Tali Lennox opens the door to her studio wearing a soft, paint-splattered Playboy t-shirt and small silk shorts. She towers over me, even though I am in platforms and she is in slippers. Under normal circumstances, she says, she would put on a slip dress before an interview, but she hasn’t had time to get ready: with an art show opening on Friday, she’s busy putting the finishing touches on a set of paintings. A former model, Lennox has made a name for herself in the art world as a self-taught savant known for vibrant work that makes bold commentary on modern life. This weekend, her latest show, “The Ballad of Linda Leven,” will open at Meredith Rosen Gallery. And it's deeply personal.
While Lennox’s first collection of paintings, which debuted in 2015, dealt with the superficial realities of her own day-to-day, her newest body of work, a series of heavily symbolic oil paintings that explore the inner lives of carnival characters and mythical creatures, is very much about the abstract surreality of death.
This thematic evolution makes sense given its context. After Lennox went from it-model to art star, she experienced unspeakable tragedy: In 2015, she and her boyfriend were in a kayaking accident, and while she was rescued, he drowned. The accident was covered widely across the media. As someone born into fame—her mother is Annie Lennox—she had to deal with not just death, but grief in the spotlight. Her loss was turned into a headline.
She was 22. That, she says, is when her obsession with death began.
“I just started getting obsessed with remnants of the past,” she tells me. In the wake of the accident, she filled her apartment with old photos and trinkets that she'd find at thrift stores, fascinated with the idea of longing for a period of time that would never exist again.
Searching for a way to describe what grief feels like, Lennox speaks in metaphors: She talks about trying to hold glitter while it slips through your fingers. The sun coming up after a night of partying and the realization that everyone else is going to work while you’re left cleaning up a mess. A heart literally broken open into shiny, wet, luminous, exposed pieces. And the feeling of living in twilight—the in-between time of day when light meets dark, the place where all these paintings are set.
If the death of a loved one is like waking up from a dream, grief is realizing you can't get back to it. And the body of work Lennox has just completed speaks to the fantasy of being able to return to that dream anyway—to live forever in the raucous party before the sun comes up.
Her subjects are unlikely models, eschewing any sort of classic beauty in place of unconventionally captivating features. With menacing smiles or expressions of deep pain, they hold mysterious objects; seashells, tarot cards, glass bottles, figurines. They’re posing for the portraits, but are deep in thought, and clothed in period-specific clothes like poet collars, or nothing at all. In the background, night rolls in.
“I wanted to see how close I could get to actually playing with time,” she says. Each painting is a story of loneliness, eternity, and longing. She covers her subject's faces with baby oil before photographing them for the portraits, so that everyone looks shiny and mask-like, enhancing the otherworldly quality of each scene, while referencing the glossy old photographs she collects.
The masks are also a metaphor for another one of Lennox’s obsessions: Self-perpetuated myths. “We're all living out our own mythologies,” she says, with a smile. “Aren’t we doing that every day? We’re documenting our lives to share on our phone. We’re creating our own fantastical narratives.”
I’m reminded of the pressure that she, as a public figure, must have been under to keep up appearances even in the aftermath of the worst thing that can happen to a person. The theme echoes throughout the paintings; one in particular, of a character she calls Carol The Mystic, who she says is “torn apart by having to play up this character, and this role. He's haggard and worn down by the stories of others, but he can't read his own fortune.”
Lennox is also very aware of her own mythologies, but says I’ve caught her without the mask on—the mask being the slip dress she didn’t have time to change into. Like the subjects of her paintings, she’s in the liminal space between the stories we tell about ourselves and her truth.
Model Linda Leven, whose portrait shares the title of the show, is a subject who hits all those notes: A failed ballerina obsessed with fame, she continues to live in a mythology of her own making. And as someone who has survived cancer four times over, yet eats just once a day in order to stay extremely thin, Leven represents an ongoing dance between life and death. She’s a survivor who continues to test the boundaries of mortality as she chases the eternal. Lennox painted her next to a vampire.
Throughout her descriptions of grief, Lennox always returns to an insistence of its beauty, its luminosity, and most of all, its importance: She doesn't regret the love she lost. She knows the value of throwing the party, even though it’ll end. Overall, the collection is beautifully rendered, eerie, and uncomfortable to look at—as surreal and exquisitely painful as death itself. And life, too.