Art Brut – Sivan Lavie

We spoke to issue one contributor Sivan Lavie about her work, childishness and outsider art.

 LYRA: Before making art, your background was in psychology: has this had an impact on your practice?

Sivan Lavie: Definitely. Before I started making art, I took an undergraduate degree in psychology. Then, in my MA – Art and Science – I explored the relationship between art and psychology. My particular interest was in mental health, partly because of this education, and because I went through a severe episode of depression in 2012.

My research led me to become fascinated by outsider art: made by people with learning disabilities, by self-taught artists, by the mentally unwell, and – generally – those far away form the ‘art world’. From this, I began running an art class in a mental health centre – though I should stress that it wasn’t a taught class, but an individually tailored, facilitated studio in which the clients could make whatever they wanted. After this I accumulated quite a bit of experience with this sort of thing: working for a collection of outsider art, an outsider art gallery, and a couple of studios that are creative havens for people with all sorts of disabilities. It’s amazing to see these artists work: often, they have beautiful, intense, repetitive methods of their own.

L: I expect this had its influence too?

SL: Of course. Such exposure inspired me to paint in a way that’s free from the external pressures and demands of the consumer. That said, becayse I’m not an outsider artist and whatever I make is very self-aware, so in a way I’m referencing outsider art.

L: You’re not alone in this, though…

SL: No, somewhat to my surprise, outsider art is becoming quite popular now: I’ve come across other emerging artists who reference it quite clearly. It’s great because outsider art has always been sidelined, and now it’s being recognised as an alternative art history. Moreover, being inspired by this kind of work is something of a riposte to the art world, which is often so cerebral, pretentious and business-like…

L: Which appeals to young artists.

SL: Exactly.

L: What else informs your work – the colour, for instance?

SL: It’s really important to make art you like. I find working with bright colours in a loose way really exciting. My drawing Ball of Energy reflects the enthusiasm I feel when I paint. I remember as a child watching Disney’s Alice in Wonderland: it became my favourite film, I was completely mesmerised by the colours. I still have an affinity for saturated colours, childlike objects and toys.

L: So there’s an element of ‘the child’ in what you do?

SL: Yes… I’m not sure if I can completely explain my love of bright colours and children’s art. It definitely has something to do with the fact that children draw freely, without prior knowledge or preconception, without a care in the world. I guess I do miss my early childhood. My teenage years were plagued with self-consciousness and so painting like a child could be a form of regression, a journey back to a time when I felt happy, safe and free from responsibilities. Also, the world was so full of magic then, and I really miss that. I suppose I’m trying to put some magic back into the world, or into my life at least.

L: I guess this sense of freedom is common to an idea of outsider art: all an escape from pretention.

SL: I think art-making is quite an insular experience. I think what people don’t realise is that artists often spend most of their time alone, and that, to me, is a really unpretentious thing to do. We might go out to parties, but most of us artists are outsiders in some form, we don’t have standard nine to five career aspirations, we need to deal with what’s going on in our heads. I can’t be pretentious about what I do; it’s a really honest field of work for me, letting people see inside myself.

L: What about how you work? 

SL: Painting in an expressive and abstract way helps me to loosen up and feel freer. I use my non-dominant hand a lot to relinquish some control and experiment with unconventional materials.

L: Like?

SL: Ideas just pop into my head – a paper mâché laptop, an expanding foam cake. I’ve used a lot of weird and wonderful things like blood, hair, pillows, coins, smarties, play dough, eggs, photographs, melted crayons, dried flowers and so on. I love trying out different materials without knowing if they will work or not.

It’s so great having my own studio so people don’t look at me in a funny way if I start melting crayons or whisking icing sugar, Philadelphia cheese and paint.

L: When I visited your studio last, in your last show too, there were more conventional paintings – using oil or acrylic – than before. 

SL: Yeah – I’m at a point where I want to begin creating paintings that are solely made of paint. I think that I’m still learning: oil paint is tricky, it doesn’t always do what you want. I’m trying different colours and some shiny mediums, contrasted by matt paint, or acrylic paint mixed with concrete. Golden acrylics are very vibrant, they look deliciously edible.

L: On the subject of beginnings, what’s it like starting out as an artist?

SL: It’s pretty hard, as all other young artists already know, especially those living in London. Rent is steep, studio spaces are extremely temporary, there’s no security and no guarantee that you’ll succeed. I’m lucky enough to live in an affordable house, so my rent alongside my studio cost adds up to the sort of price people pay for a small room. But it’s still a lot.

But on top of this, which is bad enough, one thing that’s really expensive – and often overlooked – is actually showing work. Unless you’re lucky enough to be picked up by a big gallery, you have to rent a space, or pay a fee to a gallery, to actually exhibit. Then you pay to transport the work. And then there’s framing, tools and so on. Then, if they do end up selling your work, the gallery usually keeps around 40 percent. It’s great exposure to have your work in a group show, but you always end up losing money. It’s a frustrating tradeoff and I’m still learning the balance in selecting where to show and where not to.

L: So, at this point in your career, do you see your work as having an endpoint, or is the making of it the purpose? 

SL: I believe that creating art is a cathartic, therapeutic experience. It’s not the only thing that has that sort of effect. Manual tasks, like gardening, can have a similar impact and give you a feeling of release. I think making art should be fun and my goal, or ideal scenario, is that painting should always feel free, that when I have a canvas in front of me, I will have fun and do whatever I feel like doing until I’m too tired to continue. But it probably takes years to get to that point.

Although I love to paint, I almost have to learn, or unlearn, how to be free. It’s hard to forget yourself when you’re painting, especially if you’re preoccupied with technicalities, like getting the colours right and subconscious ideals of aesthetics.

L: So, aesthetics, the end, do matter?

SL: Of course – I care about the end result. Catharsis and aesthetics go hand in hand for me. Because I equate the naïve marks of children or outsider artists with freedom in artmaking, I instinctively love art that looks scruffy or naïve. When an artist feels free you can see it in their work, and it’s an intoxicating freedom that rubs off on you.

L: It comes down to freedom?

SL: With my own work, it’s a combination of working blind and stepping back. I start out with a very vague idea, whether it’s about a colour to start with, a shape, a surface to paint on, something I overheard on the tube or a drawing I’ve done. But then I just go for it. I don’t constantly think about the final painting while I’m in the process of painting, because it suppresses my freedom. If I constantly think, ‘this doesn’t look nice right now’ it hinders me. So it’s good to do layers and layers until something emerges.

I also step back and think about how the piece looks, analyse it. It’s hard to divorce yourself from this critical internal monologue. I think only outsider artists and children are capable of painting truly naively while being completely serious. But occasionally asking myself questions about my piece while I’m painting takes me toward answering questions posed by my paintings.

L: Which artists have influenced you?

SL: I’m inspired by a lot of different artists’ artwork or working method. I really admire Cy Twombly, Dieter Roth, Robert and Rauschenberg for their experimentation with materials, Jean Dubuffet, Asger Jorn and Arshile Gorky, for their boundless play with colour and form. I love Paul Klee’s puppets, and I should definitely mention some outsider artists I love: Sam Doyle, Judith Scott, Madge Gill’s tapestries, Ralph Schumacher (of Theatre Thikwa), Tony Allen (of Actionspace). I am constantly discovering new ways of working, seeing amazing things. My favourite artists are uninhibited, colourful, experimental, fun, humourous, and their work really stands out. Without having to hear the back story, the work is eye-catching, strong and viscerally affecting. 



Sivan’s interview with Spencer Tunick appears in issue one, buy it here. You can find her work on her website and should follow her on Instagram @sivanlife.