Alake Shilling in Wonderland

The L.A artist’s glitter-bombed bumblebees, bunnies, mushrooms and more define the tripped-out aesthetic of her show at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery

When the Los Angeles-born artist Alake Shilling was growing up she used to watch her VHS tape of A Bug’s Life—the Oscar-nominated 1998 Pixar blockbuster about a colony of ants battling against bullying grasshoppers—over and over and over again. “I like fables,” says Shilling, dressed in head-to-toe pink from her scarf and glasses to her clogs, in a whispery sotto voce.

It’s the morning before Shilling opens A Bug’s Life, her largest and most ambitious sculptural exhibition to date, at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Orange Avenue. As she leads me around the show, she says, “I really like the fable about the grasshopper and the ant. The ant works really hard and the grasshopper plays all summer and then winter comes and he doesn’t have any food. And the ant is like, ‘Well, I’ll share my food with you even though you played all summer.’ I just love stories like that.”

A fantastical blend of naturalism, fabulism, African art, and American pop culture references—from Yoruban sculpture to Disney films to disco—the heaving, glitter-bombed bugs in Shilling’s show are not so much a direct reference to the film but an homage to her childhood influences and her love of bumblebees, ladybugs, butterflies, caterpillars, frogs, bunnies, strawberries, and mushrooms, basically the plants and animals most commonly associated with magic or expanded consciousness.

“I like psychedelic culture, I like the Sixties,” explains the 30-year-old artist, though her personal touchstones lean more toward Alice in Wonderland than stoner art which she’s called “really ugly typically” in years past. “Some of the mushrooms may have psychedelic properties in them, but I’m not referencing drug culture, I just like the aesthetics with the swirls and the colors and the dots.

At a moment when the country is in the middle of a “hallucinogenic boom” Shilling’s trippy, sand-inflected paintings and chunky multimedia sculptures have become a hot commodity in the international art world. Her work is already in the collections of the Hammer Museum and is included in buzzy group shows like Deitch’s Clay Pop survey and Funk You Too! Humor and Irreverence in Ceramic Sculpture, which is currently on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Deitch first saw her work in a presentation of new acquisitions at the Hammer and recommended it to the artist Nina Chanel Abney, when she was curating her 2019 group show, Punch, for the gallery. In fact, the gallerist enjoyed Shilling’s gloopy painting of melancholy pink bear driving a cartoonish pink car through a field of anthropomorphic flowers so much that he acquired it for his Los Angeles home.

“She transcends and I describe her as a visionary, the kind of artist like William Blake or Van Gogh, who can visualize a world of their own in their art. She renders her own reality,” says Deitch. “She’s looking at plants, gardens, cartoons, book illustrations and creates her own unique mix. There’s certain artists who don’t have the filter, which blocks your vision when you emerge from childhood. She doesn’t have that filter so the kind of images that animate a child’s mind, this beautiful fantasy world, she’s able to maintain that into adulthood, and it’s very genuine. She could make films, or theatrical sets. I’m always attracted to artists who create their own aesthetic worlds.”

Photo by Joshua White Courtesy, Juxtapoz Magazine

Not only is Deitch attracted to her work but so are many artists and designers: Marc Jacobs translated one of her paintings into a sweater for his Heaven brand, and she’s recently collaborated with other in-demand ceramic artists like Grant Levy-Lucero and Seth Bogart. However, none of these achievements seemed remotely possible to Shilling a decade ago when she was working at an Architect’s Corner, taking as many art classes as she could at City College, and back living with her mother, where Shilling got her first arts education, making papier-mache and ceramics.

“She would always do what she could to make sure I could be creative. I had a quiet environment, you know. She really encouraged me to pursue art,” says Shilling, who went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a year before dropping out and returning to LA. “I think I was one of those people that could have benefited from a gap year.”

After Chicago, Shilling interned at 356 Mission, the star painter Laura Owens’s now-defunct non-profit arts space, where she was given a 2018 solo show, Monsoon Lagoon, featuring her paintings of trippy bears and frogs and smaller-scale versions of her ceramic animals installed on fake boulders. During the internship she happened upon Hou Yee Chan, the short-lived gallery of the multi-hyphenate man about town Calvin Chan, who helped the young artist get her first solo show (at Maitland Foley) and served as a pivotal patron, buying her art supplies and collecting her work early on.

“She never thought it was possible to be an artist—she didn’t know how to believe in herself,” says Chan. “Now the rest is history.”

Part of that historical record began last weekend, when Shilling released her first monograph, The Hippest Trip in America — By Air, Land, and Sea, which references her titular, Soul Train-inspired solo debut with Deitch in New York. The book features an essay from Owens, who writes about Shilling’s work, “What should be cloying and too much never is; it’s contained ecstasy within a dirty and slippery world…These works are messy, imperfect, round, squeezable, edible, explosive, and jittery.”

Among the highlights in the show is a 200-pound, glittery strawberry crawling with tripped- out insects, rotund ladybugs (one sporting chunky Chuck Taylor’s), and a cheeky mushroom fitted with Mona Lisa eyes that seem to follow you around the gallery. Perhaps the most endearing work is a relic-like snail with a bone-white white shell. Shilling sanded down its head so the clays merge like the plaster walls of a centuries-old palazzo. After she took it out of the kiln, she added Lifesaver and Froot Loop shapes along the shell and painted them with a rainbow of nail polishes. While ceramic purists might view these moves as kitschy, scores of artists, collectors, and curators in this town and beyond find her signature touches exhilarating.

“I want people to feel like they found this in a junkyard, like it’s trash, but it’s special to them,” says Shilling, pointing to another sculpture of a two-toned yellow caterpillar with a blue cap. “It reminds me of an old carnival sculpture that’s been thrown away.”

In Shilling’s world, one man’s junk is another’s art treasure.

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