Talia Levitt

As with all deemed forbidden, marginal or disregarded, trompe l’oeil and still life have
been ripe for cooptation and reinvention starting in the 20th century and the Cubists, and onwards
by the likes of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. For me, these genres have formed a core around which I can pivot, scramble and disguise painting histories and languages. My still lives employ strategies to challenge genre prescriptions, while engaging with techniques and the cheeky spirit of trompe l’oeil painting.
Play is essential in the making of this work, as well as a deep investment in the properties and pleasure of paint as a medium. The impulse to embed references to painting’s history is a kind of game while I paint, including nods to kunstkammers, and other forms of 17th and 18th century still life painting. Play is also manifest in jokes, gimmicks and illusionism.
The inclusive history of still-life in relationship to gender and class, specifically in regards to the Golden Age of Dutch painting, is an important context from which I work. Despite the specificity of the objects that I paint, both the composition and variety of means by way all things are described, implicates the viewer in the making of the paintings. Compositionally, the viewer is often placed close-up or at an impossible angle in relation to the subject, mimicking the position of the maker. For example, in
Spill, the viewer sits on the floor in front of the still life being painted, a paintbrush juts out from the bottom of the composition. Or, in RSVP, the plates
are arranged around the canvas as they would be on a table top, suggesting that the imminent
conversation has been instigated by the female viewers, as suggested by the vaginal-shaped
salmon, and the compositional reference to Chicago’s The Dinner Party. To paraphrase Marcel
Duchamp, the viewer completes the work of art.
Each object is described with individual surface treatments in an effort to communicate care. The objects depicted range from practical studio supplies, sentimental gifts and other pieces of art to bits of trash. The value placed on each is sometimes taken into consideration when determining how to paint them, though this is not always so calculated. Trompe l’oeil is also an
important tool and reference for deciding how an object will be rendered. As someone interested
in games and meta-experiences, the spirit and humor of trompe l’oeil resonate with me. I love the
genre’s self-awareness as well as its populist history and appeal. I also admire the labor, time and
craft involved in creating such convincing fantasies.
However, instead of fooling the viewer into believing that there is a real object or landscape in front of them, I use similar, less convincing rendering in an effort to expose the painting — and the painter — for what they are. The painting is acrylic marks on paper. The painter is a messy, young, creative woman, and/or you. Her studio is chaotic, filthy, random. When this pseudo-illusionism is executed properly, certain elements of the picture seem “real”
enough to emphasize the thingness of the painting itself and demystify the artist. Examples of this other or “inverted” trompe l’oeil include painting the profile of the canvas to resemble edges covered with classic blue artist tape. The humor in this is twofold: first, the intention of taping the edges is to protect them from being dirtied with paint. Secondly, the
historical usage of trompe l’oeil is reversed, because in this instance the objectness of the
painting is being emphasized.
Through close-looking the paintings reveal treasures, pop culture references and inside jokes specifically meant for other painters. With intense scanning the viewer might find an image of a miniscule pencil hidden beneath a copy of a Vuillard on loose leaf or notice that a crystal is painted with glitter when it catches the light just-so. Some of these secrets are only revealed when the picture is lived with, for when nighttime comes, the paintings glow in the dark or
shimmer pearlescent. Several examples of this can be found in Work On Paper.
In Work on Paper, this human-sized painting on canvas depicts a work on paper taped to a wood tabletop. The image inside the work on paper is of a studio floor, a still life is arranged, and then seemingly dismantled as suggested by the detritus around it. Behind the still life hangs a painting of the top of the same still life image, implying the purpose of the staged objects. The way in which the work on paper is cropped indicates that if the black and white painting within the paper were to continue upwards, it would repeat its own image again. The tape used to adhere the work on paper to the table contains a record of all of the colors used to make the painting, lined up as a rainbow, including a glow in the dark swatch which is highlighted along
with the moon and bulb when studio lights are off. The composition puts the viewer above the desk, as if in position to peel off the tape and declare the work “finished.” Here I attempt to show the painting deconstruct itself using several means, in an effort to both exaggerate its approachability as an object and image.
Because I paint primarily from observation, the aforementioned details are those I am excited by in the studio. I want to provide the viewer the same sense of joy I feel, both by noticing and then burying details, for the next person to find. This is one way that I recreate my experience of “making” for someone else to see. This literalizing of the studio practice takes different forms. There’s the process of looking, and the making. Most recently I’ve been creating paintings in a “buddy” system. On a small painting, I literalize or illustrate the preparatory
process necessitated by the creation of the larger companion. These steps include tracing, sketching, color mixing, compositional adjustments etc. This is a fast, more abstract component to my practice. It also allows me to work through illusionistic strategies to be introduced into the larger counterpart.
This generative practice of making translates another kind of creative space for the viewer. It is
not the studio space but the space of a creative thought process. My hope is that these works will
provide for the viewer a genuine, generous and informative experience of looking (and making).
While these paintings do include references specifically intended for other artists, I do not want
the work to exclude viewers without “inside” knowledge. My references are not cynical of art
history, but rather, reflective. The humor in the work is of the good-natured prankster rather than
nihilistic. The over-all, maximalist approach to surface is democratic in every way— technically,
compositionally and metaphorically. My paintings enthusiastically embrace the very populist
nature of trompe l’oeil and still life reviled by art critics since the 17th century.