After back-to-back studio visits in late February, Philadelphia artists Alexis Granwell and Aubrey Levinthal started a digital conversation to follow up and ride out the isolation of the social-distancing lockdown. They discuss seismic studio shifts, tarot cards, rotten bananas, and working on the kitchen table.
Aubrey Levinthal: Some artists say they feel freed by the pandemonium and inertia of the world right now. Personally, I am really struggling to do anything like painting which requires concentration and critical decision making. I’m much more likely to refinish my kitchen table.
Alexis Granwell: Someone on Instagram posted a picture of Marisa Merz working at her kitchen table. That inspired me to keep going. Artists have always been resourceful. We will continue to be resourceful and inventive, finding ways to support each other from afar and work within the limits of our houses and our materials. Maybe the most important thing is for artists to keep making.
I’m finding the slowing down to be intriguing. I hope this slowness shifts and changes my practice in new and interesting ways. During the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying some of the quiet moments. I am much more aware of nature and tactility (because I am afraid to touch so many things).
With that said, it’s been a challenging time, filled with immense anxiety and sadness for the world. Deep breathing, yoga, and watercolor painting have helped. Right now, I am working on paper mache sculptures and drawings at home, mostly working on my kitchen table due to limited access in my studio.
I enjoy the physicality and intuitiveness of playing with materials and forms. The repetitiveness of paper mache is meditative as I slowly build skins for my sculptures. Later, I can reflect on what the forms mean. The forms are often inspired by visualizations of the body.
This weekend, I found it soothing to make ink drawings, with the materiality of pigment bleeding and staining. I am using these studies to play with new sculptural forms. Additionally, drawing is a way to think about the possibilities of color and space.
My work is as much about painting as it is about sculpture, referencing hues from fleeting, everyday moments like crumbling sidewalks, dusk, bruised fruit, or flushed cheeks. I see these inspirations of color as events and I am invested in how color and texture can activate emotion, connecting to both our inward and outward experience, and creating meaning in our everyday existence.
What it’s like for you when you refinish a table? How does the repairing help you?
AL: You know I love that image of you and others working at the table. So much happens at the table, a perfect flat stage set. That’s why so many of my paintings depict the table — the bed functions like that too. But now maybe even more so…the activities happening there are our whole lives.
But back to the original question about refinishing the table — When I’m anxious, doing things that have set steps and require physical work are more soothing than cerebral activitiest’s reassuring to build the frames for my painting. I feel a sense of satisfaction in making something with my hands, but there’s less opportunity for creative risk.
I like what you said about being resourceful. It’s empowering. I’ve always enjoyed finding solutions with limited means — looking at the 8 items I have in the fridge to make a meal, or working with the tools in our basement to fix up the kitchen. That approach feels elemental and seems appropriate right now.
AG: I love that idea of the table as a stage! I’m so curious how movement affects your paintings. How do layers of time or memory inspire your painting process? I think a lot about the black bananas in your painting as a way to create presence in a specific moment in time. Have you read Clarice Lispector’s “The Egg and the Chicken”?
In the morning the egg is lying on the kitchen table.
I see the egg at a single glance. I immediately perceive that I cannot be simply seeing an egg. Seeing an egg is always in the present: No sooner do I see the egg than I have seen an egg, the same egg which has existed for three thousand years. The very instant an egg is seen, it becomes the memory of an egg. The only person to see an egg is someone who has seen it before. Like a man who, in order to understand the present, must have had a past. Upon seeing the egg, it is already too late: an egg seen is an egg lost. A vision that passes Iike a sudden flash of lightning. To see the egg is the promise of being able to see the egg again one day. A brief glance which cannot be divided. Does thought intervene? No, there is no thought: there is only the egg. Vision is the essential faculty and, once used, I shall cast it aside. I shall remain without the egg. The egg has no itself. Individually, it does not exist.
It is impossible actually to see the egg. The egg is supravisable just as there are supersonic sounds the ear can no longer hear. No one is capable of seeing the egg. Can the dog see the egg? Only machines can see the egg. The windlass sees the egg. In ancient times an egg settled on my shoulder. Nor can anyone feel love for the egg. My love for the egg is suprasensitive and I have no way of knowing that I feel this love. One is unaware of loving the egg. In ancient times I was the depository of the egg and I walked on tiptoe in order not to disturb the egg’s silence. When I died, they carefully removed the egg inside me: it was still alive. Just as we ignore the world because it is obvious, so we fail to see the egg because it, too, is so obvious. Does the egg no longer exist?
It exists at this moment. Egg, you are perfect. You are white. To you I dedicate this beginning. To you I dedicate this first moment.
AL: Yes! Thank you for sharing that. I think a lot about how to document time. I heard the writer, Sheila Heti, talking about the paintings of Pierre Bonnard. She’s a really raw, contemporary writer, and it made me love her even more to hear her speak to what was radical about Bonnard. He’s sometimes discussed as a bit more provincial than contemporaries like Matisse or Picasso and their play with modernism and cubism to show time’s fragmentation. But, what I feel she articulates so well, he is doing exactly that, but from a more personal and intimate and ultimately subtle place. I think that is a bigger risk, to allow some people to miss it. Heti discusses how you can see through the strange mismatched perspectives of — say a cup to the table — that time has passed both as he remembers and paints. It’s about his life but clearly a re-forming, an art made from the grist of life.
The everyday minutiae, like the egg and the thinking about the egg, is what mostly happens in life. Not the big things that happen to us, but the inner life, the thinking, doubt, nuance.
How can a still image hold all that — the passing of time, accumulation of things seen and felt? I always come back to that question.
I think the leftovers in tupperware, rinds, black bananas, dying flowers that frequently find their way into my paintings feel like shorthand or symbols for some of that.
I love Laura Letinsky’s photography. They are like artifacts: we are witnessing remnants of an activity that happened rather than a still life set up. It’s sort of like the aftermath; it pretends to be less self-conscious. But of course when you look closely it’s very considered and aware of its making. The precision nods back at you and says, no this isn’t just a table I came across, I reconstructed a table I may have come across in the past. So you have an eye, in both worlds; the pure fiction of it and the awareness that it is artwork constructed from life experience. And, that’s exactly what I love about some of my favorite writers, Heti included.
AG: I am excited by the idea of everyday artifacts becoming their own language. I’m a big Laura Letinsky fan. Check out the online exhibition for “Hoofprint” curated by J. Makary, featuring work by Letinsky. Unfortunately this beautiful show was installed at TSA LA and was scheduled to open during the beginning of quarantine. The doors are locked but it can now be viewed online.
AL: Your work contains that richness of multiplicity, of in-between that I’m talking about. It operates between delicate beauty and intuitive rawness. It also sits between figuration and form. But in a time like this which is so extreme in one direction, do you anticipate shifting your work? A painter once said to me (and you have expressed that you are a painter making sculptures), he believes painters make the things they want to see in the world. I often wonder and doubt that about my own drive. Do you? Do you think the state of the world will move your work in a particular direction? Either in reaction to or as a reflection of this intensity?
AG: Thank you! I think my work has always been about the psychological experience and the intimacy that tactility and surface can create. My sculptures evoke tension, awkwardness, anxiety, loss, and pleasure through eccentric forms and materials.
My practice helps me to process everything that is happening in the world. I think a lot of my thinking happens through “the hand.” In my work, play, texture, surface, and intuition with materials are tools for understanding the state of things around us. My work offers solace to me and, I hope, to the viewer, too.
Yesterday, I had my first tarot reading (online). I asked about my creative practice and finding strength right now. I received the “Sun” and “Star” card. It was pointed out to me that there is a naked baby on the “Sun” card and a naked woman gardening on the “Star” card. I love this idea of being wild and free right now during this frightening and constraining time. I am going to try to find freedom in the limitations. We also discussed the idea of the garden and tilling the land. I am going to embrace these images as I continue to work on my kitchen table. Vulnerability is key.
After the reading, I wrote this:
Fill the holes or let the holes hang loose
Holes to feel whole
When I think about your paintings, there is a spaciousness, like what you might feel within a dream. Everything feels temporary, like it might evaporate or float away. I have always loved your paintings but now they resonate so deeply with my current experience. How do you think about space within your paintings? How will this change as you paint from home?
AL: I think when I started painting from memory more literally and not from photographs of memories, which was during graduate school about 10 years ago, I thought I was painting a sort of whimsy, the way it feels to remember accumulated experiences around the same table or bed and how some things come into focus, while others distort.
Now, that impulse feels darker, like I’m painting my fear that nothing stays glued down and who even am I in this identity as a mother. Thinking of myself so clearly as a painter before, it feels confusing to be seen and known to myself as a mother, often first, now. And having a child, I feel the passage of time so acutely.
Now space is often built through reflections of myself — in mirrors, in glass. I think this creates a space that is both concrete as the mirror is an object and dissociating, as I try to put my hands around this strange new identity. People hear that and think it’s a subtraction, as if being a mom takes away from being a painter. At least that is what I heard whispered in school, you have to be one or the other. And now I just find that so toxic. So male-driven.
Joan Brown said something I often return to: Raising a child I was able to explore and express another dimension of myself, the more I am able to express the various dimensions of myself, the richer and freer the art will be. I’m not any one thing: I’m not just a teacher, I’m not just a mother, I’m not just a painter, I’m all these things plus and the more areas I can tap, the richer each one of the others will be.
Motherhood and Womanhood are not easy in our field, and engaging in ideas traditionally feminine — like tenderness, beauty — well I want to find a way to represent that as serious and worthy.
But being home I feel very close, too close, to the experience. My son is basically licking my face right now, so once I get some distance I think there will be a lot to paint from this time at home.
AG: Haha, the image of your son licking your face is delightful! That’s a great quote by Joan Brown. When I think about Brown’s paintings, I think about the energy of the mark and the collapse of space between figure and environment. It makes me think about how all creativity can be intertwined and how everything feeds everything. It has been beautiful seeing your paintings expand after you had a baby.
AL: What do you do to indulge your practice? What books and podcasts, what feeds you artistically that is not visual? It feels critical to be doing this right now.
AG: I love the Longform Podcast. It’s wonderful to hear journalists and filmmakers unpack process, struggles, and solutions within their practices. The interviews are always compelling and timely.
Since the quarantine began, I have been listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane.
I’ve been reading Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades. I am obsessed with Jackson’s floating paintings and her freedom with material. There is a great interview with Jackson with gorgeous images of her home studio.
I love Eileen Myles. I’ve found their poetry to be particularly comforting in this moment of isolation. I’ve been rereading the poem “Peanut Butter” from Not Me.
Recently, I discovered Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture after coming upon a beautiful online lecture with Amy Sillman. I ordered the book before the quarantine began, and I am struck by how much this writing parallels our current experience. The title is absolutely perfect for right now. The whole book is wonderful. I think the malleability of poetic language can deepen our heightened experiences.
Here is a passage from Robertson’s Soft Architecture: A Manifest:
Under the pavement, pavement. Hoaxes, failures, porches, archeological strata spread out on a continuous thin plane; softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude and absorbing time, bloating to become environment, indexical, euphorias, the unravelling of laughter; a brief history of escalators, memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica’s black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us. The problem of the shape of choice is mainly retrospective. That wild nostalgia leans into the sheer volubility of incompetence. This nostalgia musters symbols with no relation to necessity-civic sequins, apertures that record and tend the fickleness of social gifts. Containing only supple space, nostalgia feeds our imagination’s strategic ineptitude. Forget the journals, conferences, salons, textbooks, and media of dissemination. We say thought’s object is not knowledge but living. We do not like it elsewhere.
AL: You know that is it! That is the absolute power and importance of art right there. To walk into a museum or to read a poem from 200, 500 years ago and feel like it is speaking to you and only you and your experience. It defies time, and it reassures and fortifies me like nothing else. And I think it’s the greatest hope for me as an artist that someone years and cultures and inventions away from me could look at a painting and say, yes I know you, you made this for me. The potential of solace for a future viewer, that also brings me, the maker, deep comfort.
What worries do you have about this situation? Especially in relation to younger painters? We both teach and have discussed our heartbreak for students.
AG: Everything in the world is so uncertain. I feel worried about everyone and of course, heartbroken for my students with their unfinished projects and canceled shows. We will make do and my students are so resilient and inventive. I am deeply worried about the recession, the state of academia, especially for contingent faculty, and funding for the arts. It’s a tough road ahead.
Aubrey, tell me about how you are connecting with the world? Your work is so internal and feels so universal at the same time. How do you want to connect to the internet, to your students, to your peers. How can we create community. Tell me more about your collective idea!
AL: This tweet articulates my sentiments so well. I think the things that were already plaguing the system have just become that much more transparent, probably in many facets of life, but because I teach, I see them there most clearly. Being an adjunct and getting no security, no benefits, and then yet another huge ask of restructuring curriculum with two weeks time to an online platform? Sure, this is an emergency situation but if all higher-ed faculty were shown appreciation in the form of pay and benefits it would feel a lot more appropriate to be asked. I was so happy when Katie Pomerantz articulated all this in her Hyperallergic article.
You know the big thing is the immediate horror of the virus and its traumatic aftermath. But on a much less vital, but a more pervasive level this whole thing feels like a trial of contemporary life.
Oh you like ordering groceries online and looking at art on social media? How about that’s the only thing you can do. Do you like it now? No. It is like this ballooned experiment. And I think it’s something we have all felt lacking a bit, but now it’s just laid bare. So yeah, I’ve been asking myself this question for a while now about how to move outside of the traditional systems in the arts. Of course academia and galleries are important and some are wonderful but ultimately more inclusivity at a lower cost feels essential.
I’ve been thinking about a collective, like just starting a small space where artists work but also collaborate — publishing books, pop up shows, one time workshops, and lectures. Something for the public and community in Philly and also to bring makers and thinkers together without so many external motives. There’s this old house near where I am in South Philly that was a defunct little laundromat on the first floor, and I felt more excited than I have in a long time imagining what I would do if I started a space there.What do you see changing in the art world in a positive way in relation to this current situation?
AG: Connectivity. I think we will be much more focused on the experience of seeing art in person again. Everyone will be excited to see living, breathing art. We will delete our Instagram accounts (probably not).
Collectivity. I am thinking that there will be more artist-run initiatives both online and in physical spaces due to the shifts in the economy. I saw this happen in 2008. Artists built communities to support each other, creating opportunities when there were none. Love your idea for a collective! I hope you get that laundromat. For now, publishing online, podcasts, and lectures all feel important and necessary.
There is worldwide trauma and there is no way we can or will return back to the old ways. I’m feeling this in my teaching practice too. Let’s break down old systems. Isolation IS hell (we both nod hard over the phone) but we need to find ways to bridge the virtual and the daily life. Hopefully, once quarantine is over, we will make more efforts to spend meaningful time with friends and family. I want to visit all the museums and galleries. I don’t think I will ever take that for granted again.
AL: What is an unshakeable truth you hold that still stands true in relation to making your work?
AG: Keep your hand in the work! Be authentic! Be brave!
AL: Great advice. I think I’m going to go paint for the first time this month…
Aubrey and Alexis Recommend You Read
Franya J. Berkman, Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan 2010.
Connie Butler and Ian Alteveer, et all., Marisa Merz: The Sky is a Great Space. New York: Prestel, 2017.
Clarice Lispector, “The Egg and the Chicken,” in The Complete Stories, edited by Benjamin Moser, translated by Katrina Dodson. Cambridge, MA: New Directions, 2015.
“Close Look: In the Studio with Suzanne Jackson,” Burnaway, April 7, 2019, https://burnaway.org/close-look-suzanne-jackson/.
Sheila Heti, How a Person Should Be? Reprint, London: Picado, 2013.
J. Makary, “Essay,” Hoofprint at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Los Angeles, March 2020, https://hoofprint.xyz/essay.
Eileen Myles, “Peanut Butter,” in Not for Me. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1991.
Kaitlin Pomerantz, “Teaching Art Online Under Covid-19,” Hyperallergic, March 17, 2020, https://hyperallergic.com/547986/teaching-art-online-under-covid-19/.
Rachel Reese, Melanee C. Harvey, et al., Suzanne Jackson: Five Decades. Savannah, GA: Telfair Museums, 2019.
Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2011.
Karen Tsujimoto, The Art of Joan Brown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Sarah Whitfield and John Elderfield, Bonnard. London: Tate Gallery, 1998.
About the artists:
Aubrey Levinthal (b.1986) is a still life and figurative painter represented by Monya Rowe Gallery, where she is slated to have a solo show in September 2020. In 2011, she received her MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she currently teaches.
Alexis Granwell (b. 1981) lives and works in Philadelphia. She received an MFA from The University of Pennsylvania in 2007 and has been exhibiting in the US and abroad for the last 15 years. She currently teaches at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and The University of Pennsylvania. Granwell is a founding member of the national arts collective Tiger Strikes Asteroid.