TOM LEVINE New Paintings
Washburn Gallery | March 27 – May 10, 2014
In this recent series of earth tone infused canvases, Tom Levine seeks to redefine the terms of engagement with his medium. He narrows the scope of the works to a handful of aesthetic principles, and though they emanate from a very traditional interpretation of abstraction on the one hand—Balla, Boccioni, and a Duchampian investigation into the representation of movement through gesture—there is a much more intriguing and seductive meditation on the anthropology of image making growing beneath the surface.
In works such as “Mauricio” (2013) and “Sebastian” (2012), multiple variations of silhouette portraits of specific individuals fan out across a sparse linen background. The image is not the portraits themselves or their vector of movement and direction, but the means by which it is calibrated. Like a vapor trail in a cloud chamber, Levine’s lines are three-dimensional entities in their own right. In “Mauricio,” volume is added to the line with touches of vermillion, hinting at a depth and physical thickness, while the human outlines in “Sebastian” resemble marks lifted off the light clay/gray canvas with approximations of shadows and highlights, though the artist never dumbs it down for the viewer by stepping into overt literalness. By way of an explanation, a series of studies—Cornellian vitrine box collages (2013 – 14)—hang off to the side. Each box is partitioned into four equal cubbies with wire tendrils daubed with paint snaking in and out of the spaces. These tendrils cast shadows, acting as sculptural objects, as well as defining boundaries, becoming strange figure/ground chimeras.
If it’s not the outlines of Levine’s silhouettes that act up and cause mischief in the picture plane, then the backgrounds themselves insert their presence into the action; bunching up in pearlescent fleshy clumps, trapped by the very borders that in the other images take flight. An easily discernible standing female nude on the right of the canvas and her head and torso on the left, collide in “Kalishnaya” (2013): the forms twist and crinkle into a mass of bulges and tourniquets. Levine accomplishes this writhing and lumpy cartography by insisting on filling in the volumes of the body within his outlines. As these human forms intersect toward the center of the picture, Muybridge-like, their volumes bunch up, giving much of the painting the feel of a sheet of rubber manipulated like flesh in a bondage knot. Vacillating between recognizable lines of faces and hands and Jenny Saville expanses of skin, “Kalishnaya” and her brother piece “16.VII.13 Ian-Michael” (2013), a charcoal, graphite, and oil pastel study on paper, are the two most arresting works in the exhibition—movement is registered in these pieces, but the reverberations of the action seem to transcend a mere graphical or diagram-like registration; in a post-structuralist double-back, the movement reverberates through the medium as well.
The colors are muted, and fluctuate gently in most of the paintings; the works that employ a more contrasting palette offer a different interpretation of the artist’s aims. “Self Portrait” (2013), “Juan Ernesto” and “Alex” (both 2014) as well as pit rusty oranges against grays and off-whites, and the focus is no longer singularly line or broad swathes of paint, but contained territories of shape and color. The lines still have their implied depth, and the shapes still harbor a sense of volume—the addition of sharper gradations of hue and tint yield a “pop” reminiscent of late Jasper Johns. The overlapping figures, criss-crossing the canvas like the lead of a stained glass window, also remind the viewer of Johns’s obsession with optical illusion. In the more monochromatic canvases the forms share the space with a degree of equanimity, but the introduction of a palette of strong color brings out the devilish game in Levine’s process, as he sets handprints, breasts, cocks, and profiles in competition with each other.
The residual effect of the show is one of unexpected insight into an oft-considered, frequently tackled, and rarely satisfactorily executed visual puzzle. Always one to address the canonical implications of pure aesthetic strategies to very practical issues of representation, Levine offers up a pleasing and sensual solution to the questions he has laid out in the rigorous parameters of this new series of works.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.