"(Rebecca) Guay's artwork shows a distinct influence from the great Renaissance masters, revamped with a fresh dosage of contemporary cleanliness and edge." We wrote that a few years ago about Rebecca Leveille-Guay's paintings, and we feel the same today. Her newest paintings, entitled The End of Love and on view at Untitled Space in NYC from May 1—13, 2018, are lush and full, folkloric and sensual in color and subject matter. Walter Robinson, the esteemed Neo Pop painter, sat down with Rebecca to discuss her latest show and what she means by the end of love.
Walter Robinson: I have a simple one to start: What is your earliest memory of being an artist?
Rebecca Leveille-Guay: Drawing Wonder Woman. Seven years old. Page after page after page of her chasing bad guys ( usually bank robbers with diamond necklaces falling out of their pockets). My obsession with her from an early age put me on the path that I have been my whole life as an artist.
I have other significant memories around that same age that are art related. I remember winning my first art contest (a portrait of my first grade teacher Mrs Bode) and the accompanying feeling of achievement that was intoxicating. I have memories of my mother who went to Mass Art showing me how to draw a face and how to break down the position of the eyes, nose, mouth, etc… but mostly it was drawing Wonder Woman.
Clearly fantasy fiction has always been about a imagining a magnified agency—magical powers—for an oppressed protagonist. We’re all well aware of this but Hollywood is especially slow to get on board, only lately coming up with Wonder Woman and Black Panther, which are rare entries in the masculine superhero cosmos. Hmm, so what’s the question ...?
Ha right! I think in order to achieve something as artists,in order to weather the storm we have to hold tight to our manifestations (delusions?) of internal power. Perhaps this is true of all things and perhaps its why the super hero archetype is so appealing to many people. The hollywood recognition of the commercial strength of powerful heroes that don't fit the standard white male format is new. Women have been asked through the bulk of influences within writing, culture art history etc… to fit themselves into someone else's skin in order to survive; to fit themselves into the hero's journey even when that hero is mostly a white man. Now we are beginning to ask men to fit themselves into the journey of another type of hero.
I have seen it within the art world as well. As a student of art at Pratt, then going into the areas of art that I've been in (within the massively male dominated world of comics to the the predominantly, though changing, male dominated world of gallery art) I feel that there has been a something of "Superman" complex everywhere.
While there have obviously been influential female voices, much of the aesthetic of contemporary art (and all art history) has been dictated by white males of a certain background. I have felt and seen women artists tamp down aspects of what they are in order to try to survive within the framework that has been established- in both commercial and gallery art. Im personally leaning into all of it right now. Im leaning into my skill, my pictures, my past, my heart, my emotion, and trying to give those true things to the work. As an artist I feel like I've got my red stiletto boots on in a world of sensible, acceptable footwear. So, I guest I answered your un-question with an un answer . . .
Some boring ones: Do you use models? What artists in history do you admire? Have you ever been censored?|
I love these these nuts and bolts questions and surprisingly don't get asked them as much as you'd think. Models: mostly no. I will shoots bits an pieces for a big painting (my hand at certain angle my foot in a shoe) to nail the nuance of a specific detail. For the most part the best results come when I lean heavily on drawing the figures from my imagination. My training has been heavily figure based and I've done hundreds of hours of figure drawing from life- but I've done thousands of hours drawing from my head. Skill is viewed with a jaundiced eye within art, but we all must recognize the thing that is our super power. I feel mine is that I can draw figures from almost any angle in groups or alone, in a world of my own making, without being hampered by the confines of reference or models. I aim do it without implementing provisionalization or simplification for the figure in order to maintain the authority within the work. Its in this regard that I feel that I can offer something that not everyone can. Working this way feels incredibly fluid and honest to me.
As to the artists I admire there are so many.To name a a few favorites: I adore Romaine Brooks, Gerda Wegener, Titian, Kara Walker, John Currin, Inka Essenhigh, Toulouse Lautrec, Camille Claudel, J.W. Waterhouse, N.C. Wyeth, Walton Ford, Kerry James Marshall.
On Censorship: My boldest images lately of the male figures with flowers and phalluses have surprisingly never been censored on social media. I guess there's always a first time though, so we will see! In my past within commercial art, you get asked so often to not show stuff that you can't even call it censorship- its just the nature of the beast when you work in that world. It's necessary to sell a book or graphic novel to put yourself second and the project first. When I painted a Green Lantern Graphic novel for DC there's not way I could have had nude male figures with flowers emerging from genitals and have them allow it. Its why I don't do that work anymore. It's not that I need to do this sort of provocative image all the time, but I always need the freedom to to be able to do it. The challenge now is elbowing my aesthetic and my own voice into an art word that has often historically been less than sympathetic toward figuration and elements of narrative. I do also see this changing as well- particularly since the Unrealism show a few years back. Galleries that would have had nothing to do with figure or narrative works are now representing artists who speak within that language.
What role does desire play in your works?
My god what else is there? It is the thread that exists in everything for me. I'm particularly interested in depicting female desire. In the thousands of years of figurative work done by male artists we've seen painting after painting of rosy-breasted dewey-eyed languid, flushed women from Titian to Currin. All of these things are overt symptoms of female sexual desire through a male gaze. Many artists have digested this so fully that even women artists often deliver back the male gaze itself as a feminist statement, making MORE images of sexy women. Personally, while the sexualized female form plays a big part of my work Im. I'm completely intrigued by painting sexualized epic male forms from a perspective of what is often found desirable from a female gaze. Furthermore, I'm most interested in imagery that's at the level of myth and archetype--rather than some sort of version of female gaze that represents what my husband or neighbor of some other everyman looks like as an object of desire.
What kinds of constraints do you impose upon yourself?
I try not to impose any- though we all have them unconsciously. I'm generally trying to figure out whats holding me back that I'm unaware of. When I identify it I act upon it in the work.
Is your work illustrational? Realistic? Decorative? Expressionistic?
It's certainly "Illustrational" -- I like this phrase. It's figurative, referring to image and hinting at a collective narrative that has historical, current, or pop culture meaning to me and to others. My feeling is that all artists working in this way are illustrational, that includes people from Currin to Yuskavage to Michelangelo and any other painters using these tools.
But, I would not say that this type of "illustrational" work is "illustration". The goals of illustration are different (I say this without judgment as to value). The goals of a professional Illustrator are to create faithful, thoughtful images in service to the story or source text first and foremost. "Illustration" as a craft is meant to bolster and enhance the accompanying material- rather than to be taken alone as having intention all its own.
Expressionistic?: you betcha
Questions of patriarchy, gender and feminism are again up for discussion. What are your thoughts about the circumstances of (advantages of? issues for?) both women artists and female protagonists in narrative and figurative art?
You hit on something I think about a great deal. Recently I read a great interview in which a woman who was a political advisor talked about how female political candidates in the past had to "take it like a man" and essentially behave in the way that male politicians behave in order to function successfully. Female candidates tamp down emotions because showing them is equated with weakness. They haven't been able run upon the individual strengths of emotional expression that women often have. These strengths, while not universal to all women or entirely exclusive to women, are relevant factors and important differences between the sexes.
I believe we are on the cusp of some of these things coming into play within how women express themselves as artists in the art world. Ginger Rogers had to do everything that Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels. That sometimes feels like how we as women have had to adjusted to things as artists.
For all the wildness within the art world there is a dryness as well. Theres been a prudishness toward skill and up until recently (almost all) figuration within the avante garde. I often feel like I'm in love with the possibilities of what can can happen here rather than with the work that is actually done. I can't help but feel that some of this dry, analytical climate is created from a similar root place that asks women in politics and business to be more like men. A few artists hit me really hard in all the right ways, and a few writers and galleries give the same electric thought jolt (I was in the Spring Break Art show this year and I saw such real energy in this environment). I would like to see things get even looser and wilder and more open minded. Maybe the art world needs to have more hot sex with the lights on.
And then in advance of your new work I have: What do you mean, “the end of love”?
I go into this question with the dual desire of wanting to spill my guts on this new body of work, and wanting to be more enigmatic. I will say that there is potency with the phase the poses many meanings to me personally. My inclination as an artist is to be a story teller. I could no more deny this than I can grow a new head. My "stories" are non literal and aim to refer to a mythology of my own making rather than an external mythology. My vocabulary as an artist is built upon the a symbolic language of cultural influences. When viewing the paintings for this show I hope to give people more questions than answers. What DOES "The End of Love" mean?
Indeed, that is the question.
The End of Love will run at Untitled Space, NYC, from May 1—13, 2018.