Ilana Savdie is back and presents her solo exhibition, in the Los Angeles Kohn Gallery: Entrañadas. The artist explores the few and many things that constellate one’s sense of self. Using beeswax, oil and, acrylic the artist explores the theme of identity through the fragments that make us contingent beings such as: genetic history, oral traditions, the foreign, the uncanny and for her personally the Carnaval de Barranquilla. Her paintings focus on using elements and colours that celebrate the realness of other worldliness and in hand repulses any sense of conformity or limitation. Together we discuss exploiting concepts of boundaries, penetrate the idea of beauty in her art, and transgress the confides of the materiality and the canvas, read on to find out how.
Firstly, welcome back. It has been 6 years since you last spoke to Metal how have you been? As an artist and creator how have you changed?
I could spend days answering this question and not even scratch the surface. I’ve been amazing and terrible? I think I would say as a human I have found more space for empathy and as an artist I have learned to trust myself more.
Diving straight into your latest exhibition at Kohn Gallery, in the time of Covid-19 you’ve managed to capture and release these hot-energy-coloured bodies of mixed media, a beautification of something that can be seen as grotesque. Were these aesthetic choices always deliberate?
I think the beautification concept in itself is so grotesque. I love the uncanny space that something takes up when it’s taken just slightly beyond its inhabitable space. But if you’re asking if the impact of covid on the body had a deliberate impact on the work, I'm sure it did. We’ve never been more collectively aware of each other, how much space we take up, our genetic histories, the consequence of intimacy.
These paintings are a combination of deliberate decisions and of process-based decisions, asserting control over the material at times and submitting to it at others. I lean into the place of instinct, trusting that if I like something, if it feels good or gross or familiar, there is meaning to that. We’ve all been affected differently by this pandemic, but I think a shared experience by many is a sense of distortion that traverses through the experienced and the witnessed alike when it is all consumed without the necessary intimacy between bodies.
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Your current exhibition encompasses subjects with arguably extreme polarities, biology and folklore, human anatomy and disharmony and detail against distortion. What made you bring them all together?
I’m interested in the ways we attempt to locate home, history and heritage within the body and through folklore when we don’t have a landscape we can identify with. I think for me it comes from a family history of expulsions and escape stories from so many different countries, of knowing my history mostly through the stories I’ve been told, of not knowing much beyond one or two generations of accessing ancestry primarily through a clinical history registered in my body, of imagining a world where, as Gloria Anzaldua says, I can fashion my own gods out of my entrails.
What was the most and least difficult thing about creating for your current exhibit?
It was hard to work on a large show without getting to see all the works together in the same space, which is the nature of living in New York and having limited space. But it also kind of kept me on my toes, I loved getting to keep reinventing the process with each piece. I’ve never been able to make the same move twice so there’s a kind of activation of gestural memory that keeps getting distorted every time. It ends up feeding back into the process.
The way you extended, distort, and redefine the natural body in your artwork looks limitless. Does working on canvas support your creations or limit them?
I guess this work proposes the absurdity of a natural body in general. There will always be boundaries and limitations to materiality which ends up reinforcing the need for them to be transgressed, exploited, penetrated, etc. But I love the process of figuring out where a material or a substrate asserts itself and where I can come in and assert control, like a persistent power exchange.
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The last time you spoke with us during winter you said: ‘I love the days when I don’t have to leave my house at all’, have pandemic restrictions changed how you feel about social media, physical relationships and in lieu how you create?
I’m pretty sure at that time I had a live/workspace so I think that must have had something to do with it. I am always in my studio. I am someone that needs to be surrounded by my things, my materials, my books. I’m a very tactile learner and processor. I was extremely privileged to have just started the NXTHVN residency at the start of the pandemic, so I had a place to go make my work without real fear even at the height of its uncertainty. Social media has been the access to human connections and experiences beyond my own solitary one, but it is a sinister thing to depend on a company concerned with profit for something that we naturally need as humans. That's probably how this whole elaborate system that benefits the few really perpetuates itself, I guess.
Popular culture is having many conversations surrounding beauty standards, image, and the colonial impact on perceiving bodies. Do you feel as if your art is a part of this wider conversation and how?
I think as a person with a perceived body (more than some and less than others), I will never not contribute to this conversation. I worked in the beauty industry in many entry level jobs including photo retouching so I was fascinated by the act of using encoded tools to find a kind of bodily utopia that will never be achieved. I was making skin smoother, lighter, thinner, more elastic. It felt so acutely grotesque. I used to pull these photos so far past their place of alleged respectability to the point of unravel because that’s what it felt to be there doing that, like a corporate smile just big enough to take us outside of the human. This work feels like a space for this other-worldly unravel to be the constant.
Do you want your work to have a finite or infinite message, is how you define it more important or how viewers receive it?
Oh, I won’t pretend to have the ability to define how something is received, that feels like marketing to me and not something I am especially good at. I do think there is a need to use specific language when talking about ambiguity, so I’m constantly working on that. People tend to find comfort in categorization and naming, which can draw uninvited limitations around the work (or me). I like to seduce and question, but not dictate or define.
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How does your own identity inform the choice of colours, size and mediums in your work?
Sometimes having to define one’s own identity feels like a distraction. I look to biology for narratives of the foreign and the familiar in part because I don’t relate that cleanly with any singular categorisation. I respond to large scale that is relative to my own body, I’m big so I like making big work that consumes me, rather than me it. I respond to colours that feel seductive and abundant, I think that comes from growing up around the Carnaval de Barranquilla in Colombia. But is that my identity? Materiality that is reminiscent of the sort of audacity and offensiveness of the body is usually what I’m most drawn to. I like to exploit and fetishise paint whenever it behaves corporeally - the leaks, the sags, wrinkles - whenever it feels wet and dry, seductive and repulsive.
Colombian-raised, Brooklyn based with a solo exhibition in Los Angeles. how does location affect your creative process and your wellbeing?
This is interesting because we’re then questioning the distinction or the thread between well-being and creation, and what does well-being and what does creation mean, right? In one respect, I’m the healthiest when I’m not painting because I wake up and work out and read and rest my body. When I’m in the studio, I fall into painting holes and lose myself in them so by the end my back hurts and I've been grinding my teeth but my soul is full. When I’m not painting, I’m digesting and gathering and sorting. That’s a huge part of creating so it’s not something I can easily draw distinctions around. It’s definitely not location based.
Do you think having a solo exhibition will change how people receive your work? If so, why?
I’ve spent too much time concerned with how I’m being received so a part of me rejects this question. But I spent years making work, good and terrible and it was difficult to get people to look at it either way, so I’d say having a show implies it being looked at, which matters to me. I’m not interested in the vacuum. This is the largest work I have made so far so I do feel like the kind of audacity of this particular show is exciting and honest to me.
That said, there’s only so much time I can spend thinking about how my work is received before it becomes a detriment to it. In the studio I try not to think about that. I do place a lot of focus on making sure the work is accurately making use of language in a way that does not feel closed.
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