New York

Daniel Levine

Jeffrey Neale Gallery

If there’s anything more powerful than seduction or revulsion in art, it is ambivalence. It has been a frequent strategy among 20th-century avant-garde artists, who have generally used it as an aggressive perceptual gambit and/or a mannerist affectation. In Daniel Levine’s art, ambiguity is expressed as something poetically sublime. His is an art looking at art, a culture looking at culture to a point of reflection psychically split between self-identification and critical distance. It is a reflexivity magnified beyond its conditional terms, brought to a level of distraction. Like mirrors facing mirrors, the subject—the object in question—is dissolved in its excess.

Form, function, and meaning in Levine’s ambiguous images are multiplied and collapsed into each other at the same time. The artist expresses himself with impenetrably mixed feelings toward beauty, history, and the excesses of Modernism. His ambiguity is also reflected in the dislocation and hybridization of styles, methods, and media. It is in the surfaces, the backgrounds (if we can tell them apart), the aura of the art. It is imbedded in the spectrum of technical and psychological devices that he brings into play. At work here is a decidedly anarchistic disregard of formal esthetic order. Levine makes his studies after, not before, the paintings. The paintings are often called sketches, and aptly so. Sketch (Tower), 1987, a painting in oil and wax on canvas, is Levine’s approximation of a passage in a Turner watercolor; he has appropriated the watercolor’s fluid lines, transposing them into the totally decontextualized, abstract gestures of his own painting.

Like the rephotographed or manipulated 19th-century American photos that he mounts on steel to resemble photographic or etched plates—as in Wheeler (Colorado), 1987—Levine’s paintings, drawings, and sketches all cross over into simulated reflections of each other. Smudging and crosshatching are drawing techniques that Levine applies to painting along with varnishing, streaking, and scratching the surface to create an infinite web of indistinguishable layers. What, one wonders, is intentional, and what is accidental? It is a perceptual quagmire in which we can’t even be sure what’s actually there. Gestures accumulate like translucent layers of significance, at once nullifying and multiplying each other’s effect. Some pieces Levine has covered with nonreflective Plexiglas slightly away from rather than flush against the drawing, so that the image appears just that much more unfocusable. It is a distortion of proximity-never-touching that describes the artist’s, and even our own, relationship to the content of this art. He does not cite his sources; however, like the reference to Turner, they are there, and the work is invested with a love-hate feeling of attachment and rejection toward its everpresent past. Into the looking-glass, we stare at nothing that is the accumulation and amplification of it all, and we listen to the noise turned up as loud as it goes, swimming in a sea of static upon the waves of melodies that seem strangely familiar.

Carlo McCormick