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A few years ago, we first met the artist Tara Lewis. Both of us based in New York, we found common ground in the hills of Aspen. As we sipped wine at the aptly named Wine Crush event in Amy Phelan’s art-filled home, behind us hung one of her paintings—a commissioned portrait of the collector’s daughter.
Before, after, and ever since, she’s skyrocketed with collaborations and partnerships, teaming up with superstars like Brooke Shields and with brands like Milly for its Spring/Summer 2019 collection. Her creations are mainly large-scale oil portraits, which, with a focus on preppy youth culture, have inherent pop twists. Models in her paintings are adorned in an array of accessories—like pageant sashes, lollipops, plastic visors, and t-shirts donned with word art—and push perceptions of youth, beauty, stereotypes, and irreverence to the forefront.
While she’s inspired by cult classic movies (like The Royal Tanenbaums) and youth culture magazines (like Seventeen), her inspirations run deeper than page or screen value. She’s a direct descendant of Alphonse Mucha—an Art Noveau artist who infused typefaces and cultural portraiture into his compositions. This lineage has become an undeniable primarily influence for Lewis, too.
Today, the New Hampshire native is based in New York City, and her studio is across the street from MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. Recently, she had a solo show entitled “Hell Yes!” at Lyons Wier Gallery in Chelsea, which ended just a week before social distancing practices surrounding COVID-19 began.
Whitewall spoke with Lewis her early inspirations, how they’re intensified with a feministic voice over time, and what she’s up to in isolation today.
WHITEWALL: Tell us a bit about your upbringing. How did it influence your artistic spirit?
TARA LEWIS: I grew up on the east coast in a small, rural town and only saw pop culture in the late ‘70s and ‘80s in magazines, on TV, or in something that arrived in our mailbox. Since I was super little, probably nine or ten years old, I’ve always loved to draw faces. I had a natural ability to draw things I could see, but was most excited to draw faces of famous people that were professionally lit.
Representations of women and young girls—in ads for hair color and clothing—and evolving perceptions and depictions of beauty soaked into my very visual mind. Everything down to the text, copy writing, and peculiarities…
WW: Tell us a bit about the references that impacted you when you were young, and which are apparent in your work today.
TL: In my work, I love to reference movies and magazines that are pre-Internet sources. Painting confident females is what I relate to the most and love to do.
I’m female and grew up in the 1970s watching Three’s Company, The Facts of Life, Charlie’s Angels, and Laverne and Shirley. And my favorite songs were by Joan Jett and Blondie.
I always loved the cartoon strip “Apartment 3G” and flipping through Seventeen magazine at the town library. I remember being scolded by the librarian because I was “only 10 and not 17” and shouldn’t look at it. I was also obsessed with the movie Xanadu.
I always loved John Belushi’s COLLEGE sweatshirt in the movie Animal House and Cameron Crowe’s book Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which is a true story. And the first day of MTV blew my mind! The astronaut and the chai saw cutting through the TV set was epic. And Grace Jones!
Kids today don’t even use TVs, which is kind of wild. At the time, the fact that songs had moving images accompany them was hugely impactful on me. The models that I paint demonstrate an inspired raw and authentic character—with a dose of irreverence—that embody youth culture of past decades and contemporary pop culture themes, seasoned with text prompts and a feast of props and accessories at my studio that are served on a platter during shoots.
WW: For over a decade, you were a professor and a chair of the art department at Phillips Exeter Academy in New England—a prep boarding school. How did this experience impact you creatively?
TL: I had the luxury of being saturated for over a decade in a prep school that has been around for centuries and is intellectually vibrant with a culture of unbridled critical thinking that values life experience and encourages looking beyond yourself. It is like a well-fertilized garden if you have the desire to grow and thrive creatively.
On the pop culture side of things, I’ve been lucky to be immersed in prep school boarding culture from a rare and unique perspective—both birds’ eye view, and in my face. I’ve seen first-hand how teenagers navigate life in all respects—socially, emotionally, and the specific behaviors that embody youth culture.
Whether it is 1950 or 2020, teenagers are teenagers. Different decades, but the same age and stage with different forces contributing to the turbulence and the joy. I’m grateful that the interactions I have had keep me aware of youth culture in real time. Trends, idioms, their own lingo, humor, style, and the social issues facing young women and their zeal to be confident and develop their own identities. It is also great to have to explain your work to people that aren’t curators, gallerists, or collectors, but rather a 16-year-old. Every artist should try it. Enlightening audience!
WW: You mentioned that you organically gravitate to female representation, which is what you relate to the most. Tell us a bit about painting women, and the empowering nature of these portraits.
TL: I can’t imagine making a painting of a female subject that is anything less than raw, real, confident, and authentic. But honestly, my models bring the “pow” to my portraits. I provide ingredients, prompts, subtle direction, and style the shoot with props and text prompts.
WW: Tell us a bit about the sayings; the text art.
TL: Text plays a critical role in my work. I’ve always been obsessed with fonts. I use Cooper Black in my work, which has been used by musicians like The Beach Boys, The Doors, Curtis Mayfield, and David Bowie; in TV shows like Different Strokes and Garfield; and in games like Q*bert.
Definitely signature for those decades, and beach boardwalk velvet iron-on tees. That font is emblematic, casual, and rather androgynous in pop culture and works magically well with my painting concepts and contemporary styling approach.
WW: Tell us about your creative process. Where do you begin?
TL: To make my paintings, I start with a magic mix of props, accessories, and wearables. I engage my models in concepts that I have in mind, and launch into a creative and kinetic studio adventure with them.
I am lucky to have worked with and continue to work with stellar models who understand art, what a painter does, and why artists make artwork. Simply put, I empower the models to bring their own character and ideas to the portrait shoot. In turn, it naturally becomes a true collaboration with all the right energy and investment.
The ideas start with a character in a movie, an idiom, or mundane saying. And each project starts with generic wearables and cultural idioms on a shirt or sash. I always leave room for the model to bring their own ideas for poses and styling to the shoot. I have a table of props, a garment rack of t-shirts, and iconic items in a vintage school locker such as barrettes, bubble gum, tube socks, track shorts, cheering skirts, plastic earrings, pixie sticks, lollipops, and sweatbands.
WW: How do you select who appears in the paintings?
TL: The paintings are documentaries of the awesome and unpredictable collaborations with my models, who I select based on my portrait idea or a word prompt. My painting Lone Ranger of model Makenzie Moon is a great example of this, as she invented the pose, positioned the hat and projected an entirely fresh take of a female version of The Lone Ranger, wearing a generic cheerleading skirt. Expect the unexpected at my studio. This never fails to happen as long as spontaneity, humor, and mutual respect are in the mix.
Many of the portraits in my recent solo show at Lyons Wier Gallery are some of my favorite models, like Liv Walker, who was in the Milly show and wore my work. It made sense to paint her and ‘cast’ her in various roles I had in mind for paintings.
WW: How are you doing today amid COVID-19?
TL: Great, luckily! I needed to crunch on some paintings deadlines and am trapped inside doing it, so it’s a win-win. I actually love being inside painting, and I’m drinking seltzer at a ridiculous rate! Right now, I am away from my studio in New York in Long Island City and went up north to my house and the quarantine began.
brought my studio on the road, including a half-dozen blank canvases, brushes and paints set up a great little room where I paint to work for like 8 hours a day. My family is a blast, and their farm is nearby. My husband is an artist, too (a photographer), so it’s great to have dual creative energy and a built-in studio critic while I work.
WW: Are you reading anything of note?
TL: Reading anything Richard Prince! Spiritual America, Selected Writings, and even if it’s pictures only, it works for me just as well as words. I also have a stockpile of books that I look at off and on, like the original paperback Fast Times at Ridgemont High by Cameron Crowe, Bill Powers’ Interviews with Artists, which I bought a long time ago but never cracked open.
Also in the pile is James Rosenquist’s Painting Below Zero and Vogue. And yes, for real, there is the Fall 2012 issue of Whitewall here, too! It has Richard Phillips’ Lindsay Lohan painting on cover. The Fashion issue.
WW: We’ve been watching TV and listening to music more during isolation than ever. What have you been watching or listening to?
TL: I just wrapped up the Showtime series Escape At Dannemora (ah-mazing!) and also love junk TV a lot. Listening to Led Zeppelin, per usual, Grace Jones (would love to paint her), Linda Ronstadt, and the soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
WW: What are you cooking?
TL: Variations on the taco! They are like little sculptures. Oldenburg vibes. Tonight, I’m making fresh pasta with tomato, basil, oregano, olive, mushroom, onion, lemon, garlic, and marinara. I’m also inhaling little coconut yogurts that are recycled into cups that hold my paint medium when I work. And I love fresh veggies. Anything veggie!
WW: How are you staying connected?
TL: I just did my first Instagram Live! I was on RxArt as part of their #ColoringFromHome series that allows people to download and print original drawings by contemporary artists and color them with them—on Instagram Live! And the week after, Kenny Scharf did it, too, so I was like, “Whoa!” Rashid Johnson did it, too. So, another big, “Whoa.”
It’s a genius idea during a quarantine. So great for all ages and therapeutic during this strange and scary time. And like many humans, I Zoomed a few times—very Brady Bunch. I also live on Instagram and adore the community it creates and the inspiration it provides.
WW: How are you staying creative? Are you able to make work at this time?
TL: I’m totally built for an art quarantine right now. Less distractions, and I am focusing and enjoying it more. In the city, I’d keep running out to bookstores or Economy Candy on the Lower East Side or the skip to the Balloon Saloon in TriBeCa to think of ideas or find props for my inventory.
WW: It’s great that you’re enjoying the isolation, rather than letting it negatively impact you and your practice. Are you working on any personal projects?
TL: I think what has been most exciting for me creatively is “home archeology.” I love going through old stuff and personal memorabilia. I turned 50 last week, and my family gave me the best gift! They found my 1986 Cheerleading Excellence trophy (my name is on the bottom), which is a delicious relic and connects so well to the work I make now. It is sitting proudly on my studio table right now.
I get inspiration from personal objects and printed matter, so finding pop culture artifacts is thrilling to me. My parents are antique dealers, so I tend to gravitate to unique pop culture artifacts. I still have my Duran Duran wallet that I got for being in the official fan club, and some line drawings I made in middle school of Michael Jackson’s album covers, specifically for “Thriller.”
WW: And what are you working on in terms of new work right now?
TL: This week, I’m finishing up a couple of painting commissions, and then diving back into ongoing paintings. I’m working on a series of portraits that I am doing a flip about. If you dig a bit in my Instagram, you’ll see that I’m painting Brooke Shields, which is a special project collaboration we cooked up. It’s a sizzler. ‘80s vibes. And bubble gum, too. Stay tuned, y’all!
WW: What’s on the horizon for the future?
TL: Lettering has always been my jam, so I’m planning new swag and wearables to print on for upcoming portraits—text on sashes, socks, leggings, bathing suits, transparent fabrics. Recently, I’ve been looking at the ad campaign “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” for Virginia Slims cigarettes.
I want to make portraits that spin the tobacco emphasis to a focus on female strength and individuality. Per usual, my studio is methodically littered pageant sashes, lollipops, skateboards, plastic head visors, helmets, paddle ball games, and glitter makeup. I’m obsessed with making “word wallpaper” to put behind my paintings. I’m also marinating in words concepts for future paintings, like “New & Improved,” “Rainbow Brite,” “Everyday People,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Piece of Work,” and “Tennis Anyone?” I always have too many ideas.
WW: Inspiration is all around us right now. Where are you finding silver linings?
TL: I am obsessed with seeing what other artists are making when I scroll through social media. I’ve also been able to read and research things that were on my “to do” list forever. It’s fantastic to hang out more with family, and talking to them puts me in a good mood, because we are all in the same boat right now and they are an optimistic fun bunch!
I am better at cleaning and organizing and love laundry. And my paintbrushes are cleaner, and the caps are actually on the tubes for a change.
For years, I have not really considered doing a self-portrait, but since I can’t do portrait sessions with models in my studio right now due to the pandemic, I might as well use myself as the model and paint one!