David Lefkowitz


David Lefkowitz did most of the paintings in this exhibition while he was teaching art at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His experiences there suggested an episode of the television sitcom Northern Exposure: a hip young professional dropped into a small town to inform and, more significantly, be informed by the context he encounters. Lefkowitz has a rapier sharp wit and a febrile mind that incessantly probes the situations surrounding him. Though he is a painter, his restlessness has regularly led him to violate the traditional parameters of easel painting; it is typical of him, for example, to present paintings at the centers of 45-rpm records. Strangers in the Night, 1990, becomes a Frank Sinatra tondo, the record framing a tiny painting of an eerie lamplight street. Roy Orbison’s Running Scared, 1990, is fitted with a small sci-fi image of a figure being chased by a scary monster. Lefkowitz is a scavenger with an attitude, who redeploys preexisting visual and cultural formats in absurd and oddly touching ways. It’s pure Lefkowitz to adapt the scale and decorative gusto of baseball cards, as he did in a sequence of five small paintings called “Air Pollution Cards,” 1992, where, beneath emblazoned festoons of red or blue, smoke-choked skies obscure the depicted vistas.

In an especially intriguing series, Lefkowitz paints scenes over the elongated triangular felt pennants that usually celebrate sports teams or colleges, completely obliterating the original message yet managing to retain a suggestion of its former function as a souvenir. The Hinterlands, 1991, is particularly poignant; its title is emblazoned in graphic splendor over a dutifully rendered wintry farm landscape, not in sarcasm or in condescension, but in peaceful acquiescence—in a kind of homage to the seasonal rhythms of his region. Indeed, Lefkowitz’s irony points inward as often as outward.

Lefkowitz’s easel paintings take a similarly askance glance at received systems. In Single Elimination, 1991, a work that makes evolution palpable, Lefkowitz again employs a sports metaphor, this time describing a diagram wherein animals are slated for combat with one another. As a winner is declared, the victor moves on to the next foe. A dog versus a bird, a cat versus a turtle: the cruel and inexorable logic of nature gets schematized into a program. Lefkowitz has each animal take on a few of the characteristics of the animal it defeats; the cat that beats the turtle begins to mimic the attitude of the vanquished; as it defeats the dog, it takes on aspects of the dog’s physiognomy. In his largest series, 12 mostly grisaille paintings literally disappear into the exhibition space; four are paintings of life-size wall sockets positioned as if they were real, the others feature renderings of ashtrays, security monitors, and air vents all in their proximate settings. There is no effort here to deconstruct the commercial gallery system or to parody the commodification of art—Lefkowitz’s agenda is both more wry and more cloying. He paints some of the sockets with little happy or frowning faces and hides nearly imperceptible images of windmills and hurricanes in his paintings of vents, hung ten feet up the wall. Lefkowitz can be impish in an irrepressible way, but his wit is always tempered with a strong dose of his oblique desire to question and requestion the mechanics of visualization.

James Yood