New York

Les Levine

Les Levine has long been one who disdains the hypocrisy of denying art’s inherent status as commodity; hence, his art has often taken the form of blatantly commercial products. His latest series of “ADS” are mock-ups for a low-art form, proposals labeled, “Media Project for a Large Outdoor Billboard.” The strange part is that his ads have nothing to do with advertising. He isn’t using “art” to question popular culture; he’s using popular culture to test the nature and impact of “art.”

The subject matter is misleading, though; the imagery seems to implicate that same old demon, materialism. In one piece, a graphic painting of the words, “The Art of Leisure” is the middle section of a vertical triptych, the bottom and top sections being color photographs of desirous vacation spots—the beach and the pool. In another triptych, a canvas with the word “Pink” burrowed in diagonal splotches of Fiorucciesque color is in between two near-sequential high-gloss, large color images of an equally tired scene—a rear view of a woman perched on a bench at the water’s side, watching a sailboat glide by. One thinks of Henri Bendel’s window displays, record album covers, travel commercials, perhaps, while searching vainly for the parody. But the imagery and treatment is too purposely similar to the real thing.

The romantic, “pure” side of life is treated in a more literal way. On one large canvas, a carefully but badly drawn steer is crowned by the word “REMEMBER” in large orange block letters. Deliberately but without purpose, the word is broken in two: “REME” on the top, and below “MBER.” If it takes a few moments to comprehend the word, the message, particularly if one were in a car on a highway speeding by, seems easy enough to forget. In another piece, the word “DREAM” is broken into “DR” and “EAM” above a painted white horse standing sideways in kelly green grass. One could find these amusing, but hardly provocative or subversive, inside or outside the art world.

One wishes Levine had considered the loaded genre he has chosen. An audience used to having their television programs interrupted by an expressionless Brooke Shields musing that “Reading is to the mind what Calvins are to the body,” wouldn’t, one supposes, react much to Levine’s largest triptych billboard (his oddest), “THE CAT IS ON HER SHOULDER.” The letters are electric blue on a red-and-black leopard-skin ground, the painted images are of monstrous cats cradled in the silhouette of a woman’s shoulder. True, the point of the former, no matter how convoluted, is to sell a certain designer’s jeans, while the point of the latter is obscure. Ironically, though, the former message (were it to be taken seriously) is more subversive in its mockingly outrageous twist of conventional priorities or high art pretensions. “The Cat is On Her Shoulder” just can’t compete in a landscape of perfectly accepted non sequiturs.

Joan Casademont