Articles/ Interviews

THROUGH THE MIRROR - Visionarios Magazine

An interview with Jane Lewis by Jeffrey Burdian
I open skype and type in her handle. Jane Lewis resides in Yorkshire England and I’m anxious to get started and meet the artist I’ve been hearing so much about from my friends at Visionarios Magazine. I’ve been prepping myself for the past week. Making sure I have a good enough grasp on who she is and what type of questions I want to ask. I’ve found the appropriate software so that I can record the interview and have a nice easy chat that I can write out or perhaps post on the site.

She picks up. The screen is a bit scratchy and the audio seems to be going in and out but in front of me sits a smart looking woman. Behind her is a work on an easle and behind that is a large bookcase that is fully stocked. She has a pleasant voice when I can hear it.

“Okay,” I say after multiple attempts to get the audio and video in sync.

“I think we’re just going to have to do this over the phone.”

And with that I hang up with her and ring her up.

VM: Hey, so you’re in the midst of the Olympic Games over there. Are you enjoying them?

JL: I actually live to the north of London and I don’t have any interest in the Olympics, so I actually don’t know what’s happening with them currently.

VM: Understandable. I haven’t really been following either. Why don’t we just get started with the interview?

I know that you studied at Slade School of Art UCL, were you always a painter? Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like? What were you and your peers primarily concerned about artistically and culturally while you were there?

JL: As an undergraduate I had wanted to study sculpture as an alternative to the pseudo abstract expressionist painting that prevailed in art schools at the time. Then I discovered that I would not be able to carve, model or use any traditional sculpture materials, so retreated to fine art printmaking for a time, where the acquisition of technique was essential. In those days figurative work (the kind I wanted to do) was not encouraged.

At the Slade I was able to find myself again as a figurative artist, and met a few like-minded students. Bartolomeu dos Santos was then Professor in Printmaking and I studied etching with him. I later worked as his assistant at the college for three years, and would regard him as a mentor. He taught me about composition and a respect for technique and materials. I was also painting throughout this period, for a time in watercolour, then oils.

The time I’m talking about was the Punk era and a little beyond that, so being based in central London at the time was stimulating. My imagery then was challenging, I did anti-erotic erotic art (it was about sex but purposely unattractive), some of my influences were German Expressionism and the etchings of Goya and Durer.

The mime artist Lindsay Kemp was performing a lot in London at the time, and I felt a great affinity with what he was doing. I even had dinner with him once.

VM: Would I be correct to say that your work is matriarchal? Many of the subjects have a priestess or soothsayer quality to them. Feminism was experiencing some significant growing pains during the late 70s/early 80s.

There was the beginnings of a backlash, at least here in the states towards feminism. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with feminism at this time and if and how it has shaped you as an artist?

JL: I’m surprised about the ‘matriarchal’ - I think we’d need a psychiatrist’s couch to go there… But as a young woman feminism was important and influenced my work, but I think later the way I portrayed women came from being gay and wanting to explore my own voice. I was in a groundbreaking show in 1980 called Women’s Images of Men at the Institute of Contemporary Art, in London.

VM: In your biography you mention that your work is oblivious to fashion, trends, and movements. Is this a conscious decision? Was it something you grappled with in school and later professionally? How does this better aid you in your artistic endeavors?

JL: That was based on a quote from a former agent, Nicholas Treadwell, and I think he was right. I wish what I am doing would become fashionable but this is how I am, it’s not a conscious decision. I do believe that no matter what or how I paint; my work is of its time, because being alive now it cannot be otherwise. There have been times when I’ve sold virtually everything I’ve produced, and others where I have grappled with being out of step with the art world, particularly in this recession.

My personal feeling is that there is a lot caution in what galleries will show at the moment. Wanting to play safe, trying to appeal with blandness to a potential buying public.

I’ve experienced a positive response with the internet, I value the feedback I get.

VM: If you could tell me a little bit about how being outside of trends strengthens you as an artist personally and professionally that would be great!

JL: Being outside of art trends makes me draw on an inner strength which can be difficult to summon. I find myself living within my own created and imagined world, rather like the inner fantasy world of a child. I’ve rarely known what it is like to not please myself in my work and lifestyle, I’m not good at making compromises.

VM: Much of your work references the Venetian Carnivale. What attracts you to this aesthetic and what does it mean to create this type of work in contemporary culture?

JL: Twelve years ago I fell in love with Italy, first of all with Venice. I try to visit the country every year, it has such a rich artistic and cultural heritage. Venice and Carnivale is theatricality and flamboyance, a parallel reality rather like an invented narrative created in painting. Venice is a sublime confection.

Elsewhere in Italy I have been awe-struck by the ancient Etruscan and Roman art. And also by Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi and Padova. On seeing the very earliest painting in Italy, perhaps 3000 years old, I had a sense of a connecting thread coming from then to now. An immediacy, where it is possible to engage with the images now because they speak across the centuries.

I also appreciate the aesthetic tradition in Italy. Even some modern villas and apartment buildings there echo the roofs, verandas, general structures of its past.

The backgrounds of my paintings rarely make direct reference to actual settings. There is one, called The Carnival Float where the background is an identifiable part of Venice, but that is unusual. My figures and objects tend to be set in invented surroundings, or something quite neutral and abstract (eg flat colours, squares, circles, to imply an interior).

The costumes - well yes, I have used actual Venetian masks, also invented-on-the canvas masks. But costumes have for example sometimes consisted of an old sweatshirt and striped tights re-invented in paint to look more theatrical, or sheets on a model tied in with string. A direct homage to Commedia dell’ Arte came from when I hired a Harlequin costume to wear at a fancy dress ball then just had to use it in a painting, in fact three paintings.
Harlequin is a subversive character, a kind of clown and demon. I use the Harlequin detail from a painting on web pages instead of a photo of myself.

VM: Yes, it’s funny but I think you capture the essence of that time period so well that I didn’t even notice before but now I do see the modern costuming and the fact that the dwellings, other than a lack of contemporary gadgetry, could be any place or any time.

JL: Yes, I would say that a sense of timelessness is what I am after.

VM: Many of your subjects look at the viewer, which implies a confrontation or relationship with the viewer, however many of the subjects are masked. Is it important that they be masked? Are they hiding something? Magic, dreams, jesters, windows and reflection also seem to have reoccurring roles in your work. I feel like I’m having my Tarot cards read when I look at them. Are you trying to tell the viewer something about themselves rather than telling the viewer about something?

JL: I think some years ago that I was in denial that I didn’t know what my work was trying to say, I thought it was possible to explain everything. But I found that yes, I think my paintings are trying to tell me something about myself but I also think that they are open to interpretation by the viewer. Sometimes, it will be years later when I understand what I was painting.

(There are tarot cards in a couple of my still lifes. Also two prints called Tarot.)

I see the masks as an invitation rather than hiding. You may feel you can look more closely at a masked figure. In some pictures I have played with the idea of revealing parts of the body that would normally be covered, and disguising those we are used to being able to see. So you will see an unclothed or part-clothed woman wearing a mask and gloves. The device of a mask also avoids portraiture. I find it irritating when asked who a model is when the composition has nothing to do with that.

VM: Aside from the Renaissance, I see influence from De Chirico, Dali and Picasso. Maybe even some Giuseppe Arcimboldo?

JL: When I first discovered modern art, at about 12 years old, I was obsessed with Picasso. I suppose his pink period, the circus figures, may still be relevant to me. I like De Chirico’s ideas but find his handling of paint unpleasant. Dali I was taught to dislike at art college, but secretly did like, particularly his earlier work. I was introduced to Arcimboldo by Barto dos Santos at the Slade, but wouldn’t cite him as a strong influence.

I’ve been very influenced by the Early Renaissance, not High Renaissance which I find overblown.

I love Della Francesca, Giotto, Carpaccio, Fra Angelico. Surrealism has threaded itself into my work over the years but I had almost forgotten that it’s there, it was so thoroughly digested. Three or four years ago I was invited to join some Neo-Surrealist websites, and was really pleased that other people saw that connection in my work. In fact if you walk out of the rarefied atmosphere of the city art gallery and enter the independent online art world, you will find a strong figurative/surrealist movement there.

VM: Are there any contemporary artists that you are looking at that I may not be aware of? Are there any specific artworks by other artists that you find yourself returning to in order to gain perspective, influence, and inspiration?

JL: Paula Rego. I consider her a major contemporary talent. As she grows older her subject matter often flouts good taste, I would say it challenges yet seduces. Her artistic voice is strong and her drawing is masterful. Her painting ‘The Family’ comes to mind often – I think it must have been subconsciously present when I did ‘Marionettes’ with its central broken/helpless man.

R.B. Kitaj’s work in pastel from around the 1980s was pivotal for me. I loved what he did with the medium, and went on to work in pastels myself about a decade later - a long gestation period!

Balthus, who is nearly contemporary because he died towards the end of the 20th century. I regard him as an artist’s artist. Not generally well-known, but a painter of huge stature. His handling of paint is very beautiful. His subject matter could sometimes, though not always, be seen as conventional - figures in interiors, landscape, still life. But there is an edge to them, and a quality of a dream-like other world. The early work of Lucian Freud I find compelling in its meticulousness. I like his unflinching eye.

VM: Given the titles, settings, and subjects of your works, I sometimes want to put them together in a larger story or context. Do they have a combined story to tell or are they more like individual experiences, journeys, or escapes? How do you entice the viewer to go on these journeys?

JL: I do think there is a narrative but I don’t think I have any control over it. It will surface and bury itself and maybe five years later it resurfaces. At the end of my life it will have told a story.

An example is the subject of Tobias and the Angel, which I have used several times. It’s a theme that was introduced by a friend who asked me to read a novel called Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, which weaves the Tobias story through a tale set in contemporary Venice. Then recently I’ve done more work on Tobias. It’s as though a subject I thought I had explored as much as I wanted to has nudged its way to the surface again, having more to say of itself.

The subjects of my paintings exist in another world, yes. I feel painting shouldn’t be about just the world around me. The pictures create a world of their own. Often my intention has been to seduce the viewer with technique, the surface beauty of colour and composition, and then confront with strange or unsettling subject matter.

How to entice? When I was very young and first saw Dali’s work I was fascinated by the virtuoso technique that compelled me to gaze at something quite odd, for instance a figure with a distended buttock on a crutch. Without that virtuoso technique I’d have found it less compelling. Many years later I wanted to do something similar, but with calmer more classical imagery. At first I made an instinctive, then deliberate use of golden section composition, the earth colours of older painting (what Dali called the shit palette), and the deft application of paint with glazes. I think this attracts the eye to look more closely at provocative or puzzling content. And it may just be the small but disconcerting detail of a winking cat.

VM: I feel like we haven’t touched on your technique very much. You clearly have a great grasp on form, composition, and perspective. How often do you practice your craft? Do you ever get fed up? Have you ever experienced the feeling that you’ve mastered a technique?

JL: Despite all the years at art school, I was not taught anything about painting beyond how to stretch a canvas, and that was rudimentary. So I am self-taught, not unusual for my generation of artists. I paint or carry out work-related tasks full-time as far as I am able. Unfortunately repetitive stress injury now prevents the long hours I used to put in. Yes I get fed up at times. Painting for me seems increasingly difficult, because perhaps I demand more of myself, as I get older. There can be a certain tedium to standing all day at the easel and feeling that nothing has been achieved after hours of wrestling with problems of a painting that has a will of its own. I shall never feel I have fully mastered technique, and have decided not to try. I pushed myself to a certain level and now suffer eye strain and aching shoulder and hand from it!
So I’ve concluded that I am a good enough painter.

VM: Do you have any advice you would give to younger artists? What would you like to tell them about the art world?

JL: My experience has been to believe in yourself because no one else will. If you keep on doing something well and for long enough then you may eventually be noticed. I had enormous drive when I was a young artist, even a certain arrogance, which has subsided now. I think that is typical. Nowadays painting is slow and contemplative, and a bit like an addiction, I do it because I have to.

Copyright: Jeffrey Burdian / Visionarios Magazine / Jane Lewis / 2012