Mutable and Immutable Divides
“What terrifies us most about others is the presence of something that also lies dormant within our own depths.”
In attempting to elucidate the possibilities of escaping the rational mind in order to have experiences with art, Georges Didi-Huberman describes a “gaze that would not draw to a close only to discern and recognize, to name what it grasps at any cost—but would, first, distance itself a bit and abstain from clarifying everything immediately. Something like a suspended attention, a prolonged suspension of the moment of reaching conclusions where interpretation would have time to deploy itself in several dimensions, between the grasped visible and the lived ordeal of relinquishment. There would also be in this alternative, a dialectical moment—surely unthinkable in positivist terms—consisting of not-grasping the image, of letting oneself be grasped by it instead: thus of letting go of one’s knowledge about it.”1
For many, experienced in their dialogues with works of art, what Didi-Huberman takes pains to articulate might be second nature, yet it is a reminder that there are extraordinary means to apprehension. Moments where we become conscious of our perception are often ones that connect diverse points of reference and draw on many aspects of our being. A sustained engagement with sculptural works by Jill Levine in her recent show Cats Talk at Hionas Gallery is a case in point.
We all know that cats have nine lives, but how we understand what that means reflects differently through the myriad worldviews. How we find a way into Levine’s works is a matter of equal complexity, though in a material sense her polychrome sculptures made from plaster-dipped gauze over Styrofoam are rather straightforward. Levine raises all sorts of thorny questions that both art historians and others have carefully navigated around for reasons that Didi-Huberman touches on above. Levine too, asks us to let go of the known and find new sources for our understanding.
As you approach and gaze upwards at the dark form of “Aztec Chakra” (2013), it begins to set up rhythms that oscillate and feel like they could jump to the next quantum level. In so doing they open a door to what lies beyond the surface. With the symmetry of its appendages the quasi-figure gains stability, and that enables it to guide us, even if things do take an unexpected turn in the road to discovery. Meaning eludes here; it seems almost beyond the point, as if a singular significance might be way too simplistic for the worlds these works have emerged from. At the other end of the first room, “Over the Top” (2013) seems poised in an infinite dance; yet it’s not a figure we see here, but aspects of gesture that have coalesced into form.
On first impression Levine’s works feel totemic, both in terms of an organization of forms and in the large phallic members protruding at various angles on some of them. Levine’s working method yields a smooth matte surface that soaks in the light, even as its mostly white color reflects it. The geometric forms are largely symmetrical, which reinforces the totemic impression, yet closer inspection reveals that often, like in “Red Tabby” (2014), the painted forms on them are not. This contention keeps the figures in the realm of the abstract and skirts the possibility of identifying them with individual mythic personalities. There is nothing terribly catlike about these forms, excepting perhaps their scale, yet if we look at them with cats in mind, we can see all sorts of catlike things about them. Their mutable nature belies their solid appearance; yet that changeability has its limits, too—limits that are much more difficult to determine. Such contradictions could drive us to the edge of the graspable; after all, the work itself is an object one could hold in the hand.
Levine courts any number of other edges and shows that something of this enigmatic world can be experienced when moving through the gallery space. Midway, Levine has painted a portal that evokes the entrance to a Mayan tomb and subtly changes the tenor of the rooms. The existing pilasters in Hionas’s space happen at the point the 11-foot front room, ceiling lowers to around six feet for about a five-foot span. Levine works the compression to her advantage and allows her audience to emerge into the back room with the eerily full-blown shadow of “Llena”(2011) looming larger than the sculptural figure itself.
The relationship of the smaller work to its larger shadow hints at the various dimensions embedded in these spectacular forms, yet the work’s subtlety of scale allows space for those who opt to keep their feet on the ground at all times. While the references to actual deities abound in the way the surfaces are treated with glyphs and lines, the figural sculptures never actually achieve a namable form. The result of this teetering calls up the familiar Wittgensteinian maxim delineating the boundaries between what can be found in the visual and what communicates through language. Levine speaks with the visual and stands words in long lines to do their reckoning. Her work demands a deep dive into the subaqueous depths of our subconscious following what her forms, their colors and aura evoke. If you really want to get your bearings here, you’d better leave your compass at home and navigate with your nose. These are the unspeakable things, not because they shouldn’t be talked about, but because they can’t. They must be felt and grasped at without determination as our felt sense leads us through the labyrinth that is the unconscious.
Nothing contemporary quite feels like this—the presence these pieces put forward is archaic—and yet the works don’t feel dated. Levine’s accomplishments allow us to experience continuity in a way that let us slip back or sail forward without being caught in the framework style imposes on time. “Llena”2 looks like she is holding some kind of dish, an antennae or receiver. The form is poised, and although the glyphs painted on Levine’s exquisite matte white surface are precise and consistent, the work opens up to a warm embrace as you pause to take it in, like a smiling figure from el Tajín. Its gesture seems caught in perpetual greeting, as if in passing through the portal Levine has created an entry point into the human psyche where time is no longer linear.
The artist references forms and signs that come from a culture where the engagement of the metaphysical world with a physical one is customary. If we take Levine’s works as a marker for the zeitgeist, and consider Post-enlightenment western thinking, as well as the latest French philosophical invasion (evidenced in a recent panel called the “New Existentialism” and related journal MétaphysiqueS), they all seem to indicate that the doors reason slammed shut have opened up again. At this point there are innumerable ways to begin to place the metaphors Levine is casting out. Particle physics has long been available as a means to understand phenomena, and with the discovery of particles traveling faster than the speed of light, aspects of the para-normal edged closer. The decoding of the genome provides another model for understanding how information, knowledge we cannot access through our conscious or rational mind, nevertheless finds the means to make itself felt.
Eastern philosophies have had an easier time moving through these territories, and their influence in the West since the Beatles went to India has left its impact. Whether genetic memories, muscle memories or memories found in psychoanalysis, it is clear that the essence of things does not reside solely in their physical properties, and so our apprehension of them also has the potential to carry us into terra incognita.
Jung pushed at the academic sciences to acknowledge the dark side of the soul as a constituent part of our make-up. Artists are, for the most part, usually at home in this dangerous territory. The world of not-knowing yields fine rewards for those who delight in its tension and ambiguity. Nearly a century’s worth of investigations into the strange paths and eerie coincidences of stream-of-consciousness monologues, whether written or spoken, has brought us to the realization that, like data, it’s the processing of what emerges that requires great care and whose results are utterly unpredictable.
In the center room “Red Tabby” (2014) seen first in profile, is painted in red and black on the same smooth matte white surface; faces as well as figures appear and disappear in these painted marks, which play counterpoint with their asymmetry to the symmetrical construction that is their support. The swirling forms on top unleash chthonic forces and through their motion draw us in to their field. The meld of the figural and the abstract is indicative of a juncture where these modernist terms no longer suffice; they are not the terms of engagement, and here the way Levine’s works abide the other is the indication. In the end we are left with something that is essentially what it is, and that evokes its ostensible subject rather than represents it, even as we catch glimpses of its appearance.
Insofar as these works of art can speak, their vulnerability lies in the fact that everything depends on who is processing the transmission.
- Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, Penn. State Univ. Press, 2005, pg. 16.
- Meaning full or overflow in Spanish.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.