New York

Les Levine

Millennium Film Workshop

Another practitioner of smart art, Les Levine recently exhibited a trio of new videotapes, all venting his sense of art as feedback signifying the social role of the artist at any given moment. “This kind of tape coined the expression ‘boring video art.’” Levine disarmingly explained in his introduction to Anxiety, Religion, and Art, 1985, in which seemingly random shots of the street life in San Francisco’s Mission District were accompanied by a 25-minute conversation between Levine and a painter named Malcolm.

Unveiling his theories of meditation, landscape, and psychoanalysis, Malcolm is nothing if not serious. Face to face with a zebra during a trip to the zoo, he has an epiphany of God as “an actual artist—like someone I might know in SoHo.” This is the kind of statement that might have goaded Landow to parodic heights; Levine, however, is not simply an agnostic but something of a devil’s advocate. He gets Malcolm to contradict himself while cheerfully artless snapshot images of the urban landscape—chickens being sent to their doom, a store window, a pro-Reagan demo—contradict them both.

After a brief entr’acte—a mock TV spot in which, under the rubric “Vote for Art,” a diseased-looking Quasimodo in a red fright wig proposes to solve unemployment by making every jobless person an artist’s assistant (while making group shows illegal)—Levine proceeded to Anxiety Religion, and Art’s “exact opposite.” Using the East Village art scene as a backdrop, Made in New York, 1984, proved a trendy, ambitious, daringly vapid essay on trendiness, ambition, and vapidity, telling the story of a young artist who makes her fortune by inventing “artist’s T-shirts.” Although there’s no dialogue, Levine doesn’t fail to acknowledge graffiti and break-dancing; his “modern-day operetta” is interpolated with videogametype graphics, jaggedly calisthenic dance interludes, and various interviews. Aside from a soundtrack of inanely catchy single-phrase songs (“ambition,” or the more complex “life is good, life is bad” repeated over and over), the funniest thing about Made in New York is that everyone in the cast—including the kids interviewed—wears clown makeup and, in many cases, Les Levine T-shirts.

Zappy, dopey, daring you to take it seriously, Made in New York is like a what-me-worry? remake of Liquid Sky. Not just a reflection of the art world’s current Klondike atmosphere, it’s also wholly appropriate coming from the man who once wrote, “If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a videotape.”

J. Hoberman