“I find that painting is totally a sexual activity. I’ve realized how important it is to use my body, to move the canvas around, have it pushed up against the wall.” Anna Liber Lewis’s paintings are highly suggestive—though it takes a while to realize quite what you’re looking at.

Ophiophagy, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Griffin Gallery

Anna Liber Lewis managed to shock her Royal College of Art tutors with her series of paintings containing cocks in various states of play, and yet her focus is not so much on shock factor or the male anatomy as it is on bringing out images from the subconscious, making work that draws on her life experiences, and it is more about feeling than thought.

How do you feel sex is represented in your work?

It’s funny, you’re coming at a moment in time where things are shifting again. I’m not a painter that follows one trajectory. I think there is a line that runs through my work, but things are shifting…

How did it all begin?

I’ve probably been four different people already. The paintings are all very charged and intensely personal, but I don’t want to tell. Some of the greatest painters don’t talk directly about what’s going on, they may talk about the paint, colour, mark, but of course it’s so much more loaded. That’s why I feel it’s so much like sex. Sex is something I enjoy and painting is something I enjoy, it’s complex and tricky, loaded with power and all kinds of things that are fun to fuck with.

Gaudens Feminam, 2017

How would you describe your process in the studio?

The way I’m painting has changed, it’s a lot about me and my body and the relationship to the canvas and the paint. I find that painting is totally a sexual activity. I’ve realized how important it is to use my body, to move the canvas around, have it pushed up against the wall, maybe chuck it on the floor. Before I get to the studio, I drive there and listen to some garage, jungle, whatever happens to be in the CD player, and it’s like preparing for a fight or an intense sexual session. I dance a lot before I paint, I think it would be quite embarrassing if any of the people that I’m sharing a studio with were in. I’ll get obsessed with one song that will tap into where I’m trying to get to with the work, and just replay it. I suppose it’s quite ritualistic.

What do you feel drives your work?

I’m driven by my desire, my pain. I think those two things are quite linked.

Rocks Off, 2017

Your paintings often feature body parts, yet they dip in and out of figuration and abstraction. Do you ever work directly from the body?

With some of the big ones I was working from the male body. I went through a period where I was making a lot of cock paintings, it was all about desire and lust. I just want to push up against something. It can be an object, a feeling, a person, it’s just a visceral pushing up against. I was in a relationship at the time that was really urgent, I was thinking about desire and about who I could objectify. Although there are so many women in art schools, there’s a history of masculinity and the people at the top still tend to be men. I was trying to see what I could push.

What kind of reaction did your cock paintings receive?

I enjoyed that people would come into my studio and not see the image for ages, and stand there and be like “Ah, these are great abstracts.” Then they’d see the image and there’d be a moment of titillation. I still like that in my work. People don’t necessarily see it all or get the references immediately, giving it a nice slowness, it can become a conversation. It was very interesting how people responded to Skeet, and I enjoyed the fact that people struggled with it, they wanted to know what it was, who it was, where it was.

Giver of Life, 2015

Skeet and others of your cock paintings seem fairly minimal, whilst Giver of Life” feels more celebratory…

I think Giver of Life is more decorative. The whole time that I was painting this one person I was torn between power, love and lust, and how those things all sat next to each other, if they were interchangeable, if they all existed at the same time. I was thinking about Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, but also having a cheeky moment.

I wouldn’t want to be the lady who paints cocks, that’s boring. But it was a moment of discovery, it informs the next thing, and painting is all about staying engaged, exciting yourself… playing with yourself! I’m forty, and it’s taken me this long to say I don’t give a fuck, to speak up and not worry about making mistakes. Women are bombarded by everything from advertising to the way society is structured. We have so much crap chucked at us. However, I think I needed struggle, I now embrace the struggle. It has given me confidence to speak out: maybe I’m a slow learner! I guess this was an important moment for me to say “I’m speaking out!” But then I also have the right to shift my focus; being able to change your mind and develop is totally valid.

This article originally appeared in issue 34

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