Bold, evocative works through the concepts of anger, power, and flirtation… by Anna Liber Lewis

The expressive, feminist artist Anna Liber Lewis is constantly on the move, looking for new ways to push and challenge herself. Straddling abstraction and figuration, Lewis has worked from a number of different inspirations, including a male muse, a range of objects, the female gaze, and her own body and sexuality. Among the concepts that drive her are anger, power, and flirtation; these elements are evident in her bold, evocative works. Though she’s found inspiration outside herself, Lewis is highly focused on her own body, paying attention to what she calls the “embodied experience.” And for her, painting is indeed a full body, physical effort.

Lewis discusses her strong sense of justice and using anger as fodder for creativity. As a feminist who feels strongly about patriarchal abuses of power, Lewis is pushed by both personal and political experiences, which are frequently intertwined.

ArtMaze Magazine spoke with Lewis about her thoughts on painting as a woman, what drives her as a painter, and the ever-changing nature of her creative process.

AMM: How did your past and upbringing drive your ambition to create art?

ALL: From as far as I can remember I was drawing, painting and colouring in. I think this was the space where I felt most comfortable. I was really shy as a little girl and this was where I could escape and be me. At school I struggled with dyslexia and excelled in art. I was lucky I had art teachers who recognised this and nurtured my interests in art. My mum took me to the theatre a lot as a kid and exposed me to lots of literature and films. I actually hated the theatre, and it used to really scare me, but I think it all fed in to my brain somehow. I grew up in London and was deep into the clubbing scene in the 90s – music, mayhem and the memory of mad young love feeds me still! I’m the eternal teenager. Ambition arrived after many years in the wilderness as a single mother. My son is 13 now and I love living with a teenager – its such a great time in life and we have a lot of fun. Going back to school at the RCA was a moment of emancipation. I’m half Ukrainian, so my blue print is not typically British. It has taken me some time to realise that if I don’t make work there can be pretty dire consequences for me and those around me!

AMM: As an artist, what is your response to this feminist reckoning that’s been taking over the public consciousness over the past several months?

ALL: I assume you are talking about the #metoo and times up movements and the rise of women speaking out about the patriarchal abuse of power? It’s great that we are now, AGAIN addressing these issues and that it is entering the social consciousness. I’m interested to see how we all respond to this as a society now. If we really look at the structure of society; major institutions from education, health, to government, big business and industries, we still operate in a predominately patriarchal system, which is embedded with systemic violence. Someone once said to me that an artist’s function in society is to think, question, challenge, and be curious. With that in mind I suppose, as an artist, I am sensitive to how this movement has rocked the status quo. I anticipate that this shift will stir up a great deal of conflicting opinions. It saddens me that equality is still such a major issue, across the board, but it’s no big surprise. It is so nuanced and complicated. Even though I am an artist, I’m still a pretty privileged, white woman and I still feel that it’s not quite safe to be outspoken and sexual. There always seems to be a retaliation!

AMM: Can you tell us about where you draw your inspiration from? Is it personal or political, or both?

ALL: Initially looking, really looking, was of the upmost importance to me and I used to only paint from life. I would set up a strange still life and thrash out the painting on the canvas, with no preparation. I started to realise that what motivated me was responding to objects; objects that created a certain feeling in me, which seemed to come from the gut. I then met a guy who became my muse for a while and I realised that that gut feeling was pretty primal and sexual. I started exploring what it meant to be a woman who had a male muse and thinking about the female gaze and the distribution of power, what I was ‘allowed’ to objectify and what were the consequences. When I finally turned away from the phallus, I took a look at my own body and had fun with that. Sex, I think, has always been the main driving force. Painting is like sex to me, it’s about being present and listening to my intuition. My work is changing again and I don’t like to stand still for too long. I am moving from the outside in, it’s becoming more about the embodied experience. The work I am making currently still straddles abstraction and figuration in a way, but the motifs and symbols are now much more of a stand-in for the figure. To answer your question more succinctly, my inspiration is personal, not political, but sometimes it’s impossible to separate the two.

AMM: Your work is overtly feminist. How did you decide that you were going to integrate your femaleness and feminism into your career?

ALL: This is such a tricky area for me. I am a feminist, but people misunderstand this word so much. A painter friend of mine once said to me that women painters always get lumped with either sex or madness as a subject matter. I don’t want to get stuck anywhere. I think the ‘overt feminist’ thing came out of me wanting to ape the male painter, wanting to be a pain in the ass, to find my own brand of bravado. It’s not at all constructed: I’ve always liked to push a little. I hung about in a big crew of boys growing up. I was considered to be one of the lads. I enjoyed that. But once I had a kid, I realised that women were very important to me; the shared experience, the camaraderie. I have to make clear that I do not hate men; I have a son, who is the best person in the world!  You paint from what you know, who you are, what you have experienced, whether that is conscious or subconscious, I follow my desires. I think anger is a big source of energy for me, as is power and flirtation. There’s a very specific feeling I want to tap into when I make a painting. It’s a feeling I find hard to explain, but music is helping me currently access it.

AMM: Do you think artists have a responsibility to engage politically?

ALL: No.

AMM: You have spoken on the physicality of your work and your relation to the viewer. How do you want the viewer to respond to your work?

ALL: My engagement is with the paint. The physicality of making is the most important thing, to think with my body, to listen to my intuition. The paintings start to make themselves when I’m really tuned into this. I wouldn’t want to predict or prescribe how my work will be received and I don’t try to second-guess it. Saying that, there is certain information I want to hint at, but maybe not reveal totally. I want to flirt with the viewer. I’m interested in the tension in the space between us; in the looking not touching. Many spaces are at play and each of these spaces is left to vibrate in the truth and untruth of things. Once the paintings are done, they take on their own lives. I’m always really interested in how people respond to them and who likes what. It can be really surprising. The work comes out of an encounter and the paintings are like that too, once they are done, I move on, but each informs the next one. I’m working on an exhibition at the moment where I will direct how the viewer experiences the work in a much more explicit way. I don’t want to talk too much about it yet, as we’re in the early stages of planning it, but it’s exciting!

AMM: Can you walk us through your creative process? How do you select color, pattern, shapes, etc?

ALL: My process keeps changing. I’m always trying to push myself, titillate myself, keep it interesting for me. The thing that stays constant is that I have to get myself in a certain space before I paint. It usually goes like this: I get in my shit car and put on some tunes and drive to the studio! It’s a bit like a boxer getting themselves hyped up for a fight. Once I’m in the studio I change into my dirty painting clothes and put my headphone on and dance. It would be pretty funny to watch, I’m glad no ones sees me! I like to listen to all types of music, but it needs to have attitude. I can spend ages trying to find the right music that can help me get into the space I’m looking for that day. Once I’m off, I usually work in short burst; sometimes longer and more concentrated bursts. Colour is totally intuitive; I have no plan for that. I took colour out of my work for a while; that was very informative for me – made me think about the speed in which an image is received. The shapes, motifs, and more recent symbols that are entering my work are part of a slower process. This has evolved over a serious engagement with paint and the history of painting. It’s a dialogue with other painters and myself.

AMM: What in the world and in politics angers you or pushes you to create art?  

ALL: Wow! How long have you got? I have a strong sense of justice – I don’t like to see any kind of prejudice. Anger is a really pure emotion and there is much to get angry about and it can be a wonderful place to be creative. I hate bullshit and fake-ness. I want things to be honest. I have no time for bullshit marketing or PR sanitising things, and wrapping them up into a neat fucking bow. Life is messy and people are complicated. I want to have a real experience with real people. However, these days I try not to focus on too much bad energy, you don’t want it to eat you up.

AMM: How does your personal life and history affect your work?

ALL: Ha! I’m pretty emotional and I’m also really private. I don’t want to reveal too much and I reserve the right to change my mind. I don’t believe you can stop your life entering your work, even if it’s at a subconscious level. In fact, I don’t always know I’m doing it, and it can take me a long time after I have made work to realise where it’s coming from. My work is not focused on any kind of autobiography; rather it comes from how I operate in the world. I don’t really set out to make a body of work about anything in particular. I’m interested in paint and painting. It comes down to me and the canvas, I follow my desires and sometimes it’s OK not to know what it is or where it’s coming from.

AMM: How have your studies influenced you? Who are your artistic inspirations?

ALL: I feel like I have been in art education for quite a long period of time: starting my Foundation at Wimbledon school of Art at the age of 19; Central Saint Martins in the 90s and then more recently at the RCA. I even had a few years in Newcastle University, before I transferred to Saint Martins (I missed London – I’m a Londoner through and through!). Art education is pretty weird and fantastic; although education is becoming much more elitist, which is madness.  Each institution was wonderful and frustrating in different ways. Painting was dead in the 90s and we all came out of Saint Martins making weird videos and installations. I don’t think I took it too seriously until I really decided to focus on painting. As to whom I am inspired by the list is really long. I love Mary Heilmann – I like her attitude, relationship to colour and her freedom. I love Susan Rothenburg – the power, gesture and 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. Oh, and of coarse the big boys: Picasso, Matisse, Guston etc. I’m also really inspired by my contemporaries and I have a great love and respect for many of my fellow painters in London. If it wasn’t for the painters around me and the wonderful people I met at the RCA, I would have no reason to keep going. The friendships I have made via making paintings and the healthy competition that comes with it, is all!

AMM: What plans do you have for your career in the coming months? What are you prioritizing?

ALL: At the moment I’m working on a collaborative project for Elephant magazine together with my long-term friend Kieran Hebden AKA Four Tet. We’ve known each other from birth! I’m really excited about it! I have some work in an amazing new collection curated by Beth Greenacre for a new womens’ private members club called The AllBright opening in London this month. I feel very lucky to have won the Ingram Collection’s Young Contemporary Purchase prize and the Griffin Art prize last year and the continued support from both organisations is so wonderful. There are other things in the pipeline, which are not yet firmed up, but I’m so grateful and optimistic for the future. My priority is following the painting, reading, dancing, having great conversations and hopefully the rest will come.

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Text and interview by Maya Chung for ArtMaze Mag.