Interview: Rebecca Leveille's Solo Exhibit "The End of Love"

May 04, 2018 12:00 PM

Certain artists have captured the zeitgeist of a particular time and place in such a powerful way that history will forever be represented through their images. Goya and the French Revolution. Diego Rivera and Industrialization. Jacob Lawrence and the Great Migration. Georgia O’Keeffe and the Sexual Revolution. In the present day, as far as the #metoo movement is concerned, I implore you to consider the work of Rebecca Leveille. Her latest collection “The End of Love” is on view at Untitled Space in Manhattan until the middle of May. It is a commanding exploration of sexuality, power, mythology and gender in contemporary culture. Her images more than speak for themselves, but she took a moment to share some words with TWELV about her life and work.

Congratulations on your new collection “The End of Love.” It is so visceral and powerful and sexy! Your previous body of work, “Crush” deals with societal ideals and the arbitrary nature of love, and“The End of Love” addresses the nature of sex and myth in contemporary culture. Was your work influenced by the #metoo movement and the great reckoning that is happening in Hollywood and beyond? Or were you more inspired by personal experience or larger abstract ideas? 

Much in the "Crush" show was a direct result of the incandescent rage I was feeling about the acceptance of sexual assault and mistreatment of women in society– including the damaging idols and images we digest (and love/hate). I dealt with my own past of sexual assault as a teenager in that show very directly. When the #metoo movement happened 6 months later, I was somehow not surprised because something was boiling up in me and, of course, everyone else.In the new work, I'm taking a different perspective on my intention toward a feminist powerful dialogue. 

Some of the pieces in the collection seem to cite classic paintings, interpreted in a totally new way, but using the references as a device. The purple haired nude male with the raven haired woman, for example makes me think of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. Was this an intentional aspect of your composition? 

I'm very much dealing with the question of female desire– the validity of it and the symbols of it. All of art history has been, very frequently, the reflection of male desire. I aim to direct the gaze to the other side– in an overt way and deliberately. The tools I employ to deliver my intention in the work are influenced by all of those prior works in art history, again, deliberately.

One of the trademarks of your work is your lush use of pigments with different densities, from oils to washes to graphite powder. What was your process of becoming fluent with these materials and connecting them with different emotional states? 

It's the part of me that recognizes the essential importance of the material surface. It's vital to me that not just the image itself be visceral but the material treatment as well. 

For many years, you were internationally recognized as an illustrator. Why did you decide to change course a few years ago to focus on painting?

Illustration is a collaboration with other people to get a final outcome. The artist generally has to make concessions to the nature of the work before the painting is finished because of input from the team involved (writer, editor, art director, etc). I realized about 12 years ago, when I was already very well known there, that I didn't actually want to hang any of the work I had done in my own house. I realized that the collaboration process took parts of the piece away from me in the work, even if it's just a small change made here or there, and always made it into something that in the end, I perhaps liked but was no longer in love with. I know for a fact that there is brilliant work done within this collaboration in illustration, but I didn't feel I was making brilliant work. I was making good work. Also this is not to say that fans and people I did the work for didn't like it– they very much did– and I'm happy they did (for a long time making other people happy was enough validation for me), but finally it became clear that I either had to start the change in me and my work or something important in my artistic self might be sacrificed and I might not get it back. It took 6 years of painting personal pieces in between client work to build up the sales of my personal work to take the place of what I earned in publishing. And then another 6 years– I left publishing 6 years ago– to set myself on a path and develop a relationship with galleries first regionally and then in LA and NYC that were going to be places that could show the work I wanted to make. Going from being someone to being no one and climbing up from there again has been both epically hard and also one of the best times in my life. 

How do you think your background in illustration impacted your technique as a painter? 

I'm extremely facile and very skilled with the figure. It's fortunate that I also love the figure. I started in comics as a penciler for D.C Comics / Vertigo and you have to draw 24 pages a month with approximately 6 panels a page with figures from every angle and every viewpoint. After 2 years of pencilling, that's 3,456 times you've had to draw the figure or multiple figures (and rooms, cars, building, animals) largely from your head, so I've got a fierce fucking visual memory, if I'm allowed to say that about myself without sounding like an asshole! Unfortunately all that skill and $3.75 will get you a cup of coffee (or rather a tall cold brew) in the art world. No one will reward you here for your skill alone.

Your exhibits often have a narrative subtext. Do you start out with a concept and build the body of work around it or is it more of a random evolution? 

My work is very much a reflection of my emotion state in the time the body of work is being done. One piece usually leads into the next. My images find me when I'm working. 

When you are painting does it ever creep into your mind that your work will be subject to the whims of collectors and curators? Do you think about how you want your audience to receive the work?

My work sells well, but second guessing or aiming for a sale or approval from a curator is not good for anyone. I've had had a very famous crit tell me recently to eliminate narrative. They are someone I respect and it’s very hard to make sure you don't give over important parts of yourself for a perceived chance of approval by someone you respect. And as soon as you think about the buyer or the sale, you risk the nature of the work suffering. It's the same thing that interfered with my connection to my own work with commercial illustration– this influence of the marketability of a piece to a wide audience– and that’s why I left. It's also why I never take private commissions anymore. In the end, we only have what we are most in love with to distinguish our work from the mass of other artist's work out there. Anything that undermines your own internal conviction about the things you are making makes you less likely to advocate for your own work with the kind of heart and veracity that is essential to success.

 

“The End of Love” by Rebecca Leveille is on display from May 2nd to May 13th, 2018 in Tribeca at the Untitled Space, 45 Lispenard St, #1W. 

  

INTERVIEW BY KAREN FRAGALA-SMITH

 

PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY: ALLEN AMATO

ART PHOTOS COURTESY OF REBECCA LEVEILLE

 

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