New York

Les Levine

Alternative Museum

This survey of recent works by Les Levine covered the artist’s major projects since 1989, mostly the “media campaigns” (as he has called them) that he has waged with billboards. Send Receive, for example, consisted of 2.50 billboards erected in Vienna in 1994, each with the same image of a man and a woman kissing (this work won the Gustav Klimt prize for outdoor advertising in the same year). In Mask Change, See Face (a similarly sized 1995 installation in Bursa, Turkey), the billboards were in pairs, one showing an extreme closeup of the lower part of a man’s face, the other a frontal view of a woman’s face. In Levine’s beautifully installed retrospective, images from such billboard works (Sex Won’t Save You, 1992, Law Order; 1992) were mounted, interspersed with some video works.

There are a number of undercurrents beneath the apparently unruffled, simplistic surface of Levine’s various projects. The most obvious of these involves the idea of “media sculpture,” which he has been investigating for decades. The billboard works are media sculptures, as are Levine’s subway posters of the ’80s, such as an image of a young man and woman (perhaps Asian), gazing straight out at the viewer over the words “We Are Not Afraid.” In Levine’s subversive yet subtle interventions into public media, it is the consciousness of the community at large that is “sculpted.” Usually such works do not aggressively confront the viewer’s media conditioning so much as obliquely brush against it, leaving puzzlement in their wake as much as amusement or sometimes (as in the “Blame God” series) a mixture of surprise and shock. The concept of media sculpture of course means that the work addresses those outside the art world. They become a part of the flow of urban life and, being sited in the everyday world, appear to reject the high-art tradition. This impression is reinforced by a childhood orientation implied by Levine’s coloring-book imagery and style, which tends to question “adult” frameworks of meaning. There is a suggestion that the work of attaining a grown-up attitude has not really been done yet by our society, and that one of the problems is the use of media to create false consciousness. Levine’s oeuvre is always constrained, never drifting into cartoon or slapstick. While the humor is always present, it is never sophomoric; the underlying text seems less about laughing than about the problem of retaining one’s sanity in a world out of kilter.

Similar themes inform the video Analyze Lovers: The Story of Vincent. The title is derived from a passage in a letter of van Gogh’s in which he writes that art critics “love to analyze.” Levine shows that artists may love to analyze, too. His hilarious reenactment of the passion of Vincent (played by critic John Perrault) presents the artist as, among other things, a character in a children’s book, an aesthetic Messiah, a silly idea, and a dollar sign. Yet there remains an aspect of homage that the very undertaking of such a project presumes.

One of the issues that Levine’s work has always raised, like other work from a site-specific tradition, is the proper context of the artwork: How is it affected by its location? Does it belong indoors or out, in an exhibition space or on a public thoroughfare? This installation conflated the two options. The big billboard posters bring the outside world of street commerce and the highway into the institutional space, transforming its long, low walls with all the power and speed of an eighteen-wheeler zooming through the room.

Thomas McEvilley