The Invention of Reality

An Interview with Les Levine

Les Levine’s first encounter with art was in the studio of the Irish painter Jack Yeats. He was eight years old and knew nothing about art or artists but what he recognized, and could not yet express, was that art was different from anything he had ever seen. On the wall was a huge painting of white horses running from the sea towards land, and his recollection is that he came away understanding that it was made and not real. “I thought to myself at the time, ‘This is not something that exists in reality. This is something he is inventing.’” That first studio visit was determining; Levine never lost sight of the fact that making art was not a procedure in which reality was copied but one in which it was invented. And when you invent a world, you need something out of which to invent it.

Levine became a pragmatic materialist. His approach to making art was to see it before it was made. “I have this idea and what it should look like,” he says in the following interview. “How can I make it look like that? What material should I use?” For over fifty years, he has followed the lead of that practical and functional line of questioning.

Control Arms, media campaign, 1989, Dortmund. Courtesy of the artist.

When he wanted his art to be accessible, then he moulded plastic in various colours and produced what he called Disposables, objects the owners could organize or discard as they saw fit; when he wanted to make a public sculpture that was almost invisible and through which viewers became the activating agents, as he did in Mini Star, then he heated acrylite sheets shaped with air jets and fashioned transparent domes; when he wanted to get his message across the way advertisers did, he rented hundreds of hoardings in a large European city and proceeded to sell his idea of art in the commercial marketplace alongside automobiles, alcohol and fast food.

Levine emigrated to Canada in 1957 and settled in Toronto. He says that growing up in Ireland, where his parents’ mixed marriage was problematic (his father was Jewish and his mother Catholic), put him “on the defensive.” By the time his first exhibition opened at the Mirvish Gallery in 1964 he was, aesthetically speaking, on the offensive. The show included an untitled silver-painted canvas from 1963, the knots and twists of which create a surface tension that would have pleased Lucio Fontana, as well as a group of free-standing sculptures that stretched canvas over a collection of broken and abused wooden chairs before the surface was covered with metallic paint. The resulting works, with their visible knobs and rude protuberances, were both disconcerting and awkwardly beautiful. The poster announcing the Mirvish exhibition showed the artist reclining on a coffin shape. The message was inescapable: Les Levine was proclaiming the death of one kind of art and the arrival of another. From that moment on, the Dublin-born, American artist would continue to make art that resisted and extended known categories and conventions.

Take, media campaign, 1989, Dortmund. Courtesy of the artist.

In a video made in 1986 called Close Frenzies, Levine used a mirror to distort the faces of a number of people he asked to talk about the subject of friendship. Their facial features are rearranged in such a way that they assume a slightly Picassoid facturing. It’s as if he were inventing a kind of cubist video. The visual echo is an acknowledgement of an artist Levine admired for his changeability. “Just when you think you know what I’m doing,” he said as if inhabiting Pablo’s character, “I’m moving to something else.” Levine’s motivation had less to do with how viewers might react to what they were seeing than with his own artistic inclination. In comparing his way of working with the approach most artists took towards their art, Levine was quick to emphasize his restlessness: “I would complete something and then move on to the next thing.”

At 81 years of age he is still moving. He continues to conduct seminar/performances under the rubric of the Museum of Mott Art, Inc., the conceptual art museum he established in 1970 as a way of both archiving and disseminating his ideas about art and its reception.

Curator Sarah Robayo Sheridan has done an exemplary job in curating “Transmedia,” an exhibition that concentrates on his first explosive decade of production. What this delightfully revelatory exhibition makes obvious is the need to use that first 10 years as the point of departure to move through his equally remarkable activity over the next half century. Les Levine may be the most inventive, unacknowledged artist of his generation. His reputation is in no way commensurate with his achievement. He always moved too fast: now there is an opportunity for time to catch up to him.

“Transmedia” was on exhibition at the Oakville Galleries from January 22 to March 12, 2017, and will travel to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston from April 28 to August 6, 2017.

Border Crossings: You were born in Dublin in 1935. Did art play a role in your growing up

Les Levine: Not really, but my uncle, Victor Waddington, was a well-known art dealer. He was the dealer for Jack Yeats and Sean Keating and a few other Irish artists, and he later went to London and became very successful. That was the only interaction I had with art. There were no art books in the house and no art books anywhere that I could see. My sister, June Levine, was a celebrated Irish journalist, novelist and feminist, and she was the only one who encouraged me. Everybody else thought that being an artist was going to be terrible and that I’d never be able to earn a living.

You were eight years old when your uncle took you to meet Jack Yeats. Do you remember what that encounter was like and did it have any effect on you?

It did because I had no idea what art or what an artist was. I never really knew what my Uncle Victor did. He was babysitting when he took me and my cousin to Jack Yeats’s studio, and there was a painting that took up practically a whole wall. It was a painting of the sea, and there were three white horses running directly towards the viewer to land. I thought to myself at the time, “This is not something that exists in reality, it’s something he is inventing.” I remember that painting vividly. After that, my uncle would take me back to Yeats’s studio from time to time and I got to know him a bit. But I had no thought of becoming an artist then. I always thought I would be in the design world.

William Butler Yeats was involved in the revival of Irish culture called the Celtic Renaissance. Was that part of your consciousness?

I was certainly aware of it but not from WB Yeats. I had a Fáinne as a child, which is a gold or silver circle you wear on your lapel that tells other people that you can speak Gaelic. Gold meant you were an expert; silver, that you were conversant. Mine was silver. So people in my family were always coming to me and asking, “What does this mean?” I was the in-house translator. What happened was that Padric Pearce decided to reintroduce Gaelic into the schools and math was taught in Gaelic. So you had to learn Gaelic if you wanted to pass math. It was a strange, odd time in the history of Ireland. This idea of being Irish happened around the time I was becoming a teenager. The whole concept was to become very Irish, so people started giving their kids names like Liam and Kiernan and Siobhan and Padric instead of Patrick. All of a sudden, everybody had a Gaelic name.

You’ve talked about a residue of anger you had coming out of Ireland, referring to your work as a form of intellectual anger.

Don’t forget I was born in 1935 and by the time the war came about I was five years old. My father was Jewish and my mother was Catholic and they had broken the one taboo that never should be broken in Ireland. It’s hard for people in North America to understand the gravity of that, but they were ostracized by everybody and so were we. The Catholics weren’t happy with us and neither were the Jews. We weren’t Irish Catholic, so what were we? Growing up in Ireland under those circumstances certainly would lead you to be on the defensive at all times. My early work was definitely a rebellion against the status quo. When I went to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, I didn’t study art at all and went into the design field instead. Somehow or other the idea of people saying what art is went very much against the grain with me. Most of my early work was seen as either some kind of put-on or work made by an enfant terrible. There was this feeling that I was trying to shock people. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the reasons why I left Canada was that everyone was expecting me to shock them and it became impossible for me to think of my work outside of that expectation.

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Volume 36, Number 2: Photography & Film

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #142, published May 2017.

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