Elusive artist Nicholas Alvis Vega (his real name remains a mystery; all we know is that he works under a few) is challenging the way society views women through his latest exhibition ‘Nymphae Nymphalidae’. Painstakingly recreating classic paintings to then deface them by adding modern day pin-ups, pouring on paint and folding the canvas in half – like the butterfly paintings we created as children – Vega wanted to have a conversation about the stagnant depiction of the female, so we did.
Why replicate and deface classic paintings and how do you choose which ones to work with?
This series is based on the depiction of women in art, and how the Renaissance has set the way that women are depicted in fashion and advertising and so forth. I don’t think it was necessarily the intention of the original artist to produce something which would be idolised forever; the women who posed for these paintings were probably prostitutes, who were then hallowed as saints, as beautiful goddess-like figures. When choosing paintings I try to find images that we’re all very, very familiar with, but it can just be something which strikes me.
Do you think the way the female is represented has changed since these classics were created?
I don’t think it has. I started this by accident; I began working on a couple of paintings and realised the correlation between them and a picture in Vogue or on an advertising billboard. The intention of this work is to move on, to change, that’s also why I’m kind of attacking them throughout.
You are working to deconstruct the male gaze, is this something you find difficult as a man yourself?
Yes, it’s a big challenge – and dealing with all this history – but that’s what fascinated me, the fact that it’s just being regurgitated. Men have a lot to answer for. But having said that it’s not just men who are intrigued by it; it’s women as well. If everybody recognised this we might be a little less repressed about it all.
How is it possible to change the way women are perceived if, like you’ve said, both men and women appreciate this heightened sense of femininity which is still seen today?
Advertising plays on people’s weaknesses, so the only way I can see it changing is if we all get over our weaknesses, but the only way that will happen is if advertising stops exploiting us, so it’s a vicious circle.
Your paintings and indeed your houses (Nicholas has homes in Marrakech, India and the Côte d’Azur which have featured in several interiors publications) are exceptionally vibrant. Is colour important to you?
I think it’s being born and brought up in Africa. When I first moved to England I just thought it was so grey here. I see colour as energy. That’s why I so love this series. Even if you overlook the images, you still get this amazing abstract quality.
Is there a method to choosing the materials you use to deface each work?
There is to a certain extent, I try to use colours and effects which are incongruous to the base paintings, so gloss paint, fluorescent, sparkles. I try not to be too precious about it; I want the painting to have a life of its own.
After having meticulously painted the base image, does a part of you not want to ‘ruin’ it?
Yes, every time I do it! When you attack them it’s really scary, you think “I’m going to be really controlled with this”, but even after the first time you’ve folded it, the paint’s already gone where you didn’t want it to be. Almost every one I looked at and thought “I’ve ruined that”, but it makes you work even harder to try to get it back. It’s a really exciting process.
These additions are reminiscent of both Rorschach tests and butterflies. Are they simply a further nod to female genitalia as the name ‘Nymphae Nymphalidae’ would suggest?
The butterfly is symbolic of femininity – the lightness, and obviously the sexual aspects are very important, but maybe that’s what I read into it and other people don’t. I see them as very sexual and sensual, but also abstract.
You often work under different names. Is this simply a method to starting afresh? Do you not fear your former personas will get lost, and the work with it?
There was a very famous Portuguese writer named Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under several different names with a completely different style for each. I have always felt influenced by that; it just gives you such a freedom to do something else. I don’t really care about my work if it gets lost because of the name change – everything has to stand up on its own two feet.
Was there anything further you learnt from this work, besides the fact that the representation of the female is seemingly unchanging?
I’ve learnt how creative destruction can be, and fearlessness. You can’t be precious about things. Once you become precious about something you don’t go that little be further.
‘Nymphae Nymphalidae’ is at the Rove Gallery from 9th March – 6th April 2013. For more information, visit www.rovetv.net