How Spencer Chalk-Levy Weaves Emotional Crescendos
Across a series of digitally woven tapestries and styrofoam bust sculptures on view at TW Fine Art in Palm Beach, the Vienna-based artist renders dramatic scenes that teeter on the precipice of emotional climax in painterly detail. We catch up with the restless up-and-comer, who spent his childhood wandering around the Met, gogo danced alongside Lady Gaga in the Lower East Side, and considers himself an amateur anthropologist.
The scenes on your tapestries are unmistakably dramatic, playful, and bizarre. Many are also drawn from your own personal observations. What are some of your most influential experiences, and what compelled you to translate them into this medium?
All the tapestries originated as sketchbook drawings. Most of the time, what’s pictured isn’t really what it’s about. For example, the theater and circus pieces are reacting to the spectacle of life. The ones with more historical aspects are me picking and choosing from art history. I’m an art history dork and I love folklore, myth, and allegory paintings. I basically grew up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as a child I didn’t understand context—I just saw the whole museum in one day and was “fabulously overwhelmed” by it all.
Tulipomania is based on the first case of a bubble economy. In the Netherlands in the 17th century, people would spend their whole fortunes on tulips. Suddenly, the bubble burst because tulips aren’t really worth anything. I see it nowadays with Telfar bags, Birkins, and Chanel bags, and so I tried to illustrate this phenomenon in an unexpected way. That’s actually the oldest piece in the show—a painting from my senior thesis at the School of Visual Arts in 2008—and was always really important to me. It’s hanging in my father’s living room.
Tapestries are the perfect medium for this element of storytelling because the canvas is so big and lends itself to so many different modes of expression. I’m not the first or last person to make digitally woven tapestries, but it used to take people years to make and their fingers would bleed. Nowadays, they can be printed, or you can take an image and have it be digitally connected. I love the mix of technology in these pieces.
There’s an element of weaving together the ancient and the modern. Seeing the tapestries up close, I was shocked at how they achieve such a precise level of detail. They also reflect the subtle imperfections of watercolor paintings with organic bleed-throughs. What does the process look like?
I try not to reveal how the sausage is made, but everything I paint is acrylic, and I’ve learned how to make it resemble oil, pop, and plastic, or gouache. When I make something, I want to keep elements of the hand—otherwise it gets too surgical.
I’m a very painterly painter. I scan my sketchbook drawings and take screenshots of the image rather than send in the high-quality photo, otherwise it risks looking too detailed. I sometimes allow the border of the original drawing and my signature to show on the tapestry. In my art and in life, there are few unintentional details. If you look at my styrofoam sculptures, for example, the back isn’t done because it makes the viewer do some work.
An artist recently told me that “artwork truly comes to life when reflected upon.”
I totally understand that. I want to bring the viewer in. I’m very indecisive, but the one place where I know all the answers is on a blank canvas. I consciously avoid taking too much outside inspiration because for me, art is the purest form of self-expression. You can go down the rabbit hole of references in my work, but I don’t like explaining them because it makes people like it less. I want someone to react and make up their own story. I’ve been inspired by Filippo Lauri, a 16th-century “in the clouds” painter, but I don’t often say that because then the viewer understands that reference and doesn’t question my work any further.
Not explaining the historic references makes people dig deeper. Growing up always going to the Met, as you mentioned, must mean that you have tons of reference points.
I was very much an indoor kid. My dad worked in advertising, and he’d bring home computer paper and I’d sit in front of the TV with my FAO Schwarz coloring kit and draw all day. I react to and explain things through art. In the Met, you might see the Egyptian section and Etruscan wing within five minutes, and suddenly you’re in a room with silky paintings in ornate frames. Pulling references isn’t really a conscious choice. It just comes through my lens somehow.
At one point, I was doing so much and would hear feedback that I should stick to one thing. Life is so short—why would I do the same dot paintings for 25 years? Since I have all these reference points, I want to use different mediums and create as many worlds as possible.
Do narratives overlap within your work?
When I create, I make series. Rather than only making one kind of painting within a six-month period, I’ll have an ongoing series because I learn something new, and it unfolds from there. There are always recurring themes—the salt-and-wind burnt sailor or rich woman courtesan with a pig nose. In my world, they continually come up 200 years ahead of time or in the past.
What drew you to the tapestries and what keeps you motivated to keep experimenting?
All my best ideas come when I’m not doing art. I was answering phones as a receptionist when the idea for the tapestries came to me. But also, the majority of art is just bought and put into a closet. I dedicate so much time and energy to my references, so I don’t know how long I’ll do the tapestries for—maybe I’ll stop when they’re no longer good, or I’m repeating myself. I don’t want someone to look at me and think “Spencer only does tapestries.” Are you only gonna eat sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of your life? I can understand when artists do that, but life is also so full of different inspirations.
What about the armor sculptures?
I could speak about those for a long time. They incorporate aspects of haute couture, history, folklore… For example, there’s this very famous Hellenistic bronze sculpture called Boxer at Rest that looks very woeful, trepidatious, battered, and on the precipice of something. I tried to translate those feelings into my styrofoam pieces. It feeds into that same aesthetic from this moment of anticipation that you see in the tapestries.
How has your practice become a conduit for your emotional expression?
I’m very empathetic. When some artists see Egon Schiele or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, they’ll copy the colors and linework. I explore that through my lens of my own experience. I played Egon Schiele in a documentary on Austrian PBS because we have similar styles.
If you turn too far while looking at a painting, you can’t really see it anymore. Sculpture almost aggresses you, which is why I started making it. In a sick way, I call my styrofoam sculptures “modern artifacts” because it takes so long to biodegrade, if ever. Even if the world ends from a nuclear war, one of my sculptures may wash up on the Sicilian shore. Yes, plastic is a huge problem, but why not make something that lasts forever? Artists want to leave our mark and tell our story. And even though the polystyrene is so delicate, your finger can make an imprint over the layers of paint if you press too hard. At the same time, it’s not going away. I’m really inspired by the idea of my work lasting forever while simultaneously being so delicate.
That’s funny, because the exhibition is called “Heat of the Moment,” and in these tapestries, you’re depicting emotional buildups and crescendos.
You can feel the spectacle! In the tapestries, no one in the audience or the show is just sitting there. Here, the curtain is up and it’s time for the bow. What I do is theatre in many ways.
Has theatre shaped your approach at all?
I love the idea of people training for years to put on a production. So many elements go into it. When I first moved to Vienna, I went to the Wiener Staatsoper and saw Swan Lake performed by these amazing Russian ballet dancers. I had never in my life been so intrigued by the tapping of ballet shoes on stage. I love moments and experiences like this.
There’s something wonderful about seeing a performance, whether circus, ballet, or theater, and witnessing someone’s artistic statement unfold through the movements of different people, lighting, set design…
Everyone’s an artist there—the directors, musicians, ballerinas that have trained since they were so young, and they only have a certain amount of time to perform. I love that element of making the viewer feel curious and safe while entering this new world.
There’s an element of escapism.
Not that I want people to escape, per se, but feel like they’re being taken care of.
What’s the most challenging aspect of doing what you do?
What many people don’t realize is that a lot of my work is administrative. As an artist, you have to be everything: the boss, the cleaning man, the accountant. It’s hard because I’ve always been a dreamer. Many of my biggest inspirations never had to deal with these things. If I had more time, I’d be doing bigger projects more often.
I applaud the people who can stay inspired and not get discouraged from all the tedious administrative work.
Sometimes people don’t want to pay $100 for something you’ve thought about endlessly for months. Even if it’s a line drawing, it represents so much more. You don’t go to a dentist and say “this procedure is too expensive, so here’s $50.” Whether you’re a writer, musician, or artist, I’m happy to talk about this. It’s not something people want to hear, but I want other artists to know that the profession can be difficult.
You’ve made it fairly seamless for yourself, though. In Vienna, your studio is right across the street from your apartment.
I got really lucky. Vienna is getting more expensive, but it’s still affordable because it has the world’s largest public housing program. A third of Vienna lives there, and it made rents more affordable. My studio is underground, in a very old building that used to be a glass factory.
I also call myself a “living painter” because I love to paint at home. Even when I was living in a flat with three other people and was sleeping in a closet, I was painting in bed with all the tapestries rolled up against me. Think of it like this: if you have to spend 45 minutes going to the gym, you lose the “gym boner.” And that applies to artists going to the studio as well.
I’m totally using “gym boner” to describe why I never go. Anyway, what’s next for you?
I’m just back in the studio. That’s where I feel the most at home.
“Heat of the Moment” will be on display at TW Fine Art (256 Worth Ave, Suite 214, Palm Beach, FL) until April 3.