artnet Asks: Artist Llewellyn Xavier and Unicorns

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An interview with ArtNet.

The painter Llewellyn Xavier deploys an arsenal of bold and bright pigments to capture the light and life of the Caribbean he calls home. Over the course his career, Xavier has tackled issues ranging from the political activism of the 1960s to dazzling reinterpretations of Abstract Expressionism. Most recently, his work explores the magical power and appeal of the mythical unicorn through bright, textural paintings that skirt the line of sculpture with their thickly applied surfaces.

His latest solo show “The Mating Dance Of The Unicorn” is on view at UNIX gallery in New York through October 21. Here, the artist discusses his practice, influences, and what we can expect from him next.

Can you tell us about your current exhibition at UNIX Gallery?
The Mating Dance of the Unicorn” is a series of oil paintings executed over the past 16 years. The marbled ‘nodules’ are created using a multiplicity of palette knives. The unicorn—although considered a mythological creature—is thought by many to have existed in parts of present-day India. The last recorded siting of the white unicorn is believed to have been at the court of ‘Suleiman the Magnificent.’ So much has been written about the unicorn by Western poets, philosophers, and sages, it is virtually impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. Countless artists and numerous European states have representations of the unicorn in their work and Coat of Arms; notably, including the UK Royal Coat of Arms with the inscription “Dieu et mon droit,” or “God and my right.”

I am firmly of the opinion that the unicorn existed in ancient times. The mating dance of the unicorn is performed by both sexes in a repetitive and beautifully choreographed dance that lasts for days before they eventually mate. The Mating Dance of the Unicorn is the title of a work in the exhibition which represents the hauntingly beautiful, repetitive, and graceful movement of the female unicorn, in this magnificent ritual.

Can you tell us about childhood experiences?
I was born on the tiny Caribbean Island of Saint Lucia—the only country in the world with a lady’s name, and unquestionably one of the most beautiful places on earth—on October 12, 1945. We grew up in abject poverty, although at the time I thought it was quite normal for children to go to school without shoes and for hundreds of children to be crammed into a single room.

My father was brutally murdered when I was 14 years old, and my poor mother, who had never held a job, was left to take care of six children without a cent to her name. All things considered, it was nonetheless a happy childhood.

You are known for your use of rich and vibrant color. Can you tell us about your creative process? What kinds of patterns, routines, or rituals do you have? What do they represent?
My work has evolved considerably, from semi-figurative to complete abstraction. The paintings on which I am currently working are enormously influenced by the flora and topography of Saint Lucia, particularly the fruit and flowers. Almost all tropical fruits are much bigger and brighter in color than fruits found in a temperate climate.

The techniques employed are varied both in terms of the implements utilized—palette knives, wooden tools, fish scaling knives, brushes, and a host of other conventional and unconventional tools and gadgets used in numerous trades and profession—and my handling of the paint. Normally, the first layers are painted on very thickly and allowed to dry for several weeks, if not months. Then, subsequent layers are applied after each glaze. In some cases, as many as 30 glazes are applied to certain sections of a painting.

Are there any media you want to explore that you haven’t yet?
I am currently working on a conceptual piece in which I hope to use as many materials and techniques as I possibly can. I have been working on this concept, developing a series of paintings, for the past 12 years. The work is global in scope, biographical in essence and is an attempt at strengthening the obvious bond which exists between the human family.

You’ve travelled quite extensively. Is this reflected in your work?
My travel to Egypt was of particular interest. Most of my time there was spent at the Cairo Museum—impossible to fully appreciate as there are thousands of objects on display. The little time spent there was devoted to making mental notes. In those days, one was strictly forbidden to take photos.

We then flew to Luxor on a small aircraft, avoiding masses of pilgrims returning from Mecca that year. On one of my many visits to North Africa, I was fortunate to follow the entire court of the King of Morocco, who was on an official tour of the country. We were treated to the most exotic and rarest foods: mountains of sheep’s eyes served on ornately carved silver platters, exotic teas, beautifully roasted lamb served on beds of couscous, fish in abundance, and, most memorably, the sounds and smell of a wonderfully intoxicating and pleasurable experience, impossible to erase from the memory even after so many years. Unquestionably, the fabric on which fresh canvasses are brought into existence and painted into reality.

Do you have a motto for yourself or your artistic process?
Art is my pleasure and pleasure is my art.

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