Los Angeles

William Leavitt, Virtual Reality, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 × 60".

William Leavitt, Virtual Reality, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 × 60".

William Leavitt

William Leavitt, Virtual Reality, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 36 × 60".

It’s difficult to tell if William Leavitt’s work reflects an imprecise past or a strange, near future, and it’s exactly this temporal blurriness that makes his work so compelling. Comprising eleven paintings and three theatrical, flat-like sculptures, his recent exhibition “Cycladic Figures” proposed alternate realities in which the stuff of the past—for example, rotary phones, Polaroid cameras, and Greek statuary from 2500 BCE—collided with fantastic technologies, both real and imagined. As with much of Leavitt’s oeuvre, this pileup of images was set in a distinctly Californian mise-en-scène of indoor/outdoor spaces, desert landscapes, and midcentury design.

The titular Cycladic figures materialized in the work Cycladic Figures (after de Chirico), 2016, an odd acrylic-on-canvas portrait of two humanoid subjects demonstrating the flattened heads, elongated noses, and missing eyes typical of ancient Aegean sculptures. That these forms influenced modernist art was seemingly not lost on Leavitt, as they appeared in (or their presence was suggested by) a host of modernist scenes throughout the paintings on display at Honor Fraser. In Design Team, 2017, for example, the outline of these figures served as a kind of portal into an interior space akin to that of a Case Study House. The silhouetted pair also haunted Virtual Reality, 2017—perhaps the most complex of these works—inciting a bewildering division between figure and ground. Depicting a background of shaggy California hills, the painting replaces the duo’s heads with viewfinder scenes of grayscale settings—a wooded park and a cobbled square, respectively—populated by wandering people. At the top of the composition, a disco-ball light and a reclining orange patio chair float over a blue ground.

The relation between two things or two people is the crux of Leavitt’s practice. This theme is particularly salient in his film work, in which he investigates human behavior with forensic and curious aplomb. His latest film, Cycladic Figures (2017)—the follow-up to his 2015 motion picture Behavior—follows a group of characters through pseudoscientific endeavors and interpersonal (mis)communications. Set in the Glassell Park neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles (where Leavitt has his studio), the film functions as a lyrical play, with non sequitur dialogue about dark matter over Glendale, traction fields and tract housing, and “digital-spirit blocking in an urban environment.” In short, the scientific is the domestic.

Significantly, Leavitt did not include the film in this show, instead presenting three sculptural set pieces used in its production. Lennie’s Set, 2016, consisted of a desk, lamp, curtains, blinds, stage lighting, and a cardboard cutout figure, which was lit in such a way as to cast an ominous shadow from behind the blinds. Kitty litter–esque detritus spilled out from the desk drawer. The Cycladic Figures film identifies this rubble as “time granules,” using it in various on-screen experiments. The mysterious matter also manifested in the sculpture Time Granule Generator, 2016, which resembled a larger-than-life hourglass. Faraday Cage, 2015, was the largest set and featured a faux-stone wall, miscellaneous bric-a-brac (a CD tower, Tinkertoys, and used outmoded appliances), a static-filled television monitor that periodically revealed an image (the moon, a mouth with a toothy grin), and, of course, the Faraday cage itself. While a Faraday cage is a real technology used to shield an enclosed space from electromagnetic fields, in Leavitt’s hands it became a clunky, homemade chicken coop with an oversize antenna. In Cycladic Figures, women impatiently enter and exit the structure while awaiting some unseen transformation. These works remind us that Leavitt’s objects and paintings behave almost like pictographic versions of those highly reactive atoms known as free radicals: bizarre particles that link up, mutate, and cause electrifying chain reactions.

Catherine Taft