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Student Interview Series #3: Avital Burg: An Exchange in London

This past February, I joined Avital Burg, 3rd year Certificate student, in the shoe store art studio on the ground floor of the Studio School.  She had just returned from spending a semester as an exchange student at the Slade School of Art in London.  We settled down in front of her new paintings, still life paintings featuring plasticine figures placed in domestic scenes in cardboard boxes, chandeliers, fading flowers, and an ancient artist’s sink. Below are excerpts from our conversation.  Her work will be on display during the Certificate Graduation Exhibition opening April 18th.

C: So what was your day to day experience like at the Slade?

A: It was very different from here; it was a really good experience to go to a “normal” art school. The approach was very different, as well as the structure.

C: What was the structure like?

A:  There are no classes there at all. You can set up meetings with instructors, but most of the time you’re on your own.

C: So it’s like a residency of sorts.

A: Yes, and for me it was good because I feel that it came in the right phase in my development; it was what I needed.  Still,  there were some teachers that were really good to talk to.  One teacher was Paul Richards, he’s been around for a while, and used to be friends with Uglow. 

C: So he was part of that old guard at the Slade?

A: Maybe more so than others.  I was lucky to discover him and be able to bring him into my studio almost every week to talk about painting, all of the formal elements.  Two other tutors that I was in touch with and were very helpful to me were Andrew Stahl, the head of the department, and Alistair Mackinven.  The conversation with them was helpful in terms of the subject matter development.

It’s a very romantic place to be, I was painting in one of the life rooms where Uglow used to teach.  A round room with skylights.  There’s a lot of history, and Lucian Freud’s easel was there as he donated it to the school.

C: You felt inspired there?

A: Yes, and in a similar way to here. You know, in Israel, where I grew up, there is not a very long painting tradition, so it’s very important to be in those places.

C: So what about your fellow students?  Were they working on very different things from you?

A: Definitely. One of my friends there was a performance artist, and it’s not the first time I’ve seen that type of work, but I was never so involved with it.

The dialogue there was on an extremely high level.  It was great to be there and listen to the seminars, their version of crits- basically you show your work once a year in this format where everyone is coming in and there are a few professors, and everyone discusses your work. 

C: Would some of the instructors that were working in completely different media talk with artists in other media?  Or was it painters talking with painters?

A: Maybe for them it was painters talk, but it wasn’t what we would call painters talk here.  Your personal tutor wouldn’t necessarily be a painter.

C: So you could be in a critique group with a video artist or a performance artist?

A:  The department is called the painting department, but people do all different kinds of stuff there.  Sometimes it was good to face it, but at other times it was too much.  For example I went to the 2nd year show and in the elevator there was a performance where two students basically attack everyone that got on the elevator.  They were dressed as drag queens and started to fight, to hit and shout at you.  Apparently there was a sign that warned people…

C: Don’t go in the elevator unless you want your ass kicked…?

A: “If you’re easily offended.”  This is what it said, but I missed the sign, so I guess I’m easily offended, I don’t know.  But although in some cases it was too much, generally it was really refreshing and good.

C: This reminds me also, of the sort of typical Studio School conversation of style versus personal language.  It seems that Studio School students or people that teach at the Studio School support the idea that there is a lot of work that most go into the process, a lot of hours in the studio, a lot of experimentation, a lot of soul searching and mistakes that must go into your painting, drawing, sculpture, whatever it is that you do… before you come to something that’s truthful and honest, that’s been boiled down, you know?

Did you feel that some of those students were shunning or avoiding that because they were aware of the effect of things, the shock value for instance?

A: This is possible to say… and also, there is no emphasis on drawing at all there anymore.  My own training, in Israel and here, has consisted of many, many hours of figure drawing. But people that go there, sometimes straight out of high school, don’t have any drawing training at all.  I didn’t think it was the best idea to go about it that way. Evidently they don’t think it is as essential as we think it is. 

C: Well if you’re 21 years old and you say, “I’m not interested in drawing,” then how could drawing ever come into your work later?

A: I believe that  drawing is crucial to develop the connection between your mind, eye and hand, and I think that drawing is also important for all kinds of art making.  It’s not just visual artists who need to know how to draw, it’s important for architects, filmmakers, and even musicians .  It’s training for your soul and mind.

C: It’s something very fundamental.

A: Yes.  On the other hand, although they didn’t seem to see it this way, they were really open to  what I was doing.  My previous experiences with meeting the mainstream contemporary art world have been with people being really open and pluralist to everything except traditional drawing and painting, which always really annoyed me.

But they were different, they were saying its old fashioned, but it’s cool.  No, not that; it’s cool BECAUSE it’s old fashioned.  They were really supportive and helpful, and I was very happy that I was able to be there.

C: So do you want to tell me a bit about some of these pieces?

A: Maybe I’ll try to tell you about some of these works with the whole London story.  When I first got there, I got a tiny wall in this round room, and I didn’t know quite what to do. Usually I really insist on having north light, or at least light coming from one direction.  There I had light coming overhead, and I didn’t like it all.  I eventually realized it was good, because it brought in the maximum amount of the almost non-existent London light. Also, it pushed me to find new ways to go about using light in my work. I started to work from photos for the first time seriously, and I made a painting based on a photo of the photographer Heinrich Kühn. It’s a really awkward painting from a photograph that I saw in the Neue Galerie right before I left New York.  His photographs are so painterly, he worked parallel with the Impressionists and I just felt I needed to make this into painting.  This didn’t really move beyond the summer and didn’t take me anywhere, but it was a safe place to start with, like family. When I’m in a new place it takes me time to get used to a new studio.

C: Sometimes you just have to work in any way possible to move forward.

A: Exactly, and I was working only in these browns and grays because my paints  didn’t arrive in the mail yet and this was a good restraint.

I was working on these machine paintings last year, so I thought maybe I should look for machines in London and drag them into my studio to paint them.  It didn’t work out, and everything I tried to do was horrible, so I had to find another solution.

There was this sink at the studio, and painting it was kind of mapping my surroundings, finding out about the place I was in, and I spent many hours in front of this sink.  It was another way to look for direction, and the sink itself has so much history.  It looks like a simple sink, but it has been used by many painters that I admire.

C: Would you say it’s one of your goals to imbue seemingly simple objects with something beyond that?  Some type of feeling or atmosphere?

A: Not feeling or atmosphere, I actually don’t like the word atmosphere.  More of a…

C: A symbol?

A: A symbolic thing that I’m not deciding what the symbol is.  To make it a metaphor… my way of thinking is to load it with a metaphor that is open to interpretation.  I don’t want to impose a metaphor on anyone.  It’s just that painting has always had so many symbols, and they used to mean one particular thing, like a lily means purity; I think it’s interesting to make new symbols that will be more open.

C: While still being an allusion to past painting as well?  It’s continuing a tradition yet also breaking open tradition.

A: This is how I think of it now, but on the other hand it’s just a sink.  Everyone’s painting sink.  I’ve decided I can’t invent a lily, so I’m painting what I love and what I want to look at in painting, and hoping to build my own world that will be approachable to others somehow.

C: So do you think the machines you were working on there weren’t happening because you had to find them and weren’t familiar with that space yet?

A: When I was there one of the things that excited me the most was that I was unfamiliar with the subject.  This mop bucket I painted?  I didn’t know what it was.  They look different where I’m from. Somehow continuing with the machines in London didn’t feel right, which is what was so great, because otherwise these paintings would not have happened.  It was a new place, and I didn’t have to come up with something new, but something that fit this place.

C: So you felt like since you were in a new place you should be open to new experiences?

A: I was released from burdens I had put on myself in the past.  I restrict myself all the time, for good and bad, and there I could rid myself from those restrictions.  The light, it was so bad and I was horrified, but I had to find a way to deal with it.  So I got those boxes, and I put things in them which protected them from the all over light which I didn’t like.

C: To gain more control over your environment?

A: Yes, and also I made this self-portrait from a photo, which I never would have dared before, and I think it is better than what I did from life.  Perhaps because I made so many from life before… actually probably because of that. The photograph gave me more space for improvisation. 

C: So, here’s a complicated question… if I can phrase it.  Do you see the still life work (I’m calling the Sink a still life) as being very similar to the work of living subjects, or do you see the work of yourself and other figures as more like still life?  Because they are always these quiet and still observations, and the self-portraits are always this same still pose.

A: I can’t really answer that because I don’t know the answer myself.  I’m really striving to understand… I don’t want to depart from the figure completely, but I still don’t know how to make it personal enough that it will satisfy me.  It all began with this painting of the small white figure—I wanted to paint a figure, so I made this woman out of plasticine.  Then I said, OK, I’ve always wanted to paint a figure eating a meal, so I made a table.  I thought, OK, I need a person to accompany her and I started to really enjoy it and I made a whole house.

C: Which became a whole world.

A:  And it was so much fun to make.

C: Do you see these worlds as important as the paintings?

A: Well obviously not, since I left them behind.

C: You abandoned them?

A: Yes, but this chandelier, this sculpture, it was small and was way better than the painting.

C: When I saw the initial drawing and the painting, I thought this must be a big chandelier—then I registered the box, and realized it must be very small.  You granted it fullness.

A: I’m happy you took it that way because that’s what I wanted, I wanted it to be more mysterious but still give the sense of the box.  Everyone was so excited for the small chandelier sculpture and said ‘you must exhibit this.’

C: Why did you leave it?

A: It was for the painting. I’m not a sculptor and don’t want to be.

C: Why not?

A: Because I love painting, I don’t love sculpture as much.

C: You must love something about sculpture to have made all of these things in the first place.

A: It’s just for fun.

C: Isn’t that what painting is, shouldn’t it be fun?

A:  it’s not always as fun as I thought it would be.

C: Because of the pressures and expectations for yourself?

A: If it was just fun it wouldn’t go anywhere. It would just be fun.  Flowers, whatever.  And maybe if I go really into sculpture it wouldn’t be so playful anymore, but anyway I don’t want to go there.  These are just for the sake of painting.

C: It would be really interesting if you had an exhibition of the things you’ve built alongside the paintings.

A: I like them, but I just had to leave them all behind because they were so fragile.  I’m working on some new sculptures now, we’ll see if it works and maybe I can do something with it.  One instructor at Slade said that this was silly child’s play.  Building little figures and painting them.  He was saying, ‘Those are for kids and I don’t want to look at it.’ He was only interested in this other side of my work (the sink and the self-portraits).  Everyone was always separating them, saying you have this kind of work, then this kind.  The subject they saw as “more contemporary” (the sculptures) was liked more by most of the people.  I want to find a way to combine both and show them together.

C: The dolls and dollhouses have childlike connotations, and you’re not as accomplished of a sculptor as you are a painter, so the sculptures feel cruder, more childlike in a sense.  At the same time, with your handling of the color and forms, and the tension within the piece itself, it’s not childlike.

A: The quality of the sculpture to be ‘not good sculpture,’ is important to me, and I try to depict it with my way of painting.   Also, I’m not ready to be the painter that makes machines, or boxes, whatever.  I’m not ready to go there and don’t know if I ever will be.

C: But you don’t have to.

A: It seems that the art world says we do have to.

C: The art world labels people, but many of them are still working on things on the side that the art world doesn’t recognize.  Stretch way back to Goya working on court portraits, but what people want to see now are the black paintings and the little etchings he kept completely to himself.

A: I just saw those black paintings, which I forgot to mention.  I went to the National Gallery in London so many times, which is just so good.  I went to the Louvre, and I saw the Soutine show at the Orangerie, and I went to Madrid and it was mind-blowing.  The Prado is amazing, and I was there by myself which was  great.  I didn’t have to worry about anyone getting tired.

C: What other things were you involved in while you were there?

A: I worked in an artist’s studio, this really amazing and successful Israeli artist, Zadok Ben-David. I worked there once or twice a week painting on butterflies, which was magical and fun.  That was another good experience to see a very big studio running; we were 12 assistants there.  This project was recently showing in Los Angeles (http://zadokbendavid.com/theotherside/)

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