Ellen K. Levy
Stealing Attention, Michael Steinberg Fine Arts, March 19 – April 18, 2009
Decoding Metaphors For The 21st Century, Rider University Art Gallery, March 12 – April 19, 2009
Ellen Levy’s newest set of paintings at two solo shows, in New York and New Jersey, use optical and cognitive brain research to tackle issues artists have been obsessed with since the Renaissance; how to portray depth and perspective by rendering three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane. With innovations in science, psychology, and technology, it is now possible to locate the exact moment the eye tricks the brain into believing the illusion it is looking at is real. This moment has long been exploited by magicians, con men, hucksters, advertisers, and propagandists, and it has brought to the fore questions about the relationship of power, perception, and technology. Quite aware of these tensions, Levy states, “Futurism’s association with Fascism, speed, and industry make its appropriation/incorporation within a contemporary artwork, which I sometimes do, a pointed way to comment on existing power structures.”
Levy’s works on view at Michael Steinberg are collages on wood in which the visual field is carefully layered between the exposed wood panel, digital prints, and paint to form a seamless whole. The deliberate gaps of wood grain distort the figure/ground relationship, so that the development of the collage is not immediately noticeable and the surface appears coherent, rather than a sum of its parts. The eye seeks a recognizable location or object as a resting place when scanning the complex edge-to-center relationship of the myriad embedded visual data. The subdued purple, lilac, and green, and washes of white and beige, divulge a dampened-down palette that masks rather than heightens overt dislocation, making the origin of the illusion of depth—and the sleight of hand that renders that depth—harder to detect.
One of Levy’s influences is the work of Al Held and his use of the Necker Cube. A Necker Cube is a line drawing of a transparent cube that tricks the eye into flipping the illusionistic depth projection of the cube. Focusing on different parts of the object stabilizes the image in different ways and can force competing views of the same image. Another common optical illusion is the Bezold Effect, in which a color looks different depending on the color next to it, like a primary color placed beside black or white. In and of themselves these illusions are aesthetic and harmless. It is when they are used to distort, take advantage of, or manipulate situations that they become problematic. This manipulation is quite real and well-funded by governmental agencies, as evidenced by NASA astrophysics titles such as “Three-Dimensional Displays: Perceptual Research and Applications to Military Systems.” It seems no accident that Levy has participated in NASA’s art program, and spent time at its facilities at the Kennedy Space Center.
Her work reveals a very cunning and subtle sense of subterfuge based on her readings of perceptual, as well as figure/ground, dislocations. She uses as her underlying theme in this series the common street scam of Three-Card Monte. An accompanying video animation called “Stealing Attention” (a collaboration with neuroscientist Michael E. Goldberg, Director of the Mahoney Center for Brain and Behavior, Columbia University) draws parallels between card tricks and the looting of precious art objects from the Iraq National Museum after the fall of Baghdad. In Levy’s work, Abstract Expressionism and Hard Edge meet the video arcade, extracting rich visual sophistication from a plethora of both scientific and nefarious sources.