Luke Sivik-Phelps (b. London, 1976) is now presenting his first solo exhibition in Sweden. The gallery is exhibiting sixteen paintings that span the last three years of work. Luke moved to Sweden in 2018 with his wife and three children to settle in Dalby, a town near Lund. Son of an illustrator for The Daily Telegraph and a film director and writer working internationally, the artist's childhood was filled with impressions from his family's nomadic lifestyle. Now with the experience of growing his own family and his arrival to Scandinavia, these experiences all serve as influences in his painting. Themes of togetherness, coming of age and the awareness of inevitable change as we grow are all aspects that come through in this body of work.
O: I understand you completed a foundation degree and studied different artistic techniques in London and Surrey. Can you briefly describe how that education influenced your painting approach?
LSP: My first love was drawing. I finished school in New Zealand at 18 and was invited to study fine art in Auckland, however my family was re-emigrating to the UK. So I had a choice to continue my path in New Zealand alone, or follow my family and gain access to Europe and all the depth of artistic history. Both choices were a risk, but I chose London. I did my foundation Diploma at Central St Martins in 1995. It was the boom of the new British wave (Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas amongst others) and my experience was that drawing was discouraged at this time in the fine art courses.
So I chose to study Illustration, where you were drawing constantly (observation, life drawing, field) amongst also being able to use other disciplines (painting, printmaking, photography). I did this at Kingston University, in Surrey. One of the key distinctions from this is narrative –illustrating requires a direct narrative. If you are a professional illustrator your imagery is intended to enhance the main product, be it books, magazines or advertising, to storyboarding or concept art. In essence you are complimenting someone else’s work, where in fine art you are the originator. But I always wanted to be an originator.
Has your direction in painting changed since?
Painting itself has changed my direction. I always knew I needed to paint, but it is only the last 4 years that I have built my practice around it. To do this you need to find what you want to express, what you want to communicate. I grew up moving from country to country every three years, from the UK to Hong Kong, Canada to New Zealand. I never truly felt grounded in a place, rather a stranger in a strange land. Initially it was hard to see what I could speak to. It started with my family, my experience as a parent, what you see in your children growing. This is evolving into little human stories, trying to express those moments and feelings which are universal. I want my work to walk between the personal and that which someone can look at and see their own stories in it. It is again narrative, but hopefully less direct, more drifting.
Is there an event in your life that has influenced your work?
I was living and working in London. I had my own translation business which took all my energy –this is my view of living in a big city, it can give you a lot of material things, if you are lucky, but mostly at the expense of your dreams and you end up so far away from who you see yourself as. At the time I happened to be playing ice hockey with the Canadian/ Scottish painter, Peter Doig. There was nothing directly about art or career in our chats, but from time to time in talking with him I knew I needed to wake up and change what I was doing. So, 4 years ago, we (my family) changed everything, including moving to Skåne, and I restarted my art practice, this time as a painter.
How do you relate to art history? Do you study work by other painters?
Art is an aspect of humans relating to the time they live in. From cave painting to today it is a form of human expression interlinked to the science of the time (paint to pencil to 3D printer). Today we have so many directions for art to take form in. Regarding painters, so many I admire. My first love was Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, I loved especially his ‘unfinished’ half drawn, half painted studies. Egon Schiele, Paul Guaguin, Edvard Munch, Paula Rego, David Hockney, Lucian Freud… so many. I don’t really study their work or any other artists. It is important to be inspired to work sometimes, and seeing other people’s work really does that. But you need to be careful to be yourself, let the way you work develop. For contemporary artists I am really enjoying Rinus van de Velde, I like how he plays with his installation, cross discipline and has this filmic sense running through his work.
Would you like to tell me about your interest in or relationship with expressionism?
Expressionism was part of a shift in Western society, the rights of the individual to express freely. Painting had predominantly been constrained to the representative, and of subject matter heavily historical or mythic in nature. Suddenly a painting was not describing ‘how the world looks’, rather ‘how I see the world’. It answered the formal with ‘what if’. That ‘what if’ spirit echoes still today whatever form that takes. We should always walk with ‘what if’ by our side. Being a classically trained draftsman I am always running away from accuracy and towards something more fluid. But that classical training is like a magnet! I wouldn’t say I work intentionally with an ‘expressionist’ style in mind, it is more the result of my inner dialogue between the literal and the intuitive.
How do you relate to the community of artists in the south of Sweden?
It is like anything that you start from new, it grows gradually, I have my studio at ADDO, a studio collective (ateljéförening) in Malmö so I have friendships there. I do try to get out to exhibitions as much as possible, which becomes easier as the family gets older and I get a little free.
Now that you live in Scandinavia, have you thought about any nordic artist that has influenced the art of the region and perhaps your own work in particular?
It has to be Edvard Munch. Everything in his work speaks to me. To me his work is everything I look for, so full of uninhibited emotions. He represents someone who managed to clear the noise of his mind and the world around and just let the work happen. I cannot help but mentally tie his work to Knut Hamsun, one of my favourite authors, just viscerally of their time.
I visited Carl and Karin Larsson’s home when I was in Dalarna and I came out wanting to change the way we live at home. Every room was different and you could feel the spirit of experimentation everywhere. I also loved Karin’s work and textiles which were so ahead of their time. Again it ties back to walking with the ‘what if’ when those around you are saying how it should be.
"We all spend so much time video-recording moments now. I find it hard mostly, uncomfortable to look at them. Like instant windows to what you have lost, but there is a lot you can draw from these emotions. Windows to the lost."
Can you tell me a bit about your relationship to photography?
I use photography a lot, but I like ‘mundane’ photos, not perfectly staged or framed. Mostly I use my phone and try to catch something when I see it. I usually start a painting from a photo, then at a certain point put the photo away, or just go back to it occasionally. Then I try to find the truth of the painting. Often a word, or sentence appears that ties into the work. I also use old family photos. Our whole experience is forward, every moment is in that direction, photos are awkward in relation to this truth as they hold what has been, they allow this frozen glimpse of prior being.
The characters in your paintings have often undefined facial features and often are blended with their surroundings, the surfaces of the landscapes but also what sometimes appears to be a representation of the air.
I want a sense of a time, of a place. When you remember something, you think you know it clearly, you picture the whole environment. Until you really try to see it, then the memory’s clarity starts to unwind. Our memories are just vague impressions which fade. It is the emotions which stay clear to us. I want my work to show the similarities in our lived experience. This is also where the words come into play, they often come to me during the process of the work and can be part of the works’ completion. They are not a literal accompaniment, rather they are there to create space for thought.
There is a surreal element in your paintings. Any thoughts?
Yes, for me it helps me feel the work is going in the right direction. The marriage of the literal and subliminal. When I can find those balances, that is where the stories appear, for me and hopefully others. When you can create something that you not only like, but you find yourself staring at repeatedly, or drifting in thought. That is what I want to achieve.
How important for you is it to have feedback from your audience?
It’s a bit like looking at other artists work, you need it, but you need to also not get lost in it. Affecting someone is the ultimate goal, you want that interaction. It is amazing to talk with people about something you created. But I also respect the subjective nature of art and different things drive different people.