Artist of the Week

Ilana Savdie

November 25, 2020

Ilana Savdie was raised in Barranquilla, Colombia and is now based in Brooklyn, New York. She received her MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2018 and her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2008. Savdie’s work deals with themes around invasion, control, defiance, and all the ways in which power is propelled and mediated through bodies as they relate to home, history and heritage. Ilana had her first solo show with ltd los angeles in 2019 and has an upcoming solo show at Deli Gallery in Brooklyn in 2021. Most recently she was included in the Jenkins Johnson Gallery booth at Frieze London 2020. She has been involved in numerous group exhibitions which include recent shows at the Museum aan de Stroom and CASSTL gallery in Antwerp, Belgium; Golestani Gallery in Düsseldorf, Germany; Jack Barett gallery in New York; Essex Flowers in New York, and Diane Rosenstein in Los Angeles. Ilana was awarded the 2020 NXTHVN studio fellowship and is currently an artist in residence until May of 2021.

You’ve worked the Marimonda figure, an image often associated with Carnival from your hometown of Barranquilla, into your recent paintings from 2020. Can you discuss the significance of it as a cultural symbol? As one of protest? 

The marimonda is the sort of figurehead of the Colombian carnival, omnipresent throughout the country as a representation of the festive spirit of us costeños, the people of the coast. Though its meaning has changed in recent decades as it was incorporated and became the figurehead of the carnival, the origin of the costume is said to come from the 1800s as a means of mocking an oppressive social elite. The mask is said to be a combination of a primate and an elephant and worn with an oversized suit and tie. I am interested most in this origin story and the use of the exaggerated body as a form of mockery and mockery as a form of protest. We can locate in that a very queer history of exaggerating the body and taking up space beyond imposed and oppressive boundaries as forms of resistance and protest.

Can you discuss your use of exaggerated and abstracted bodies to explore queer subjectivity? 

Negotiated within queer subjectivity are the simultaneous experiences of erasure, incompatibility, invisibility, and shame in our early understanding of the boundaries imposed on us. This deeply informs how (and why) many of us take up space in the world. The bodies in my paintings are paths that constantly queer and reroute themselves, reconfiguring as acts of resistance, regaining power, and arriving at a kind of divine state through their abjection.

Two figures, each with a marimonda face, look at one another. Their forms are composed of various colorful extured forms. The figure on the right extend on an appendage and holds it up to the other, in an act of reprimand.
“Citizen’s Arrest,” 2020, 48”x58″, Oil, acrylic, beeswax on canvas.

What is the manipulation and exaggeration of the body, or skin upon the train tracks, in “Marimonda en Reposo” meant to convey? 

I like to think that this figure is oscillating between being the body and being the costume, the outfit, or the skin that contains the body. But nothing about the figures in my work can ever be true without also being untrue, and it is in that ambiguity that I am most at ease. This piece is inspired by moments in cartoons where bodies are boneless, organless, and impossibly elastic when they are meant to express trauma of any kind, which is so strangely palatable and grotesque at the same time. This body is dissolving and camouflaging into its environment implying an impending incoming threat. (Very) loosely, it considers both the power and the powerlessness inherent in invisibility.

What is your interest in juxtaposing more organic forms with artificial or architectural ones? 

In the simplest answer, one emphasizes the other. But it is also very much about creating figures that don’t exist independently of each other or their environment. Recognizing that power dynamics can be propelled externally and internally at once and imagining that all bodies are constantly reconfiguring to locate their own power. 

Oil Painting by artist Ilana Savdie. An illustrated cartoon like figure, with the marimonda face, is draped across train tracks. The figure is flatted against them. Other forms exist in the right frame of the painting. A coral sprial of distinct texture comes from the top center of the image and curves towards the bottom left.
“Marimonda en Reposo,” 2020, 48”x58″, Oil, acrylic, pigmented beeswax on canvas.

Though your works are painted with oil, acrylic, and beeswax, many of their compositions bear resemblance to digital paintings and collage, what roles, if any, do digital tools play in your process? 

I usually work on a sketch by hand first and then bring it into photoshop where I then undo a lot of the decisions my hand made, where I can disintegrate the drawing and leave room for paint to make decisions. To a degree, the digital space is where the rules of physicality are suspended and where I fall into a surrealist realm with greater ease.

Can you discuss your process of using beeswax to create texture and dimension?
For a while, I’ve been interested in materials that congeal a gesture by beginning to dry before the gesture is completely applied and beeswax behaves like that. By building it up into a texture it both exposes and disguises my hand. Like excess unraveling truth. I like the way wax is reminiscent of different parts of the interior and exterior body, that it is literally a material the body creates on its own, and this texture invites touch with both a seductive and repulsive cadence.

How has living in New York impacted your practice?
We all know this by now but New York has become a city that no longer welcomes artists, we have to contend with the fact of confined spaces, and that only lends itself to a certain kind of work. That said, now that I’ve been away for 9 months, I can’t underestimate the impact of not having access to a concentration of art as often as I do in NY. Since the pandemic started we’ve all had very little access to art beyond the screen and often it can feel like I’m cannibalizing my own work. 

Surreal and abstract painting. Forms painted in saturated orange, red, and green, that look like tentacles move about on left side and foreground of the painting. Small wispy forms painted in red and green dances about in the background against a soft green,pink, and blue pastel background. To the right bottom corner is a serialized set of circles.
“Forced to rapidly reproduce,” 2020, 48”x58″, Oil, acrylic, pigmented beeswax on canvas.

In “Marimonda desplegada (Marimonda unmasked),” the multiple figures are portrayed with contrasting moods, positions of power, and illustration styles, what are you unmasking here?
I can’t really say I know exactly what I’m unmasking, but I know it is the deploying, displaying, unsticking of a kind of armor, something that serves to protect and/or disguise. There is no one overwhelming style of painting in this piece that dictates what is othered here, what holds more power than the rest. 

What social relationships are important for you to portray with your works?
I think the most important relationships are between the authoritarian and the obedient, but that extends to the interior and exterior body and the physical self as it relates to memory.

Four figures, each painted in different styles exist in the painting. Each is a marimonda figure. The one in the top right corner grimaces and holds in their hand the hed of a flattened and streched illustrated figure. In the bottom of the painting a more maximalist and textural figure with no face places his hand on the neck of one at the bottom center of the painting.
“Marimonda Desplegada,” 2020,48”x58”, Oil, acrylic and beeswax on canvas.

Has Covid-19 impacted your practice, and if so how? 

Of course. I can’t imagine anyone has gone unaffected by this, it’s almost that universality that makes this so impactful. I can bring all different kinds of people into my studio and trust that we are all thinking about touch, intimacy, power, and loss to varying degrees. We are experiencing a kind of mass submission to these microscopic particles that have subdued the world and the scale shift in that power is so interesting to me. 

Is there any significance to the colors you use in your paintings? 

I like to think of the colors in my work as a perversion through abundance. I hope that they both seduce and repel, and force a kind of confrontation of that contradiction. To overwhelm through the uncanny. I like the power I have as a painter to make you not be able to look away, however much you might want to. 

Do you have any upcoming projects or shows? 

For the moment I’m focusing on a solo show I’ll be having at Deli Gallery in February.

“Striking non-mammalien,” 2020, 48”x58″, Oil, acrylic, pigmented beeswax on canvas.

Interview composed by Amanda Roach.