Talia Levitt was raised and lives in Brooklyn. A third generation New Yorker, of European Jewish descent, her maternal grandmother worked in the garment industry, and her paternal grandfather was raised in his family’s laundromat. Her practice reflects a connection to textiles and garments in its materiality, while New York City life is its narrative. Talia explores perception and perspective, at times emulating Roman mosaics and quilting, and at other times abstraction and optical art. Illusion, perspective, and textural sensations all play a significant role in her practice. While the aesthetics evoke a long tradition of textile art and embroidery patterns, Talia’s subject matter is very current, reflective of her daily life in the city, filled with “New York natives,” like squirrels, pigeons, and subway scenes.
Talia considers her work differently from what is in vogue in the New York Art scene, although she is very aware of what is going on around her; her art goes against the current trends, where novelty and immediacy take the stage over actual aesthetic research. Talia’s works require a lot from their viewers, appreciation of the details, patience, and, most importantly, time. The artist is aware of that, and that is why she wants to compensate the patience of her spectators with the details and the richness of her compositions, which slowly unveil their narratives and figures, almost frozen outside of time and space.
Visiting the artist in her studio in Brooklyn, we exchanged some thoughts on her art and the broader art market.
Do you want to talk a bit about your technique?
“Sure! I start by painting a mapped-out image in acrylic on the canvas. Once the whole surface is covered, I use a knife and a ruler to scrape a grid into the paint. This effect makes the surface look distressed and, perhaps comically, creates a depiction of a weave in an already woven textile (canvas). Then, I seal the surface with clear acrylic so that no additional paint flakes off, and I add an extra layer of paint on top, the “stitches.” This is done with a plastic sandwich bag, like icing a cake… but tiny. The entire surface is made out of paint; that is very important to me. I also cast little objects to embellish the paintings (diamonds, buttons, chains, and zippers), all made of acrylic paint”.
I understand this may seem formulaic, but actually there’s so much improvisation and play involved.
“I am interested in trompe l’oeil, and I love the idea of the acrylic as a facsimile of oil paint. Also, acrylic is plastic, so it can essentially become anything, if I figure out how to manipulate it – that’s part of the fun”.
How did you discover this unusual technique?
“In grad school at Hunter College, I was painting more traditional still lifes albeit still focusing on personal objects, memories, and European art history. Then I did an artist residency at Skowhegan in Maine, and while I was painting the screen door of my studio there, I thought that there must be a better way to depict the screen without painting every tiny line, so I started scraping it away with a blade. I have always been interested in the materiality of paint, its complexity, and something really clicked there. I then began making facsimile pieces of masking tape by casting pieces of real tape with acrylic paint and adhering that to the surface of the paintings. This all made me realize that that kind of experimentation was so motivating”.
You have such an interesting, detailed technique. How long does it take to produce one of your paintings?
“From start to finish, it takes about six weeks for a medium work on average, and I have an assistant to help me, although I am the only one scraping the canvases, as it’s dangerous and it’s easy to rip through the canvas. Scraping a large painting can take up to 20 hours. I often feel that they can be even more complex; like… more is more… so sometimes it’s tough to say when a work is complete!”.
Your works are really multifaceted, and the viewers almost have a double level of appreciation: first the optical illusion given by the textural effect of your canvases, then the detail and the richness of your figures.
“Our culture is certainly accustomed to looking at art and images very quickly, so what I am striving for is to attract the viewers with captivating, geometric color blocking. Once they come closer to the work, they can investigate it and find the figures, the narratives, intricate imagery, and finally the texture. I want viewers to feel that I am being generous with them”.
Lately, in your works, I witnessed a special attention to the texture and three-dimensionality. Is that what your artistic development is heading towards?
“Lately I have been exaggerating the objectness of the paintings, yes. But, extending how I am fooling people and luring them into investigating my works is a main focus right now. I want to play with the modern spectator. That’s why I look for a sort of abstract effect in my works when seen from a distance. Once they are hooked, they have a lot of little elements to look at and discover”.
Despite your technique being very unique, the subject matter has clear references to almost archaic imageries, that one might find in ancient tapestries, quilts, and wallpapers.
“My images are almost diaristic; they incorporate a wide variety of my autodidactic interests and address the lineages that have made this work possible. This absolutely includes crafts. When I was preparing for my last show, The Tenement museum gave me a PDF of wallpapers from the 19th century, as well as other home furnishings, for example, and I incorporated a lot of those into the show”.
While talking about some more recent influences, what would you say are your most important art-historical influences?
“I have so many art-historical influences it is hard to know where to start. As I said, trompe l’oeil plays a big part in my work, so, Golden Age Dutch still life painting, but also Impressionism and neo-Impressionism. I love Seurat, Matisse, Monet, Vuillard, Courbet, Morisot… I recently traveled to London and Paris, so those artists are top of mind. While I was traveling, I found myself photographing so many stained glass windows and other building ornamentation too”.
What are your thoughts on the current art scene? Did you see any interesting shows lately?
“I try to see gallery shows almost every week in the city. Lately I was particularly struck by the Njideka Crosby show at David Zwirner Gallery, Rebecca Morris at Bortolami Gallery, Lari Pittman at Lehman Maupin, and Mitch Charbonneau at Off Paradise”.
The current art market can be extremely fast-paced and chaotic, with everything happening all at once. How is that influencing your practice?
“There is a lot going on, and I am boosted by it… It’s exciting! I don’t exactly know how the market is affecting my work. I’d like to think it isn’t, but perhaps that’s naive. I do think that my paintings are strange and different. In a fast-paced art world, I am continuing to make work that is slow to create and slow to read”.
At last, how’s your recently announced ongoing collaboration with Rachel Uffner?
“It has been awesome. It is really nice to feel that I don’t have to make every decision myself, so I can focus on my art. I trust them completely”.
Talia recently formalized her ongoing representation by Rachel Uffner Gallery in the Lower East Side, which has a special eye in its program for women. The gallery already dedicated a solo show of her works in the spring of 2023 and brought her works to the Kiaf Art Fair in Seoul last September. Among the works in her studio, one was ready for the NADA Art Fair Miami taking place from December 5th to 9th, where it will be showcased in Rachel Uffner’s booth, while two others were directed to two different group shows, one for WOAW Gallery in Hong Kong, and the other in a show she co-curated taking place at Adler Beatty in the Upper East Side (in the space shared by the advisor with David Zwirner Gallery), exploring material trickery and the genre of still life.
Recently, the artist, in collaboration with Rachel Uffner Gallery, donated a work for Two x Two, an annual contemporary art auction held at The Rachofsky House in Dallas. The auction benefits two organizations: the Dallas Museum of Art and amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.