Tali Lennox on the art of oil-painting selfies

It is a rare gallery show nowadays that will be comprised exclusively of oil paintings, rarer still is a show that showcases the work of a 22 year old model. Both meet in the form of Tali Lennox, a precocious and self-assured former-face of the likes of Topshop and Burberry, and daughter of pop-priestess Annie Lennox, who has switched gears from the modeling world and taken a glorious foray into the world of painting.

With her young age comes the knowledge of contemporary subject matter, specifically a razor sharp lens to artistically focus on the affectations of social media on culture today. Layers of Life, her very first exhibition of her work, and a solo show nonetheless, is an examination of precisely this phenomena. Dubbing each one of her portraits as her ‘selfies,’ Lennox used herself as a model in every piece, no matter how warped and unrecognizable she may be in the finished product. Be it a painting of the artist as “a drunken Bukowski woman” or “a broken, red-headed Southern Belle,” all contain a thinly veiled commentary on the dominating trend of a so-called ‘casual narcissism,’ only using a paintbrush instead of an iPhone to capture these qualities.

Milk Made’s Jake Boyer spoke to Lennox in her studio as she put the finishing touches on pieces headed for exhibition later this week. As she dabbed at a scattering of color palettes littering the floor, she spoke about her thoughts on social media, her reinvention of the selfie, and why this gallery show is a chance for her to be ‘a complete weirdo’ and love every minute of it.

What drew you to painting as a medium?

In a way, I’ve always done it. I used to draw a lot, but drawing can be a bit too simple sometimes. And when I moved to New York I didn’t really come here with much of a plan, I started painting because you face something and you have an ambition and it’s actually very simple — it’s a canvas that you need to fill. It’s all about that feeling of accomplishment. So you set yourself these little goals and then more and more, the more you do it the more you kind of need to do it. It’s the one thing I can really do where I focus completely and time ticks by and I don’t notice. Like if I’m working and a song is on repeat I can’t move myself to change it. I feel like if I didn’t paint right now, life would be completely deflated.

I read that you came to New York Specifically for the art scene?

Kind of. I think New York keeps me inspired. I guess its naive to say, but I really just came here with a suitcase and not that many friends and not that much of a plan. New York is great because everything you put out into it, you get back. I’ve always known that I wanted to do things that were artistic but I really found my path here. I think it’s very creatively encouraging in that way.

Have you had any formal training?

None. I didn’t go to art school. It just takes practice to get to this stage of oil painting, but it’s fun for me. I can’t really plan a painting, I don’t set it up with the art school grids and technique, I just don’t really know how to do it formally at all.

This show is very much influenced by social media. How do you feel about it? In love with it? Anxious about it?

Well I think social media has become such a large part of everyone’s lifestyle, myself included, that it’s almost like the online world is becoming more real and more important to people than the offline world. And that’s the way we judge each other; that’s the way we put ourselves out there to be seen and constantly, instantly putting out fragments of ourselves. I’m not against it— I do it too, but what I’m interested in is what are we concealing now? How much of what we are putting out is based on truth? Psychologically speaking, what are we trying to tell people from these images of ourselves? So with these, I’m ironically calling them my selfies, although I really hate that word, but rather than doing an instant selfie click, these are traditional oil paintings. Each one is representative of the things I feel we don’t always like to share, like certain traits of human nature. I’m not going to share on social media that sometimes I feel like an aggressive man, but I’ll make a painting about it because it’s important for us to recognize that we can be honest sometimes. I don’t know how much honesty there is on the Internet and that can make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Do you think it’s always going be such a big part of our lives?

I would like to hope it wouldn’t be, it makes me a bit sad to think of young children growing up using Instagram when they’re 7 and comparing themselves and being worried about how many followers they have and being worried if they have enough friends on Facebook, because at the end of the day we need to remember its not the real world — it’s just not. I’ll meet people and never know them by their name but I feel like I know them because they follow me on Instagram and, in a way, that bothers me. But on the other hand people wouldn’t know I was a painter if it wasn’t for Instagram so there are positives. I guess I’m trying to understand it better, and I think the main thing is knowing our relationship with the virtual world and then still remembering our relationships with ourselves in the real world.

So you said you drew when you were younger, but was it a drastic decision to switch gears from modeling to painting?

I think I craved it to be honest. I really enjoyed modeling, and I’ve learned so much from it and I’m so grateful for it, but I think I really craved doing something I could do with my own hands and doing something I could create rather than being a part of what someone else’s ideas is. And again, especially in New York, you need that sense of inner peace, you need that focus. And I think the great balance between modeling and art is that modeling is extroverted — each job is different, it’s unpredictable, whereas painting is introverted — you have full control of what you’re doing, you can plan whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. So it was natural for me. It’s funny with modeling because you start so young — I started when I was 16 and left school doing it when I was 17– so by the time you get to be 20 you feel like you got to add a bit more to the part — at the university stage as well when you’re really figuring out what you want to do in the long term.

So for this series, you would hypothetically be standing in your bathroom and you’d just say ‘oh I should take a photo of this for the painting’?

Yeah actually. I would look in the mirror and I’d think of a classic medieval woman or a Spanish Madonna or a Vermeer or anything like that, and then it eventually becomes a painting. I have one that’s kind of like a Bukowski drunken woman, very aggressive. And another with a kind of Southern blue eye shadow, this very red-headed, broken woman. It’s really fun to be a complete weirdo for the pictures.

Do you have a technique for getting out of creative ruts?

I find it helpful to look at artists from the past when I go to bed. When I look at their paintings, it gives me a lot of perspective. They didn’t have the mediums or the means that I do, they didn’t even have any money to get art supplies. You know, Picasso would paint prostitutes because he’d give them bottles of wines for their sitting, he couldn’t afford to pay them as proper models. So it helps to know that things could be a lot harder to make this happen.

Is there anything in specific you want the readers of Milk Made to know?

I’m grateful for all of the artistic support, it’s the reason I keep going. Something I struggle with, and all artists struggle with, is self doubt, and that back and forth thinking of ‘its amazing’ and ‘its terrible.’ It’s been the nicest thing when I put out my work and have so many people reach out to me and give me support and tell me they’re inspired by what I do; that’s such a pleasure for me. I just think it’s so, so important to be creative without worrying so much about what other people are thinking— without doing it to impress people, but doing it to just enjoy beautiful things.

‘Layers of Life’ is on display from March 19th-April 19th at the Catherine Ahnell Gallery, 66 Grand St., New York, NY

Tali Lennox photographed for Milk Made by Adrian Mesko

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