Levan Songulashvili is a New York based, Georgian visual artist, whose works are held in public and private collections worldwide and have been exhibited and sold in numerous venues across the US and Europe, including Saatchi Gallery, Sotheby’s and Brooklyn Museum. Having graduated from Tbilisi State Academy of Arts Levan was granted several scholarships to continue his Master studies at New York Academy of Art. The critics and world-known artists refer to Levan’s works as unique art and to him as an extraordinary talent. The ocean of emotions, deep thoughts and infinity, all are united in Levan’s pieces, which are definitely worth appreciating.
Levan, how did you decide to become an artist?
I started painting and drawing from an early childhood and have not stopped since then. I have never considered visual art as a profession, it has always been with me unconsciously, and after some time it transformed into my voice, a life choice and an unstoppable passion. I am also very thankful to my family, who have always supported me from a young age to deepen my skills in all the ways they could. Support is very important because one can be naturally talented but if there is lack of attention from the family, or the people around you, the risks are high that you might not be able to find your true passion.
From Tbilisi to New York, how did this happen?
Before coming to NY, I went to Germany where I participated in creating a scenic design for the theater performance. At that time, I was 19 years old and was in my first year of Bachelors at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts. I set a goal to continue my studies in Europe or the US after graduating in my home country. The New York Academy of Art was my first choice, which is one of the best graduate art schools for representational art. Nevertheless NY is the place where the competition is the toughest, particularly in the art scene. In 2014, I won the Academy Scholar Merit Award of NYAA, an educational scholarship from my home country and was also granted a full-tuition academic scholarship award of International Education Center and a Portrait Scholarship Award of NYAA. So, I moved to US, which became a new stage of my creative life, where lots of great things started to happen. New York accepted me and I accepted New York as my second home. The dynamism and chaos raving in this city is something that I was looking for as an artist. The strength and vitality of the urban culture fills me with inspiration and I enjoy its constant movement. I see lots of different directions and appreciate the cultural diversity of this city, which grants various opportunities to skilled, hard-working and motivated individuals.
How would you define yourself as an artist?
There lives another person inside my skin. I am totally different in my studio, alone, in front of the canvas where I just listen and follow my inner-self. For me, self-criticism, generating new ideas and the searching of different forms of visual language are the key factors that drive me forward. To my mind, artists should try to find a balance between their own vision and the pressures of the outside world.
You have painted nude portraits of rock muse Iggy Pop. How did you meet him?
Turner Prize winning British conceptual artist Jeremy Deller came up with the idea of a unique performative project called Iggy Pop Life Class, which was organized by him and the Brooklyn Museum. The participant artists were selected based on their portfolios by Deller and Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director, Exhibitions and Collections Manager of Brooklyn Museum. Deller said: “For me it makes perfect sense for Iggy Pop to be the subject of a life class; his body is central to an understanding of rock music and its place within American culture. His body has witnessed much and should be documented.” I created four drawings of an unexpected drawing model – Iggy Pop, ranging from five-minute sketches to a presentation piece. The selected artists depicted the naked rock star’s figure in their own unique ways and with their particular vision. While working on this project, Pop was behaving like an experienced drawing model who knows how to act and pose, which assisted me really well. Iggy was excited on the results of the project and later he mentioned that posing in front of the group of visual artists was very diverse from what he had experienced before. The exhibition presents the resulting drawings along with works from the museum’s historical collections, chosen by Deller that depicts the male body, examining shifting representations of masculinity throughout history. Deller’s collaboration with Pop in this performative project casts readings of gender in a new light, as the rock star’s body invites comparison with historical depictions of masculinity.
What inspires you?
Hard to say. I might be inspired not only by art but from culture, society, from an interesting speech, dialogue, occasions, sounds or even emptiness. I take inspiration in various ways from everyday life.
What happened with the first jellyfish you painted in your home country?
I created The Jellyfish several years ago, in Georgia. That time I was going to change the scale to realize a new conceptual project. When I arrived in NY I took the piece with me, with some other works. Soon, in 2015, it was selected for Take Home a Nude auction and presented among the world’s leading contemporary artist’s works at Sotheby’s Auction House in NY. In 2016, another piece called The Nun was also chosen for the auction. Both pieces were sold to an American art collector.
What is the general idea of The Jellyfish?
Now I am working on a new project, which I call The Styx. The cornerstone of The Styx concept is the water and existential issues in the universe. The water – colorless (the intrinsic color of water is visibly turquoise), transparent, chemical substance that is the main source of life, and the jellyfish – aquatic animal, which has become an important discovery for me as a visual metaphor of a notion of the human existence. There is a singular jellyfish, Turritopsis Nutricula, which is an immortal jellyfish hybrid, the unique organism that is able to regenerate and rejuvenate. 95% of jellyfishes consist of a water and have no brain, though at the same time they are the only eternal living being. The jellyfish maintains its form for several months only, until it returns to a polyp form again. This cycle continues endlessly in the depths of the ocean, in the eternity. They look like shining cells lighting the dark.
Tell me more about your piece idem et idem. What are you hiding behind it?
I painted the piece last year and it was first exhibited at Olympia Exhibition Center and later at Saatchi Gallery in London. Idem et idem is a Latin phrase, which word by word means ‘same and the same’. Throughout the centuries many different ideologies have arisen, that influenced significantly human consciousness. The true and genuine substance of the religion has been covered and overlapped by the systematic and dogmatic ideologies created by certain individuals. And the people united by these ideologies could not make any reflection. Time goes by, and the world is getting ‘smaller’. Globalization finds its reflection on our everyday life. Scientific and technological progress made a significant breakthrough among the countries’ boundaries and created a tremendous opportunities for settling active communications among different cultures. At the same time, XXI century’s human being has embraced the pragmatism. Rationalism has swallowed the spirituality and inhibited the sentiments. Doubts, questions and quests raised in our minds, have become a basis for destroying strong megalithic constructions. If we do not step against the crowd, we will lose our face and look like a flock of a sheep – lost in the infinity and acting mechanically, without a shepherd. If we could stand aside and have a look at ourselves, could we find ourselves?
How long does it take you to create a piece?
Last month I presented a new, large-scale painting to the public, attending artists and art critics. One of the artists asked me how long did it take me to paint the piece. When I responded that I started working on the piece two days ago, the audience was astonished. Some of them may not even believe it, but fortunately there are people who can confirm the truth. I am able to paint a large-scale piece in just a matter of days, but what takes time is a mental condition and psychological preparation before taking a brush in my hands. I never know when it is the best time to work, but at some stage I feel the special moment when I am ready to jump into the ocean of infinite drawing.
Apart from painting you are writing. What about?
In the beginning I was writing psychological prose but later I switched to philosophy. While living in Germany my ideas and thoughts were changing and transforming into something new. In my free time I play the piano.