Los Angeles

David Levinthal

David Levinthal’s strange, ambiguous narrative scenes—photographs of miniature dolls (toy soldiers, female pinups, cowboys, Roman gladiators, etc.) arranged in suggestive tableaux-hover somewhere between fact and fiction. In his series of photographs entitled “Modern Romance,” 1984–86—miniature scenes of city streets, hotels, and seedy characters in questionable environments—Edward Hopper meets film noir. Blurred and deliberately out of focus, these images seem almost real, as if they had been captured on a surveillance camera.

In his most recent show, he presented two bodies of work whose subject is World War II. Levinthal’s early series of sepiaprints entitled “Hitler Moves East,” 1972–74, stages strangely realistic war scenes. German soldiers crouch behind tanks waiting to attack, or run down a street, machine guns at the ready. Buildings partially hidden by what looks like smoke, fog, and fumes evoke a war-torn Germany. In a flash, movie history becomes real history and vice versa. Caught up in the suggestion of cinematic flux, the inert and static toys threaten to take on a new life, to exceed the imposed boundaries of the imaginary world to which they belong. This body of work vividly recalls the era in which it was produced—a time when the horrifying reality of the Vietnam War could no longer be masked by the gilded heroism of ’40s and ’50s Hollywood movies, yet when the images broadcast on television documenting the war remained somehow unreal.

If the earlier works suggested scenes from a postwar movie, the newer series is more evocative of Schindler’s List, 1994. Almost 15 years later, Levinthal returned to the theme of war with a good deal less innocence. Any sense of play is now almost completely overwhelmed by the sinister subject matter of this series. The most powerful photo is a blurry image that, after careful study, reveals two people standing on either side of an oven out of which protrudes a pair of human legs.

Levinthal’s art injects a world of experience into the realm of innocence in exactly the same way that the adult world imposes a sense of anxiety on children. While his toys threaten to become real, the putative transparency of the photographic reveals its illusory nature. By bringing to light the dreams buried in childhood and in the dark recesses of the psyche, Levinthal makes us experience the world differently. To make oneself small enough to enter fairy tales and fantasy is to become larger than life. In forging his imagery from the realm of childhood reveries, Levinthal creates a doubly circumscribed world which, for all its artificiality, is intensely real.

Rosetta Brooks