Matvey Levenstein – The Brooklyn Rail
September 9 – October 9, 2021
If you knew nothing about Matvey Levenstein’s work, but something about art history, you would find yourself in the pleasant position of examining his recent paintings at the Kasmin Gallery as I did, by way of of introduction to a painter whom you should really know, and whose works strike you as an encounter with the unknown. With each image, you become more and more excited as the artist continues to shake things up, and each work offers new variables to consider as you try to relate it to the painting’s longer history. . Although we realize that these are recent works, the style and techniques used are not necessarily common: the experiments of the old masters on glazes and supports are subtly asserted, mainly at the service of representation. After visiting both venues of the show, you might even conclude that this That’s what it feels like to find the work of a long-lost artist whose work has been almost forgotten.
Levenstein’s paintings are both strange and fascinating precisely because they do not emphasize the present. Seeing them is like seeing our world through eyes that are not quite ours. You can imagine something like those works emerging from the brush of a strong but obscure 19th century Nordic painter – the names of Johan Christian Dahl, Peder Balke and Vilhelm HammershÃ¸i come to mind – transported to our time to paint what ‘he saw in the present. -day New York and rural Long Island. After all, these paintings don’t dwell on the objects of our time: Levenstein doesn’t, for example, produce still lifes made up of things like laptops and iPhones that scream the contemporary condition. Many of its landscapes avoid the intrusion of non-picturesque sites or post-industrial commercialism. His earlier works (not in this exhibition) might have included objects like a television, and one of the current paintings depicts what looks like telephone poles in the distant background (Sunflowers, 2021), but such intrusions are rare. Perhaps because the clothing of a body dates it automatically, the human figure appears only occasionally and usually in a mediated form, existing in the paintings hanging on the walls (Still life with flowers and a painting, 2021; Orient the interior, 2021) or reflected in mirrors and turned away from the viewer in reverie (Mirror, 2021). These figures are not authoritarian, existing in a quiet zone of dreamy introspection. With the only exception, Autumn (2020), a female figure (dressed in a dark and sober straight off-the-shoulder dress) guides our gaze elsewhere, towards the sea, through a pointing hand. In the context of the exhibition, the gesture seems prodigious, signaling a meaning beyond the edge of the painting when, in the other works on display, this meaning remains well and deeply buried within the limits of the painting.
Many of Levenstein’s well-known peers who paint in a representative idiom came out of Yale at the same time (e.g. John Currin, who is his friend, and Lisa Yuskavage, his wife). They may have had an easier time legitimizing their practices because, whatever their interest in the profession of painting, their choice of subject, often outraged or pornographic, seems more obviously current to them because it is shocking. Confusing modern bourgeois existence, their images can easily be described as avant-garde statements. Yet no one watches a Currin or Yuskavage just for its content. This content is only part of the interest or appeal of their paintings. The abstract painting brought to light what had been known for a long time, that the subject could sometimes take a back seat to the internal questions of painting, which were often more interesting. You don’t have to go all the way to Charles Baudelaire and declare the painter’s subject irrelevant to understand that form often has content and accentuates the impact of whatever is represented.
Needless to say, Levenstein doesn’t feature cheeky subjects in his images as a cover to pursue the painting profession. He took a different path, and it is a path that ultimately points to the current conditions of artistic creation. It is noteworthy that Levenstein claims to paint not for museums, but for the home. I take this not so much as an attack on museums, but rather as a statement of originality in the institutionalized environment of contemporary art. His subject seems contemporary because it translates an intentional distance from his objects, a kind of mediated sensitivity, even a vague detachment. Its flowers, trees, and sky can carry a whiff of nostalgia for earlier moments in painting, and its technique reflects a passion for retrieving the secrets of the early workers of the medium, but Levenstein’s images often pose these problems. with a lack of emphasis or inflection. . Maybe it’s because he uses his phone’s camera to capture the scenes he later paints in the studio, or because he borrows the defocused effects of the film. In any case, his paintings share a sort of ensemble, a regularity of workmanship and surface effect, which contributes to their strange internal coherence. The result is a sort of irony without irony, a reformulation of things from a distant point of view. To put it another way, Levenstein’s paintings are connoisseurs: he clearly knows that you know he knows what he is painting.
You might leave Kasmin’s exhibition without yet having a precise understanding of how to situate Levenstein in contemporary art discourses, but you will have to wonder if we are so different from our predecessors. Despite all the time that has passed since other serious painters have regularly taken up the themes and methods that Levenstein favors, you may wonder in front of these images if all this has really amended. And I suspect that the fact remains that the reality illustrated here is not just ours, but one that we share with times past and future. Because these paintings suggest that certain important continuities of human life are also the continuities of the practice of painting.