American artist Spencer Chalk-Levy spends much of his time observing people. Faces and bodies, the way they move when they are and aren’t being watched. Often afterwards, he makes versions of them into drawings and paintings, constantly referencing ideologies of conventionality and their very nonconformities. His seas of people are endless to look at, we constantly discover new life and meaning. Sometimes gently, sometimes more violently. There’s a certain forgotten decadence to his work, transitional stages of excess, almost everywhere our eyes fall. Obsession, flesh, luxuriant commodities, a soft search for human forgiveness somewhere in-between.
Spencer, you make tapestries. What got you started that way?
They are drawings of mine that I then digitize and have woven. I have a firm in the USA that currently helps me produce them. The idea stemmed from a feeling of needing to be grand and to do and make grand things. For a few years it felt like I was only working in sketchbooks and I wanted to make something big, opulent, something inconvenient. Also growing up in NYC I would always go visit the insane tapestries at the MET.
You generally paint a crowd of people in particular situations. It’s especially the plurality of people that I find noteworthy. Why usually people, amongst people?
I am obsessed with faces, mine included, and I find that we all as humans gravitate towards the familiar. We see, feel and can understand emotions and facial expressions in figurative art; that for me is a great starting point, almost visual language to start telling stories and narratives with. I love to make these sort of claustrophobic feeling works with many people squished up in a painting as kind of a nod to the German painter Max Beckmann. But I also try to evoke the feeling of awkward group selfies and sport and school photos.
Your figures explore conventionalities of society, drawn from personal observations. How do you begin a new work? Is it a particular situation you just witnessed?
Usually I have a starting point, and an idea or a sketch. I rarely if ever paint from life, it's just not my thing. I do a lot of research and a lot of my work is drawn from art history; whether it’s a scene from an Etruscan vase or taking bits and pieces of renaissance ascension paintings. But more recently I’ve been incorporating more modern situations. Last year I did a painting of a women's soccer team based on a photo that I randomly saw in a newspaper. Also, photos that show up on social media of people going out, partying, or just getting too close and pressing their faces together for the shot, especially if they are random people from high school. And drag queens.
Why drag queens? What fascinates you about them? It reminds me of your idea of being grand… is there some kind of analogy here?
Drag queens. Why not drag queens!? It’s this mask and alter ego, or other self that I love. The female illusion isn't necessarily the part that interests me so much, it’s the transformation. The alter ego, the process, the ritual that really gets me. Of course I love what they can do when they beat their faces, but I also really love costume in general, life is about perception, and when you find magic tricks to change people’s perception, in this case aesthetically, you’ve created some sort of alchemy. In my studio in vienna, the walls and shelves are scattered with masks that I have collected over the years, mixed with ones I’ve made from a cast of my face. Sometimes when i’m figuring out a face on canvas I really feel like those scenes in Rupaul’s Drag Race when all the queens are in the mirror getting ready, that in between point.
Do you think you paint as an observer, or a participant?
I totally think I am an observer. And I try in my works to include an observer as well. Someone in the painting looking at but not a part of the story, or someone gazing out at the viewer in a very wink wink, nudge nudge sort of way. I think of myself as an amateur anthropologist, always closely studying, observing small details and idiosyncrasies.
Why observe people so obsessively? Don’t get me wrong, I do the same… I am just wondering if it’s especially about a certain type of necessity of being moved, somehow....
I was born an observer, its just in my nature. I could attribute it to being a Virgo but maybe that's an oversimplification. Observing people’s movements, expressions, random facial hairs or beauty marks is just how I see things. I had wanted to become a comedian or an actor at some point because I loved doing impressions, making people laugh and playing pretend.
What is more of an emotional challenge, to draw people that you’ve been intimate with, or people who are perfect strangers?
Besides for my coloring book, Boys with Beards, I don’t really paint people I know or slept with, therefore my emotions are probably somewhere else in the artistic process; but if I had to say, probably people I know. I feel that’s because once I have spent even a short time with someone then I have seen their nose from several angles or how the light can catch a line on their forehead in different ways, which drives me crazy.
Images courtesy of SPENCER CHALK-LEVY
words LARA KONRAD
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