New York

Les Levine

Ted Greenwald Gallery

As a self-described “media artist” Les Levine operates in a gray area of his own whimsical design, shuttling his deliberately simple concepts back and forth between the modern media’s polar extremes—advertising and fine art, unique objects and magazine covers. billboards and videotapes. In this show alone, large-format Polaroid portraits, plasticine constructions, and giant watercolor scenes alternated as vehicles for Levine’s particular brand of Zen-like attitudinizing. Lurking behind this restless media-mongering is a latent sense of impatience with art: Levine is more attracted to ideas than to the specifics and techniques of any given art form. Back in the glory days of conceptual art, his flat-footed content made his vision look wide-eyed next to more didactic, knotty systems; today, his insistence on the primacy of the idea can come off as windy willfulness. But Levine’s formula usually has more beef in it than you might expect at first bite.

The plasticine models were the least beefy things here. These two-dimensional scenes formed by pressing plasticine onto a screen are meant as models for unspecified “media projects,” and their blunt juxtapositions don’t yield much to mull over after an amused first look. In Ease, 1982, for example, a gaudy lawn chair occupies an equally garish landscape in which the word “Ease” floats large—got it? The watercolors display a similar paint-by-numbers simplicity (obviously channeled through a conceptual sieve), but they have more to them. Vertical diptychs counterpointing a word-and-image panel on top with a supporting one underneath, they’re put together like word-comparison tests: what the word “race” is to a horse the word “light” is to a house—or is it? Occasionally there’s a more direct pun: in a political cartoon of the wriest sort a mule is topped by “win” while an elephant poses below under “forget.” These paintings are pleasant, quirky games to puzzle over.

The real winners are the large-format Polaroids. In these pictures, all from 1983, Levine arrives at the still point implied by his Ping-Pong contradictions. The models, students from the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, wear their own clothes, and hold art tools of their choice and word placards given them by Levine; their poses, also dictated by Levine, are subtly unnatural. Each portrait is classically resonant in its full-figure view and sculptural arrangement, while clearly contemporary in its props and in the youthful particulars of its subjects.

In Heat a young woman stands with crossed arms, a bouquet of tulips and gladioli, and an outfit with sunglasses and pedal pushers. Pull shows a peaceful punk threesome in leather; Breathe, a prancing, leotard-clad woman wearing a goofy fish-head mask. A seductive calm permeates all the photographs, and the special qualities of the Polaroid process itself conjure up sensual, active ideas. The saturated color, the velvety black blackground, and the singular status of the Polaroid print (which cannot multiply like other photographs, and so infuses an element of performance into the frozen moment)—all play off the usual static context of a photo-portrait.

Levine claims that these pictures are not really portraits because they are not “psychologized,” and in the sense that the kids seem emblematically universal in their open innocence, he’s right. But these works remain portraits in their own way. The students seem subdued by a relaxation that makes them unguarded and open, and the defenses that photographic subjects often raise are paradoxically subsumed beneath their artificially assumed poses. In the spiraling dialectics of these photographs, Levine achieves a satisfying mixture worthy of his elusive, brainy approach to airy visual thinking.

John Howell