What is behind Mona Lisa’s famous smirk? If anyone could venture a guess, it would be comedian and art history aficionado Caryn Lewi. Her quick-wit and ease onstage set her apart during our time on the NYC improv team Tuesdays with Ellena. My admiration grew exponentially when she told me about her Instagram blog @museummixtape, a feed that gives a fresh voice to artwork old and new.
So, you went to Vassar where I assume you wore lots of sweaters and read poetry all day.
That is exactly correct. What inspired me to apply early to Vassar was the fact that they had a Shakespeare garden which made my teenage heart swoon.
Hahaha, very Dead Poets Society I imagine.
Yes. And Hogwarts.
How did you settle on becoming an art history major? Were you a precocious child obsessed with Frida Kahlo back in the day?
I can pinpoint the exact moment I realized Art was Good. In my 6th grade Spanish class, Senora Colaiaco set aside every Friday to discuss “Cultura” and she showed us a poster (or was it from an overhead projector?) of El Greco’s View of Toledo. The sky is so dark. The grass is so bright, and there are tiny people down by the river. He captured that electric air right before a thunderstorm. And my little 11-year-old self was like “I think this matters and I love it.”
And there was a JW Turner watercolor in my 10th grade English textbook of Tintern Abbey. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen in my life. So much so, I resolved to travel to that very spot! (Which I did, years later. Wales did not disappoint, my friends!)
So by the time I got to college, I knew I wanted to study art history
I want to say both are rather macabre. Beautiful, dark, rather religious. Is that the kind of art you’re normally drawn to?
I think I like the drama. I try to keep my life happy and lighthearted, so I’ll take my turbulence in art, thank you very much. To me, those two particular paintings show nature and the divine in context of each other, ya know? (Henry VIII took the roof off Tintern Abbey and the wilderness crept it, so while it’s a nicely managed tourist attraction now, you can just imagine how much flora and fauna began to devour the architecture!)
When you first got to school were there any art genres or styles you were repulsed or uninspired by?
The Hudson River School landscape paintings blew me away. The scope and scale of them, it’s like getting to look at a rainbow for as long as you want to
Wait. I SAID REPULSED.
Hahaha oh dear. I misread your question. Hm. To be fair, I think I would have benefited greatly from having an engaging modern art professor, but didn’t really connect with one at school. So I know that Marcel Duchamp was groundbreaking in his way, but….his stuff doesn’t make me have a feeling aside from a frustrated shrug. WHICH MAY BE HIS WHOLE POINT!?
Dada *insert shrug*
Exactly. I wouldn’t say Duchamp is repulsing, he just doesn’t speak to me. Photographer Cindy Sherman’s work is repulsive but in an awesome, terrifying rock n’ roll kind of way!
What was the genesis of @museummixtape? How did the idea first come to you?
I was walking around the galleries at lunch time, a little over two years ago and was struck by this stunning pastel of a very handsome young man. Great hair, great clothes, great smirk and I was thinking…..man, I know that guy. That is the guy you go out with and you have a wonderful time and he’s a great kisser and then he never texts you again. The inexplicable rakes you come across while trying to date in new york.
That guy is every guy on OkCupid who lives in Williamsburg.
You don’t cite artists in your posts. Is there a reason you don’t call them out?
I think I just wanted to keep the format simple. I was shy for a long time about doing the posts at all!
I think it’s really fun, it inspires me to make up characters when I’m at an art museum myself. Very mad libs.
Ha! That makes me very happy to hear. That’s the whole point of this project. Sharing the personalities I find in various collections and hoping other people connect to them themselves.
Your post copy is frickin’ hilarious. We met doing improv at UCBNY; does your improv training come into play when you’re crafting the characters?
Hahaha, thank you! I was thinking about this earlier actually….In improv, we learn about the importance of “gifting” a scene partner. Giving someone just a few little details that can help inform their character and the whole scene. And it doesn’t have to be a big paragraph of details. Just a little hint here and there can add a lot of flavor to an interaction. And also, I realize that in improv, I’m sort of a quieter player. So this the blog is fun for me because I can just type my little character joke and don’t have to compete in order to be heard.
Instagram is the perfect platform for this kind of series. Are there any curators or artists you follow that we should know about?
A lot of the Met curators have wonderful accounts. Pierre Terjanian runs Arms & Armor and his posts are so smart and informative. (Below are few more suggestions Caryn sent my way)
- @small.lisa – She’s a curator at the Brooklyn Museum. I don’t know her personally but her pictures and insights are beautiful.
- @breakingisbad – Again, I don’t know her personally but she’s a specialist head of ceramics & glass at Christie’s and has a wonderful blend of irreverence and passion for the materials. Is there anything better than a blend of humor and expertise?!
- @colnaghi1760 – They’re a gallery I discovered during TEFAF (incredible art fair the Park Avenue Armory hosted late last year). Sumptuous, gorgeous sculpture and paintings, the kind you get lost in.
Ok. It’s time for an interview question speed round: Favorite art medium.
Ah! Sculpture so long as it’s Bernini!
Favorite contemporary artist.
Favorite old-school artist (Pre-1900s).
Oh goddammit what a mean question. I’m sitting here with my mouth open trying to pick just one. Curse you. Let’s just say Da Vinci. His sketches make me want to run around screaming they are so beautiful.
Favorite art museum.
When I lived in NYY, I was a big Thursday night gallery goer. What’s the strangest art installation you’ve encountered?
Hm. I was at the Park Avenue Armory a few months ago and they had a multi-room installation and there was a short video of some gals….matter-of-factly going #2. My friend who came with me was like “This is the most New York-y art thing I have ever done.”
You did a TedX talk at The Met where you shared a very personal story about a 2013 visit to Vienna.
You mentioned in your talk the peace you felt when viewing The Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt. I have to say, I was unfamiliar with it, so I immediately wiki’d. I was blown away by the Wikipedia description:
“The frieze illustrates human desire for happiness in a suffering and tempestuous world in which one contends not only with external evil forces but also with internal weaknesses…The journey ends in the discovery of joy by means of the arts and contentment is represented in the close embrace of a kiss. Thus, the frieze expounds psychological human yearning, ultimately satisfied through individual and communal searching and the beauty of the arts coupled with love and companionship.”
What place does art hold in your life?
Gosh. I don’t think I’ve ever read that description of the frieze before! Art grounds me. It comforts me even as I lose myself in it. It makes me feel connected to other people and times in a way that calms me down. When I walked around and find myself relating to a smirking satyr that was sculpted 2000 years ago – it’s like we have always been the same goofball humans that we are today.
Art makes me feel small in the best way possible.
Caryn Lewi currently lives and works in NYC where she can be found laughing and causing a ruckus in otherwise quiet museums.