New York

Matvey Levenstein

Jack Tilton Gallery

Matvey Levenstein’s photo-based paintings address the perennial rivalry between painting and photography in contemporary art, which seems on the surface to have been decided in favor of photography. Who needs the hand of the painter when one can have a machine do the job? Yet if we look less for the truth in appearances, which photography supposedly mediates, than for an imaginative, insightful attitude to them, optimally communicated through the medium itself and presumably implicit in the instruments used to bring it to artistic life, the hand, with its built-in, agile insight, is far more supple than the camera. We never forget the “touch” of a consummate painter—it seems inimitably his or hers—but we readily divorce a photographer’s “vision” from his lens, for it seems easy to imitate once it has been realized, all the more so because of the folk belief that anyone can learn to use a camera. Thus, the photographer’s vision, however ostensibly personal, finally comes to seem machine-made and impersonal, while the painter’s vision, no matter how ostensibly impersonal, is discovered to be profoundly personal.

What, then, is gained by integrating these two visions, as Levenstein does, so that each becomes latent in the other? Levenstein seems to turn to painting in order to personalize the photographically given fact, to bring it to emotional life through the use of paint. The photographs he used as his source in this show came largely from an album of an anonymous upper-middle-class Czech family. Atmospheric colors—generally lukewarm, shallow reds—were added to what was presumably black and white in the original photos. In one scene, the family’s yellow house looms over a figure, with a magnificent blur of whitish-gray between the two. Intensely brown trees bridge the space between the figure and the structure without connecting them. The trees are essentially repoussoir devices, but they make the atmospheric gray seem sublime, their scale offsetting the latent infinity of the gray background. Elsewhere, in pendant portraits, what appear to be the owners of the house proudly pose in front of a bookcase, the woman in a fancy floor-length fur coat, the man in a meticulous, buttoned-up suit. The artist is, I think, nostalgic for a bygone era; the house has been appropriated by the Communists, the couple is long dead. Levenstein’s photo-paintings reek with history, its nightmare ingeniously hidden, both by the choice of images and the delicate, tincturelike coloring. Along with blurring the image, Levinstein’s use of paint adds a patinaed look to what seems dully descriptive. (The artist owes something to Gerhard Richter and to a lesser extent Richard Artschwager, but his blur is less aggressive than theirs, somehow restoring rather than canceling out the image.)

But Levenstein’s technique of blurring also suggests a kind of uncertainty of intention, as though he weren’t sure whether he should put his faith in painting or documentary photography. So what we get is a kind of “compromise formation”—photographs with pseudosensitive surfaces, abstract paintings with quasi-hallucinatory images. Can we say they are studies in the sensuousness of flatness—attempts both to erase and maintain the difference between the flatness of the photograph and the Modernist canvas? Is Levenstein faking a painterly sensibility, a distanced observation, neither, or both? If we pair Crucifix in the Snow, 1996, an ink drawing of a snow-covered landscape and dark wooden shrine put up to protect the crucifix, with Nude Painting, 1997, the ruddy photo-painting of a heavyish, big-breasted young woman caught in a moment of ecstasy, we see the horns of Levenstein’s dilemma. Both images—landscape and nude portrait—bring to mind qualities associated with painting rather than photography. The problem such images raise has less to do with the different kinds of “knowledge” one gains from photographic and painted flatness than with emotional ambivalence. The emotional tone of Levenstein’s images is indecisive: they seem to express mixed feelings toward “good old Europe,” and for that matter art. Until Levenstein can capture both the evocative and provocative power of the latter, represented in its abstract lushness by painting, and the seemingly prelapsarian innocence of photography, his work will remain full of possibility but not exactly convincing.

Donald Kuspit