INTERVIEW WITH THE PAINTER
The Montréal Review, February 2011
|Born in Annapolis, Maryland, Lani Irwin (and her husband, the painter Alan Feltus) has lived since 1987 in Assisi, Italy. She has had onewoman shows at the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery in New York City, the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in Boulder, Colorado, and Gallery K in Washington, D.C. She has taken part in group shows in Milan, Verona, London, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Visit her site at www.laniirwin.com.
The Montreal Review: Mrs. Irwin, before you start a work, do you see the image and the message, or it appears later?
Lani Irwin: The term message or the idea of message is one that plays no specific role in my work. That is not to say that I am inattentive to ways in which objects, gestures, relationships in the paintings could be interpreted. At times I am surprised by the interpretations. When I begin a painting, the point of departure could be objects that interest me, a grouping that excites me, a gesture that fascinates me. I do not see a complete image or consider a specific message but do paint and repaint until the painting reveals its own mood and integrity. The paintings grow as they are painted, changing, shifting, objects and figures entering and leaving as in a dance rehearsal. I believe that I am involved in seeing into my inner being and because I think that on some level all of us are connected by a kind of shared unconscious world, I hope that what I paint will in some way affect others. However, there is no specific message to be communicated. It is more about the mysteries that we are and that surround us. I paint the paintings to have an aura of quiet - the surface is relatively smooth, brush strokes minimized, color relationships and range not violent or active. But I do not wish the paintings themselves to be silent. Therefore I select objects that speak. No audible message issues forth, but clearly something is there, the vibration of object to object, object to figure. Although I cannot really understand what they are saying, I can sense the vibration, the music. It guides my selection of participants, choreographs their positions in the composition and invites the viewer to enter into this world of disquiet.
TMR: In an interview with the Artist's Magazine, you said, "Meaning is not absolute." Yet, do you think that there are works that are universally understood? Or art is always about individuality, about personal experience and meaning?
Lani Irwin: I think that there are many levels of meaning in a painting. When we speak of narrative paintings, let's say paintings of religious subjects, there is a story with certain iconographic elements that must be present to fulfill the requirements of the commission. This story fed by the necessary iconography will communicate to the viewer, if the viewer has the specific knowledge necessary to understand the iconography. From there, how the painter composes, how the elements relate to one another, even to some extent the visual hierarchy of the elements can be different for each artist and can make one painting of the same subject more powerful than another. If the viewers all share the same education and life experiences, the response to a work of art may be similar. But if people come from different backgrounds and experiences, how any work of art is interpreted would vary enormously. In earlier centuries, there was perhaps less variation in types of paintings and subject matter in a given geographical area. However, there was always the sense that some painters were more extraordinary than others and it wasn't always to do with technical mastery, but more with some inner ability to touch heart and soul. When I say meaning is not absolute, it has to do with this fact that each of us brings to a work of art the eyes of an individual with individual responses. Something can be beautiful to one person and frightening to others. I have thought more about this perhaps than others because I seem to find beauty in things that many find ugly, frightening or uncomfortable such as doll parts and unusual toys and bones. It is not that I think art is about individuality, personal experience and meaning, it that we are individuals and we approach whatever we encounter in life as ourselves, so personal interpretation is somewhat unavoidable. Complete objectivity seems impossible. What makes art interesting and sometimes great is seeing the world through the eyes and heart of another, feeling things we might not otherwise have felt. And I use the word feel instead of understand because I think often we don't really understand. It is more like the feeling of falling in love, that rush of something incomprehensible. Not always pleasant but certainly worth noting. There is a passion, a spirit of composition that can carry paintings into a world of the unknown, and to some extent, the unknowable, that takes them far beyond the realm of story telling.
Luna Moth, 2002,
oil on linen, 99x71cm
TMR: Your paintings are dominated by female objects, often nude women. Why?
Lani Irwin: I am a woman so it seems more natural to be painting women. It is an interesting question, though. I do not use live models. Although the paintings have no specific narrative, they seem to have an implied narrative more like dreamscapes emerging from my own unconscious which is a female world. I know the female body better and can look at my own when working. I feel more grounded and in tune with what I am painting when it is a female figure. The goddess, anima mundi. I can strive for beauty in a way that is more natural to me. In truth, I hadn't thought much about the choice until many years ago an artist friend who was also a man asked me about it. I had never made a deliberate choice not to paint men, I just hadn't done it. Perhaps the truth is that for many, the female figure is more interesting in terms of form and metaphorical implications. When a male figure enters my paintings he seems to bring with him something from outside of myself which I must deal with, the questions of relationship within the context of the painting become more complicated.
I believe that beauty is something we all crave, that it is an essential element in art. That said, beauty is not a characteristic or concept that we could all agree about or describe definitively. It is a subjective experience. It is something that elicits a physical response, a feeling of breathless engagement and wonder. Music can engender this kind of response more easily than visual art, I think. There is something complete and total in the way it surrounds and enters one's being. But when I look at a painting like the "Deposition" by Rogier Van der Weyden, I have that kind of reaction. I feel comforted and inspired by something that is so beautiful. The natural world of insects and plants can elicit a similar response for me. It is what causes me to believe in something grander, that we are capable of more. So I strive to find that kind of balance and harmony that will engender those feelings of wonder and inner reflection.
There have been instances when I have been asked to explain or justify nudity in some of my paintings. It has been strange for me but, although nude female figures have been depicted throughout the history of man and the history of art, I have been questioned and criticized, at times almost censored, for painting nude figures. I have tried to understand why this is and one of my conclusions has been the possibility that most often they are painted by men and are more like objects that can be appreciated for a objective kind of beauty or sensuality. My women seem to possess a kind of strength combined with the beauty and the vulnerability associated with being without clothing and that may cause discomfort in the viewing public. So it is also clear that in this sense the word beauty for me does not mean only that the painting be rendered in a sumptuous and harmonious way. I love that. But sometimes it has as much if not more to do with the vision of one's own soul when looking at the painting.
TMR: What is the place of gestures in your art? It seems that the hands in your paintings are more important than eyes.
Lani Irwin: Gesture is very important to me. Hands are expressive in so many ways. But again, this was not a conscious or deliberate decision on my part to find the gesture that the painting is then built around. In my early work, I often painted hands that were not attached to figures at all, wooden hands and dolls hands. I still do. And when I paint the figure, the hands are extremely important. Often the painting begins with the gesture of the hands, perhaps inspired by something I have seen either in life, in a photograph or in a painting. The gestures do not have a specific meaning either. It is a kind of theater but a theater without a narrative to explain the interactions. Also on a formal level I like playing with interlocking forms and fingers twisted and interlaced provide a fertile ground for this kind of play. I look for whatever it is that draws me into the drama of the moment, that makes the painting become something more. I don't consider any part of the painting more or less important, the hands are not more important than the eyes, but for many painters, the head is the most important part, so much emphasis is put there. For me, all parts are expressive and the hands can hold a world of emotion in their gesture. Every shape, whether space, figure or object has gesture.
In a Dark Time the Eye Begins to See, 1994
oil on linen, 129.5x99.7cm
TMR: Are your works autobiographical?
Lani Irwin: If by autobiographical you mean telling specific things about my own particular life, I would say no. But insofar as my paintings come from me and reflect what I am looking at or thinking and have no purpose or content other than creating a world that is some kind of reflection of my inner eye, then one could say they are somewhat autobiographical. They are personal voyages into my own internal world, as much as I am capable of doing. That said, they are also not about recreating actual dreams or scenes of monsters and demons. I do strive for the same kind of universal quiet that is present in the paintings of the early Renaissance and not the drama of expressionism.
TMR: What is the place of the solitude in the life of the artist?
Lani Irwin: For me solitude is essential. For most artists it seems vital to be able to spend time in quiet aloneness, to listen to one's own inner voice away from the clatter of others. How much is needed is again a personal matter. We know of some painters who work well surrounded by people and talking to them. Others rarely come out of their own studio. Most of us seem to be somewhere in the middle. I am not a hermit, and enjoy the company of other creative people. But if I am away from the studio for too many days, I begin to feel quite lost to myself. There is another kind of solitude that I think has been important for me personally and that is the removal of myself from the intensity of the contemporary art scene. That has allowed me the space to find my own world without the noise of the commercialism that is so much a part of the world of contemporary art.
TMR: The works of which writer or poet correspond best to the style of your paintings and who are the influences in your art?
Lani Irwin: My greatest influences are the painters of the Medieval and early Renaissance. Although there is a narrative aspect that is certainly an important part, that is not at all what engages me. Perhaps it is the unreal nature of the paintings in general. The figures and spaces are composed to make paintings, held in relationship by the artist's vision. Yes, they were commissioned to depict stories and ideas, but I feel that soulfulness of otherworldliness in them. Disembodied parts moving in unreal spaces. Patterns, shapes and forms interlocked in timeless dances. Light that seems to originate from some inner source. Later paintings tended to be more involved in the rendering of surfaces and in the overt drama of the stories or incidents or persons depicted. Too many cues were given in the high Renaissance and later periods of painting as to how I ought to respond. Ambiguity is more interesting to me than specificity. But there is great specificity in the delicacy of the details within the unreal world of the Medieval and early Renaissance paintings in which, the figures, objects, clothing, and their spaces were painted with sublime care and skill. Within that world of sublime rendering of form is a metaphysical unreality that I love. The magic and mystery that they emanate speaks most profoundly to me. The light seems to come from within, the spaces between the figures and objects are as important and alive as the figures and objects. Painters like Simone Martini, the Lorenzetti brothers, Paolo Uccello, Giotto and Roger Van der Weyden. In the twentieth century I look at painters like Balthus, Fausto Pirandello, Pyke Kock, Dick Ket, Antonio Donghi, Felice Casorati.
I read little poetry but the two that I have spent time with and found important to me are Rainer Maria Rilke and Theodore Roethke.
TMR: You and your husband, the painter Alan Feltus, are Americans, why did you choose life in the Old World, and why Assisi?
Lani Irwin: From my earliest memories, I dreamed of living in Europe. I had lived in Europe for three years in my teens with my family and found myself at home here. There is a sense that we will survive when I am here. Art and architecture from centuries ago is found nestled within cities and towns that have a bustling contemporary life. There seems more concern about quality of life, a concern that we take the time to enjoy our meals with our family. It is extraordinary to be able to see a fresco or painting easily within a short drive. Why Assisi? There is a story of coincidences that brought us to Assisi but the short answer is that the church of San Francesco is full of incredible frescoes that have nourished me for decades. It is, in fact, true that the specific narrative of paintings like the frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco is not what interests me. What does interest me is a dramatic quality, often quite ambiguous. There are figures and objects in shallow imaginary spaces, engaged in activities that are held suspended by strong compositional elements. They are sometimes referred to as cartoons, illustrations of church stories for the masses who could not read. Yet these paintings far surpass illustration. There is a drama in these paintings, but unlike the drama of paintings of later periods, that drama is restrained, quiet, and full of mystery, pure magic. They touch your very heart and soul. At any rate, they do mine.We both fell in love with this church and the town of Assisi many years ago on our first trip to Italy together.
TMR. Thank you Mrs. Irwin.