September 9, 2021 – October 9, 2021
In 18th-century England, fashionable sightseers carried in their pockets a small, slightly convex mirror called the Claude glass. Named after the classicist landscapes of Claude Lorrain, the device was tinted to produce a picturesque panoramic, neatly framed, in which the violent contrasts of life’s lights and colors are tamed and boxed into a narrow range of harmonious tones. Like modern-day tourists who take in museums and mountaintops through the lenses and screens of their iPhones, these earlier travelers preferred to turn their back on the scene in question and look instead into their mirrors, experiencing reality according to the pictorial tastes of their time.
Matvey Levenstein’s paintings, 14 of which are on view at Kasmin through October 9, embrace the pictorial framing of both these handheld devices. Depicting everyday scenes in and around Levenstein’s home on the North Fork of Long Island, the paintings are said to have originated with casual photographs that the artist took on his phone. Yet through their lapidary construction in an audaciously compressed palette, they communicate a serene and separate world of stillness and clarity, much like what one might see through a tinted mirror or glass.
To achieve this effect, Levenstein makes evocative use of toned grounds (usually some variation of muted pink) that unify the pictures and undergird their forms, like the keynote of a musical composition. From this tonal center, Levenstein departs only minimally, in successive layers of thin, meticulously applied paint—sometimes darker, mostly lighter—to build out his pictures.
The compressed range of value frees Levenstein to perform pianissimo acrobatics of tone and hue. An introductory essay by Jason Rosenfeld reports that, for this show, Levenstein has excised blue from his palette. This is hard to fathom in front of, for instance, the glowing bits of sky peeking through dusky clouds in the upper registers of Sunflowers (2021), a large painting of four flowers in a vase on a shelf against a Long Island landscape. Only by isolating these patches from their carefully modulated neighbors—billowing mists of mauve, peach, and ochre—can one see that the presumed ceruleans are actually rather brownish-grays.
Glasses and mirrors appear and reappear as subjects themselves, mediating views, opening the door for visual stagecraft and even humor. The mirrored surface of a living room table occupies the lower halves of several paintings, doubling the scenes in perplexing asymmetries. One such work is Mirror (2021), a large canvas that faces the gallery’s entrance. The painting includes, in the foreground, a glass vase holding a yellow rose and water; in the mid-distance, a female figure that reaches for a lamp; and on a background wall is yet another mirror, also reflected by the table, that itself reflects a small, silhouetted, head-like form.
Is this latter form the artist himself? Which is the mirror named in the title? At a certain point, such questions of optical and ontological trickery begin to feel trivial against the quiet light that suffuses the room, emanating from several sources—natural and artificial, seen and unseen—activating drab gray into an entrancing array of warms and cools.
Yet, despite the elevated banality of his subject-matter, Levenstein isn’t interested in showing us that ordinary experience is extraordinary, in the tradition of, say, Jane Freilicher or Fairfield Porter, two other Long Island painters who probed the expressive possibilities of a muted palette. Levenstein detaches himself from that responsibility through his use of photography, which gives the images an all-over sobriety and pictorial distance. In the larger works on linen, such as Autumn (2020), which shows the artist’s wife, Lisa Yuskavage, sitting beachside on a pile of driftwood, the horizontal and vertical weave of the fabric acts almost like a window screen through which the scene is viewed—or, perhaps, under which the image sits.
Unlike both doctrinaire and inadvertent photorealists, however, Levenstein works beyond the remit of the photograph, treating it as a means, not an end. The paintings’ surfaces are methodical, not mechanical. They communicate a slowness that transcends the click of a camera’s shutter.
The paintings do so by engaging with filmic seriality, but also by compelling the viewer to look over an extended period. A trio of nocturne skyscapes, all 7 by 5 inch panels, are instructive. Nearly identical views of a full moon that hangs above and behind a group of leafless hillside trees, the paintings are darker and more pared down than anything else in the show. Indeed, they’re nearly invisible. Were they seen on the same cold night? One feels they must have been, given the evanescent wisp of cloud that recurs but subtly differs in each, just below the pale-yellow orb. Discerning these differences in form, light, and atmosphere requires time, focus, and attention. But it’s an attention worth giving.