“For a very long time,” says the 29-year-old British artist Louise Giovanelli, “I thought I was making the most uncool painting ever. Then, suddenly, more attention came my way. And now it’s kind of cool.”
Only “kind of”? Even though, she is “steeped”, as she puts it, in Western art history, Giovanelli is among the most talked-about talents of her generation. Last autumn, in a major survey of contemporary painting at the Hayward Gallery, it was her work that stood out, in particular her mysterious, monumental triptych, Prairie (2021), which depicts nothing but a cascade of plush, yellowy-green curtains, and an imposing diptych of two gold shirts. Both works contained the paradoxical promise of an imminent spectacle forever veiled.
It wasn’t just the seductive way they were painted that struck me, but the authority of the work for someone who had graduated from art school in Frankfurt only a year before. When the exhibition opened, though, Giovanelli was already in New York, preparing for a solo show; now, back in London, her debut at White Cube’s gallery in Bermondsey is about to be unveiled.
“There’s a real swing at the moment towards young figurative female painters,” she says over coffee inside her studio in a former tram depot in Manchester. “But I hope I’m not [part of] this moment just because I’m a woman. I hope I’m good enough to be there anyway.”
Several public institutions already believe she is: Giovanelli has work in the Arts Council and Government Art Collections, and, after last year’s Manhattan show, her large paintings of enigmatic drapes and theatre curtains are now sought after by museums from Los Angeles to Shanghai.
It is Giovanelli’s headstrong idiosyncrasy, along, perhaps, with her discipline – “I’m here every single day, from 6.30am,” she tells me – that sets her apart from her trend-chasing peers. I don’t know many twentysomething artists who would rhapsodise, as she does, about the Mediterranean acanthus (the leaf of which, in stylised form, adorns the tops of Corinthian columns) or the early masters of the Italian Renaissance.
“You’ve got to be authentic,” she says of her success. “I never veered from my path.”
Her forthcoming show will explore “contemporary notions of religion” and include a new group of paintings depicting tightly cropped wine glasses handled by women. Some were inspired by the way Joanna Lumley’s character Patsy, in Absolutely Fabulous, drinks while holding a fag; others, by an unusual shot through a glass in an old Hollywood movie that caught Giovanelli’s eye.
With the wine glasses, explains Giovanelli, who was born in London but grew up in the “very small [Welsh] town” of Monmouth, she was thinking about communion. Today, she’s an atheist, but when she was little, her Irish-Catholic mother, now a retired nurse, encouraged the family to attend church. She has intense memories, too, of a grand Catholic church in central London, where she’d often go while visiting the Italian family of her father, a retired building inspector.
“All the art I’m interested in” – from Byzantine mosaics to Fra Angelico frescoes– “comes from that religious instinct,” she says.
It brings to mind another artist brought up as a Catholic and fascinated by glamour – Andy Warhol. And, like Warhol, Giovanelli, who says that she wants her pictures to convey a sense of “rapture”, has painted showbiz “icons” including Elizabeth Taylor.
Above all, she says, “a painting should be the beginning of something. The best paintings are those that endure in your mind – because there’s this sense of mystery to them.”
‘As If, Almost’ opens at White Cube Bermondsey, London SE1 on July 8; whitecube.com