A prominent young Australian artist, Sydney-based Loribelle Spirovski explores faces, closed rooms, labyrinths, anxiety, mortality, myth and much more. Her paintings are heavily inspired by Francis Bacon, David Lynch and Olivier Messiaen but at their very core, they are attempts she makes to externalise her own inner conflicts. The artist uses patterns of movement and stillness to create an unsettling effect, evoking a surreal and dreamlike quality.
Having obtained her BA from the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales, Loribelle has gained considerable recognition for her creativity. This year, she was a finalist for the prestigious Archibald Prize. Here she discusses the motivations behind her artistry, her career till now and responds to some of my interpretations of her work…
Let’s begin with your mixed background. You were born in Manila in 1990 and settled in Australia in 1999. You write that you are “influenced by the contrasting images of both places”. How much of you is European/Western and how much Asian?
The interesting thing about growing up is that I had always associated myself with being Filipino—I lived there until I was 8, and didn’t meet my dad until I was 7. It wasn’t until I moved to Australia and got to know my dad that I realised how similar I was to him. Basically all of my interests are inherited from my dad; everything from my love of books, architecture, desserts, Jazz, Classical music, the natural world, and of course, art. Every time I’ve gone to visit Europe, I’ve always felt very connected, but that hasn’t diminished my Filipino roots.
Going through your portraits, I realised that you frequently disturb the human face. This is a common characteristic of contemporary art—the raw, smudged and melted effect. But what’s distinctive about your work is that you almost always retain the eye, as in “Renaissance Man” and “Icarus”. The iris is bright, shiny, coloured; it sticks out as though a conduit and conveyor of the soul itself. Why is the eye so important to you?
I think that many contemporary portraitists feel that timeless attraction towards the human face, but in a world dominated by images of people, there’s a question of what we can add to that plethora. Personally, I have been trying to take the notion of the face back to its most basic elements, and we as humans are so attuned to identifying faces, that very little needs to be said for a face to emerge. This has lead to a very direct way of painting, using basic visual cues to represent the face. Eyes have an eternal power that somehow manages to transcend time and culture, so it was a no-brainer to have that as the focal point of each ‘portrait’.
Many of your paintings are inspired by the output of Francis Bacon (“After She Left”, “Here and There”)—they depict a loss of identity, contain masses of flesh and thin cage-like structures in claustrophobic interiors with solid, nondescript walls. When did you first encounter Bacon? And what attracts you to his style and themes? I feel he was a very perceptive observer and honest portrayer of the anxieties and tragedies of the twentieth century…
When I first encountered Bacon in my high school art class, I was scared of him—the distortion and raw, visceral imagery was very unsettling and seemed to trigger something primal in me. It wasn’t until I graduated from art school and experienced my own personal entrapment and turmoil, that Bacon’s work began to resonate with me. I began a series called ‘Memento Mori’ a few years ago, which explored depression and anxiety, and I used to work in my very small bedroom at my parents’ house, so these works were, in kind, small and full of familiar faces. The motif of the skull emerged from this series, and though photorealistic in style, I began to see similarities with Bacon’s portraits.
My subsequent research into his work introduced me to ideas that seemed to embody my own thoughts and experiences, so naturally, my paintings began to reflect similar visual elements. Recently, I’ve begun to depart from Bacon as a source of inspiration, but what I have extrapolated from his practice is something that I will always be grateful for, because it ultimately helped me to break out of my own personal and artistic chains, and enabled me to find a voice.
Two other Bacon-esque pieces of yours that I found interesting were “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Sound and Fury”, with Biblical and Shakespearean–Faulknerian resonance, respectively. These works complement each other very well, they are like two sides of a coin. The rooms you show, without an entrance or exit, seems to me the picture of a universe that is purely defined by naked matter and is devoid of the possibility of transcendence.
“Jacob’s Ladder” is a scene of great spiritual frustration. Man makes repeated attempts to break the prison, rise above it. But the ceiling never cracks open to reveal the sky, the sky never parts to reveal the heavens. At the end of the staircase is only stale air and nothingness. “Sound and Fury” looks like the consequence, the conclusion of this scene of defeat—it is a declaration of the utter pointlessness…of both human effort and the larger cosmos, a loud admission of existential despair. Tell us more about what’s happening in these rooms and why you chose your two literary references…
Firstly, I have to thank you for such a well thought-out commentary of these two works. It means a great deal to have an intelligent and perceptive opinion projected onto images that came to me very instinctively and were executed in a flurry of energy. For my practice, it is more important to harness an ‘energy’ and create images very rapidly, capitalising on the flow of ideas. The concepts are often secondary, unless I have a particular word, song or image in mind when I execute a piece.
I love how you have connected these two works in particular. They were created months apart and were tied together as part of what I have come to call the ‘Labyrinth’ series. These interiors grew out of the ‘Memento Mori’ series, as a result of the claustrophobic feeling of being and working in that tiny bedroom in suburbia; each portrait in that series is drawn from images photographed at the exact same spot next to the window, during midday, which was/is the time of day that causes me a great deal of anxiety (something about the transition from the beginning of the day, to the end).
As I began to depart from the ‘portrait’ as the central focus of my paintings, I started to examine the negative space around the figure, and the weight that empty space can carry (see ‘Mysterium’).
As for the titles, I have always had a love of literature and so it was very natural for me to associate the images that I was producing with narratives and characters that I have encountered in books. Additionally, having been brought up in a very religious place like Manila, biblical narratives also emerged as inevitable connotations with my image-making.
David Lynch and Olivier Messiaen are other big influences of yours. The first for his “dreamlike surrealism” and the second for his “static musical tones”. If you had to name two of your favourite works by each of these artists, which ones would you select?
Very hard to choose with Lynch—I suppose it’s certain images like ‘Club Silencio’ from Mulholland Drive, the radiator in Eraserhead, or the ‘Red Room’ from Twin Peaks. Lynch’s eye for composition, and his ability to take familiar ideas and tweak them in a way that evokes an unsettling and surreal effect, is nothing short of masterful. As for Messiaen, his ‘Quartet for the end of time’ and ‘Vingt regards’ are go-tos, when I’m in need of inspiration.
The mythical beasts are such evocative symbols for me, partly because they are so ancient. The idea that people have created these terrifying creatures and that they have endured for centuries, is such a testament to the entanglement of our fears and desires. Why are we so drawn to things that scare us? I went on a cruise once and was standing on the balcony looking out into the mass of ocean, and there was a point where I would lean out far enough that the walls of the ship would disappear and I would just be enveloped in the sheer enormity of the water and sky, and it was both the most terrifying and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Some of your paintings are inspired by your travels to various country-town motels around Australia. “The motel room”, you write, “becomes a metaphor for the human psyche”. That’s a very intriguing statement. Could you elaborate on it?
I’m very intrigued by spaces and how they can drastically affect and shape the persons in that space. As a child, I was always watching people, but was always more interested in spaces under the bed, in the crevice of a couch, or the corner of a wall. I would gravitate to those places and just sit very close to them, feeling myself become separated from the world outside. I think that I still work in the same way, and am very sensitive to my surroundings, so when I go with my partner on tours, staying in motels and hotels, I feel the same as when I was a child, and the work that I tend to produce as a result, reflect how I was feeling within those spaces.
So travelling can be stimulating for an artist, you have noted. If you had the chance, what all places in the world would you like to visit for painterly inspiration?
Mid-next year I am actually planning to go to one of the places that inspire me; a palazzo in Brescia, where I will be involved in an artist in residency program. I don’t have any specific places that I’d like to go to, to fuel my work, but I am most drawn to places with history, and contrary to my love of rivers and forests and the sea, in my art practice I tend to prefer interiors, especially the haunting ones.
In “Vers la flamme”, the skull becomes the face and the face becomes the skull. The body of the figure shifts back and forth between standing and sitting positions. The effect is dizzying, and quite powerful. How did this one come about?
‘Vers la flamme’ is a very special piece for me. It was originally intended to bookend the ‘Memento Mori’ series, and when I met Simon, who’s now my husband, I was in a very dark place. But things changed very rapidly and dramatically in my personal life, and for a time I didn’t produce any work at all. It took a while to become settled and to feel that I was ready to pick up a brush again. ‘Vers la flamme’ was the first thing that I painted when I began again, and I quickly realised that I could no longer paint another ‘Memonto Mori’ piece, because I simply wasn’t in that place anymore. As a result, ‘Vers la flamme’ is both an ending and a beginning. I had envisioned Simon as a phoenix, rising from the ashes of tragedy, and this was the image that guided me throughout the process. It is very much a self-portrait.
Have buyers and collectors expressed their personal thoughts on your work? If yes, what are some of the comments and interpretations you’ve heard?
I really haven’t had a chance to speak to buyers, as much as I’d love to. The few that I have are often simply attracted to the visual elements, or the painting makes them feel a certain inexplicable way. I think for most of them, the painting is saying something that they are unable to express themselves, and that’s why they want to own it—because it’s ineffable.
Of course, most people who comment just say, “Oh yeah, it’s just like Bacon” (or worse, “That’s a total Bacon rip-off”), or “It’s just like Dali”, or “It kinda reminds me of Freud”, and it’s nice to be associated with people who have displayed such genuine acts of genius, but at some point, you want to be acknowledged for your own voice. I’m still a relatively young artist, so I’m trying to be patient with this, and just let things happen organically. I’m waiting for the day when they say, “This is so Loribelle”.
How do you find the contemporary art scene in Australia? What’s good—and what’s not so good—about it?
As someone who’s essentially still ’emerging’ into the Australian art scene, I’ve so far found it to be a remarkably supportive world, that appears quite non-judgemental, with colleagues who easily become friends and who aren’t looking to compete, as there’s plenty for everyone. I might be looking at it through rose-coloured lenses, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive response to my work and my often unpredictable experimentation. I was warned against working in different styles when I first came out, but I’ve since found that there are different audiences for different styles, and that it’s ok to find your feet.
What are you planning for 2018?
2018 is shaping up to be a very exciting and busy year. Artistically, I have gone through a ‘process of elimination’ and am closer to my vision than I was a year ago. I’m currently working on a series of ‘Portraits of no one’ in preparation for my exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne entitled ‘Strangers in a Room’. I’ll be continuing my examination of figures and spaces, but with greater emphasis on paint as a medium in itself, focussing on the texture, the line, the colour. I don’t know exactly where I’ll be at the end of the year, but then if I did, where’s the fun in that?