Ellen K. Levy: Stealing Attention at Michael Steinberg Fine Art
March 19 to April 18, 2009
526 West 26 Street, Suite 215
between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 924 5770
Ellen K. Levy has figured out how to represent the jumbled, moment-to-moment confusion that is the visual experience of our times. Her intricate paintings reference invaluable relics stolen from Iraq’s national museums, as well as the quick con game of three-card monte found here in New York. Her technical practice is as advanced — and complex — as her vision of art, and warrants precise description. Levy begins with art historical references; her images of painted glances and hand gestures are taken from paintings by historical artists such as Carravagio and La Tour, while the relics derive from the Internet’s database of looted objects from Iraq. Printed words originate with military strategies such as surveillance and navigation; and from current gaming strategems. Levy makes a drawing and creates a digital print much smaller than the wood it is mounted on. By cutting and repositioning the print on wood, she is able to put out a maze of figure/ground reversals, rotations, and line displacements. The consequences are disorienting, both visually and thematically.
But Levy isn’t finished yet. She paints on top of the print, obscuring and highlighting as she sees fit. Doing so reinforces new connections, but with the result that the original locations of the forms are hard to see. Other, competing foci occur. The decision to employ Old Master eye and hand gestures contrasts sharply with what they hold– the missing Eastern artifacts. In Fleeced Chariot (2008), the points of view are disorienting but reference exquisite looted Iraqi sculptures, including a relief sculpture of a chariot. On the left side of the painting is the phrase, “System and method for deceiving enemy forces in battlefield.” On the top left the viewer sees hands playing three-card monte; underneath that image is a row of windows, most of them jaggedly broken. Despite the shards of imagery, the logic of this highly political painting is accessible. By correlating the tragic loss of ancient objects in Iraq with the raw tricks of the hand in a card game, Levy underscores the violence of the Iraqi war, which is referred to in the highly abstract military phrase given above. As in many wars, a violent ideology tends to precede actual combat, and one way of showing this violence is to clutter the picture plane with scenes and points of view that interfere with each other.
In Conning Baghdad (2008), the multiple, even endless perspectives work out a pattern similar to that seen in Fleeced Chariot. Here there are two barred windows that clearly make the scene a jail; a single spotlight sheds illumination on a large vase with a lion depicted on it. Off to the right there is a stone relief of what appear to be Middle Eastern slaves, their heads held between two long poles. In the bottom right, the three-card monte game appears again, with the person’s hand holding both a card and an ancient sculpture of a lamb. The complications of scale bring about violent contrasts and juxtapositions, many of which make little evident sense; this is, I think, a metaphor for the anarchy of war, as well as the dishonesty that provided moral cover for those politicians who originally wanted to invade Iraq. In a third painting, Jack of Hearts (2008), a hand holds that card, but superimposed upon it is a picture of a monkey—an image taken from the looted objects, many of which have permanently disappeared. Further below, in what looks like the clean room of a systems operation, lies the stone fragment of a face of royalty. The meaning here is clear: we are responsible for looting the culture of Iraq, and as we also destroy it, we lie to Iraqis and ourselves about the hypocrisy of our mission.
To make sure we get the point, in the gallery’s black project room Levy has placed a single white shelf, which holds a printout of the missing antiquities of Iraq’s National Museum. The point is also reinforced by the inclusion of a flash animation, the result of Levy’s collaboration with neuroscientist Michael E. Goldberg, who researches visual attention. In it, the flashing hand movements of monte players make it highly difficult to see the antiquities in the background, which disappear from our sight. Disorienting us with so much to see, Levy ensures inevitable blindness—tragically, a similar lack of insight took us to war.