Women's Liberation Front Interview
The April WoLF Artist-of-the-Month is....drum roll please...Jennifer Bilek! Ms.Bilek resides in New York and is a painter. Find our interview with her below and be sure to check out her web site and work!
Interview questions by Thistle Pettersen.
WoLF: What makes your art feminist?
Bilek: I don’t call my art “feminist art.” I am not sure there is such a thing. By its nature, if it is any good, art will be a reflection of the artist’s politics, beliefs, sensitivities, and moral character. I am a feminist in that the very fiber of my being is dedicated to ending male supremacy and that will manifest in my art whether or not I am consciously considering creating a feminist message per se. If I go about calling my work “feminist art,” then my work is forced to fit a particular ideology, my subconscious processes and my muse then become slaves to my intellect and my politics. I become obliged to convey a message that an audience will perceive as feminist.
My portraits are bold and unapologetic. They do not lend themselves to being demurely placed over a sofa to blend with the colors of someone’s living room. They are fierce expressions of not only my subjects and myself, but are a culmination of the forces at work in my culture and the forces of whatever lives in the space where creativity is born. I do not paint women for the male gaze and I do not paint children for their parent’s appetite for cuteness. I am not that kind of portrait painter. I paint souls and souls living in a culture on the verge of collapse, in a culture where half the population is subordinated to the other half, are generally not full of sunshine – though of course we all have our bright moments and a connection to the love that is always within us and around us – we are extremely complex because of what is happening in our world. If my portraiture is feminist, it is because it dares reflect this complexity.
WoLF: How did you become interested in painting people?
Bilek: I didn’t. It is what claimed me. My very first portrait was of a starving child in National Geographic Magazine. I was 13 years old when I painted it. It is still one of my favorite portraits though technically it is rather simplistic because I wasn’t proficient at controlling the paint yet. I was drawn to this child, it’s suffering, it’s strength and it’s complexity. I wanted to understand more about this child. What is poverty as it plays out in the soul of a child, on the skin of a child, through the eyes of a child? For me, there was no separation at the initial point between the social complexities surrounding the child and the child itself. Today, I don’t paint starving children, in the sense they have no food. Western children live their own brand of starvation though – as western people do - in a natural environment on the verge of collapse, or in urban communities devoid of a natural landscape. We are all disconnected from each other and the land, so how could we all not be starving to varying degrees? So, it has always been the cumulative process of painting what is happening in the world as it manifests through people that has been my work. It is something that claimed me even before I was painting, while I was still learning to draw.
WoLF: You state on your site under the "nudes" tab "The human race has turned away from its animal nature and become pathological in the process. It has turned away from the light, of which it is a part. It refuses to see. Humans are dying because they refuse to see that they are part of the natural environment around them." Can you talk about this in the context of feminists and feminism?
Bilek: Females gestate and nurture life from their own bodies. It is why nature is referred to as female or “mother nature.” Without nature, and women to create this life, we wind up with a world on the verge of collapse, which is what we face now, with more than 250 species a day going extinct, the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets melting at a pace that is changing the force of gravity, and one in every three women having been, or who will be, the victims of sexual violence perpetrated by men. Most all human societies are now male-dominated and subordinate females. Most all religions are patriarchal and worship male deities, while the life blood of females and nature is disregarded as dirty and something to be controlled.
There is a wonderful Lakota quote, “when people turn away from nature they become hard.” All around us we see evidence of this and still men will not relinquish control. They don’t seem to be able to understand that without the respect toward that which gives us life, we all die. A necrophilic obsession has manifested in the world because men have turned away from and actively seek to subordinate that which brings life: women and the natural world.
WoLF: Do you ever paint landscapes or add surreal or unrealistic elements to your portraits? What it is about the portrait that draws you in?
Bilek: I have painted landscapes, abstracts and added surreal and unrealistic elements to my portraits, but as my work has matured, my propensity has been to let the face (and sometimes the body) tell all. Only 30% of our communication is made through the actual words that come out of our mouths. The other 70% comes through expression and gesture. I look for the world in the human face.
Aren’t we all rather fascinated by others and ourselves, in seeing each other, in finding the ways our lives in this world have shaped us and made us unique? I am fascinated for sure, but I am also very hooked on the experience of sharing what I see, in this particular medium. It is exhilarating and healing, for myself and for my subjects and those that are drawn to my work. I cannot say why that is. We may as well ask why singers sing, why dancers dance, why anyone feels compelled to create in ways that they do and why we as human beings often find ecstasy in these expressions. I believe these are manifestations of the divine that use us as mediums of expression.
Artists are chosen, we do not choose. If people lived to and with their land, if we lived to and with each other, we would all be rejoicing and feeling the ecstasy of life as one and artists would cease to exist as a separate category of people. Everyone would be experiencing this dance of creation and destruction at all times. Artists become the channels of unexpressed feelings and knowledge in industrial cultures because they are under pressure, cultures out of touch with their life force, each other and the land. Artists are the place, the position where the fabric of living tears, where the expression of the divine and the destruction of existence force their way into the world, in a world where most people are suppressing these experiences. It is a lot of work and many artists die under the pressure. If more people would allow themselves to feel what is happening to the world we live in, we wouldn’t need political radicals and we wouldn’t need artists because the work would be spread out.
WoLF: What is one of your favorite pieces and why?
Bilek: My favorite pieces are the ones I didn’t overwork. Anyone who is a painter or who appreciates art will understand this statement immediately because most pieces are overworked. It is a curse of the creative process. With age and maturity I get no better at letting something alone that is finished. I feel compelled too often to fix, to make better, something that is already finished. So, my favorite pieces are the ones where I thought I was going to go further, but I stepped back and the painting was just there, and I knew it and I put the damn paint brush down and allowed it be finished. One of my favorite portraits is that of a friend and comrade, “Derrick Jensen, Cymotrichous.” I had in my mind that I was going for a realistic rendition. I had worked 10 hours straight on what I thought was an under-painting. I stepped back from the portrait and felt this wonderful “oh my god, there he is” sensation in the pit of my stomach. I was exultant. Suddenly, a woman I was sharing a studio with walked in and looked at the portrait. She said, “wow,” with a tremendous force in her voice and I understood the painting was done. I am still quite tormented by paintings I have overworked that were done at a certain point, that were perfect, and I took them into some other realm that was not befitting. But, that would constitute most of my work, so I have to let it go.
WoLF: Where has your art been featured? Do you have any personal stories to tell of particular shows that were fun and exciting?
Bilek: I just exhibited 5 pieces in Art Basel Miami, which is like the Sundance Film Festival of painting, so on a professional level that was extremely exciting. I have also exhibited at the Salmagundi Club here in NYC where I live. As an artist living in NYC to break through and finally be exhibited in this city in which it is very hard for artists to gain recognition, was also thrilling. To have the recognition and appreciation of one’s peers is really a joyous experience. However, one of my very favorite shows was many years ago in Poughkeepsie, a small city in upstate NY. I exhibited in an art center with a renowned performance artist, Linda Montano, whom I was collaborating with at the time. Creating art is such solitary work most of the time that to be collaborating and sharing in the exhibition of our work together was amazing. The reception of the audience was really rewarding as well. In a city like New York, though people appreciate art they are also exposed to so much of it, that it becomes normal, everyday. In Poughkeepsie, art is not a part of the fabric of everyday life. One does not walk into a subway station in Poughkeepsie NY and get blown away by a musical performance. The level of appreciation was heightened in that small city and it was contagious. It made me sublimely happy. What is also exceedingly gratifying is sharing my work with friends and others who really know and understand my work, those who have followed it over the years and have seen it progress. When they love something new I have done, I am over the moon.
WoLF: What are your future goals for your art?
Bilek: This is an extremely difficult question because it entails looking at the larger environment of my culture and the world and where my work will fit. Humans are living what is currently the sixth mass extinction of our species and we are taking, through human destructiveness and irresponsibility, much of the world and other species with us. It is difficult to think of the future, if there even is to be one, in this current situation. And yet, art is my reason for living, and so I must keep creating. I would love to someday have a young woman walking through a museum and see my work and be inspired by it, to know she too can find herself and the world in creative process and share that with others and move them with it. But, will there be future young women and museums, in an empire that is crumbling and a world on the brink? To understand in my heart that there probably will not be, and be absolutely devastated and heartbroken by that reality and to continue to work as if there will be, because anything is possible and maybe that young woman is not in the future, but looking at my work right now in an exhibit or on-line right now, this is my work. People in the SS camps in Nazi Germany made art. Anne Frank wrote a book, while she hid in an attic from the Third Reich that has moved millions of people through time. Artists must create. We must reach for life even as the world crumbles.
WoLF: How do your feminist values fit into your work as an artist?
Bilek: The art world, like the rest of western cultures revere male artists and the perspective of men. Men that grow up in cultures that view and treat women as objects for the consumption of men and the male gaze create art that also views women as objects. It is too easy for women artists to either fall into this same approach in order to gain recognition or to resign their art to an obvious reaction against this. A prime example of this would be, what I call, “vulva art” – art that overtly reveres the vulva as a means to communicate the importance of women. I am not going to call out particular women artists, but many become a slave to making art that screams back “women are important too!!” It’s a reaction. I get it. But I think it is more important to simply make great art. I mean if you are really called on to make paintings of vulvas, go for it, but if you are painting vulvas (or something akin to this) because you want to make a statement, it doesn’t do anything for humanity as far as I am concerned. When feminists dare to create from their depths, and they fight for the space to be admitted to male enclaves of exhibition and learning, then you have art that is infused with feminist action and politics, not “feminist art.” This is what it means to me to be a feminist making art in patriarchy, to my mind. We must reclaim our space, our right to share our work with the world.
WoLF: Anything else you'd like to tell women who follow WoLF?
Bilek: Here I am going to borrow the words of my dear, dear friend and fellow artist, Giulia Bianchi. Giulia is an Italian artist who quit the corporate world where she was making a lot of money to become the photojournalist she was called to be. She risked much and worked very hard and last week she gave a talk at the International Center for Photography here in NYC. This is what she told the young women in the audience about proceeding with their work, which echo my own feelings:
“The two things you need the most right now are patience and trust – the audacity of patience and trust.
Don’t give up.
I promise you that
if you will investigate what your soul sincerely craves
If you will allow yourself to be under pressure and go really deep,
If you’ll keep exploring and create,
If you’ll treat everybody with compassion and dignity,
if you’ll abandon your vanity and ego,
if you’ll do the work for humanity and history,
if you’ll have integrity,
then a lot of people will help you.
Don’t give up.”
It is my belief that Giulia’s words exemplify what it means to be a feminist artist today.