Kimberly Lieu – In the Absence of Comfort: How Art Can Be Revealing

“Expressing yourself is uncomfortable and I kind of like to project that onto people,” artist Philippe Previl admits as he takes apart a display of paintings from his last show at the Freeport Memorial Library in Long Island last month. I look around his space at still-lifes of sneakers, junk food, and portraits of his family and friends – it’s odd pastiche that makes you wonder about his subject matter and how they relate to one another.

"Shoes Landscape" by Philippe Previl
“Shoes Landscape” by Philippe Previl

Previl’s paintings of junk food and sneakers don’t seem to make sense until you know that he is an urban artist, perhaps more when you learn that he is a black artist.

“I grew up uncomfortable about a lot of things and that was the only way I could deal with them – by making things that sort of made people feel uncomfortable. But not in an overt way, because I always felt like I was uncomfortable but I was just being myself.”

The intimation of the issues he faced as a young, black man studying Fine Art at the Cooper Union and the Rhode Island School of Design are easily interpreted. Critiques revealed peoples’ ideas about the type of art he should (or shouldn’t) be making.

"Jones" by Philippe Previl
“Jones” by Philippe Previl

His impressive collection, An Artist’s Shoes (2013), is comprised of seventy paintings of different sneakers like the Twelves, Flights, and Foams that I dislike at first glance. They make me feel uneasy and I’m not sure why. As we discuss them, the implications I immediately thought of – issues surrounding consumerism, capitalism, social responsibility, and violence – surface and then I get it. On the other hand, it pays homage to basketball, Hip Hop culture, and the nostalgia of growing up in the city and then I get it again, another way. The collection is a culmination of all of these things and I begin to understand that I had come to my own conclusions about art, which are apparently stereotypical. But our conversation opens me up to the complicated ideas of his work and how they work within a larger whole.

“I think when I approach painting I’m doing something that’s seemingly normal but it’s probably not what I’m supposed to be doing; not for this setting.” He clarifies,

“You’re not supposed to be devoting months to a project like this – it doesn’t line up with my education or anyone’s education, it’s not in line with ‘Fine Art’ or anything anyone who loves sneakers should be thinking about like Impressionism, color-mixing, or brushstrokes. We shouldn’t be loving sneakers the same way we love religious subjects or landscapes or nudes.”

"Pops" by Philippe Previl
“Pops” by Philippe Previl

He draws attention to the Shoulds and Shouldn’ts and the contradictions we all struggle with in life and in art. Meditating on the how provocative his paintings are I think about questions I should ask myself about my own social stereotypes, which is for me, a product of growing up in America. It sparks a plethora of conversations to be had about race, identity, class, and art itself.

Previl’s collection also includes portraits of family and friends, most of whom were uncomfortable with being rendered into paintings. “I think that the act of painting or making art makes other people uncomfortable because they don’t understand it. They don’t know themselves or how to deal with their own thoughts.”

Previl’s roots are in Brooklyn where he grew up in an urban environment, far different from his parents’ native land of Haiti. The portraits of his family are depictions of remarkably ordinary people doing everyday things. Pops captures Mr. Previl (his father) asleep in a chair in his home office. “Painting can be very subtle. It’s okay to see black people in certain media, in very illustrative images on a poster cause it’s staged and there’s a concept behind it so it’s accepted. But as soon as you see them in a Vermeer home-setting people wonder ‘What’s going on here?’ There’s a humanity to them cause they’re doing something other than staring back at you and representing something other than themselves.” To my surprise, I can’t think of any homely portraits of non-Eurocentric people and I wonder why that is. I wonder why, exactly, does Previl try to make his viewers feel uncomfortable?

Discomfort reveals important aspects of ourselves and challenges our feelings, beliefs, identities, and views about the world.

Kimberly Lieu

Traveling Poet and Writer, Kimberly Lieu does “a little bit of this and a little bit of that” in between journeys. In pursuit of wholeness, she always finds time for books and conversation.

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