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Ilene Sova
Ilene Sova

During my phone conversation with Ilene Sova, I learned that she painted the new series of 9 paintings within a prolific two weeks. She said, “I’ve been obsessed. I’ve been waking up at 7 a.m. and waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about brush strokes.”

On the invitation to her Salon Show, during which she unveiled the new series, Sova named the Salon Show: “1875-2008 Salon Show Inside My Studio—A Record of a Crisis and Its Solution.” I wondered about her crisis and discovered that it concerned brush strokes, a John Singer Sargent-inspired palette, and other technical elements of portrait painting that didn’t allow for a lot of sleep. When asked about the crisis, Sova said, “For years, I have been painting portraits like you saw on my website. This is a lot about technique, not so much about content…I would always have an interesting idea, but I didn’t feel like the paint was painted interestingly, so I wanted a balance between interests. So that when you look at my work, you might get excited about the concept, but also I wanted people to be excited by the aesthetics of the paint and also for me to be more present in the work. The action of painting to be more present. When you look at it, maybe I’m also there in the image. So, you see a gestural brush stroke…and you imagine me making that brush stroke. In the summer, I was painting…and I was trying to make things more gestural and more dynamic, but the face was falling apart—it wasn’t holding together.

“I had this show about identity and had dressed my roommate up in all these different urban, female identities, so there was a business woman, hippie, fashionista, hipster, and I had painted her in all of these costumes, so it was like an installation…talking about how inside one woman there’s all different types of personalities and yet we are peg holed into one or the other. And I had this show at this very prominent gallery with these works. When I was at the show, I, all of the sudden, hated my paintings, so I had this crisis. I didn’t like the way that the faces were painted or the flesh was painted. I was very upset. I thought, well I can either just stop painting…or I can find a solution to the problem. I was thinking a lot about art history and training and I thought, maybe I need to go backwards in order to go forward. I was searching out a classic portrait painter….The solution was that I had to go back in time to learn this old method of painting in order to go forward.” She chose to go backwards under the tutelage of John Singer Sargent in order to master her methods.

Since we were discussing technical elements, I wondered about the significance of the flat, solid-colored backgrounds in Sova’s paintings. She said, “In terms of the history of my work, you’ll see that the first time I did those backgrounds was with the blue wig paintings, and this was a huge change between those dramatic, dark, psychological interiors [“epic series”]…. I’m a very contemporary person and love pop culture and pop art and graphic images. As I was growing up—I was looking at my old sketchbooks as a child—I was always drawing women, even from when I was five years old, drawing women…and I was always looking at fashion magazines to draw the figure cause I didn’t really have anything else to look at….And I think that this [the solid backgrounds in the paintings] comes from advertising and fashion editorials. It’s very basic in the background and references pop culture in contemporary times….

“The most recent trend in image making from popular culture is to simplify everything. We are just getting bombarded by so much information all of the time that people have become poster blind. When you actually see an image that’s simplified, it grabs your attention more than one that’s over-labored or has too much information. I’m very drawn to that kind of imagery…very basic, very stark, high contrast, simple and to the point. And I think very critically about advertising. I do workshops with youth about how to break down advertising methods….”

For the new, Untitled series, the blank background seems to work differently for the viewer. Instead of simply being a plane for contrast, the backgrounds allow the viewer space to create a scene that accompanies each woman. Each painting communicates a story that the viewer imagines and sets into motion. While all of Sova’s previous work communicates either psychological oppression and/or strength in confrontation and/or a unique expression in spite of mass production, the gazes from the women in the new, Untitled series appear more intimate and interactive.

-Shana Thornton

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Shana Thornton
Shana Thornton serves as Editor-in-Chief of Her Circle Ezine and Assistant Director of the Institute of Arts and Social Engagement. Her first novel, Multiple Exposure, reveals an intimate, ghostly portrait of the impact of war, and generations of military service, on a family. Multiple Exposure will be available for purchase on Sept. 2. Read more at http://shanathornton.wordpress.com/
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