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Studio visit with Oriana Lewton-Leopold

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Oriana Lewton-Leopold’s new show downtown, AllIseeissigns, touches on subjects both current and timeless — the spectator’s gaze, sexual objectification and empowerment, celebrity and narcissism, voyeurism and technology. Her paintings pull imagery from work by French Realist painter Edouard Manet and pair it with those of the ubiquitous pop star Rihanna. Her work is compelling in it’s dialogue about the shifting of the gaze, and in who, exactly, is doing the looking here — from Manet’s nude studio models and courtesans to Rihanna’s sexy “selfies” smoking joints and sunbathing on yachts, plucked from her Instagram account and album artwork. 

The exhibition notes explain:

The exhibition owes its name to a Rihanna song lyric, but it also references the rich symbolic quality of Manet’s images, where the development of modernism is apparent in both style and subject matter. Manet’s women—barmaids, prostitutes, social spectators, among others—exposed the multifaceted cultural and economic shift into Parisian urban life in the mid-nineteenth century. Similarly, Rihanna represents the complexity of the celebrity in contemporary society as she walks the line between powerful female and public victim.

We stopped by Oriana’s cheery home for a studio visit (her painting studio is in a converted garage behind her house), drank Chemex coffee, ate donuts, threw the ball for Huxe the dog, and talked a bit about her new work and of course, the one and only, badgalriri. 

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Can you tell me a bit about the impetus behind AllIseeissigns?

I was listening to the new Rihanna album, and all these images started popping into my mind. It is really dark and I kept trying to figure how to translate it into something visual. I started making sketches of the images that I kept seeing as I was listening to it and nothing was really jelling and so I decided to try to layer images of Rihanna with images from Manet paintings.

Why Manet?

Just on a formal level I love his work. It’s beautiful and it’s inspiring to have his paintings surrounding me in the studio. I’ll sort of adopt a teacher painter — this past year I was obsessed with Mary Cassatt and I did a study of one of her paintings. I would just have open books of her images around me.

One of my painting teachers at PNCA Paul Missal told me if you look at a painter that you love, and you look at their work and you say, ‘oh that’s too good, I could never do that,’ then you shut off the conversation. If you look at their work and let them be your teacher, it feels like they are there with you. So I had been looking at a lot of Manet paintings and had been really inspired by them. I decided to see what happens when I layered them with images of Rihanna.

And where are these images from?

One place is from Rihanna’s instagram account, badgalriri, which I follow. (Laughs.) I would look through her images and I would take a figure out of the Manet paintings and sort of insert her into it. Like this one here, everyone in the painting is there and I painted Rihanna on top of it.

I would have an idea of the position I would want her to be in, and then find an image. I also looked at the black and white photographs from her album. The imagery is very much about her drinking, and smoking, and being bad and sort of a ridiculous cliche.

Where did your fascination with Rihanna begin? What is it about her in particular that engaged you?

I had not really been into Rihanna before I heard this new album and that was what sort of kickstarted it. I mean, I think she’s beautiful, and that’s part of it. She’s an amazing subject to paint; she’s very interesting looking. But I started reading about her, and watching videos of her, and she’s like the anti-Beyonce in a way, who I love as well. Beyonce is the ultimate performer and singer and Rihanna has a track of herself playing, and chimes in when she wants to. She strolls across the stage sort of nonchalantly. She’s really cool. She does what she wants, and I was sort of fascinated by it. She’s so weird. And it’s mysterious — how is she such a huge star?

Can you tell us a bit about what is inspiring you these days?

Rihanna’s new album; the painters Kaye Donachie, Mickalene Thomas, Cecily Brown, Michael Borremans, Mary Cassatt, George Bellows, Larissa Bates, Hayley Barker

What are you reading right now?

“Cat’s eye,” Margaret Atwood, “The Painting of  Modern Life: Paris in the art of Manet and his Followers” by T.J. Clark, “The Madwoman in the Attic; the Woman Writer and the 19th Century Literary Imagination,” Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

In T.J. Clark’s essay about Olympia, I thought it was really interesting how Manet was lambasted for the painting, and how people thought it was hideous. Both the prostitute subject and the way it was painted, and how you could see the outlines.

I went back and was looking at my version of it — that was the impetus for leaving things a bit more sketchy.

There is a lovely looseness in many of your paintings. How do you know when your work is finished?

It’s really hard to say when a piece is done and in my version of Olympia in particular, I painted Rihanna out and put her back in, I had her reclining. And it wasn’t working. Something I have to hold myself back on is painting faces over and over and over again. I try to think of it as a whole. Is it working as a composition? There has to be elements of tightness and looseness in the same canvas for me to feel like it’s my work and it’s done.

I was actually having a conversation with [the painter] David Wein and we were talking about the feeling we get every time we start a painting. A feeling like, oh my god, how do I make a painting?

Every time I start it’s like, what the hell am I doing? And it carries through to the end and then it clicks. It’s not easy but I think that’s what makes painting exciting and it’s why we do it. Every time we do it it’s an adventure.

Thank you, Oriana! Don’t miss the opening reception downtown on Sunday August 4, from 5 to 7 p.m. The show runs through September 1st and continues in a Fishbowl window gallery at Blackfish Gallery in the Pearl throughout the month of August.

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