Louise Giovanelli, the Artist Fusing Old Masters and Digital Imagery

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Louise Giovanelli © Michael Pollard
Louise Giovanelli© Michael Pollard. Courtesy White Cube

As her new exhibition opens at White Cube in London, Louise Giovanelli talks about painting beautiful things that are “always on the verge of collapsing into something not beautiful”

“I'm really interested in glitz and glam and … twinkles,” says painter Louise Giovanelli. “Things which don’t have any sort of permanence in reality.” Thanks to her seductively ethereal canvases, the Manchester-based artist is high in demand with the art crowd. Her works capture ephemeral moments, “something you see [in] a flash”, and give them permanence in painting. Wine glasses, soft ribboned curls of hair and a sequin, split-leg dress belonging to Mariah Carey are motifs that recur in a new body of works, currently on show at White Cube in Bermondsey.

As If, Almost takes over the two front rooms of the gallery, while fellow contemporary painters Danica Lundy and Ilana Savdie own the back of the space. Thematically, the works conjure a sense of glossy hedonism – yet something’s a bit off. “I paint beautiful things,” Giovanelli says. “But they’re beautiful things that are always on the verge of collapsing into something not beautiful.” 

Born in London, Giovanelli was drawing and painting from a young age. Contemporary pop culture moments caught her eye even then; portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe were her subjects. Now, when an image captures her, she closely crops the exact details she wants the audience to see, often reworking and warping it on her phone screen. While her current subjects can’t always be directly identified, the sense arises that behind Giovanelli’s initial digital trickery and subsequent paintbrush, a scene on show may have been seen before. A painting seeming to represent the moment in Carrie (1973) when the bucket of pig’s blood lands on the prom queen’s head has saturated hues, popping neons, while the image itself is stretched. “The image is a starting point,” Giovanelli says. “I’m not a painter who can just look at a blank canvas and just start.”

Having received her BA from the Manchester School of Art in 2015, she studied under Amy Sillman at Städelschule, Frankfurt (2018-20). “It’s prominent,” the artist considers, “that I came out of a German school.” For some, the Städelschule is revered for a conceptual approach to painting, a radical dissection of the medium, associated with the likes of artist Martin Kippenberger and his former assistants Michael Krebber and Merlin Carpenter. “[There was] this cynicism with painting and – as much as I respect those artists – for me, it’s more about the joy,” Giovanelli explains. “I’m trying to show viewers that it’s okay to love painting, it’s OK to love looking at beautiful things.”

Fabric and hair are signature Giovanelli motifs, surfaces whose textures are notoriously tricky to render in oils. It is the challenge that inspires her to paint, as well as a desire to learn how artists before her have done it. “If you’re a painter, you really have to understand where your medium has come from, you have to understand history,” she argues. “Just to use the act of painting, to make a mark, is to hold all of that baggage of history with you.” Once the image is ready to paint, Giovanelli uses thin layers at a time, waiting for each to dry, just as the Old Masters did, to achieve the luminosity that makes her work so compelling. “You can see elements of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden and all these Flemish painters, the Northern Renaissance painters – that was the first period of influence that I was really struck by,” she says. “Those painters really dealt with fabric, and hair, and [I] was always fascinated with how they created those textures.” It’s a question she wants her audience to ask too – how did she do that?

As If, Almost by Louise Giovanelli is on at White Cube Bermondsey in London until 11 September 2022.