Interview: Rebecca Leveille Explores Colorful New Imagery in “Savage Garden”

by Clara MoraesPosted on

Rebecca Leveille’s vibrant new body of work may come has a surprise to fans of the soft, dream-like quality of her previous pieces, featured here on our blog. “You can probably see my love of Lautrec, Japanese prints and Gerda Wegner in the new body”, she explains. For her upcoming solo show “Savage Garden”, opening at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles on March 26th, her subjects’ previous sensuality is brought to an elegant and refined shape. Leveille is a contemporary artist who honors Renaissance era styles, and her new pieces offer reinterpretations of its decorative and symbolic elements in modern and sexy imagery. We sat down with the artist in this exclusive interview to learn more about her explorations into her colorful new style and inspirations.

HF: Your art has been described as a kind of study of Renaissance art with a touch of modernism- is that correct?

RL: Yes and no. In the work there is a very deliberate choice to bring in multiple references and stylistic modes of how the figure, the female form and sexuality has been referred to and combining it with my perspective as a present day woman artist. If one refers to only to one style of the past then you’re “neo” form of that style- a nostalgic reinterpretation. Work can slide into being “mythology” or “images of gods and goddesses” or fairy tales from the past alone- that is NOT how I want the work to be seen.

HF: What elements from the present did you bring to your work? About your next show in Los Angeles, what is the underlying theme of it?

RL: The images in “Savage Garden” are provocative, playful and pointed.They are a sort of present “passion play” of reality and unreality.The Louboutin stilettos are frequently represented along side 18th century wigs and octopus tentacles, Jeffrey Deitch as Prince Charming, Larry Gagosian as Batman, and direct and luscious sexuality, to deliberately draw the curtain on the stage of the moment we are in right now.

Reinterpretation of symbolic elements are throughout the works. Taking the imagery of flowers, historically used to represent female sexuality, and redefining it as boldly masculine. Using the somewhat manic faces and features of the mid century pin-up aesthetic with the fluid nubile bodies of 19th century feminine artistic ideals. And how that combination feels and creates something new.

Reinterpreting often sexist imagery and depictions of women as a woman painter is a way to own the images in give them back again through a different lens. This is what I love about Gerda Wegener and the massive bravery of her work given when she was working, her bold sexuality, as well as Jim Shaw who sets the stage of his art with the reinterpretation of cultural icon and the sort of mania of it all.

HF: You mention Gerda Wegener and Toulouse-Lautrec. What other artists have influenced in your work?

RL: So far, as currently working artists, I adore Jim Shaw, John Currin, Marilyn Minter, Inka Essenhigh, Mark Ryden, among others. From the past you can certainly see my love of Edgar Maxence and other symbolist painters. The great Edwin Austin Abbey as well as Japanese printmaking overall. I love the drawings of Nicolai Fechin, The murals of Joseph Sert, the brush work of Sargent, Lautrec, Van Gogh, I could just go on and on. I have infinite loves and influences!

HF: How would you describe your perspective as a present day female artist? How do you see the figure, the female and sexuality?

RL: When I was at Pratt, I took a literary course called “sex and gender roles”. The teacher asked the class to anonymously write down how we would describe sex and orgasm. Both male and female students participated, and results were collected and read out loud by the teacher. It was overwhelmingly clear which descriptions came from women and which descriptions came from men. Men and women experience the world differently and how we work with these things within art will be inherently different because our life experience.

HF: You have said that the images in “Savage Garden” are provocative, playful and pointed. What did you mean by that?

RL: I mean “pointed” in that they are not only pretty or only playful (not that I have anything against decorative work- that has a relevant place in art, also), but I’m aiming to ask other questions of the viewer as well.

HF: In “Flowers”, you’ve said that the flowers are represented as “boldly masculine”- in what sense? Do the flowers represent the “passion play of reality and unreality” that you have mentioned?

RL: The flowers and where they originate from in the “Flowers” painting redefine them within this painting and indeed put in question how one might ever view flowers in my work. They allow the use of flowers to be something other than a version of symbolic feminine anatomy when they are sexualized in art, as they they so often have been historically.

The symbols are not “symbols”, like a key to a hidden story that is specific and clear. This painting is not in the 18th century Dutch still life tradition, where the wilting flower means “x” and the fly means “y”. You can’t easily unpack these images like a story. Any symbols that do exists are emotionally driven. The melange of elements used in the pieces, even down to the color and the brushwork choice, have a feeling or emotion or a “potential” common meaning, but it’s not a “meaning” that is easy to contain it words. I wouldn’t want to try. The potential for common meaning is far more interesting to me than creating a work that has clear definitions for each element.

HF: How would you say that your figures have evolved, and how does this relate to the female perspective?

RL: Prior to the past 40-50 years, maybe less, the perspective of figuration, sensuality and the female form have almost exclusively a dialogue created by a male perspective.This is not a judgement or condemnation, it’s just a fact. A female perspective was not a part of the primary dialogue in terms of artistic representation.

Because figuration dropped from popularity within the art world, stopped being taken seriously within most areas of modern art, and this period also happened to coincide with the first period in history where women artists began to gain serious traction within the landscape of the art world, there have not been many opportunities for the art world to see what a feminine perspective on figuration as it relates to sexuality looks like. Only very very recently are there hints at the art world opening up about how it views figuration. That is one of the reasons I address Deitch and Gagsian’s Unreaslim show in the “Savage Garden” works.

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