Tali Lennox: Ashes & Confetti

In an exclusive interview for So It Goes, we visit Tali Lennox at the Chelsea Hotel, temporary home of her new show Ashes & Confetti to chat about indulging in the past, the ever-fleeting present, and how to grow young.

So, basic stuff out of the way: tell me all about your show!

I love going back in time and playing with the experience of traveling through a place you don't really know about. That's the reason I decided to do the show in the hotel - a lot of the ideas I have about the work is based on people of the past - something that's intangible and under a veil. It's people who don't exist anymore and people who have gone. In the paintings, you can feel an energy from them but you can't access the subjects and they're almost trying to get to the surface - it's a bit like looking at someone through a steamed window. And that draws a lot of parallels to the limbo state of the hotel, as well. You hear about so much life passing through but at the end of the day, everything's temporary, isn't it?

You can't hold onto the past too much.

No, you can't but you can enjoy contemplating it.

And indulge when you have the opportunity.

 
 

That's what I want the night to be, as well. We're going to have a party in the Hotel and the show is actually in the El Quijote downstairs.

Are all the paintings in your show new works? Or did you take existing pieces and curate them into the theme of the show?

They're almost all new but actually there's one painting which started the whole concept of the show that I did about a year ago. The rest of it is all new, I actually just did it in the past month.

Oh, wow. That's very quick – do you usually paint that quickly?

I'm very fast and good on a deadline. I do paint quite fast. I'm the kind of person where I'm in it or I'm out of it. When I'm working, that's kind of all I want to commit my time to and I end up spending a lot of time alone and feeling slightly insane and getting in my head but at the same time, it's incredibly grounding for me and empowering.

Right. You mentioned before that painting is so intuitive and it involves so much of yourself so I can imagine that spending so much time being so focused on it, you sort of have a limited amount that you can pour into it before you need to take a break.

You do, you have to be very aware of how you're orchestrating it and you have to know when you're done and not to push it. It's basically like a relationship – I always say that painting for me always feels like a very short love affair in a way. You go on such a journey with each one and you put time and effort and care into it and you hate it and you like it and you don't know how you feel about it and when you're done, you're done. You go on to the next thing.

How long have you lived in New York?

For the last four years. I used to live in the East Village which is when I started painting in a little one bedroom. I really like working from home and enjoy the intensity of it - you totally go into another world. But usually by the end of the day, I have a moment where I have to go out and see a friend because otherwise I just end up feeling like a little old lady in a cave.

 
 

Do you feel like it's a form of escapism for you?

It does feel like escapism - I do feel sometimes that I lose touch with reality a little bit which can be a little scary sometimes. Scary but when you embrace it, I think it's fantastic. Why not create your own reality? And at the end of the day, if I can make work that other people can enjoy, that's great. But I do need to mix it up and that's why I'll do things with found objects that involves me getting out to find objects. I also do acting which I find is a really healthy balance between the two.

Did your father's career have any influence at all in your interest in acting? Or do you find that it's just a different way to express yourself creatively?

I think I've always just been brought up and encouraged to enjoy the arts - watching a lot of films, going to museums, picking up art books that were always in the house. And actually, I think my parents are the people I have the most dialogue with about my work which is really interesting. Luckily, I share kind of the same eye with both of them and I feel like sometimes they know how to articulate my work better than I do.

Yeah, I find it's always difficult to try to interpret yourself, in an objective way, to other people.

I don't like to, either. You've got to give your work time to show itself to you. I find that often with the paintings I do, I try not to analyze them too much while I'm doing them and then afterwards, it's strange, you start seeing why you were making the work and subconsciously, why you had to express that. Which you're not always aware of at the time and for me, I try to make my work really personal. I find it's really cathartic in that way and that painting is extremely healing as well. A lot of the current show is a reference to the past and to things that don't exist anymore – it's a lot of what I've contemplated for the past year, really.

No, that makes a lot of sense that in retrospect, you have experiential context for why you needed to express certain things at a certain time.

Exactly. And then you have to trust that as long as you keep living and having an interesting life, it can also give any circumstance an additional layer of depth in a way, I guess. If you can put whatever you're going through in life into what you do creatively, it gives it a sort of strange poetic feeling. 

So besides the past, do you think there's any particular theme that unifies this show?

I would say it's remnants. It's visitations from the past. It's trying to manifest things that don't exist anymore and trying to understand a different time. When, at the end, it's all inaccessible. And to me, it kind of goes back to death a lot. I think about death a lot but I don't think about it in a negative way, I just think it's such a huge thing that happens to everyone and no one actually knows what happens when you die. It's a question that's never been answered and there's a reason why it's never been answered. The show is all people from the past – it's us and them. There's a distance, there's no connection because you can't see into their eyes and they can't see into yours.

I think that 'visitation' is an interesting word because this show is very ghostly and a little hazy. Kind of like the steamed glass you were talking about before.

It's like blurred memories. Because every moment that passes is a gone moment, it's a memory. It exists somewhere in a blurred image.

 
 

Right, it's never quite a true representation of reality, is it?

No, you're never quite present with it again. And again, that's why it ties in back to the hotel. I wouldn't want to do the show anywhere else, really. Actually when I was recently at the hotel, my friend and I went into some of the rooms that haven't been torn out and it was really just magical. Some of them still had paint stains on the walls from the artists who used to live there and we wandered around some of the old corridors and it was so amazing. But I guess it's always a fascination with the unknown as well. And it's an interesting moment to be at the Chelsea because it's in limbo.

Well, it's become such a relic but such a skeletal version of what it used to be.

Exactly. But at the same time, everything is fleeting. And it's also about embracing that and it's embracing the hazed memories.

Because everything is fleeting and because the nostalgia for the moment in time where the Chelsea was at perhaps, its hay day, is so present, do you think that it makes its history a little more special? Because it's no longer accessible?

I think that it makes it intriguing. And that's why I was thinking about it a lot and trying to understand this bizarre concept, with passing or the past or people who have passed away or lived in different times, something is there for one moment and then it's gone. It's just so profound. And magic, in a way. Not magic, in a magical way but it's inexplicable. I'm not a religious person but everyone makes their own assumptions about what happens on the other side but I do have past experiences with loss and you can't help but wonder and question. Or at least be in awe of how scarily real something so surreal is.

Yeah, it's really easy to forget how fragile our circumstances are and how easily you can take it for granted. Anyone who Googles your name will very quickly find out about the quite recent loss of your boyfriend – do you think that that has had a particularly heavy weight on your work?

Definitely, I think. And I didn't really realize it until recently but that's also why the first piece I did was a year ago, when I was still going through quite a lot. I think when you go through something like that, it opens your eyes in a quite spiritual way to the journey of life and the frequency and unexpectedness of it which is completely intangible. If anything, I wanted to question it and contemplate it. I spent a lot of time collecting old photos and it's strange because you look at the people in the photos and you look into their eyes and there's an energy there but it's since been gone. 

 
 

That's so interesting and poignant because the first thing you notice is their eyes and they're, as they say, the windows to the soul, but you've chosen to paint all the subjects in this show without eyes and it makes these paintings kind of eerie in a way that you don't really realize immediately.

Exactly, I think in my work I like to make people a little uncomfortable but I don't want them to be creepy or scary. There is something about them that's unsettling but at the same time, I want the work to be beautiful.

Do you feel like you're quite old for your age? Given the things you've experienced in your life so far?

Everyone tells me that. I've never really felt my age – I don't really know what age I am. I always say I'm 5-years old going on 65. It's pretty much the feedback I get from everyone I meet and my dad said that, as a baby, I was like a little old lady.

So you've just been Benjamin Button-ing ever since?

Yeah, I hope so. There's a great quote by Picasso that's something like, "It takes a long time to grow young," and I love that.

Photos and styling by Kristin Gallegos.

Tali Lennox's new series 'Ashes & Confetti' is on view Thursday, December 15 from 1-5pm at El Quijote restaurant in the Chelsea Hotel.