“I’m dealing with the stereotypes that are fed to us in pop culture, giving them back through a female awareness of how they affect us,” painter Rebecca Leveille tells me on a brisk, sunny afternoon from her studio in Amherst, MA.
As a child Rebecca was obsessed with female super heroes. “I was a massive Wonder Woman fan,” she notes “But there’s these weird, twisted ways that [female super heroes] are fed to us. They are powerful, but submissive. Sexy, but objects. And so, that’s what I grew up in, and that’s what I even stepped into drawing.”
As an illustrator (under the name Rebecca Guay) for DC Comics then Marvel, Rebecca was a generator and creator of the cultural icons and symbols she consumed as a child, “I drew super heroes [and] all of these potent symbols that many [of us] grow up with.” Six years ago, she left publishing to devote herself full-time to painting and teaching. Now, Rebecca is “reflecting back on both with a sort of love and deep critique, playing these two sides.”
Leif: What excites you about pop culture right now?
Rebecca: I’m enthralled with the glory of gender fluidity. I have a teenager who is schooling me daily on all of the amazing things and ways of thinking that are happening now. [This] blows my mind in all the best ways. Gender non-binary pronouns are great things! And the awareness of the power of stories that revolve not [only] around the white male hero. You see [this] in movies like Black Panther and Wonder Woman.
Leif: On the flip side, what upsets you about pop-culture right now?
Rebecca: The social injustice. The voice of prejudice. I think we’ve all been woke in terms of what’s out there and that’s shocking. It reminds you that justice isn’t promised, it’s fought for. I think we’re at a really promising time in terms of the people who are being woke to action.
Leif: And what role do you see the artist playing in this ‘waking’?
Rebecca: Artists are mirrors of what’s happening. As an artist, I take in what’s going on, filter it through the emotions that I carry and give it back in, hopefully, something that will provoke thought, change a perspective [or] get people thinking. I’m somebody who deals in the idea of beauty. I do love beauty, it is a powerful thing [and] it’s not to be underestimated. I feel that I should defend the idea of beauty because it represents emotionally important things to us throughout history.
Leif: How do you define beauty?
Rebecca: My ideas of beauty are rooted deeply in personal agency, conveying a sense of internal integrity and power. When I’m working if I miss those things within the gesture of the figure, it’s not going to come through in the final stage of the painting. [Beauty is] like this X-factor that starts to take your breath away.
Leif: So, how do you know when you’ve hit upon that X-factor?
Rebecca: It’s non-tangible. You respond to it emotionally. Something happens in the nature of the gesture, in the nature of the moment created in the internal mythology of creating. Each image I make is an internal mythology, hopefully that is a reflection of my own mythology that’s been compiled of all these external sources. And you start the work with the hope of finding it, and in the process of the work, you either hit it or you don’t. When you hit it there’s a very visceral feeling, you put something together and you know you’ve hit it.
Leif: The work makes an emotional connection …
Rebecca: I know that if I’ve made an emotional connection to myself there’s something that’s going to connect with somebody. What I think people respond to is that I’ve had an authentic reaction to something and they’re going to respond to that same thing.
Leif: When did you decide to form this body of work into a show?
Rebecca: After the last show in Brooklyn. At that point, I only had a glimmer of what the whole picture would be, but that’s the process … inspiration finds you working. I work on that principle. You generally don’t get inspiration out of thunder-claps from the gods; it comes out of the practice. Kerry James Marshall said something like, ”Much of being an artist is hard work and most of it is physical.” There’s such truth in that.
Leif: Would you tell us more about your process?
Rebecca: Yeah, I try to keep bankers’ hours, honestly. I try to get up and do my email, then get to work [laughs]. I usually stop work around 6:00 or 7:00, cook dinner… I used to be much more volatile in terms of my hours, stay up all night and sleep really late, all the way through my twenties. And then it got easier and easier to get more regimented and I found that I was a much more productive artist.
Leif: What’s The End of Love about?
Rebecca: Well, [this show is] examining the many meanings of love in the most simple sense. The end of love to the nth degree, dance me to the end of love, the full heart end of love, the end of love [and] the disillusion and what comes after, the end of the physical act of love; the visceral bodied nature of it. These seem like the perfect thread to carry these many thoughts under one umbrella.