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Monday, December 15, 2014

Waxing Poetic: Charlie Levin's Paintings as Performance

Posted By on Mon, Dec 15, 2014 at 7:50 AM

click to enlarge Charlie Levin, photo by Local Infinities Visual Theater
  • Charlie Levin, photo by Local Infinities Visual Theater

The apocryphal etymology of sincerity has its origins in the idea of artistic perfection: that a well-chiseled marble sculpture would not require the sly application of wax to fill cracks or repair contours, thus, it was sine sera — “without wax.”

This account of the word has been disproven, and artists working in encaustic techniques have similarly challenged wax’s association with defects. Among them is Charlie Levin, who applies wax to glass to create paintings that seem thickly textured and opaque as plaster, yet which, when lit, reveal more stories than a stained glass window.

“The magic trick is about controlling transparency,” Levin says.

She is describing the way her paintings show an entirely different image when they are lit from the front or behind, producing a visceral astonishment and perplexity that that the eyes could be so deceived about the nature of the object. Yet she could also be talking about the impact of her work, which produces layers of meaning that question what we can know about the world and those in it: stolid, seated figures on a neutral ground rise up and become muscular Blakean demigods wrestling one other or traversing a barren universe in her massive four panel painting SecondSight (2003), a pale face darkens and broods in a portrait, a mirrored surface in which you see the full length of your body becomes a skeleton in one of the eight panels of Face2Face (2011) — an x-ray, a memento mori, a reminder of the generic and the strange that lurks beneath the surface of all mortal things.

click to enlarge ss_1834x700_wwm_frontlit.jpg

click to enlarge SecondSight (2003) by Charlie Levin, lit from the front  (above) and half lit from behind (below)
  • SecondSight (2003) by Charlie Levin, lit from the front (above) and half lit from behind (below)

Despite the complexity of her images, Levin says:

“The end result of the painting is not the point. It is only an artifact. The way I see life is that we are the product of our experiences, including who we are born as, and our families, and our environment, and the things that happen to us. When you meet somebody, you can’t see that. You see little bits and pieces. And they change, and we change.” 

Consequently, painting for Levin is a process rather than a product, an art form that has found a natural outlet in performance. As a student majoring in art and philosophy, Levin had the realization that, rather than creating static images, she could create immersive environments in which the viewers walking through would become the figures of the painting.

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Irene Hsiao


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