In conversation with Lena Viddo, any subject will elicit an interesting story that has moved her – some are personal, like a bikini-clad, too-close encounter with a colony of wasps in an unwanted shrub. She gathers interesting information as well – the personal habits of bees, camps of immigrants living along the Thames River who survive by hunting the swans … Lena brings all of her enthusiasm for narrative and detail to her current series, “Earthly Delights,” without sacrificing painterly values. Her surface is fine and almost irresistible to touch.
Viddo’s points of reference reflect the location of her two studios -- rural Vermont, and the deep woods of human nature known as Manhattan. She draws on her responses to both, and much more, to inspire and inform her allegorical portraits and mindscapes -- found and sourced objects, live models (including herself and her daughter), and a library of hundreds of wildlife and nature reference books. Animals are not rendered placeholders for symbols and icons, they thrive in her invented world.
Depicting a sharp reality not tethered to realism, Viddo’s canvases evoke a life on the edge of the incarnate. Imagined in motion, her strong characters radiate an energy that suggests puppetry over animation. The notion of these edgy stories in performance for children is not outlandish, these matinees recall the gruesome, ancient fairy tales we asked our parents to “read over again,” and every child’s fascination with all things ooky and natural – alive or dead. So it comes as no surprise that Lena is also a devoted mom with keen insight into the inner lives of children, and a pathway to the child in each of her viewers.
One can trace this dynamic in the history of her works to a series depicting submissive characters in bondage situations, “Ties That Bind,” which are composed tightly around a single figure with the eyes sometimes all or partially out of view. The physical gesture so strongly radiates the angst and desire of anticipation that, when the eyes are in play, it overwhelms. For the more loosely composed “Earthly Delights,” the artist restrains her own powers to dominate the emotions of the viewer, confining that energy to the depths of liquid eyes, from which it escapes in flashes she allows to appear seemingly against her will.
Unlike many artists who shy away from discussing underlying messages in their work, Lena acknowledges her intention to address certain issues and themes – a food/oral motif, male-female love, the tyranny of beauty, the relationship of victim and predator. Some of these visions and characterizations populate the works of a poet who particularly sparks her imagination, Pablo Neruda.
From Viddo’s own translation of “A Cat’s Dream:
“I should like to sleep like a cat,
with all the fur of the ages,
with a tongue rough as flint,
with the dry sex of fire;
and after speaking to no one,
stretch myself over the world,
over roofs and landscapes,
with a passionate desire
to hunt the rats in my dreams.”
Lena’s work appeals to and inspires other artists. Her portrait of a roaring big cat ,“Water Tiger” -- from her other current series of close up-works in vertiginously layered detail with a fauvist twist and appropriately named “Sexy Beast,” -- was acquired last year by Shepard Fairey.
Another artist well known for his difficult content and great detail, Ahmed Alsoudani, enjoys the contradiction in the childlike form and angry eyes of Viddo’s free-standing piece in his collection, painted on a “Dunny” toy figure, called “Hide and Secret.” “I like the idea,” he says, “that I have to look all around the piece to see all the details, heavy in some places open in others.” He pointed out a shared element in their visual vocabulary -- a zipper -- which appears in his recent painting as well as Lena’s work.
On message, current events can affect the evolution of a painting. Viddo explained that a vignette depicting torture in a section of the large landscape, “Manifest Destiny,” was inspired by the news and images of the inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. In this series, she says, “Torture becomes fashion and fashion in the end becomes torture.”
Lena’s powerful paintings don’t evoke feeling first, they make you see, and see again. I don’t necessarily trust her not to show more than I can handle, but I know I will never resist looking. The artist possesses the insight and skill-set to transparently disturb and entertain us at the same time, and also disturb us with the fact that we are entertained… which of course teaches us something about ourselves. At her visual cocktail party, she has put her mousetrap in the potato chip bowl, and, even though it snaps and hurts, we just can’t get enough.