new ideas and peculiar materials.
“Experimentation is a large part of [Alman’s] practice, and she is constantly in the studio rearranging found objects,” Folk wrote.
While Alman was previously unsure of what direction she wanted to take her final work, she said she recently had a sort of revelation. She wants to create “sound sculptures.”
The rubber band-sounding instrument Alman made is part of what she plans to present at the BFA show. Instruments like this and other materials that make sound will be combined into two- and three-dimensional artwork. Viewers will be able to touch and interact with the art, which will be equipped with piezo contact microphones that pick up subtle sounds from tiny vibrations. The sound will be amplified through speakers, creating an immersive and distinctly personal experience.
“With sound, it will add an extra element to the already existing two- or three-dimensional [art] and cause some increased perception and interaction,” Alman said. “It’s going to cause people to not just see a certain object, but hear it, too.”
Alman said she hopes this interaction between audience and art will slow down the viewer’s perception of her work. She wants her art to counter the way images and art are rapidly consumed on social media.
“You see one picture to the next without stopping and thinking about it,” Alman said.