Hannah Levy: Pendulous Picnic
New York CityCasey Kaplan
January 23 – February 29, 2020
Chandeliers are statement makers. Historically, they tended to signify wealth or extravagance. Now, chandeliers—the big ornate ones at least—are more in line with the sort of trite, prefabricated domiciles we refer to as McMansions. In the early 2000s, Fred Wilson capitalized on the associative capacity of the chandelier by making enormous, baroque, and fully operational ones out of Murano glass in order to investigate the intersecting but oft-overlooked histories of Blackness and Western decorative culture. Years later, Danh Vō installed three chandeliers formerly attached to Paris’s Hôtel Majestic to the ceilings of the Guggenheim in a provocative exploration of opulence and oppression.
In her most recent solo show at Casey Kaplan, the 28-year-old sculptor Hannah Levy also turns to the chandelier to address corresponding sociopolitical themes: notably, what structures seem to be versus what they are. Levy, who is new to Casey Kaplan’s roster, has enjoyed significant art-world success in the half-decade since her graduation from Germany’s preeminent Städelschule. (Vō is an alumnus of the same program.) She had her first New York solo show in 2015, at James Fuentes, was featured in a group show at David Zwirner in 2018 and was subsequently named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in the Art & Style category. For someone so serious about fine art, that last honor may be more an embarrassment than a boon, but the point remains: at an astonishingly young age, Levy has already accomplished what many artists hope to achieve before they die.
Pendulous Picnic refers to the chandeliers, Levy’s persistent interest in bizarrely shaped or textured foods, and the quasi-kinky weirdness that can exist in the borderlands of the decorative and the organic. In the end, her sculptures are not chandeliers but chandelier-esque, treading the line between functionality and lack thereof. On the steel-cast, hand-welded monstrosities, Levy reserves no space for bulbs or candles; instead, the glittering branches spear flesh-colored molds of pimply gourds, or end in precarious talons that pinch the edges of a silicone swath cast from ostrich skin. Levy almost always works in two contrasting mediums, which helps make her sculpture as aesthetically austere as it is affectively jarring. In addition to her chandelier sculptures, and one work that appears like a trampoline fit for a torture chamber, Levy has made new versions of her signature cast asparagus sculptures, which are bound by metal restraints and fixed to the wall. Asparagus are the ideal Levy food: sculpturally elegant and unnervingly phallic.
Pendulous Picnic also includes a set of photographs, which are new territory for Levy. Although these are less persuasive than her three-dimensional work, they provide an intriguing window into her artistic thought. Against a white backdrop, manicured hands slide a pristine hook through the limp, glistening body of a live worm. Both hook and worm are reminiscent of the components of Levy’s sculpture, which does not necessarily mean that she is inspired by them so much as that what occupies her intellectually exists in the human world. Interestingly, Levy does not actually handle the camera, but provides staging and art direction, and hand-welds custom frames. Such a comfort with the distance between artist and object speaks to the politics of production and the issues of authenticity and exploitation which attend it. Levy’s work is sacred, but not precious; real, but not exempt from the reality in which it is made.
Conceptually, Levy has significant room to grow, which is a good thing for someone who is hopefully still early on in her career. The chandelier sculptures are suspended in that space where art that is striking and thought-provoking threatens to become art that is dangerously poignant. Levy can afford to abandon more of the representational details—like the gourds—for more of her disarmingly uncanny design: more chandelier sculptures that are nearly, eerily, chandeliers. She can worry less about physical contrasts than about what her sculptures as wholes are capable of evoking in the mind of an unsuspecting visitor, which, in my opinion, is a lot.