From concealing to revealing, the artist talks on physicality, intuition, and using her gut when painting.
Since graduating in 2015 from the Royal College of Art, specialising in fine art painting, artist Anna Liber Lewis has been very busy—firstly with accomplishing this year’s Griffin Art Prize, and then with winning the Ingram Collection Young Contemporary Talent Purchase Prize. Actually, Anna has studied in three contrasting education systems in three different moments in time, and upon graduating she worked with video art and installations under conceptual and critical approaches. Recently however, her focus has shifted back to her roots on painting, and on embracing an intimate relationship with her works, both physically and emotionally. “When I look back at my development, I can see that my work has moved from the outside in! From looking, touching and stroking, to feeling and listening to my intuition.” With a youthful spirit and a playful sense of irreverence, Anna’s work often focuses around giving the viewer contradictions to engage with “Sometimes, I like to punch the viewer in the face and then caress it after, or vice versa”. Considering this, her work often encourages her audience to take pleasure in not knowing. When we stopped by her south London studio in the past few days, Anna was working on a boldly coloured new piece—but she still took time out to discuss with us the importance of intuition, physicality and how she uses her gut when painting. Talking with Anna is intriguing, but so is grasping the full implications of her works.
You studied a foundation course at Wimbledon College of Arts, a fine art BA at Central Saint Martins during the 90s, and after a long break of around ten years, you recently decided to undertake a Masters degree at the Royal College of Art. Having been part of three very different education systems in three different moments in time, what have you gained from each period?
Yeah! It’s been a ride! One certainly develops, as one gets older! I also spent nearly three years at Newcastle University, before I transferred and started almost from scratch at Central Saint Martins. Seems like I am a highly educated artist! The art scene in London has changed a lot since the 90s, or maybe I just see everything in another light now? I did find it hilariously reassuring that some things at art schools never change when I started at the RCA. I do love socially awkward art students, self conscious, and achingly cool… they are the best!
Your mum used to take you to the theatre from a very early age. Does this theatrical upbringing feed into your works?
I think it’s unavoidable, and I am starting to become much more conscious of these influences on my work. I try not to name them or necessarily reveal them when I talk about the work. I was always quite scared of the theatre and it was quite uncomfortable not knowing what was fact and what was fiction. My grandmother has a great quote about life: “if it wasn’t all lies it would be the truth.”I am attracted to drama and intensity, but I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with the stage. More and more, I am allowing myself to let go of controlling the work too much, and feel emotions and let my intuition make the paintings.
Your practice has encompassed different phases. From video-based works, passing through drawing still-life objects, representing genitalia, along with making language-based works. What phases have you explored to get to where you are now?
I think it comes from studying art over a fairly long period of time, and having a large break between my BA and MA. When I was at Central Saint Martins in the 90s, painting was dead (again) and video art and installation work was very much the art du jour! However, there is one thread that has run through all my work: it has been a bit of a quest to allow myself to let go fully and confront intensity, pleasure and pain head on. I started my training in a very specific moment in time, which was very focused on conceptual and critical theory, and it took me a long time to find my way. I needed to have knock backs and failure to fully uncover and embrace my voice. I see myself as a painter, but I acknowledge that I am able to work in different media. Funnily enough, I have started working in performance occasionally (directing, not performing myself). I think I will continue to embrace this, but it all comes from painting: supporting it and expanding it conceptually. When I returned to painting, and before I applied to the RCA, painting suddenly became very urgent to me, and I was vomiting paintings, they were coming fast! The act of really looking was my main focus for a while, and I was working from life in a room in my parent’s house, because I couldn’t afford a studio. I only had school hours in which to work, because I had to pick up my son from school. I would set up a still life with objects that I found in my environment. I realised that the objects I was attracted to and the relationship I had with them were important to the making of the work. When I got to the RCA, the scale of my work changed, and so did my relationship to the canvas physically. I had a male muse and worked from his body for several years. The relationship I had with this body informed my work. The cock paintings were operating of many levels, and they came from a deeply intimate space, but were also a stand in for something else. At this point I took the entire colour out of my work; working black on black. When I look back at my development, I can see that my work has moved from the outside in! From looking, touching and stroking, to feeling and listening to my intuition.
At what point is your work currently? Do you think these stages compliment each other?
I am very engaged with painting; paint and painting is urgent and compelling to me. I see painting as a very physical act, and I am excited by its restrictions and its intimacy. The private space of the painter in the studio: confronting the rectangle; the fabric held taught; the space here between us, tension in nothing, touching, not touching: it’s what gets me off. Maybe the performance element, that creeps in from time to time is an extension of this. I am listening to music a lot when I paint now, and I think music might have a little moment in my work sometime soon, alongside the painting.
Being a female and a mother is a fact you explore with your works. In what ways do you embrace this idea?
Again I think it is unavoidable, however this is not the thrust of the work. In some ways I flirt with it, it can take the form of bravado and defiance. The history of painting is so male, and I have to say I do get off on a bit of misogyny, its something to push (up) against. I’m having fun with the complexities of what all of this means.
Animals such as snakes, birds, or lobsters are recurring symbols in your works. Could you develop on your choice of animals? What meanings do you add onto these beings?
I love exploiting a good symbolic image! I’m attracted to a playful irreverence. Using symbols or motifs are loaded, but if handled well they can be a powerful “a stand in”. I enjoy a frisson between me, and what I paint; much of it comes from the gut. I am also really happy not to explain everything to people, even if there is a great story behind it. Not knowing is ok. My work is about concealing as much as it is a revealing. I want to give the viewer some contradictions to play with, and I don’t always want to explain (that stuff is for the after party).
Why is it important for you to make works open to interpretation, rather than being final statements?
I think it’s quite easy to end up in a pretty dictatorial situation when making things – ‘here are my things, they are about this’. I personally feel most strongly connected to work that gives space for the viewer, invites you in, gives you a warm hello, how do you do, gives you the broad strokes, and then leaves it up to you. The kind of work I want to make should have a back and forth, conversational feel – no response is worse than, ‘its very nice’ is it?
Your painting process “comes from the gut”, and is “like having sex” for you. Could you develop on the physicality and sexuality linked to your painting process in terms of rhythm, placement, and intensity?
Yes, painting has always come from a sexual and maybe primal place for me, even when I was painting still life, I needed to have a certain kind of relationship with the objects I painted. Painting comes from my body, I see it as a physical act: touching, feeling, stroking. I follow my desires, my pain: the two are linked. Painting can feel like sex; I push the canvas up against the wall or pin it to the floor. It can sometimes feel like a boxing match. Currently, I am listening to music before and as I paint. It starts in the car, driving to the studio. Once I have changed into my painting clothes I often dance to music to help me access what I am searching for. Sometimes it can take me ages to find the right music, but then I’m off. Dancing and crying! I get to really let go sometimes, and then the paintings make themselves.
Could you explain us about the music ritual you develop before and during your work process?
The music is a fairly new thing for me. I used to listen to a lot of talk radio, YouTube videos, and podcasts when I painted. I would listen to my favourite male author’s/ filmmakers talk about their work: Bret Easton Ellis, John Updike, J G Ballard, Steven King, and David Lynch. They offered me a certain kind of intensity. Music is doing this for me as well, but in a different way. Music allows you to go back in time. Moving my body helps me access the intuitive intelligence in my body. I can have fun with it all, even if I’m going to some dark places. I love a good dance, but not in a performative way. I’m your private dancer – it’s not something to do publicly in polite society!
Revealing and not revealing are key concepts you are interested in. From representations of a male penis that is not revealing due to it’s black on black nature, to your artist persona who doesn’t completely expose itself when being photographed. What is your interest in sometimes giving the viewer subtle hints of things, while other times clearly exposing them?
This is an interesting question. Making, drawing and painting even as a very small girl gave me a voice or a way of saying or dealing with things I would otherwise be uncomfortable expressing. I like my work to operate in many ways simultaneously. Sometimes, I like to punch the viewer in the face and then caress it after or vice versa. I like moving between fast and slow. The initial hit can be quick; leaving an unexpected aftertaste that takes time to develop. Personally I am not interested in confessional work, this is not my space. Silence can be very powerful. So much can be communicated without the need to bare all. A guttural noise from Prince in one of his songs (I’m a massive fan), or a an unintelligible string of lyrics from Bowie can say so much, a glance across the room is sometimes all you need. The things left unsaid: this can be where weight or true eroticism lies. I allow space for the complexities and nuances to be worked through and digested. As for not showing my face, I want people to look at my paintings, not me. Selfie culture and the pressure on women to look good can crush creativity. I want to have control over who knows what, and who sees what. Why is it that extroverts get to have all the attention? Why should those who make the loudest noise or show the most flesh get seen and heard? It’s a small but (seemingly) powerful gesture to stand the wrong way round in pictures. The funny thing is that by choosing to do this, I seem to draw more attention to myself! The reactions can be revealing and surprising, and I am enjoying reflecting on them. I also fucking hate having my photo taken; It’s a fantastic “life hack”.
Why are you drawn to giving hints of figures or objects but not representing them fully in their natural state?
I’m interested in looking, but not so much in how things look photographically. We have two lenses to see through not one, and never see everything all at once, the eye focuses and moves constantly, sometimes staring as well, but it is a more natural shifting means of representation I am interested in, than a photographic one.
What about the scale of your works? Are they linked to status and power? Is there a political undertone with your pieces?
It happened accidentally when I was at the RCA, when someone was getting rid of some large stretchers, and I grabbed them. It quickly became apparently to me that large was my scale of choice, it felt so good to be physical. It did become about power and bravado for a while, I wanted to play with the big boys. But once I worked through the gender issues, I just went with what feel right to me.
Your work incorporates a variety of contrasts. From graphic works to very fluid ones, or from works that are built in many layers, to works that are made in a “three movements” phase. Why are you interested in such contrasts and in placing limitations to yourself as and artist?
It is very simple; each painting informs the next one. I always want to challenge myself and keep things interesting for me: I sometimes make rules up for myself before I make a painting. I love a good hard edge, but I won’t use tape to make it, instead I use my breath. Making paintings is really a life long conversation with yourself and others from the past and present. It’s all up for grabs and you are chasing the next thing.
You have recently won the Griffin Art Prize 2017. In what ways has winning this prize benefited you?
Yes, it’ s been a great few months for me! I am so excited about working with the Griffin Gallery team, who are excellent. It has put my work a little more in the spotlight and I hope to develop some of the new relationships I have made via this.
Can you expand on your use of colour and pattern placement? Is it intuitive?
I have been known to make drawings to help me work out a painting, but it’s not something I do very often. I do have a drawing practice, which informs the paintings or work alongside them. I work in a number of ways to keep myself engaged, but colour is entirely intuitive. I will know in my head if the painting needs to be dark or bright tonally, but I am baffled how painters can work out a colour palette before they make a painting. I have tried to do that, but it gets abandoned pretty early on. Maybe it’s because I’m not very organised.
From Roy Oxlade to TLC, which artists/musicians/books influence your practice?
Influences seep into the unconscious mind continually. It’s a rich soup of stuff to draw on from painters I admire: I love Mary Heilmann – I like her attitude, relationship to colour and her freedom. I love Susan Rothenburg – the power, gesture, ambition and confidence in her paintings are tangible, Maria Lassnig is fantastic, she is not afraid of failure and painted listening to her body; often painting whilst lying on the floor, Louise Bourgeois was a force and made some extremely challenging work – a real role model for me. I love how uncompromising she was. In fact the list is long. There are so many amazing artists I look to, and love: Rose Wylie, Phyllida Barlow, Ellen Gallagher, Sonia Delaunay, Vanessa Bell, Yayoi Kusama, Laura Owens, Eva Hesse, Charline Von Heyl. I’m just reading a lovely book by Roy Oxlade (Rose Wylie’s husband) Art and instinct, I’m really enjoying his voice on this subject. In terms of music, the list is also long and varied. I can get stuck in a loop obsessing over one track for several weeks! I’m listening to early TLC, Snoop Dogg, Four Tet, Lee Scratch Perry, Har Mar Superstar and Stormzy currently! But that will change. Literature is a big one – it switches from very strong male voices to strong female voices. I lurch between Doris Lessing to Steven King! But a lot of it comes from “life’s rich tapestry”. I’ve got some great stories I’m not gonna tell you.
Do you have any forthcoming projects that you would like to share with us?
Words by Vanessa Murrell