Enter the Tallulahverse: An interview with artist Tallulah Dirnfeld

Art — 28.02.23

Photographer: Angela Ricciardi
Interview: Rex Detiger

If you happened to be driving past the Paramour Estate two weeks ago, you may have noticed what can only be described as a scene: cars turned away, patrons begging the doorman to open the famous wrought iron gates. The town was afoot for Tallulah Dirnfeld’s debut exhibition, “They Always Appear”. The attendees who secured an RSVP indulged in Tallulah’s visionary event. Her paintings’ dreamy subjects are detailed with a grounded sobriety, one that sets Tallulah apart from her contemporary surrealist peers. Every painting punctuates its otherworldly elements with a sharp bite: traumatic memories and fantasy mutate into terrifying yet ethereal landscapes. She finds a way to creep dark excess into even the brightest shade of pink. Teeth was fortunate enough to attend “They Always Appear” and catch up with Tallulah on the coattails of her debut. 

“Repressed Exclusion”, 18×24

How are you feeling after your debut show? I feel lucky I got in, considering hundreds of people got turned away. 

Tallulah: It’s surreal. The 14 oil paintings I showed have been my entire life for months now, and inviting people to experience them in person was terrifying but ended up being magical. I’m so thankful for everyone who came and supported the show, and I feel terrible about having to turn so many away. Truthfully, I was so nervous about sharing this part of myself that if I had known so many people would show up and that we would be over capacity, I probably would have canceled the whole thing. 


Well, I’m glad that didn’t happen! Can you tell me about the title, “They Always Appear”? 

The series explores the ways childhood memories can distort with age. I wanted to explore wistfulness, trauma, comfort, and fear through a blurry lens, and see how these elements manifest on a canvas. The title evokes feelings of nostalgia that you can’t quite place… but always appear. I paint lonely figures, even when they are surrounded by madness. It’s kind of like a self-reflective nightmare. 


Well said. My theory was because, you know, you have such a magnetic personality and energy and that whenever you set out to do something, they always appear. There’s a scene. There’s a crowd. 

Well thank you, it’s the Tallulahverse.

It did feel like The Paramour Estate belonged in The Tallulahverse. How did you end up there? 

It’s a real-life haunted mansion from the 1920s in Silver Lake that I was lucky enough to partner with to host the exhibit. It was a perfect setting for my first show – I wanted a space that was an all-encompassing experience that fit the mood of the work, and the lavish decor did just that. I’m a self-taught artist and it was important that my debut felt authentic to me, and was just as non-traditional as my art background. Not to mention the taxidermy all over the manor felt like something that you might find in one of my paintings. 


Your show was just as much about the experience as it was about the art. Even the sounds were immersive. 

I worked with Gavin Bennett to create a haunting soundscape using samples and original ambient music. He did an amazing job. People said they felt like they were in a trance. I promise I wasn’t trying to hypnotize anyone! 


I found myself so moved by the show. My tempo changes and my own rhythm alters when I look at your paintings. 

That’s so nice to say… What are you saying exactly? [both laugh] 

“I Plead Insanity Because I’m Crazy”, 36×48

I’m saying that maybe I’m hypnotized by your paintings… I would love to hear you speak a little about your process and the intention behind your work

I love creating a blurring effect to emphasize perspectives. I try to balance technical style with soft surrealism. I typically paint with traditionally feminine colors, like pinks, reds, and purples, and subvert the expectations of what is “girlish.” For example, a woman sitting on a big pink teddy bear is actually enveloped by the bear and rendered helpless. It’s about feeling at home in the chaos. 


Is that girl you? I noticed a lot of redheads. How does being a redhead inform your work? 

Thank you for asking about something so important. Being a redhead means being part of the two percent, and I wanted to get that across in my work. I do explore identity a lot in this series, like the painting of the woman looking in the mirror. Her reflections just come back faceless. It’s about other people evaluating my identity. Sometimes I feel like a faceless mass of red hair moving through the world. But that sounds so serious! I balance out the sincerity with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. I love to have the last laugh. 


On identity, we’re both from Manhattan. We actually grew up downtown, only 10 blocks apart. Has New York influenced your art and do you consider yourself a New York artist? 

Well, being from New York City means that I’m automatically interesting. But I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the better part of my adult life, so this feels like home. Hopefully, I’m still interesting. 

You don’t need to worry about that. You have such a specific and unique point of view. It’s very theatrical, and it’s not just isolated to one thing. It’s your whole creative process. I wonder if that has to do with your professional background. 

Definitely. I draw on my background working in film, specifically horror films, to create art that elicits a reaction. And film is the ultimate immersive genre, I like to bring that feeling to my paintings. When I’m working on a film, I’m really looking at it at a macro level, putting together scenes and thinking about the entire viewing experience from beginning to end. My favorite cinematic compositions to construct walk the line between soothing and haunting. 


The way your different art practices are all informed by each other feels so natural. How did that happen?

Film and fine art both transport us to another world. A painting teacher once encouraged me to expand the universes I was creating on canvas onto the screen. She introduced me to the Quay Brothers, and I was immediately entranced by their stop-motion filmmaking. Naturally, I love their use of dolls as subjects. 


That makes a lot of sense. 

I knew I wanted to follow this love to film school, and I ended up attending USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. I spent my four years there and years following working in the film industry at HBO and Blumhouse, a production company that specializes in horror films and television. Eventually, I decided to commit to painting full-time.

Everyone who knows you knows that you’re a doll fanatic. In fact, I’m looking around your house right now, and I see dolls everywhere

Well, I’m a collector. And dolls are the best thing to collect. I’ve spent most of my life coming up with stories and worlds for them, so how could I not feel attached? I even have the first doll I’ve ever owned here at my house, which is a huge feat considering that when I was 15, my parents gave most of them away because it seemed a little inappropriate that I was still avidly playing with them. Traumatic. What my therapist called an outlet for control, I called a doll! 


I can’t even imagine what your collection would look like now if they let you keep them. 

Huge loss, and for what? For me to be more relatable to my classmates at my all-girls school? There’s nothing less respectable than being cool in high school. 


How did your collection evolve if most were given away? 

It transitioned into a more aesthetical reverence. They’re uncanny. You recognize it, you resonate with that feeling, but it’s still a little alarming. They’re strangely familiar. 

“Lost Memories of a Repressed Purpose”, 36×48

You collect memories and observations, as well, don’t you? And anyone who knows you becomes a character, and they’re the subjects in the narrative. The people in your life are like life-sized dolls that all just fit into The Tallulahverse.

You’re making me sound deranged. 


Well, how would you describe The Tallulahverse? 

While it encompasses my visual universe, it goes beyond. It’s also my friends, family, and community and my way of framing my lived experience. Everyone is invited to view my art and enter The Tallulahverse. 


Lastly, what do you think the purpose of your life is? 

Finding myself, being myself, and mythologizing myself beyond logical recognition. 

Stay up-to-date with Tallulah and her artwork through her website and via Instagram @tal1u1ah