Lena is an exquisite painter. Her work really speaks for itself www.lenalevin.com. I saw her work on social media and knew I had to chat with her. What goes on in the mind of someone who creates such classically beautiful work? Read on and find out …
MICHAEL: Hi Lena, Your work is exquisite. It's beautifully colorful and elegant and sort of San Francisco figurative. How do you describe it?
LENA: Thank you, Michael. If pressed to apply a stylistic label to my work, I'd say "Post-Impressionism" would be the most accurate one. In two ways -two fundamentals of French impressionism are essential to my work; their achievements in light and color and their focus on individual, specific visual impressions (as opposed to any pre-conceived ideas, ideas and concepts). Painting from life (be it still life, plein air landscapes or portraits) is the foundation of my practice; whatever larger projects I am working on, I have to return to it at least several times a week. But I don't want to confine my work to painting studies of visual impressions, hence "post." As many contemporary painters, I am searching for a new balance (or to put it the other way, a new tension) between representation and abstraction. My feeling is that there are paths in painting opened by the work and breakthroughs of impressionists and post-impressionists, which have remained not fully explored when the mainstream of art turned the other way sometime around the World War I. So I find myself looking for these paths.
MICHAEL: The balance between representation and abstraction strike me as search for meaning. What is real and how real are those things that we cannot see, but assume don't exist because we don't see them. Does this concept exist in your work?
LENA: Yes, I think I know what you mean. I think of the balance between representation and abstraction in terms of distance, the tension between what is there (or what the viewer might expect to be there) and how it is seen (and depicted). On one end of this scale, a viewer doesn't feel this distance - the painter leads them to believe that what's in the picture shows exactly, "realistically" the scene that was there, even though it's never the case (nowadays a viewer might typically say that the painting is "like a photo"). The painter creates the illusion of no distance, almost no difference, between the reality and its representation. On the other end of the scale, in pure abstraction, the painting is disconnected from any "real life" visual impressions, so this tension doesn't exist either. For me, the meaning, the emotional message of a painting lies in this distance. I want to anchor it in representation of a specific visual impression, so that the viewer can (implicitly) contrast my depiction with their internal concept of how such a scene (an object, a person, etc.) would be "in reality" and feel the difference, the distance between the two. Just like a lyric poem asks the reader to "say the words" themselves and so to connect with the emotional state of the speaker of the poem, so a painting asks its viewer to see the scene themselves, but with painter's eyes, and so to feel the emotional state which creates this way of seeing things. I hope this answers your question to some extent.
MICHAEL: I love your use of color. It makes your work very rich and lush and dessert-like. Irresistible, really. It's like a lovely feast for the eyes. One's eyes want to consume the work.
LENA: Thank you. Color is my major fascination in painting and, I believe, my major strength, my major vehicle of communication. I feel its power, and I hope to convey some of this in my work. I usually work with a constant basic palette, with some occasional additions and I seem to know it like a musical performer knows his/her instrument, all its keys and strings.
MICHAEL: What was your first experience with art? Do you come from an artistic family?
LENA: No, I come from a family of academic scholars, linguists and mathematicians and I worked as a linguist myself (research and teaching) for a huge chunk of my adult life. I grew up in a city with great museums (St. Petersburg, Russia), with the Hermitage a half-an-hour walk away from home, so this is, I guess, my first experience with art. I started studying painting when I was eight (in various art schools for children, after regular school hours), and it was a major part of my life until 16, but I went on to study linguistics in University (and then, in graduate school).
MICHAEL: You know Lena, I have yet to meet a single person who is proficient in art and did not have childhood exposure to it. Yet at the same time today, I meet so many people who've had ZERO exposure to art EVER and boy, does it show not only in them, but society in general. Thoughts?
LENA: Do you mean exposure like in seeing art or as in art classes etc.?
MICHAEL: I mean both really, particularly when it comes to art in schools. Most kids are exposed to sports, i.e. soccer in school, but it seems like art programs in public schools are gone.
LENA: To be frank, I am somewhat suspicious of art classes in "regular" public schools. I would strongly prefer to see more affordable or free after-school programs (in Canada, as far as I’ve heard, parents get tax refunds/breaks for their children's after-school art classes. I believe that's a brilliant way to support art education). There are two reasons: on the one hand, public schools are now not something children choose to do freely, it's more like a chore, a duty and that doesn't bode well for art education. On the other, there is a question of teachers' qualifications. What is needed to become a public school teacher is not exactly what is needed to be a good art teacher, in my opinion. My preferences might have been shaped by my own experience. I did have an art program in school, but it was absolutely useless because the teacher had to spend most of her efforts on my classmates who weren't really interested at all; the after-school programs I attended were another matter entirely, because everyone really wanted to learn and the teachers themselves were working artists.
MICHAEL: Hmm. That’s very interesting.
LENA: Then again, it seems to me that a crucial thing here is exposure to great art - in public places, in museums, in galleries in churches, wherever. Otherwise, people don't really know what all the fuss is about. And in this respect, of course, some countries (and some cities) give much, much more opportunities than others. It's nearly impossible to be born in Italy, France, Japan and not see great art (even if it's only architecture, public monuments, churches), while a child growing up in a small town in America may never have an opportunity to see a really great painting or a really magnificent building. I am not sure any art program can compensate for that. The internet (especially things like Google Art Project, with really good, high-definition reproductions) may give some approximation, but it is, of course, still not the same. I often meet people in this country who never really knew until their 30s or even later just how huge is the difference between a reproduction and the original painting. Their first visit to a good museum was a revelation.
MICHAEL: And so, given all of that, our culture is sports-obsessed and art deprived. Don't art, literature, music and culture lend themselves to true education and ability to reason and be introspective? Basically, it seems to me, we're disrespecting liberal arts and paying the price for it.
LENA: This raises a whole complex of difficult issues Michael, and I am afraid I won't be able to do them justice. There are certainly lots and lots of people here interested in visual arts in one or another way. Good exhibitions in museums are very well-attended (for example, two recent exhibitions from Musee d'Orsay in San Francisco were real blockbusters - you had to reserve a time to attend well in advance and then wait in a rather long line, too). Young people are willing to go into what amounts to life-long debt to attend art school, without any realistic hope of making a living out of this education, there are private workshops and studios all over the place, for all ages and levels, which are also well-attended. Art fairs and festivals are also abundant. To me, this seems to indicate that people are hungry for genuine visual art, painting in particular. On the other hand, there is no way around the fact that Americans are deprived of the whole layers of man-made beauty, which surround Europeans on a day-to-day basis - partly simply because the country is so very young historically, partly because it's a democracy (so no kings and dukes to pull resources together), partly because of its puritanical foundations. All in all, it creates a totally different overall visual experience of life, in which magnificent beauty of nature is constantly opposed to ugliness of mass-produced visual junk. Is it possible to study visual art in this context? I believe it is, but I also believe very strongly that it's essential to try and see the greatest artworks of our civilization. I would say, a semester of wandering across Europe and its museums would be worth much more for a young painter than a year in an art school (and with hostels and cheap transportation in Europe, also cheaper, by the way). But those who run art schools seem to have another opinion.
MICHAEL: They certainly do. Am I hearing you say that your work, even now, is mainly influenced by your early exposure in Russia? I see very strong classical training in your work which is great. It's the work of an educated, trained artist.
LENA: As far as actual art training is concerned, I have of course learned most in Russia. After all, one learns rather effectively from the ages of eight to 16 (but, by the way, it was by no means a completed art education by Russian standards -- that would take at least six more years of formal training). The tradition I was trained in wasn't, strictly speaking, the classical, "academic,” tradition - it has been strongly influenced by impressionism and post-impressionism and their approach to color, but it was quite rigorous nonetheless and included classical drawing studies and art history classes. I have been extremely fortunate with my teacher, whom I met right from the beginning -- although not a renowned artist himself, he was an excellent teacher, attentive, understanding and knowledgeable. I did take several classes and attended several studio workshops here later, but it was mainly for revival of skills after a period of non-painting. And of course, I've been reading a lot - both artists and art historians. Overall, I think I am more influenced by French artists than by Russian ones (let alone the fact that Russian painting had always been strongly influenced by French). And, of course, the two great Dutchmen, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Although the Hermitage has an excellent collection of paintings, visiting Europe and its museums after the Iron Curtain fell was a revelation to me, and added a lot to how I think about painting.
MICHAEL: What's your normal painting routine? Morning? Evening? With music or television playing?
LENA: Morning and day. I try to use daylight, especially for still life work, but I also prefer it in general. I do have adequate artificial light in the studio, so sometimes I do work evenings (or nights) as well, but not as a matter of routine. I have a very small and very classical music collection which I listen to while painting occasionally, but less and less often recently - more and more, I need silence. I don't have TV at all, but it would be out of the question anyway - any "narrative" distracts me and feels like noise. I know some artists listen to audiobooks, which is supposed to help to somehow switch off the unrelated "verbal" thought process, but I cannot do that either. I found one trick which works very well for me - I find a poem or a song in my memory which aligns, rhythmically and emotionally, with the painting I am working on and let my brain "re-play" it to me while I paint.
MICHAEL: Is the art world tougher on female artists? Do you feel that sexism is a lingering issue?
LENA: You know what, frankly, I don't have the slightest idea.
MICHAEL: What themes do you like to explore in your work? What has you fascinated right now?
LENA: There are two major themes in my work, which can be both illustrated with this painting: http://www.lenalevin.com/gal/Sonnets/21 The first is the "semantic" potential of contrasting different stylistic approaches to the same subject matter within a single picture plane, creating a tension between different ways to view the same subject, and, indirectly, between the representation and the reality. The second is the relationship between representational painting and poetry (somewhat akin to the relationship between abstract painting and music explored by Kandinsky). Both representational painting and poetry invoke specific images (or concepts) *and* abstract rhythms (and rhymes), which, in a way, support one another to convey a message or emotion. I am trying to find an affinity between poetic rhythms and compositional/color rhythms in painting, and how they work together with specific images. My major strategy in this is a very long series of painting each of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, treating a painting not as an illustration, but rather as an attempt at translation into the language of color (I've done 33 so far, some of them are presented on my website and described in the accompanying blog, at www.lenalevin.com/sonnets).
MICHAEL: Wow, very cool. Finally Lena, when you're long gone and people are looking at your work, what do you want the work to say about itself and about you?
LENA: Well, if my work is viewed at all and is capable of conveying at least something, no matter what, to these future people, that will be good enough for me. But I hope it would be something joyful and kind.
MICHAEL: Thanks Lena. This has been quite an illuminating chat.
LENA: Thank you, Michael. Please send me a link!
Do yourself a favor and check out Lena Levin and her work at www.lenalevin.com.