New York

Matvey Levenstein

Jack Tilton Gallery

Like Gerhard Richter, Matvey Levenstein makes paintings from photographs, engaging the formal languages of both media and exploiting the link between the photographic and the documentary. The subjects of his works, like those of Christian Boltanski’s, are those whose lives were altered or destroyed by circumstance. In his most recent show, Levenstein, himself a Russian Jewish émigré, reconstitutes the day-to-day existence of Eastern European Jewry through found images—of prewar beauty queens, his own family, and the uninhabited, professional-class apartments, clean and neatly furnished, where they might have lived. The photos of bourgeois interiors were selected from an anonymous scrapbook, and those of the beauty queens from archives at the New York Public Library. For most artists appropriation becomes a means of looking outward—a form of commentary that implicitly extends beyond the limits of subjective expression—but these carefully scrutinized, meticulously rendered paintings and drawings continually point toward Levenstein himself as surely as a series of self-portraits.

Levenstein learned to draw at the Moscow Architectural Institute, and after years of fleeing that academic training he finally gave in. “It had once been the language of my enemy,” he writes, “but ironically I found it to be the one I could speak with nuance and control.” He gave into what his brush does best rather than cloaking his work in a self-conscious alienation from tradition, though having done so he runs the risk of seeming somewhat complacent, perhaps even derivative. There is no question, however, that he is a masterful craftsman. The grisaille in Levenstein’s paintings is achieved by means of color, traces of which show through here and there, so that the image looks like a visual approximation of memory: color seems to be turning into black and white, recalling the way in which flashbacks are often signaled in a film. This process also yields a perceptual bonus of incredibly lush and nuanced blacks. In the ink drawings of interiors, Levenstein seems to sidle into the image: rather than positively drawing the various elements, he brings them out from the shadows into light. They look as though they are lit from within, so that you are forced to adjust your vision as you do when entering a sunny room from a darkened hallway. Levenstein’s drawings look as though they are vaporizing, whereas the paintings are brightly black, like landscapes viewed during a solar eclipse.

Neither ironically distant nor naively sentimental, Levenstein regards his subjects with a cool, alert curiosity, much in the manner of the small child (himself) in the drawing entitled Pictures of My Father, Moscow, 1963, 1995, who glances dispassionately at the camera with parted lips, while his father squats nearby, gaze fixed on his son. As is usual with snapshots, it is the details that are most poignant: the crooked little ribbon that hangs around his father’s neck in the aforementioned work or the way pale, overly delicate hands dangle vulnerably from the sleeves of a dark, bureaucratic suit in a full-length portrait of his father. What distinguishes these works from casual photos is that the details are painted or drawn with a scrutiny that testifies to the desire to capture the smallest clue to the day-to-day lives of the people he depicts. The Jewish beauties, with their heavenward gazes and imperfect features (by contemporary standards), convey the common vanities of ordinary people, but ordinary people who were made to disappear. To render these ghosts with a realist’s brush is to return something to them as irrevocably lost as the lives themselves: the beauty of the prosaic.

Faye Hirsch