I had time to contemplate the paintings of artist Lillian Almeida during her recent show at The Gallery at the Watershed. Filling in for the gallery owner one day, I sat at the desk directly facing Almeida’s work, Figures From An Opera 1. The 4’x4’ painting immediately impressed me with its strong composition and mysterious subject-matter. Striking on several levels – as paint, texture, composition, narrative, emotion – it presents an iconic triad of man, woman, and child. The distinct figures and the palpable relationships between them create an intriguing uneasiness. My intake of this painting required time, and I was rewarded by that time.
Lillian and I discussed this idea, of how her paintings require more than a cursory viewing, and how our current culture impacts the viewer.
Vicki Krohn Amorose: Lillian, you mentioned the profound experience a person can have when they’re in direct, prolonged contact with a work of art. Let’s talk about the equation of artwork + viewer, and how it’s changing.
Lillian Almeida: I’ve been thinking a lot about this shift in our culture. Just what I’ve experienced in my lifetime, watching how we generally approach the fine arts; it astounds me, really.
VKA: Explain the shift you’ve seen.
LA: Over the last 70 years or so, everything has become “product” in our minds. I think of it as our Shopping Brain. We might find ourselves entranced by a piece of music on the radio, and rather than let ourselves be taken away by it, we’re already, at least partially, thinking about having it or buying it. “What band is that? What’s the name of the song? Would I like to listen to this while I work?” Subconsciously, the thought is, “How is this about ME?”
VKA: Or, how can this be MINE?
LA: Yes. We have personalized choices available to us in everything from coffee to movies to furniture design. We no longer actually have to be exposed to anything cultural that’s uncomfortable for us. Naturally, if we aren’t educated differently, we’re going to come to a piece of fine art with the same lens. What a loss.
VKA: I see. If people are always looking through the lens of what’s-to-my-liking, they filter out and dismiss many possible experiences with art. Art proposes bigger questions than, “Do I like it or not?”
LA: Exactly! The gift of something unexpected, unplanned and not custom-made for your pleasure is a rare and easily avoidable moment. It is remarkable to me that, less than a century ago, only advertisements were for selling things. Now we can take in almost any part of any cultural experience AS the advertisement: the image, music, performance itself. And we’re seriously losing the talent of just listening or just looking.
VKA: Many artists talk about the viewer bringing something to the work of art. It’s the idea of art as communication, art as a dialogue. But if the audience is not there to receive it, even if they show up to see it, the dialogue remains a monologue.
LA: I feel we’re losing the art of being the audience, and with it, the mass appreciation of the fine arts – as a true delivery system of our individual and collective spirits.
VKA: And a delivery system requires reception. When you say “mass appreciation”, it makes me think of how art has been viewed throughout history in places of worship or ceremony – in spaces designed for contemplation.
LA: And now we live in a huge world of rapidly changing images. Images overwhelm us! To be able to separate that tremendous visual noise from the silent and possibly profound experience of spending contemplative time with a particular image or object, rendered with extraordinary consciousness by an individual, in a tactile medium as opposed to digital, it seems impossible!
VKA: Do thoughts about the viewer affect you while you’re painting?
LA: I like the idea that there is an over-arching way my work is a response to the cultural changes we’re going through, and that the viewer may have an emotional experience and perhaps be conscious of that, in contrast to other moments in their lives. But I don’t actually think about that when I’m in the process of working. If I do, I lose the immediacy of the relationship with the medium and the spontaneity of my response to inspiration.
In my work I’m very passionate about the experience of the paint itself and the perceived movement of the marks; it’s a first person, tactile, and very raw visual experience. So my decisions on the more conceptual level occur before and after the action.
VKA: Thank you, Lillian. Let’s talk again at your next show.
LA: I look forward to that, Vicki. I know we won’t run out of things to talk about.