Sunday, January 18, 2015

How I Stopped Worrying About Postmodernism and Learned to Love the Balm

By Carl Belz

Author's note: Artist friend David Levine invited me to contribute the following essay to the catalog of his new exhibition, "The Beatles are Dull and Ordinary: Drawings by David X. Levine," at Boston University's Sherman Gallery, 775 Commonwealth Avenue, Second Floor, Boston MA 02215, January 20 - March 27, 2015, opening reception on Friday, January 23, 5-7pm.

David Levine, KISS, 2011, colored pencil, graphite on paper, 72x52 inches.
My initial encounter with Kiss riveted me to the image only, a single pink line zig­-zagging expansively down through a boundless white space, an electrified minimalist/color field vector, primal and essential and decisive­­ — like a prehistoric glyph or a line drawn in the sand to express an aesthetic urge to meaning, like the “poetic outcry” of Barnett Newman’s “original man shouting his consonants in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state,” like one of Newman’s signature pictorial zips springing to life before our eyes. Yet, in the same moment, a line that additionally assumes the look of a lightning bolt like the one accompanying young Billy Batson’s cry of “Shazam” and his magical transformation into superhero Captain Marvel. And finally, and just as quickly, a vector/zip/lightning bolt line that further morphs into a pair of stacked Zs summoning an image of ZZ Top’s inimitably bearded rockers. 

The encounter with Kiss widened and deepened when I learned its title, a reference foremost to the over­-the­-top­-heavy­-metal eponymous rock group that David Levine and his generation grew up with in the late seventies and early eighties. But a reference at the same time so ubiquitous and personal that it exceeds any single musical genre or expression and becomes virtually universal in recalling oldies such as Then He Kissed Me, It’s In His Kiss, and Last Kiss or multiple versions of classics such as Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Sealed With A Kiss, while all along also remaining deeply embedded in and shaping the lyrics of countless other pop songs whose lyrics we only partially remember. 

Its comforting balm of nostalgia notwithstanding, Kiss just as fully references formal museum culture. Think of Brancusi’s iconic art historical couple joined by a single line as singularly distinguished as the single line in the picture before us, or think of Man Ray’s Observatory Time: The Lovers, those lips hovering in the sky, about to bestow a gentle kiss upon a Paris evening. So does the beat of tracking its multiple cultural links go on, but David Levine’s picture is also grounded in the here and now, which is to say it responds to our question about what its form and content together mean in the context of our own lived experience. To wit: that minimalist vector that is also a lightning bolt, could it, say, be a metaphor for the vital passion of an ongoing or long term relationship, and/or could it perhaps signal the heightened anticipation sparked by an entirely new one? My response is to say that David Levine’s image dares to mean elementally yet fully­­, though in neither case literally­­, what its title says, that while the kiss in Kiss may be informed by and convey many meanings­­ – easily as many as the number of meanings that attach to the single line zig­-zagging down through its boundless white field­ – ­it is first and last a metaphorical gesture of affection, possibly even of love. From there, we’re each of us meant to go with its flow, savor the rich texture of its layered form and content, and freely decide its significance on our own, for ourselves, maybe even for one another. 

As Kiss makes abundantly clear, David Levine’s is an art that routinely takes inspiration from and intermingles the high and low cultures of our time, pausing momentarily on pop tunes and performers, then abruptly halting us in our visual tracks with a reference to an historical movement or individual artist, in the process embracing feelings and ideas that are both ephemeral and lasting, as if they comprise not mutually exclusive phenomena but an experiential continuum. Conventional wisdom has it that such an art dissolves the categorical distinction separating fine art and popular art, when what it effectively does is enhance both via their interaction with one another, like an aesthetic hybrid reminding us that that’s how it usually is with complex feelings and ideas: The best of them, the ones most challenging and rewarding, tend in the lived world nearly always to range widely and wildly and combine unpredictably, they’re rarely if ever pure. In accepting their challenge, at the same time, we’re in turn rewarded with the full spectrum of pleasures that such an art was made to celebrate and yield in the first place. 

The celebratory voice that inflects our understanding of the high/low nexus­­ – I will call it David Levine’s signature voice­­ – affects as well how we look at his art in relation to the modern and postmodern contexts in which it’s been developed. It’s a voice that in formal terms – ­­including terms of physical size and scale and ambition­ – ­is largely grounded in the unalloyed geometries and grids and color fields of modernist abstraction, yet is at the same time sprinkled with photographs and narrative impulses and quasi-­surreal inventions, all of which comprise a voice reflecting postmodernism’s democratic and accommodating openness to stylistic mixing and matching and a free­-wheeling approach to finding and taking inspiration from art’s history. 

But while its inspirational sources are everywhere referenced, they’re nowhere appropriated, nowhere cloaked and guarded by quotes, nowhere presented with postmodernism’s signature irony. Which is to say David Levine’s artistic voice is ever accessible, its expression of feelings and ideas candidly offered, its modus operandi evidencing the modernist urge to know the self and, via the self, the world. Which further means the voice has been selectively nurtured, not as a conceptual program­ – ­a common postmodern practice­­ – but as a personal hybrid born of firsthand encounters with art eliciting conviction about what’s best in terms of quality and meaning in our culture, no matter where it might be located within the prevailing high/low/modern/postmodern spectrum. Which finally means the voice present to us in this exhibition, the one providing a viable alternative to the many conventional models elsewhere available, is invariably celebratory, never cynical. 

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. He currently lives with his wife in Franconia, New Hampshire.

Some other work by David Levine:
Fred Neil, 2004, colored pencil, graphite on paper, 65x55 inches.
She Knows Me So Well, 2005, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 75x55 inches.
I'm Still In Love With Emily Kane, 2008, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 55x69 inches.
Charles Stevenson Wright, 2009, colored pencil, collage, and graphite on paper, 70x55 inches.
Scarecrow, 2011, color pencil, collage, and graphite on paper, 67x53 inches.
September 30, 2013, 2013, colored pencil and collage on paper, 60x48 inches.


Deborah Barlow said...

You are the perfect person to navigate Levine's mergings--music, (high and low) culture, fine art. Well done Carl.

About Connie Goldman said...

Good art and good writing... What more is there? I enjoyed this, Carl.