Vivienne Shark LeWitt

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, and for Vivienne Shark LeWitt this is very much the case. Not your everyday artist, in her work language plays just as much a part as the visual does in the final product. With an impressive career and diverse range of influences, her passion for narrative and wordplay has remained a constant. And now, part-way through her PhD, the combination of writing and painting has even further cemented Vivienne’s drive to explore the potential of this witty interplay.

What has influenced your approach to art?
It is hard to say, you are what you are and other things affirm what you are. Because I was interested in art history, most of the things that I liked were pre-Renaissance. If I liked anyone, any artists, from the 20th century it was usually because they were influenced by the same things that I liked. When I was young I liked Balthus, and of course Balthus was really influenced by Giotto. It takes a while to find your way through art history and find out what you feel connected to.

Your early works are quite cartoon-esque – what connected you to this style?
I had a definite cartoon-esque style in the 1990s, I was looking at old Punch cartoons and New Yorker cartoons and I just really liked them. I started trying to do some work that had a similar simplicity. I suppose it was a natural progression because always in my work there is an action, there is always something happening. It is usually a crucial, significant moment that tells a story, in a similar way to how a book jacket does, or a movie poster, or an illustration in an illustrated book or a cartoon.

What appeals to you about storytelling and humour in your work?
In a way my first love is writing and reading, so the work I do is art, but it is also connected to literature. I don’t think I could have been a novelist, but I can do this. I love writing but I seem to be able to write only when I have a specific project to do. Several times in the past I have tried to sit down and ask myself, “Am I really a writer or not?” And I would feel like I was trying to walk out into the ocean and might drown. I didn’t know where to begin. With painting, I think of it as a way of writing, but it can say what you can’t say in writing. If I could write what I paint I probably wouldn’t paint. Images can do things that words can’t do sometimes, but on the other hand words are really important to me, in my titles and in my life in general.

There is an important interplay between your titles and your works, there are not many left untitled …
(Laughs) Yes there has been one or two left untitled that I have had to send off before I’ve had time to think about it. It’s weird, they are like the ones that got away – they always feel incomplete.

When you are creating a work, do you consider your audience and their response?
Absolutely. I’ve become very aware of this doing the PhD, which is quite self-examining. I always feel I am communicating with somebody, like what I am doing is addressed to somebody else. I really like it when people laugh. There was a painting of a woman serving spaghetti (Spaghetti, 1996) – I remember Roslyn (Oxley) saying there was a man that used to stand in front of it every day, just laughing. So definitely I am always thinking about who is on the other side of what I am doing.

Your works do pick up on those hilarious eccentricities of humanity.
It is a big part of what I am interested in, the way people behave and think, the psychological complexities of us all – it is endlessly fascinating.

What attracts you to explore humanity and empathy?
I think that has to do with wanting to communicate with whoever is on the other side of my work. Empathy is crucial, it is what connects you to everything else. I suppose lots of artists might be interested in empathy in the sense that there is not much around. Sometimes my work shows the disastrous effects of lack of empathy. In fact there might be a bit of that going on in the early cartoony ones – forgiving the quirks and flaws.

How do you begin a work?
They begin from drawings, and then I’ll usually just know if “that is the one” and I have the image that I want. They are worked out on paper but once I start working on the linen surface I never quite know what’s going to happen. You need at least three ideas feeding into something. There is an intersection, and where they all meet is where the image comes to life.

It can go wrong sometimes; it is usually a matter of letting the work tell me what to do from the initial drawing. I think this is how paintings can live, they tell you what to do and you listen. You stop trying to control. You don’t control. You can’t really dash them off, as much as I’d like to. The effort shouldn’t be in what happens on the surface, the effort is much more in your own head. The effort on the surface is natural.

Do you know when a work is finished?
Yes that is important because you have to know when to stop. A good point to stop is when you think you could do a little bit more; the painting will tell you. It is quite intuitive. You have to trust your intuition. They can take a few months to finish, but sometimes I have paintings that are “well behaved” and they just fall into place really quickly.

Over your career, what has changed for you in the art industry?
I’ve been thinking about the word “practice”. I can’t relate to that word too well, because it sounds like you do the same thing all the time and you know what you are doing. I know it is just a general term now, but to me that’s what it still means, maybe because I started out before it came in. Most of my works are one-offs; I can’t do the same thing twice.

You’re doing a PhD at the moment; how is it exploring your dual interest in words and the visual image?
It is really interesting. Writing and painting really are from different parts of the brain. I can’t do them both at the same time – it is just too much. I am about to do some painting over the summer, which I am really looking forward to. To stop thinking for a while, just feel. But I must say I have been really enjoying writing.

It’s a beautiful fusion of your love of English and art.
It is! I think that’s why I am enjoying it so much. It is a great opportunity, I’ll be sorry when it’s over.

This conversation was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 34, 2016.

EXHIBTION
The Wind Blows Where It Will
13 March – 17 April 2021
Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

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