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Living Single: Charlie Levin at SFIAF 

Wednesday, May 11 2016
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"When you're right and everyone else is wrong, there's no room for anything else," says the artist Charlie Levin, who spent time in a community of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs "living together in conflict."

The community's schools teach children in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and they actively engage in conversations that frequently reveal opposing viewpoints. From this came Single Point Perspective: A Meditation on Race, Loss, Grief and The Other, a piece in which Levin uses wax pigments, a pane of glass, and a nonfiction narrative read by the audience to create a unique live experience — a performed painting, if you will.

Levin will perform Single Point Perspective at the Fort Mason Chapel, which features stained glass windows and a vaulted ceiling, as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which will bring together artists from across the Bay Area (and 12 countries) for three weeks of performances, lectures, and talk-backs.

Audiences entering the dimly lit space might note the smell of beeswax, one pleasant side effect of Levin's practice of painting with wax — known as encaustic — a method that can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Levin will provide the audience with a text that includes her own writing interwoven with quotes that reflect a range of American assumptions about safety, power, and access to resources. As audience members take turns reading the text, Levin will paint on a backlit glass panel, creating and changing a visual character. Offering an evolving experience of seeing and listening, she invites the audience to consider multiple perspectives at once.

Having returned to Oakland just as the local reaction to the fatal police shooting and subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., was in full swing, Levin was struck by the long-standing situation of different realities existing side-by-side in her own community.

"I was looking at the shootings and at the stories that are becoming more widely known about different experiences, such as violence, that are common [for some people] but seen as aberrations to others," she says. "[And I wondered] how you keep going in situations that don't have a quick fix. It requires a different kind of patience."

Levin cites perceptual artists such as James Turrell and Robert Irwin as influences. Her work looks very different from theirs, but she shares with them an invitation to audiences to reflect on the experience of seeing. In Single Point Perspective, she provides an environment that encourages a contemplative mode, and a willingness to avoid leaping to conclusions.

"[Our impression of an artwork] may provide a parallel to our first impression of a person," she says. "We don't know what anyone went through to get to where they are. When we learn more about a person, we see them differently. This performance is the inverse of seeing a finished painting. At the end, the audience will know what went into making it."

Levin's performance is not an improvisation, but neither is it a literal, illustrative response to the text that audiences will read (moving at the rate of one page per reader, Passover seder-style). Rather, each of her four performances will yield a different painting and a different experience for the audience.

"I come in with a plan in mind," Levin says. "But depending on the energy of the audience, I can paint lyrically or I can paint aggressively. In some ways, the performance has some aspects of dance."

Although other contemporary artists work with pigmented wax, Levin's particular combination of expressive modes is unique. She cut her teeth in Chicago's theater scene, where her company Local Infinity created work that combined performance and installation art, focusing on what Levin calls the body-to-body experience of performer and audience.

"We did things like use piles of dirt as a metaphor for home, and electricity for power," Levin says. "We built suits that could be plugged in, manipulated 800 pounds of dirt, and we won an excellence award from the New York Fringe Festival for another show where we plunged a performer into molten wax. Things like that."

Each of Levin's performances will be followed by a talk-back moderated by Ayodele Nzinga of the Oakland theater company Lower Bottom Playaz, which fosters the creation of new work, supports theater artists at all stages of their careers, and produces existing plays that shed light on the lives of inner-city inhabitants. Levin will also participate in the SFIAF's panel discussion about Black Lives Matter and the role of the artist in sociopolitical movements, moderated by educator, poet, and former Black Panther Party member Ericka Huggins.

Levin is in good company at this year's SFIAF, which features a truly eclectic lineup of theater, dance, music, and performances as hard to classify as Single Point Perspective. The festival emphasizes broad audience engagement by offering talk-backs, lectures, and family-oriented programming that invite us all to be open to sharing our views, and, perhaps more importantly, to listening to others.

"When we speak other people's stories, we hold them in our mouths and we can start knowing what to look for and learning to listen," Levin says. "I don't have answers, but I can offer a starting point for reflection."

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Elizabeth Costello

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