New York

Marilou Levin

Silverstein Gallery

Is it possible to redo Surrealism after feminism? And if so, is it worth the doing? Marilou Levin, a young Israeli artist having her first major international exposure with a selection of works dating from 1995 to the present, seems to suggest that it is, with works that combine Man Ray’s estrangement of banal objects and Magrittean pictorial displacement. Maybe the reason Breton’s boys’ club has inspired a surprising number of women artists is that they’ve noticed implications in Surrealist imagery that signify differently through female eyes. Take Man Ray’s iconic Cadeau, 1921, for example: What could be a more pointedliterallyimage of the conjunction of domesticity and aggression than the famous flatiron bristling with nails? The idea of amplifying its possible feminist implications may be just too good to resist, especially with domesticity’s postmodern recrudescence (vide: Martha Stewart).

Cadeau seems to be the direct reference point for two of the works here, which serve up aggression and sexual blatancy in the paradoxical guise of an unassuming charm. In Hair Brush, 1996, the support is not an iron but another common household object, a wooden cutting board that hangs by a nail through a hole in its handle. On this surface Levin has painted, as if hanging from its handle by the same nail, a hairbrush whose bristles are substituted by nails (though here they are driven into the wooden surface rather than pointing out from it). In Underwear on Iron, 1997, the object—not an old-fashioned flatiron like Man Ray’s, of course, but a modern steam appliance—is displayed on end, its bottom turned toward the viewer as in Cadeau. On this surface Levin has painted, in loving detail, the crotch portion of a pair of women’s white panties. The substitution of the iron for the crotch also recalls the Duchampian legend “L.H.O.O.Q.” (“Elle a chaud au cul”) but with the further implication, perhaps, that Man Ray’s nails were a metaphor for pubic hair.

With a profusion of small, slyly disruptive works, Levin seems to be keeping a kind of visual diary of failed encounters between representation and reality. She often plays with received notions of good and bad behavior, right and wrong understanding, but sometimes I wish she weren’t quite such a good girl as a painter. She can be too careful, dry, and illustrative, as in Self-Portrait as a Child, 1997, and Cat and Chick, 1999, both paintings rendered on wooden serving trays. But at times she paints brilliantly just where she doesn’t paint at all. On Tip Toes, 1996, is a plywood panel whose surface has been left nearly untouched, except that scattered on it are nineteen trompe l’oeil holes through which emerge not toes, as the title would lead you to expect, but rather long-nailed fingertips. Most of the shadows cast by the fingers are aligned, but four of them point away in different directions. The amazing thing here is how hard it gets not to see the ready-made plywood as painted, or rather, as already painting. Whereas traditional trompe l’oeil, as in the depicted holes and fingertips, wants you to see the painted as real, this goes beyond that to trick you into seeing the real as painted. And isn’t reality the most plausible fiction?

Barry Schwabsky