Alison OK Frost Captures the Strange Absurdities of War and Discrimination

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Alison OK Frost creates delicate and disturbing watercolors. Her figures seem to be part of a post apocalyptic world even though they are all drawn from news articles. Stripped of context and background information they float eerily on the white page.
Her images use the delicate style of watercolors to express the brutal elements of modern society. She wants to illustrate this dynamic in her work: “A few years ago I took part in the occupy Oakland protest and one thing that was really striking was how beautiful tear gas is, especially at night. I want to use these clouds in a way that uses the visual language of beautiful landscape watercolors.”


She came to this series through an obsession with the images themselves. She explains that her earlier work was quite different. She made oil paintings influenced by scenes from religious paintings. She says she took “scenes from particle paintings that featured the virgin mary and then juxtaposed them with my own life. ” Once she finished this series she didn’t know what to do with her art. She says she floundered for a few years. In this time she collected images without a specific project in mind. She collected images that she describes as ” a little uneasy, almost humorous. Taken out of context you could look at them and say, ‘oh this is a science fiction movie about a post apocalyptic future;’ but the weren’t, they were just news stories from today.” When she began painting these images in watercolor she says “something clicked.” She instantaneously knew that was the direction in which she wanted to take her art.
Collecting images remained integral to the process. She sees herself as a “visual data organizer,” and her sketchbook as a “visual database.” Her sketchbook has few sketches; instead she makes collections of images to prepare for paintings. The sketchbook consists of pages of related images in which she is interested- she has pages dedicated to sinkholes, for instance. Other pages combine images from distinct sources; she has a page with refuges and marching bands. She says, “I have been working on combining different kinds of parades. I am figuring out how to combine those visually and what that means in terms of masses of people and how they congregate.”
In her newest work she is interested in dissecting what it means to juxtapose images that are visually similar but quite different thematically. “I have been collecting images of tidal waves and kids playing in hydrants and with images from the civil rights movement – a big way that black protesters in the 60s were dehumanized was by spraying them with fire hoses. But all of those images, when you break those down to basic visual information, are nearly identical. At a glance you wouldn’t know, are these people playing? Are these people running from nature? Are they running from other people who don’t see them as human?”

War Mandala

As her series develops, the images toward which she is drawn the most have changed over time. She is influenced by both events in her own life and in the world. Her more recent work focuses more on war than her earlier pieces. Frost explains, “I have a daughter. My daughter was born about 2 and a half years ago, and that was a life changing event, but it’s really made me think differently about humanity and the things we do. War is super fascinating to me, it’s such a bizarre concept, the idea that people put on these uniforms and then they are not the individuals they were before they put on that uniform. Now they are part of a greater group, a greater cause, and now they are willing to sacrifice themselves for that cause. It’s absurd to me. It’s especially absurd to me when I think about my own child. There is not a cause that I could see as worthy of sacrificing my child, which makes me think about the huge sacrifice that other mothers are making across the world.”
Uniforms are featured in a number of her works; whether it’s Soldiers, KKK members or men in hazmat suits. She says she is interested in the transformation that takes place when someone puts on a uniform, “taking your own individuality out and becoming like a hive mind. Something happens to you internally when you do this thing to yourself externally. There are so many acts of cruelty that people are capable of doing once they put on a uniform that they aren’t capable of in their everyday life. I’m very interested in the KKK. It’s a part of American history but it’s also a part of American present. The people who are putting on the white sheets and doing these terrible things, they are not always terrible, they probably go to work everyday and eat dinner with their family and do so many things that are normal and relatable to me, but they are able by hiding their face and trading that in for this bigger thing to do things that are completely unthinkable.”
Current events clearly influence Frost’s work, but sometimes in unexpected ways. She explains a series of images that focus more on structures than people: “I think it’s the idea of survival. So right now in California for instance we have a shortage of water and we could run out of water. That’s crazy; what are we going to do? And I don’t know how to talk about that in my paintings; but it does make me think in more general terms- what are the things we need? There are things we think we need, like I feel crazy if I leave my iPhone at home, but that is not actually a thing I need. I need water; I need food; I need shelter; those are the basics.” She explains, “I’m taking images of strange structures, buildings that were created to look like other things- a donut stand that has a giant donut on top and combining them with sort of survival structures.” These combinations highlight the difference between “the bare minimum that we need a structure to be and what we do with structure as a society.”

The Fallen

With all of her work, she hopes to make people stop and think about what they see. She wants to “draw people’s attention, asking them to take a closer look at what they see in the news, to think about what it means.” Besides bringing these images to people’s attention she makes them more relatable. She explains, “when you look at pictures and you can put them in a context, you can say, ‘that’s not me; that’s someone in this other place and time.'” By leaving out background information she hopes people “‘look at them and say, could that be me? What if that was me?'” Her work invites people to have a closer relationship with the images they see on a daily basis. Through her cohesive visual style she subtly questions a broad range of modern issues, while pointing at the tension between society and the individual. Check out more of her work here.