With her first gallery show under her belt and a hyper-personal new series of work underway, artist Tali Lennox is emerging as one to watch. Here, the young provocateur answers our questions.
When did you first find your voice as a painter? Can you remember some of your earliest subjects? I’ve always been addicted to observing faces and staring at strangers. Faces tell stories. As a child I would love to draw older, lined and expressive faces. I drew a lot of portraits of elderly people, my grandparents included. Older faces have history. They have lived through so many things I have no knowledge of. I love to contemplate what an elderly person has seen and experienced.
From a young age, I would also draw a lot of self-portraits. They were very personal and expressive. I drew them more in a therapeutic sense, when I was coping with what one might call ‘teenage angst.’ They were quite distorted and confused. I remember placing pieces of meat on my face, photographing it and drawing it for my art homework. I’m not a disturbed or unhappy person. It’s just that we are all so multi-faceted and I think it’s healthy and important to honor all the emotional sides of ourselves—the light and the dark. Our outward appearance only says so much about who we are, and portraits should always fuse the internal essence of a person with their external appearance.
And when would you say you made art your professional focus? When I began to sell my work and exhibit it, it started to feel more ‘professional,’ but I still shy away from making it something that I have to churn out, with the notion of selling it or to please anyone else. It’s funny for me now to think of it as a ‘profession’ because I find it so liberating. It’s mostly my internal world. My days are often spent alone, working on paintings, or walking through Chinatown or flea markets hoping to find little treasures to use in my work. It feels very far from the notion of an organized ‘job.’
You are often your own subject. Does this speak to your other work as a fashion model? I aim to make my work as personal as possible. Because I am just myself, I can only assume who another person is. When referring to why he did figurative paintings, Francis Bacon once said something along the lines of ‘There are landscapes, then there are animals which are closer to humans, then there are humans. Humans relate to other humans the most.’ So to me, a self-portrait gets even closer to the truth than when you’re painting someone else. I also enjoy feeling bare and raw— especially contrasted to my modeling work, which is much more about manufactured image.
There is also a curious dynamic in the voyeuristic world of social media. We feel we know someone from seeing extracts of their lives, yet it is a curated montage of pixels on a screen. It’s never real life. There is certain truth, but I often feel that social media creates a dishonest representation of who we are. It’s more about who we want to be, and how we want people to see us. It’s an illusion.
There’s a soulfulness in your paintings that sort of defies your age. Do you recognize that? Is there someone you channel in your work? It’s funny you should ask this, as I was just having dinner with a friend who is a playwright, and he was telling me that many centuries ago, every artist had what they called a ‘muse.’ This was not another person they took inspiration from but actually a spirit they channeled when they were creating their work. If someone was applauding an artist’s work they would say ‘They have a wonderful muse,’ not, ‘They’re an amazing artist!’ I love the idea that an artist is a channel. I believe in it. When you are in a focused flow of creating something, you go down a brilliant rabbit hole where you forget time. Your thoughts diffuse and you are completely absorbed in pouring out whatever is coming from your fingertips and eyes. When you stop, you think, Whoa, what just happened?
What’s your studio process like? In the winter months I usually become semi-reclusive in my apartment, working non-stop. It’s easier to focus when it’s cold and dark outside. I actually prefer to work at night, when the city is asleep. I can focus better, and it feels more intimate. A funny pattern I’ve noticed is that my best ideas come when I’m very tired—it’s late at night and I’m just about to go to bed. It could be because my energy and mind is weaker and I don’t overanalyze my thoughts too much. I just allow them to unravel. I'll get an unexpected urge, then I'll be out of bed and working away until the early hours.
How has your work evolved in the last year since your first solo show at Catherine Ahnell Gallery? Quite drastically. I went through a very intense and traumatic experience just over a year ago and it really cracked me open creatively. I stopped painting portraits and began painting only from my imagination. I could suddenly access something so much deeper and more symbolic. The more I expressed how I felt inside through my work the more the pain would leave me. The healing power of creativity is absolutely unbelievable. I continued to work from my imagination, which allowed me to experiment so much more and play with ideas, instead of simply painting a literal still image. From there I began playing with different materials, holographic paper, images from old magazines I found in my mum’s attic, taking photographs, filming, hunting for found objects, from cigarette butts to conserved Amazonian butterflies. I’m in a very exciting place with my work where I feel liberated enough to experiment.
I understand you have a project with vogue.com launching in December. Can you tell us about that? We are putting together an event to showcase a new series I’ve been working on. The work is very different from anything I’ve done before and I’m planning on presenting it in a space that will be very experiential. I would like to do something different from a typical gallery show in a blank white room. I want people to leave with a memory and remnant of the evening. More shall be revealed!