New York

Les Levine

Marion Goodman Gallery

While Colette parodied media stardom by milking self-promotion, Les Levine, in his exhibition “ADS” used the art gallery as a marketing platform for photographic projects designed to be billboards and media campaigns. Each of the objets d’art on view was for sale—but with a hitch: the conditions of sale dictated that the buyer shoulder the costs necessary to convert them into mass-produced images and place them in public spaces.

The show consisted of eight large, mostly multiple-image works that mimicked advertisements, and several composite photographs that depicted the projected works in situ on highways or in subways. Levine, as usual, adopted a familiar format in order to subvert its traditional aims: these enormous color photographs, accompanied by giant, painted words, were not being used to sell a product but, simply, to quote the press release, to “advertise their own contents.”

There was implied political content in only three of the works, and these were the most interesting to me. Tired Earth, the most predictable of the three, depicted several tracts of soil, marked by tractors and other tools of technology, and was designed for exhibition on highway billboards. Pink Unconscious showed four views of a bakery, and focused on the “pink collar” female workers behind the counter. The most powerful—in my opinion the only truly successful work in the show—was a poster-sized single image of a young, casually dressed Oriental couple posed in a manner associated with idealistic politicians (who gaze out of the frame, presumably toward the future). This peculiarly out-of-whack picture was accompanied by the title, in bold letters, We Are Not Afraid. Destined for New York subways (Levine’s composite showed the poster on display, surrounded by graffiti), this piece derived both its power and its ambiguity from Levine’s intelligent manipulation of cultural signs, communication systems, visual conventions and social contexts.

By and large, however, Levine’s manipulations were not particularly intelligent. Often, they were downright flaccid. In most of the works, Levine chose to use banal, apparently meaningless, subject matter, and, as a result, the tension that might have existed between the format of the pieces and their content was lacking. One project advertised a Black Swan, shown from three different angles; another advertised a Dream begun at a picnic; still another, entitled Mother and Child, advertised cows in relation to each other. It is true that this kind of subject matter is no more banal or meaningless than most ads, but I had hoped that Levine would develop this by now hackneyed insight in a more complex manner. The artist may feel, as he writes in the press release, that these images “sensitize our personal psychology toward experience,” but I was convinced that these works were simply lazy rehashings of an obvious theme.

The problems inherent in this show were embodied in Abstract Expression, three views of a koala bear perched in a tree. The words were colored in a painterly style that related nicely to the foliage patterns linking the three photographs. Maybe Levine felt that he was parodying the context of art by referring to it so blatantly here, but the parody hit too close to home. “ADS” convinced me that the subversive postures adopted by this enfant terrible of the art world are rapidly turning into self-consciously artsy gestures.

Shelley Rice