New York

Sherrie Levine

Paula Cooper Gallery | 534 West 21st Street

Since she came on the scene in the mid-1970s, Sherrie Levine has made art that couldn’t exist without that which came before it. Levine’s insistence on her project’s inherent secondhandness has meant that her work is often understood as illustrating the toppling of “originality” and “authenticity” by the bowling ball of postmodernism. Yet, as much as her infamous reworkings of extant “masterworks” (by Walker Evans, Egon Schiele, Constantin Brancusi, and the like) have operated to critically account for inequities in art’s production and reception, they have succeeded, too, in nudging otherwise opposing strains into grudging conversation. Indeed, Levine’s oeuvre might be seen as what Deleuze would call a minor—and I would call a feminist—literature, constructed from the discords of the “major” it baldly siphons from.

“I don’t think it’s useful to see dominant culture as monolithic,” Levine asserted in these pages in 2003. “I’d rather see it as polyphonic with unconscious voices that may be at odds with one another. If I am attentive to these voices, then maybe I can collaborate with some of them to create something almost new.” In Levine’s recent exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, the artist’s interest in the “almost new” was made manifest in a collection of objects and images that produced an elegant mise en abyme approximating not only polyphony but, to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s term, polyglossia.

Walking into the gallery, one was greeted by so many pairs of pairs that it felt like entering a hall of mirrors. Checklist in hand, I initially assumed an error had occurred, since the pages detailing two rows of vitrined objects appeared identical save for the minor distinction of “front row, left to right” and “back row, left to right.” Indeed, the first row of cases put on offer multiple bronze casts of flea-market booty: a human jawbone, a phrenology head, a weird coat-shaped wine-bottle holder, and an old-fashioned iron facing off with a proud hunting dog, goose drooping from its mouth. Every container held two of these bronze objects—the ostensible “lucky find” impossibly repeated. And then the repeat was repeated—in a second row—rendering the whole affair truly exponential.

In addition to these sculptures, Levine presented Nature Morte Suite III, 1–8 and Suite III, 9–16, both 2004, two groups of eight framed sheets of onionskin-thin paper whose delicately designed motif derives from the whorls and knots of plywood, and Dark Bark Collages 1–6 and 7–12, both 2005, twelve sheets of handmade “paper” made of scaly unpulped wood. Recognizable art-historical and ethnographic photographic reprises ranged from a pair of diminutive Dolorosas to Man Ray’s iconic marriage of eggbeater and clothespin-pinched lamp in After Man Ray: Man and Woman, 2005, and a suite of Edward Curtis’s early twentieth-century photographs of Navajo dressed in “authentic” ritual gear.

Levine’s show borrowed its title, “Men, Women and Dogs,” from that of a 1943 anthology of cartoons by James Thurber. While none of Thurber’s work was exhibited as Levine’s, she did include in her own press release a blurb about the cartoonist’s book and a snippet of a review written by one Clement Greenberg. “The convulsive passes Thurber’s creatures make at one another,” Levine’s Greenberg states, “their bursts of violence, exhibitionism, and irrelevance, express the profoundest dissatisfaction with contemporary experience and, by inference, with society.” And while it might appear at first as though all the men, women, and dogs in Levine’s exhibition have nothing else in common, it seems to me that on this profound dissatisfaction they would certainly concur.

Johanna Burton