Cyanotypes, Sacred Objects and a Practice of Intimacy

Ash Allen in conversation with Esra Canoğulları
Photography by Alex Burholt 

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At the base of a white bathtub a shimmer of light shines through a pool of water. Deep cyan blue develops into the fibers of a rectangle of canvas, slowly being pushed through a transformation. The image of a seated figure reaching towards a beam of light is revealed in the cloth, mirroring the exposure process that they emerged through. 

The intimate and meditative process of cyanotype printing has lived alongside Ash Allen’s personal life and art practice, from his years in Oakland to his current home in Brooklyn. Regardless of his space, he’s figured out a way to build an exposure unit and use the bathroom in his home as a studio. Ash’s imagery is as personal as his process, using digital collage to create moments of self reflection and self portraiture, alongside images of his community and objects that are sacred to him or his subjects. 

Ash and I had met casually, in Oakland, where I would see him on the dance floor of my DJ sets. We became close friends after connecting in the summer of 2021 over a bowl of Pho in Oakland after I asked him to collaborate. We realized that day that we were both moving to New York at the same time. A year and a half later we sat on my bed and began to chat about his art practice, relationship to objects, the circulation of his work and the influence music has on his art: 

Stream Blue Element, a playlist by Ash Allen

Show Transcript

Meitei - Okue

Polygon Window - Audax Powder

Jason Kolàr - Corners

Asio Otus - Delta

Aphex Twin - #20

Healion - I'll See It When I Believe It


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E: How did you arrive at printmaking and cyanotypes as the main process used for your work? 

A: I was super interested in printmaking in general and was working mostly with screen printing, doing some work out of the Grease Diner screen printing studio in Oakland. Then the first lockdown in Covid happened. So they closed down their studio and I started building out my own screen printing set up at home. 

I was like, okay, how am I still going to do this? So I built some screen printing setups at home and I was researching different printmaking methods and I found out about cyanotype and I tried it once and I was just like – "Oh, this is it." I knew immediately that it was what I wanted to keep working with and keep exploring. So I almost completely stopped screen printing at that point and just transitioned into just working with cyanotypes. After the first one that I did, I was obsessed with the process immediately.

E: The process of cyanotype involves light, water and all these elements that you also reference in your imagery. I'm curious about how the process of cyanotype inspires the imagery that you use in your subject matter..

A: It's kind of weird actually because when I am working on a specific image with cyanotype, before I do the exposure, when I'm making the image in Photoshop, it's never super intentional. It's never like, oh, I want to make a picture of someone sitting and there's one hand raised and there's some swirl of energy going up it or something like that. I don't really see it that very often. For me, it's more of an automatic thing. And then after I see it, I'm looking at a reflection of a part of the process that I'm in. So it's kind of subconscious, but it always is a reflection or a representation of where I'm at in my life. I could actually tangent on that a little bit, but I want to focus on the question. There's something super healing for me about it, the process itself and watching my own transformations take place over the last few years.

E: You use a process that's based in shifting a material from one state to another. There's these moments of transformation that happen through acts of pushing the textile through a process. But then also the imagery– you'll be using a ray of light, or the subject looks like they are going through some sort of process or transformation.

A: Definitely. And the fact that the main components of the process are light and water is in itself, a representation of vitality. I think about that a lot in my process. To me, the imagery is super empowering. After the images are produced, I find myself holding them in my head and reflecting on them. If I'm experiencing anxiety or going through it in some way, I go back to the images and hold them in my mind.

A: Cyanotypes are also super accessible. It's a printmaking method that is very easy to work with, without access to a studio space. For me, when I started doing it in the pandemic, I was like, "Oh, I can do this easily." Because I was working out of my house, which I still do. So the whole process was super accessible for me at the time and it continues to be that way in all the spaces that I've lived in. I’ve always had my at home exposure unit set up or tucked away in the closet or something. 

E: I feel like that's an important part of your work too– being able to morph. Your process can take shape in any space you have access to and the imagery changes with you as you move. Which is rare for a lot of artists who might need access to a studio to produce their work.

A: I enjoy it a lot where I have it now. I've spent time learning through trial and error and the process is very controlled at this point. When I started doing it, most people would do cyanotypes outdoors with the sun. I remember when it started to get cloudy in the Bay Area, I was like, okay, how am I going to do this? I was trying to keep it consistent and keep working and the sun was just not a variable that I could rely on all the time. So I switched to an indoor exposure unit and that's what I've used ever since. Just because it's super controlled and reliable.

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E: You personalized the process and made it your own. Having that control makes it so that you can experiment with different hues or values. And I think that that's interesting too because you’ve visually committed to the color of the cyan blue, and are learning and studying it in a way. Sometimes people just use cyanotype to get an image onto a fabric but you have developed an intentional relationship to the cyan blue in your work.

A: Yeah. I would use test swatches and find the perfect amount of time to expose with the wattage of the bulb that I have until I found the perfect blue that I wanted to work with. So for me that was like... It's just 32 minutes every time. That's my favorite shade of cyanotype.

Also, there's a beauty and intimacy with yourself when it comes to a self taught creative process, I think a lot of the time when things are taught they are taught to you in the most effective and most “right” way. When you’re just alone in a room bouncing ideas off yourself and learning through mistakes you get to really discover your own way of navigating a process, that's what has made cyanotypes so intimate for me and so deeply personal, both the work and the imagery. It happened in a container, I didn’t have a teacher with me and it was pretty challenging at times especially in the beginning but in the end really beautiful and rewarding. 

E: I think that it's an important part of your work and it transfers through a lot of different parts of it. The way that you want your work to be accessible, the way you engage with different parts of your communities. It's cool that those things can be present in your process without forcing it. It's an effortless part of your process and how you move through the world and how you’ve arrived at this way of making art. I wanted to shift and start talking a little bit about your imagery and how using the human body has always been a central theme of your work. How has your use of the human form evolved over time?

A: I think for me, my work has always served as self-portraiture. It's always been snapshots of moments of reflection, personal transformation, breakthroughs, reflections of my emotional state, my spiritual state, and things that I've gone through with sobriety. There's a lot of that in there. In the beginning when I started working, I was working a lot more with erotica and sexuality.

Another thing that I've noticed that's really interesting actually, that I've just really recently noticed is that my... The forms, the human forms in my work, if you look back, they actually look a little more constrained by the things that are in the environment they are placed in, the objects and the energy or whatever it is that's interacting with the human body. They actually looked a little more constrained in the beginning and now they look a lot more illuminated and free or empowered. I think that's interesting just because of watching the work change with the transitions that I've made in my life with moving out of the Bay Area to New York. Witnessing changes in my life and seeing the work change too has just felt natural and not really calculated or planned at all.

E: I was thinking about how you've used your digital collage process as a form of self portraiture but also how your work has included photos of friends or community members. What's the role of self-portraiture versus interpretation of a subject?

A: In the beginning I was referencing vintage gay porn. So I was finding a lot of vintage gay porn and working with that. Then more recently after that, it's just been mostly royalty free or stock images from online. I do a lot of digging, searching for poses that inspire me. I think that also goes into just the accessibility of how I started working during COVID.

E: Because you didn't have access to photographing people.

A: I didn't have access to photographing people so I used digital collage which has always kind of been a part of my work. It was out of necessity in the beginning because I found the process during COVID. It’s always been a goal of mine to incorporate members of my community and people around me through photography. So post quarantine, the times that I've done that have felt super special. I've always wanted to use the work as a way to build community and connect with other people. The beginning part of my practice was a really isolated creative process. Not to say isolated in a negative way. It was just a lot of solitude and deep personal reflections. I wanted to see that shift happen of being able to have my process be more collaborative.

E: Shifting from the body, I'm thinking about your relationship to objects and materials like metal, fabric and chain that you use in the digital collage. What inspires you about these objects and materials, some of them appear as repeating symbols in your work. 

A: I've always been really inspired by the objects that people collect and the objects that people keep around and how they represent us. Just the fact that some of them will exist longer than we do and our collection of things will outlive us. To me there's something beautiful about that, it’s grounding when I look at my own things in my room. All of the objects that are repeating in my work, especially earlier when I was focused really on physical objects, were all things I had in my room that I would photograph and then put in the prints. So all of those things I still have in my current room. Some of those things were the most important things to me when I moved. When I was moving with just what I could fit in three suitcases, those were highlight items that had to come.

E: Could you name a few of those objects?

A: My Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments. I love those. I love my locks with keys and my metal objects. I have these two metal rings that are clasped together by a lock with a key in it. I've had that for years. And it just has always sat on my window and in every room that I've lived in. I love it. And it's a fidget too. I hold it when I'm at home.

It's those kinds of objects, a lot of them don't really have a specific function. They're ornamental things that we keep around. Those things I've had with me for years. It's cool because I've moved a lot in the last 10 years from Portland to Oakland to San Francisco to New York. Those objects have been there in all of those places in all the different iterations of what my life has looked like in those places. So it's special, there's an intimacy between us with our objects. I love to also see when I'm in somebody else's room, what objects they choose to keep around.

E: I wanted to ask you about the name @soft_shvde which is also your instagram handle. You had mentioned it to me before in past conversations as an idea or theme that inspires your work sometimes. I'm just curious how you came up with that name and what it means to you within your process..

A: I don't even know if it's the right word, but I think of soft shade as a reprieve, some sort of a release or a retreat from normal consciousness day to day. I see the world in my mind of soft shade as a watery healing state of mind and body that is a retreat from our normal day to day consciousness. I want it to feel like that, that's what it feels like for me. It's my favorite place to go. Also to me, Soft Shade just sounds like a sexy world of relaxation.

E: What is your relationship to music and working with musicians? I know you've done some commissions for musicians and we’ve been able to work together in the past. I also know that music is something that inspires you a lot. So I was curious about how sound orbits around your creative and visual world.

A: It's huge. Yeah. I feel like it wouldn't exist without the musical component too, in terms of how I access that state of mind, it's always about Ambient music and Trance classics. Always. Those are the two genres that bring me to a state of mind that I feel like creating in. It's also the music that I play when I create. Also to me, I feel like the work should be viewed while listening to Ambient and Trance music.

I almost wish my art was always viewed while listening to that. I feel like it makes a lot more sense, a lot of times in those images, that's how I feel when I'm listening to music. So it's super tied together. When I'm at home and I'm exposing prints and I'm working on an image or something like that, I'm always listening to very ethereal, Ambient music or Trance. So yeah, they're super connected.

E: You circulate your own work through selling prints online via your website and through posting on Instagram. The process that you use to make your work is accessible, and the way that you circulate your work is also really accessible. You've managed to still show your work in a lot of different contexts digitally and have a pretty big following through it. It’s always exciting to see artists have autonomy over how their work is sold and circulated. 

A: I've always tried to make it as accessible as possible. For a long time I've had people telling me that I need to raise my prices. Over time I have raised my prices a little bit, but I've still tried to keep things accessible, or at least have things available on a tier so that certain people can afford and if other people want to spend more money they can. So that part of it feels really cool. 

I have wanted to circulate my work independently because it's possible. That's the super attractive part to me about the creative process is I wasn't professionally trained in any of the design work or print making stuff that I do. I was self taught in all of it just watching videos on YouTube and learning through trial and error during lockdown, figuring out what works. I want to share that, because I think for a lot of artists they do tend to gatekeep their creative process because they want to protect it. It's just because we exist in a world of scarcity where everything is very branded. You know what I mean….its like:  “Oh, that's mine. And that's what I do and that's what I give. And I shouldn't share exactly how that happens because then it's a threat or something.” I don't really believe that I just have always wanted my art and process to be super accessible. I want people to have it and have it and for it to exist in people's homes, to me that's really special.

E: It's nice to be able to see your work live digitally but then also because it is usually a textile, there's an intimacy to it and you want to be able to touch it or have it in your home. You've made wearable things too because cyanotypes are such a fabric based process. It's exciting to see how it can evolve and be something that people can either wear, carry with them or show on their wall.

A: There's a lot of beauty in just the textile itself too, and the interweaving of individual strands into a fabric too. It represents how I feel like people are connected through this work too. You know what I mean?

E: What is the importance of archiving your work at this stage, now that you've kind of really created a huge body of work of cyanotypes? This is a process that you've really honed in on. You've mentioned to me before that you're interested in making a book… Talk a little bit about this upcoming book that you're working on and the process of archiving that you've been going through.

A: I've been taking a lot of time recently working on this book called Liquid Blue that I'm going to be releasing in a few months. I started working three months ago at a print studio in Manhattan and I'm learning about so many different printing methods that I did not have access to before. We are working with six or more different types of printers. Machines that do dye cuts on stickers and vinyl and book binding machines, and so many different weights of paper and foil printing. So I want this book to archive the body of work that focuses on my cyanotypes specifically and put it all into one place.

"I see the world in my mind of soft shade as a watery healing state of mind and body that is a retreat from our normal day to day consciousness. I want it to feel like that, that's what it feels like for me. It's my favorite place to go."

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A: I also want this book to highlight all the different printmaking methods that I've learned at my new job. I want to incorporate stickers and foil printing and a creased centerfold, all these different things that I didn't know how to do before. There will also be a section where theres an instructional on how to do a cyanotype with everything that I've learned through trial and error and all the parts of my process that I use to create what I make right now. I'm going to have, in the back quarter of the book. I’ll also explain how to build your own indoor exposure unit.

E: Oh wow. That's so cool.

A: Yeah. How to build your own indoor exposure unit. I want to have the swatches of different times of exposed cyanotypes on there for the different hues of blue that you can make. Drying times, rinsing, and how you get good contrast. I want to have all that stuff listed in the back because I want to circulate the knowledge of the printmaking process behind it too.

I also want it to be something that somebody wants sitting out on their coffee table. So I'm putting a lot of work into that right now and just approaching it with patience, but I'm very excited about it because I feel like I am going to be moving into different mediums soon. Cyanotype will always be a part of my work and I think I'll always visit it, but it's been the main focus for so long. I have been in this slightly uncomfortable growth period over, I would say the last year, honestly, where in the beginning with my work, I would sit down and I didn't put any thought into it. I was just kind of turning shit out. It was also during lockdown, so there were not a lot of other things going on. 

Now, my approach to my work is I've felt a little more puzzled by it, there's been this kind of anxious, almost growing pain feeling of moving into something different. Which has been unclear for me for a while, but in the past month or so, the directions that I want to move in have been becoming way more clear. I'm having really solid images in my mind of the clothes that I want to start working with again. So I want to use this book as a way to put that body of work in one place before I move on from it a little bit or move in a different direction. Wearables are honestly all I can think about right now with my work. I've been daydreaming about it all the time and I'm really excited about that.

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