I’ve been familiar with Steve Levin’s paintings for several years now, and have admired their polished originality. It’s great to have the opportunity to discuss what makes them so mystifying. I said have the opportunity, it’s actually more like the opportunity was created. Williamstown is easier to get to than the other national locations, where Steve has had representation.
The very first impression created by his recent show (together with his wife, photographer Aida Laleian, which will be the subject of a separate article) at the Williams College Museum of Art was that the paintings feel like they’re exactly where they belong. A glance at the sophistication of the frames, and the careful placement of the works gave everything a sense of rightness and seriousness. Time is an important theme in Steve’s work that I’ll try to talk about later, but for now, I’ll briefly mention that there’s a feeling that the subject matter has been filtered through an ironic lens possibly influenced by someone like Spike Jones.
Steve’s paintings are made using the traditional painting technique of oil on copper. Some of their antique character emerges from his careful, deliberate approach with this technique. Copper is a very smooth, hard, and antiseptic surface over which a paintbrush glides easily—and where a progression of visual techniques and motifs including brush strokes, words, pictograms, icons, cartoons, and depictions of solid objects co-mingle in a hermetic pictorial continuum with an ambiguous theme that is very reminiscent of the art found in the margins of 1930’s and 40’s movie credits. An overall shallow picture space teems with pictures inside of pictures, depictions of landscapes on depictions of bits of paper, all these levels of visual elements are kept in focus, and painted with a precision that is key to recognizing his virtuosity.
The hermetic atmosphere of the paintings is populated with a kind of redundant depiction of objects that were themselves depictions of fables and myths from all kinds of sources like menus from Greek or Chinese restaurants’ astrological calendars, occasional autobiographical references… in this case Chloe is more likely a reference to his daughter, and not the lover of Daphnis. There’s a lot of Times Square-like kitsch sow’s-ear-to-silk-purse wit—like visiting a 50’s living room but without any plastic covering the fake rococo furniture. Steve is a highly motivated All-American sine qua non picker/ dumpster diver. But his finds are quite a lot more than just found objects, there is an elevated energy and flavor to the purposeful hunt, and how any bizarre object might someday find its place in a drawing or painting. It’s obvious that the frames that help to create the distortion of time have come from these hunts, and they have been carefully adapted to this purpose. A visit to his studio on the Williams College campus has the unmistakable fingerprint of compartmentalization that you’d find in a place like The Museum of Natural History; without the hands-off policy.
The code of humor in his paintings sometimes reminds me of a ploy that crossword puzzle designers use; a clue is purposely embedded with a pretentious diversion when the answer is straight out of Looney Toons. 23 across, Q: Fictional Hunter? A: Fudd. Steve’s paintings are as likely to be inhabited by Orion as Elmer Fudd occupying the same square foot of copper, in pursuit of the same Q: Fictional Lagomorph?… A: Rabbit. The rabbit is as likely to be Bugs as the humble hare from Albrecht Dürer. There you go, a Dürer Hare and Elmer Fudd.
The warped chronology in Steve’s paintings seems more stylistically consistent with the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s, with the vintage feeling old gazettes, book illustrations, globes, and ornaments as the narrative elements. The painting’s theme would never be futuristic unless, of course, it was anachronistically done, if he had incorporated a depiction of a Buck Rogers spaceship or a Theramin from Sci-Fi movie, into the composition.
The style and flavor of his paintings, especially as they were exhibited in the context of other parts of the Williams College Museum of Art’s collection, at times invoke the feeling that they had been painted at the very same time as a small Grant Wood exhibited in one of the other galleries, where a vintage 1930’s car speeds up a hill, and is about to collide with a 30’s truck coming up the other side of the hill. It’s down-to-earth Great Plains anecdote, as unique to the Midwest, like Steve’s work? Who knows. But It would be very easy to imagine just such a Woodian icon painted into the rest of one of Steve’s hermetic time capsules.