Getting in tune with contemporary art
A talk with artist and instructor Joan Levine-Russell
Joan Levine-Russell stands next to her mixed media piece "Momenti Mori” now on display at the Fort Lewis College Art Gallery./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Jules Masterjohn

For centuries, visual artists have looked to the physical world for their subject matter: landscapes, still lifes and portraits are the traditional pursuit of the canvas painter. A bit more than a century ago, as the modern era burst into being, artists developed an interest in more internal subjects and in creating work that described the phenomenon of their individual and personal experience. Making paintings from this idiosyncratic perspective brings us squarely, roundly and triangularly into the realm of the contemporary artist. One such artist is Joan Levine-Russell, whose recent paintings were inspired by the rescue and adoption into her family of Bob, an abandoned dog. Sitting with Joan in the Fort Lewis College Art Gallery, we talked about her new paintings, which incorporate non-traditional materials such as dog fur, plexiglass, wood and wire into nearly monochromatic-colored canvases.

JM: Tell me about these two large assemblage paintings, "Bob*Dog Sees God*Bob" and "Momenti Mori."

JLR: The content or imagery of these paintings is described through the materials themselves. For example, in each of these paintings, the dog fur symbolizes a life, and the plexiglass represents the barrier that exists to being able to come in contact with this life. I use a Minimalist genre to reflect a meditative state and a symmetrical composition to create a feeling of balance and calmness. The colors also are inspired by the mood I am trying to relate.

I am inspired by life, my life and others' lives. I like to think philosophically, so I delve into all sorts of places and emotions. These new paintings are about suffering, a sort of sad subject, but all art does not need to be pleasant and entertaining.

JM: Can you talk a little about your creative process?

JLR: The creative process is absolutely paramount. You have to know how to develop ideas. This is my biggest emphasis when teaching. I wish I could have a formula for creating works of art, it would be so much easier. But the work would have no life or energy. A work of art needs to be built through discovery and choices; it has to have mistakes and corrections to end up as a resolved and interesting work.

To me, my best paintings are those that develop by a search that takes me all the way down to the deepest black hole and then back out of it. It is pure torture, but these are the good paintings. These are the paintings that have depth and resolution. The trick is to have them stay simple, but not obvious. It's a chess game to make a painting. The first moves are easy but as you get toward the end there are fewer options.

JM: Creating from this contemporary perspective places you toward the edge of the artistic community in Durango. How does this affect you?

JLR: The climate in Durango is changing, and more and more people are interested in contemporary work here. Being represented at Ellis Crane Gallery has allowed me the visibility to attract this type of art viewer.

I would, of course, have a bigger audience on the West or East Coast, but I'm not interested in the influences of these places. I live in Durango because quality of life is a powerful influence on my art making. For me, creating art is better in an isolated environment, because I can think for myself without the constant influence of styles and trends. I am still able to stay current by visits to cities.

JM: Tell me about the circumstances that led to your interest in modern art?

JLR: I was exposed to art from day one. Although I grew up in a small town in Indiana, my mother collected art. My father, being a retailer, went to New York City every year and my mom took us to museums and galleries while we were there. I sketched and painted from when I was very young and it's what I was best at. So I followed a path that brought me as much as I could possibly know and experience about the art world.

For example, I was an intern in high school at an art gallery in Chicago that focused on Western art, and I interviewed Ken Bunn, the sculptor of the bronze mountain lion that is in front of the Fort Lewis College Concert Hall. But what I remember best about this job was that one floor below was Richard Grey Gallery, a premier contemporary art gallery, and that's where I really wanted to be interning.

JM: What do you think about the state of the arts today?

JLR: I wish there was more arts education in the United States. I think European countries place more value on the arts, they are exposed to more art, and consequently they have a better understanding of it. I think it's sad that so much of the population here in the United States is not at all in tune with the art of the last century. I would compare this to appreciation of musical styles; there are people that prefer classical music, while others, especially the youth, want to know what's new and cutting edge. This is no different than the viewers of art that strictly stick to realism, they aren't embracing the timeline of styles of art over the last 100 years. The people that are exposed to museums and the history of art understand that what has happened in the last century has brought art to where it is today.

I think it would be helpful to anyone who isn't familiar with contemporary art to understand that all you need to enjoy it is to come to the work with an open mind and bring the work into your own world.

Joan Levine-Russell's recent work can be viewed at the "Faculty Group Exhibition" on display from Jan. 10-27 at the Fort Lewis College Art Gallery. An artists' reception will be held Jan. 14 from 5-7 p.m. ☯




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