As an artist led gallery, Unit London is dedicated to supporting its artists and providing a focussed space in which they can express their ideas. The Platform exhibition series engages with topical social, political and cultural issues, inviting artists to explore the concepts that motivate their work. To align with the core social principles of the programme, 10% of all sales proceeds are donated to a charity or non-profit of the artist’s choosing. Anna Liber Lewis's nominated charity is Cancer Research UK.
To mark the opening of this Platform exhibition, we decided to delve into the intricacies of Liber Lewis's artistic practice by asking her a few questions.
ALL: I am a painting geek and sometime ago I made the conscious decision to focus on the rectangle and identify as a painter! Currently I am playing with the language of hard-edge abstraction and colour field painting with a nod to Russian Constructivism. I’m very interested in colour, in the inexhaustible and surprising feedback it gives.
ALL: I’m really happy for people to find their own way through my work. Making art can be insular, so I welcome collaboration and experimentation with other media. In this way I can connect with people in different ways from time to time.
ALL: I don’t have one way of working, and I like to change things up once I feel like I’m getting too comfortable. Often I will start with colour, whether it’s on stretched or unstretched canvas, and then respond to the gestures of the brushstrokes. Even though I find myself in a more hard-edged territory lately, the human touch or gesture is key for me, and I enjoy the imperfections and small moments of a slip or visual signs of a change of mind or direction.
What do you hope to evoke through this visual language of abstraction?
ALL: I’m not sure what I hope to achieve. Painting is this on-going dialogue with yourself and others. So far, the journey has been surprisingly personal for me. I enjoy the complexity of it. The push and pull of it: that you can reveal everything, but it can still be opaque. It's the ultimate freedom.
Why have you chosen painting as your medium? What is it about painting that you prefer over installations or conceptual art?
ALL: I wouldn’t say I necessarily prefer it, although there is something very sexy about painting. Painting always seems to come back to sex. I made installations while studying at Central Saint Martins in the 90s. That’s when Conceptual art was having another heyday. I found that painting can be conceptual.
NO series, 2021, Pastel on 300gsm paper, triptych, 56 cm x 38 cm
Considering the composition, how important is symmetry and the idea of balance when working with geometric abstraction?
ALL: Balance is key, even when it’s imbalanced. I work very intuitively, but I am definitely searching for something that ‘feels right’. Looking back at a series I realised that I have been dealing with pairing, but I hadn’t consciously realised it at the time. I’m so relieved to have hit on the diptychs you are showing. It’s obvious in some ways and I don’t know why I didn’t do this before. I want my work to have simultaneously different tones or notes; maybe something that is soft but also tough for example. I sometimes try and trick myself, by constantly changing how I approach a painting to find the ‘good stuff’, the ‘difficult stuff’, the stuff that can’t be easily named, which is why I paint. You have to allow for this when making painting; it comes out of a controlled improvisation.
What artists and movements have had the greatest influence on your work?
ALL: I think it’s almost impossible to credit all of the work that has an impact on your work. It’s taken me a really long time to acknowledge the influence growing up with my grandmother’s Ukrainian embroidery in the house as well as being exposed to Soviet posters and Russian Constructivism. My dad was a self-taught art enthusiast, he had quite conservative taste; he loved Gwen John and Turner. I remember standing in front of a Turner as a child and the penny dropped, once I saw past the subject matter.
Visiting galleries as a teenager opened me up to experiencing artwork in a visceral way. Up until then, drawing and painting had been escapism for me. Music also had a huge impact on me: growing up in London and seeing live bands perform, at quite an early age. Everything goes into the work, your whole life experience: how certain things hit you at an impressionable age, the writers you read etc. Many of the artists, musicians and writers I was exposed to were men and I’ve always been quite interested in the idea of machismo and its various forms. I’m concerned with pulling apart binaries to uncover the complexities and contradictions involved in living and making.
Where do you think your work fits in dialogue with artists who came before you?
ALL: This is a huge question with a really long answer, but I’ll touch on a few things. The history of art is a huge playground and what’s wonderful is there is always more to learn. My training and ambition as a painter tended to be so serious and I looked at painting with a certain reverence. An emphasis on theory and cultural studies throughout my education was rich and inspiring, but it’s only quite recently that the canon has been challenged and I am learning more and more about the women who were side-lined throughout history. As a woman, you were always in the shadow of the great male painters. I am attracted to many of those figures: Piero Della Francesca, Caravaggio, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian. But I’m also really inspired by the women, whose work was often better than that of their male partners: Sonia Delaunay, Anni Albers, Lee Krasner….
I’m also a child of a 90s London art education, when painting was dead and the great video artists were de jour; some of my favourites include Vito Acconci, Dara Birnbaum, Bobby Baker, and Paul McCarthy. As I go further down the rabbit hole of painting, I am introduced to female painters that I was not exposed to in art school, such as Pat Passlof, and my world continues to grow. I’m attracted to a punk sensibility; with a ‘fuck you’ attitude. I feel a real affinity with a particular generation of American painters: Chris Martin, Katherine Bradford, Mary Hellman, Carrol Dunham. It’s something about their attitude to painting and colour I really admire. At one time having work called beautiful was an insult as the old ‘intellectual art world’ was suspicious of joy and suspicious of colour. Now I want to have fun with my references and keep things moving.