Michael Gac Levin: Old Skin Horse at Woody Gallery
March 12 – May 9, 2021
Let’s take a moment to sympathize with Baudrillard, cynic though he was. Consider society’s present condition: Work and social interactions are often virtual while we hide our faces with masks during ‘real’ encounters; we have the ability to create and manage (or have others manage) multiple copies of ourselves on social media platforms—copies that can represent different personae in different conceptual spaces simultaneously, across the world at all hours; social media companies collect ‘your’ data to, among other things, target you with more effective ads; the news you consume and accept as real is increasingly tailored to serve narratives or your confirmation bias; and virtual transactions with virtual money bring products and food sight unseen to your door. I often hear people express doubts about going back to a post-pandemic ‘real’ life. Whatever your concept of authentic reality is, it has likely never been so distant. The hyperreal is more plausible than ever, leaving us to wonder if it possible to find our way through such a Postmodern condition to something “authentic”. Art’s perennial answer is to help us once again see from the vantage point of childhood.
A group of paintings and drawings by Michael Gac Levin is on display at Woody Gallery, the inaugural show for a mysterious Williamsburg location that’s open by appointment only. Once you find the right unmarked door and ring the right generically labeled buzzer, you’re allowed to enter an unconventional gallery with warm wooden walls and a raised white ceiling (mask required, of course). The art is populated by chairs, stubby swords, ancient helmets, Challah Bread, tables, books, candles, and various domestic items. The character of shapes and the nature of objects depicted seem influenced from Philip Guston. The colors in the paintings can be strangely reminiscent of Bonnard in the way they modulate over form, sometimes obscuring objects and contours. Visual puns possess Freudian innuendos. Lost Part (2020) reveals the resting place of a comically short sword in a forest of table and chair legs. The light is the piercing orange of a streetlamp coming in from a window. Stark cast shadows with blue and purple gradients cut across the scene, creating a still chaos of figure-ground reversal and implied line. The composition evokes fear of inadequacy or castration anxiety, while also making the impression that a child could plausibly return to find their toy and resume play in the morning.
The show, curated by Anna Hugo, is titled Old Skin Horse after a character in the classic children’s book, “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams (1922). In the story, Skin Horse tells the toy rabbit about the process by which a toy might become real. If you’re fortunate enough to be loved by a child for a long time, after the pink of your nose is worn away and bald patches develop in your fur, you might become real. The artist mirrors such a process of transformation. In many of the pieces we see sites of common domestic activities merge with spiritually evocative rituals. The mundane becomes surreal. A rubbery slice of bread between candles on one side and a book on the other, bends away from the loaf and over the edge of a dinner table in Drooping Welcome (2020). Warm, at times smoldering reds, oranges and yellows are offset by cold, fleshy purple and pink candles in blue candleholders. There is Judaic symbolism in the arrangement sufficient to imbue the everyday with a sense of the spiritual even apart from the subjective painterly treatment. Beside a stairway, a cartoonish Bronze Age helmet sits on a chair facing its back in Chair Ride. Is this the Chair of Elijah present for the ceremony of circumcision? Candles on the ground produce strange solid smoke, like paper cutouts (emphasis on cut). A helmet suggests the need for bravery, even from a child who is not yet fully capable of teasing apart fantasy from reality or understanding the symbolic significance of a rite of passage. The artist at play strikes a balance between irony and sincerity, de-skilling and careful execution, deadpan humor and profound mystery. Is this a process by which we might find the authentic reality? Michael Levin’s effort reminds me of the analytical psychologist Erich Neumann’s characterization of artists, in his “Art and the Creative Unconscious” (1959) : “From childhood onward the creative individual is captivated by his experience of the unitary reality of childhood; he returns over and over again to the great hieroglyphic images of archetypal existence. They were mirrored for the first time in the well of childhood and there they remain until, recollecting, we bend over the rim of the well and rediscover them, forever unchanged.” (page 181).
Two playful posters bracket the show, both printed from hand drawings in monochrome red ink. The keepsakes represent a welcome and a goodbye. One is the invitation in the form of a Bagel menu which reads “The Art of the Bagel, Only in New York, Buy a Bagel, the art is FREE delivered to your door”. The first fold shows bagels by name, which correspond to artwork in the show: “Lost Part”, “Chair Ride”, “Drooping Welcome”, among others. It fully unfolds to reveal a drawing of a table setting representing all the bagels from the menu. Some are cut in half and resemble the lower half of a torso, prominently featuring the perineum. Some bagels look ready to be cut, one of which has the tip of a penis emerging from the center and another sits in front of a fish head. A shadowy figure in the distance sits with a fork ready to eat behind two towering candles adorned with bagels. This is part table setting, part landscape. The cartoonish drawing, clearly influenced by artists like Guston and Peter Saul, is full of implied line and visual puns. The second poster, titled Gift Basket, is a more controlled drawing of a woven basket sitting in an arched niche. It includes a sword handle, a fish, pears, and it overflows with bagels. The posters, like work in the show, ask the viewer to consider the paradoxical relationship between the mundane and the symbolic magic of childhood and tradition. Maybe we can find authenticity through humor and humility. For me, the show succeeds where so many fail.