Featured in the San Francisco Weekly. Text provided below.
- Living Single: Charlie Levin at SFIAF
- Waxing Poetic: Charlie Levin's Paintings as Performance
Living Single: Charlie Levin at SFIAF
“When you’re right and everyone else is wrong, there’s no room for anything else," says the artist Charlie Levin, who spent time in a community of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs "living together in conflict.”
The community’s schools teach children in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and they actively engage in conversations that frequently reveal opposing viewpoints. From this came Single Point Perspective: A Meditation on Race, Loss, Grief and The Other, a piece in which Levin uses wax pigments, a pane of glass, and a nonfiction narrative read by the audience to create a unique live experience — a performed painting, if you will.
Levin will perform Single Point Perspective at the Fort Mason Chapel, which features stained glass windows and a vaulted ceiling, as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which will bring together artists from across the Bay Area (and 12 countries) for three weeks of performances, lectures, and talk-backs.
Audiences entering the dimly lit space might note the smell of beeswax, one pleasant side effect of Levin’s practice of painting with wax — known as encaustic — a method that can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Levin will provide the audience with a text that includes her own writing interwoven with quotes that reflect a range of American assumptions about safety, power, and access to resources. As audience members take turns reading the text, Levin will paint on a backlit glass panel, creating and changing a visual character. Offering an evolving experience of seeing and listening, she invites the audience to consider multiple perspectives at once.
Having returned to Oakland just as the local reaction to the fatal police shooting and subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., was in full swing, Levin was struck by the long-standing situation of different realities existing side-by-side in her own community.
"I was looking at the shootings and at the stories that are becoming more widely known about different experiences, such as violence, that are common [for some people] but seen as aberrations to others," she says. "[And I wondered] how you keep going in situations that don't have a quick fix. It requires a different kind of patience."
Levin cites perceptual artists such as James Turrell and Robert Irwin as influences. Her work looks very different from theirs, but she shares with them an invitation to audiences to reflect on the experience of seeing. In Single Point Perspective, she provides an environment that encourages a contemplative mode, and a willingness to avoid leaping to conclusions.
"[Our impression of an artwork] may provide a parallel to our first impression of a person," she says. "We don't know what anyone went through to get to where they are. When we learn more about a person, we see them differently. This performance is the inverse of seeing a finished painting. At the end, the audience will know what went into making it."
Levin's performance is not an improvisation, but neither is it a literal, illustrative response to the text that audiences will read (moving at the rate of one page per reader, Passover seder-style). Rather, each of her four performances will yield a different painting and a different experience for the audience.
"I come in with a plan in mind," Levin says. "But depending on the energy of the audience, I can paint lyrically or I can paint aggressively. In some ways, the performance has some aspects of dance."
Although other contemporary artists work with pigmented wax, Levin's particular combination of expressive modes is unique. She cut her teeth in Chicago's theater scene, where her company Local Infinity created work that combined performance and installation art, focusing on what Levin calls the body-to-body experience of performer and audience.
“We did things like use piles of dirt as a metaphor for home, and electricity for power,” Levin says. “We built suits that could be plugged in, manipulated 800 pounds of dirt, and we won an excellence award from the New York Fringe Festival for another show where we plunged a performer into molten wax. Things like that.”
Each of Levin’s performances will be followed by a talk-back moderated by Ayodele Nzinga of the Oakland theater company Lower Bottom Playaz, which fosters the creation of new work, supports theater artists at all stages of their careers, and produces existing plays that shed light on the lives of inner-city inhabitants. Levin will also participate in the SFIAF’s panel discussion about Black Lives Matter and the role of the artist in sociopolitical movements, moderated by educator, poet, and former Black Panther Party member Ericka Huggins.
Levin is in good company at this year's SFIAF, which features a truly eclectic lineup of theater, dance, music, and performances as hard to classify as Single Point Perspective. The festival emphasizes broad audience engagement by offering talk-backs, lectures, and family-oriented programming that invite us all to be open to sharing our views, and, perhaps more importantly, to listening to others.
“When we speak other people’s stories, we hold them in our mouths and we can start knowing what to look for and learning to listen,” Levin says. “I don't have answers, but I can offer a starting point for reflection.”
WAXING POETIC: CHARLIE LEVIN'S PAINTINGS AS PERFORMANCE
The apocryphal etymology of sincerity has its origins in the idea of artistic perfection: that a well-chiseled marble sculpture would not require the sly application of wax to fill cracks or repair contours, thus, it was sine sera — “without wax.”
This account of the word has been disproven, and artists working in encaustic techniques have similarly challenged wax’s association with defects. Among them is Charlie Levin, who applies wax to glass to create paintings that seem thickly textured and opaque as plaster, yet which, when lit, reveal more stories than a stained glass window.
“The magic trick is about controlling transparency,” Levin says.
She is describing the way her paintings show an entirely different image when they are lit from the front or behind, producing a visceral astonishment and perplexity that that the eyes could be so deceived about the nature of the object. Yet she could also be talking about the impact of her work, which produces layers of meaning that question what we can know about the world and those in it: stolid, seated figures on a neutral ground rise up and become muscular Blakean demigods wrestling one other or traversing a barren universe in her massive four panel painting SecondSight (2003), a pale face darkens and broods in a portrait, a mirrored surface in which you see the full length of your body becomes a skeleton in one of the eight panels of Face2Face (2011) — an x-ray, a memento mori, a reminder of the generic and the strange that lurks beneath the surface of all mortal things.
Despite the complexity of her images, Levin says:
“The end result of the painting is not the point. It is only an artifact. The way I see life is that we are the product of our experiences, including who we are born as, and our families, and our environment, and the things that happen to us. When you meet somebody, you can’t see that. You see little bits and pieces. And they change, and we change.”
Consequently, painting for Levin is a process rather than a product, an art form that has found a natural outlet in performance. As a student majoring in art and philosophy, Levin had the realization that, rather than creating static images, she could create immersive environments in which the viewers walking through would become the figures of the painting.
“It’s all about the body,” she explains. “It’s not a room of stuff that people get to see; it’s about the interaction of your body in this space.”
An early installation The Square Root of Infinity (1992), created in collaboration with a dancer and a musician for a course called “Dance and the Related Arts,” whetted her appetite for fortuitous intersections of movement and visual art. This lead Levin to seek work with several Chicago theater companies, including Lookingglass Theatre, before establishing Local Infinities Visual Theater in 1996 with collaborator Meghan Strell.
It was in a Local Infinities piece called Wax and Wayne (2002), in which Levin and Strell used 200 pounds of wax to tell an adaptation of the myth of Pygmalion, that Levin realized the act of painting itself could become a performance. Levin painted the story in colored wax on a clear, human-sized panel of Plexiglas, gradually replacing a white form with the blushing figure of the living sculpture Galatea.
“The point is that the image itself changes and changes, each time leaving pieces and parts that overlay each other. The result is something completely different, made of the sum of its parts.” Performing the piece at the Oerol Festival of Site-Specific Theater in the Netherlands, Levin discovered the play of light she calls “the magic,” which touched off her investigation in encaustic painting.
Her Berkeley studio is still littered with experiments in wax — nubbins and curls erupting from the aluminum tins like petrified sea creatures neatly categorized by color and opacity, and studies in white wax colored by opaque titanium and transparent zinc on oblong lengths of glass arranged like a series of microscope slides.
Based in the Bay Area since 2010, Levin has exhibited work at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the Oakland Art Murmur, and the Performance Art Institute, as well as created installations for CODAME, The Wayfinders Performance Group, The Decameron at Fort Mason, and China Lounge in Pleasanton. Earlier this year, she collaborated with technology and performance company Kinetech Arts in TheOtherSight, a performance on surveillance in which panels from SecondSight served as a moving set that exposed visual secrets as it was washed over by digital flames and water ripples. On Tuesday, Levin previews a work-in-progress performance of her own, Single-Point Perspective: The One Truthiness. Using the transparency and mutability of wax to tell a visual story in live painting that considers our ability to recognize other bodies as our own, Levin reminds, in this, as well as her whole oeuvre, that a picture presents the illusion of a world in which all things can be perceived, though it exists within a world in which perspective limits our understanding.
Kinetech Arts Featured Artist Program presents Charlie Levin in "Single-Point Perspective: The One Truthiness" at 8:30 p.m. on December 16 at KUNST-STOFF arts, 1 Grove St., S.F. Admission is free; $5 suggested donation.
What divisions do you feel?