With acute sensitivity, he taps into to traditional techniques and the pictorial language of historical art genres, while injecting contemporary elements through blending it with the colorful and detailed aesthetic. The emotional resonance of his staged scenes and characters trigger the viewer to dive into the current state of the narrative, instinctively approaching the viewer’s active powers of the imagination to continue on the sequel of the scenery. Colliding traditional genres, illustration and subject matter, Chalk-Levy has developed a unique style with a distinctive design. In his recent experiments in the realm of digitally woven tapestries and Styrofoam sculptures, he explores how his contemporary re-interpretations and the use of advanced production processes impact their meaning and tradition.
How do you structure the day? When is for you studio time?
I try to be flexible, but find some kind of structure throughout the days and weeks, especially since the pandemic started. I usually take the beginning of the day until around noon for all my computer and admin stuff, like applying to shows and making PDFs. Now, for example, because I’m getting ready for a show, I take the first half of the afternoon and work on my tapestries because I have the focus and good light in my apartment. Then from about 6 pm on is my magic time, where I usually paint or do sculptures until the early hours of the day.
Where is your atelier situated? Has your studio always been situated there, or have you also had other types of working spaces? If yes, how do they impact?
My studio is across the street from my apartment in Vienna. I was lucky enough to find a ‘Lager’ under a big Supermarket in a really old building that used to be a Glass Factory. I built a wood organizer for all my big paintings and got free carpets from Willhaben to line the whole floor to make it seem not like an underground cave.
It gives me the freedom to run back and forth easily, but to be honest when I’m working on anything smaller than a 120x120cm canvas, I like to do it in the front room of my apartment.
I’ve lived in several countries in the last ten years and sometimes I have a great space, like my old Atelier I had on Großes Neugasse, and then before that, when I first moved to Vienna, I had everything I own including all my canvases, clothing and a bed in an 8sqm meter room. Each space reflects a different inspiration and new processes to the works.
How did it happen to you to move to Vienna?
Quite by chance actually. An old friend of mine had organized a show and drawing marathon at the VBKOE. I was at the time still living in Berlin and was getting really fed up and maybe a bit lost in the city. I was only here for three days, but the changes in energy and seeing the grandness and gorgeousness of the city tempted me to stay. I also had a long talk with one of the women from the gallery who happens to work at the Akademie and she told me to apply, and luckily enough I got in. Funnily enough, we now have shown at the same gallery in Austria, GALERIE 3. Then the adventure kind of unfurled itself – moving to yet another new country not knowing a single person. Also, I’m very stubborn in the fact I spent too many years learning German to not live in a German-speaking land!
How would you describe yourself? How do you create the magic in your works?
I am quite a ritualistic person when I make art. Maybe it’s from being a Virgo or maybe it’s because of an element of magic and antiquity I try to infuse into my work. For example, I use the same glass yogurt container as my water glass, since a couple of years. With each painting session it builds power and becomes part of the ritual. The same with my palette. It’s a resin palette that I just keep caking on the acrylic color for about ten years. I feel when I keep using them, somehow the connective threads in my work strengthen. Most of my ideas happen in my sketchbooks, which are now in the several dozen. I’m all over the place in my sketchbooks, so there can be some pages with gorgeous fully colored images, then the next can be a detailed to- do list, and then imagined exhibitions and paintings I want to make. A journal, Almanac, list of things to do and book of spells all in one.
And your works?
I would describe my work as figurative, mostly painting, heavily inspired by art history and personal narratives. When I paint, I use acrylics, which gives me the freedom to use them light and watery like gouache, very thin layers like classic oil portraits or even very bold, playing to the acrylic’s strengths. I take inspiration from many, sometimes odd, sources. For example, I am originally from the UES of Manhattan and practically grew up at the Metropolitan Museum. From such a young age, I don’t think I could process everything I was seeing, contectually at least, and was fabulously overwhelmed. All the different periods, styles, and visual languages, especially at a museum like the Met. Seeing a Toulouse Lautrec painting and the Temple of Dendur in the same visit has informed a lot of how I do things today. I am also a sponge and think of myself as an amateur anthropologist, fascinated with people and cultures and the times we live in compared to what was before. And recently, this idea has taken a bigger step into my practice, possibly because of the pandemic. Themes of life, history, and how we are remembered when we’re gone, leaning on the dramatic and epic nature of our times.
What have you been working on recently?
I just came back from an amazing show that is closing this week in Brooklyn. It was a group show called ‘Skys the Limit’ at TW Fine art. I showed two different series of drawings, one being a series inspired by and taken directly from my time working in Berlin at a High-end Brothel The other is an imagined narrative of soldiers in a city at night spiraling into chaos. It was very autobiographical of what was going on in my life, and I felt it was much easier to express myself through characters. I feel my drawings tap into something else rather than another male artist making over-sexualized images of sex workers. I love to focus on the banal and the ‘in between’ moments of the women (they were both my best friends and at times even my worst enemies) and the day-to-day reality of my work was not at all sexual or sexy. A lot of cigarettes and drinking and fights over what playlist I’d play in the bar. I find beauty standards so interesting, contemporary and historically. Specifically, with sex workers, the volume is always turned up to 11; more hair, more make up et cetera. And that really fits into everything I love to create with my art; this overindulgent, opulent and sometimes ridiculous elegance and luxury.
What else do you love?
I love to travel. And I am so lucky that I have a partner that has also always done the same. I love going to new places and searching for forgotten histories and lost stories of a city. I’m really lucky to be close enough to the Mediterranean and so I can often hop from one country to the next exploring the many old ruins. I also love collecting and trading artworks from other artists!
Some really exciting projects! Right now, I am doing a ‘Winter Drawing Drop’ of a great series I did of A4 portraits. I am just posting them on my site’s store. Another big project I can’t talk too much about; but it’s going to be a really amazing show in USA with TW Fine Art; focusing mostly on my tapestry work. There will be all-new never- before-seen works that I am as we speak, sewing sequins on like a madman!
About the artist: Spencer Chalk-Levy was born and raised in New York City and graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor in Fine Art from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, then continued studies from 2014-2020 at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. He currently works in Vienna. One can check out Spencer Chalk-Levy’s Winter Drawing Drop.
About the Interviewer: Erka Shalari (*1988, Tirana) is a Vienna-based art author. She focuses on discovering emerging artists, unconventional exhibition spaces, and galleries that have deliberately broken new ground in their working methods. In this regard, she relies on unorthodox publishing practices, coupling these with a nonchalant manner of writing. The work oscillates between articles for magazines, exhibition texts and press releases.