A Painter Who Taps Into a Human Need for Worship

One morning in late February, inside a vast storage facility in London, the painter Louise Giovanelli glanced over half a dozen of her works as they were crated up for a solo show at the White Cube gallery in Hong Kong. The outsize canvases pictured film stars with their eyes closed and their mouths open, and billowing green curtains.

The show, which coincides with Art Basel Hong Kong, is the latest milestone in the meteoric career of Ms. Giovanelli, 31, who grew up in Wales and studied art in Manchester, England, and at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. After a first big break — a 2019-20 solo show at the Manchester Art Gallery, one of the city’s main museums — she was included in a 2021 survey of contemporary painting at the Hayward Gallery in London, then joined White Cube, a leading international gallery.

Her paintings contain visual throwbacks to the gilding and draperies of Renaissance paintings, yet also represent stars from films and pop culture. Mariah Carey’s legs were featured in a recent painting, for example. Other paintings zoom in on Sissy Spacek (in scenes from the 1976 horror movie “Carrie”) and Tippi Hedren (in scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in 1963).

This year, Ms. Giovanelli has solo shows opening at the He Art Museum in Guangdong Province, China, and at the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire, England. In an interview at the White Cube gallery in London, Ms. Giovanelli discussed her path to art and religion’s influence on her painting. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Where did you grow up?

In Monmouth, south Wales — a beautiful, picturesque and sleepy town: Not so interesting when you’re a teenager, but you create your own fun.

Were you artistic as a child, or good at drawing?

I was good at drawing, the best at drawing in my class. I used to draw pictures of Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Sid Vicious, etc. When you don’t really know anything about art, the most automatic thing is to draw your heroes.

I was also trained as a pianist and a clarinettist, and there was a period in my life when I toyed with going to a music conservatoire or being part of orchestras. Then I realized that I had more of a chance at art. I thought: I can see myself as that person.

Your parents were of Italian and Irish Catholic descent, and you went to church on Sundays. How did you feel about that?

When you’re little, you just go along with it. I lost my faith pretty young, and then was quite combative. At 14, I would purposely sit in the church with a copy of “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

Even though I’m still an atheist, I’ve come back to religion, in the sense that I think it’s very important. I’m very interested in the aesthetic of it, and the stories and meaning behind it. I realize now that I’m very steeped in it. It has affected all of my art.

How did Renaissance paintings influence your art?

After my university degree, I was quite literally appropriating elements of Renaissance paintings. It was a device that I used to learn how to paint. Those influences are more subtle now: You can still see them, but not as direct literal quotations. They’re embedded deep inside the psyche of the work.

What about pop culture, movies and television?

There’s nothing now that I’m interested in. Most of what I’m interested in happened before I was born. I’ve always felt that I’ve just missed the mark — whether it’s in music or film or television.

What is it about contemporary culture that you’re not drawn to?

Everything’s too HD. You can see everything about a person’s face, and it just looks too close to real life. If you see films from 20, 30, or 40 years ago, there’s a mystique to them, a haziness which I really enjoy.

What I’m trying to do is draw connections between the ancient and the contemporary. I wouldn’t go to a Taylor Swift concert or a Mariah Carey concert. But I’m trying to show the viewer: You still need this type of worship. You don’t realize that you do, but these are the contemporary churches. Instagram and TikTok are a new type of shrine.

The pop stars and new icons in my paintings are the same as looking at icons in a church. I think this is why people like my work: I’ve tapped into that need, the same longing that humans have always had and will always have for the higher being, the perfect being, idol worship and light and glitz and glamour.

Painting is definitely back in a major way. What is its purpose and mission today, in a world that’s bombarded with instant photos?

Painting forces people to contemplate, to quite literally stop and slow down. It’s not plugged in, it’s not a time-based thing, it’s not digital. There’s a need for it. It’s tactile, it’s malleable, it’s able to adapt to anything that’s thrown at it in any era. It stood the test of time, and is stoically there, not going anywhere.

My works are about trying to tap into the idea of slow looking. There are paintings which engineer a kind of faster looking — where you can tell the artist is really trying to create a narrative. I resist that at all times. I try to be much more oblique and mysterious, and give as little information as possible.

By doing that, you’re slowing people down. That’s what religion does: It forces people to slow down and look, and engage in that kind of transubstantiation.

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