Screen Life or Real: William Leavitt’s “Telemetry” at Greene Naftali
William Leavitt: Telemetry at Greene Naftali
April 21 to May 21, 2016
508 W 26th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 463 0890
Stacked vertically on the page, black-and-white thumbnails of photographs and sketchy drawings survey flat, domestic, suburban environments. Although gallery documentation is rarely more significant than the titles and materials it catalogs, Greene Naftali’s checklist communicates the stakes of William Levitt’s “Telemetry,” in which sculptural installations are shown to be as iconic as two-dimensional drawings. Leavitt has filled the gallery’s first-floor space with a series of works on paper, as well as three installations: the interior of a modern home in Telemetry Set (2016), a crimson-lit collection of contraptions and plants in The Small Laboratory (2015), and French doors opening onto a video of a rotating planet in Arctic Earth (2013).
Drawing influence from an industry that is pure façade, Leavitt’s work is informed by the Los Angeles milieu in which it has developed. The artist’s choice to work in installation is pointed; this medium permits a living space and requests bodily interaction from the viewer, while also denying reality and existing only in simulation. From afar, the forms and colors of these sets suggest an atmosphere laden with familiarity.
The artist is explicit in his pretense, orienting these mirage-like sets so completely towards one angle that they are immediately disrupted by the sight of a wooden backdrop’s unpainted backside or the view of the projectors from the side. As one’s engagement with the works inevitably deviates from the preferred perspective, one approaches an illusion that intentionally falls flat.
Such compositions and details belie the familiarity of these scenes — spaces accessed either on the screen or in real life — and removes illusionism from this world. Leavitt’s sets motion at action without permitting or even tempting use; the stage is not set for life, but for one’s gaze upon it. Leavitt captures the idea of the house that is not a home, an engagement with the familiar that is detached, functioning as a telemeter — a device that transmits environmental readings from afar — to communicate intimacy in distance. The closer viewers approach and the more they yearn to enter the world that Leavitt paints, the more it collapses before that desiring gaze. In Telemetry Set, a slick, modern seat solidifies into a cushion smudged with dirty handprints. A multi-stemmed lamp to the chair’s left is the same kind sold at my corner store. Leavitt furthers the superficial references latent in these articles of furniture with a pointed interest in formal correspondences. In Telemetry Set, the thick boughs and rosy leaves of an artificial tropical plant are mirrored in the branching metal limbs and pink tone of the floor lamp that stands beside it. An analogous correspondence exists between the bamboo posts and a striated cylinder to the far left. These symmetries, immediately evident in color and form, bridge the binary of interior and exterior that these objects contain.
In this synthesis of spaces, bringing the unstable identity of the installation in dialogue with the extant environment of the gallery, Leavitt weaves a collage of locations that is clear in both drawn and sculptural works. In large part, the transparency of this union emerges from the contrast of the elements brought together; the gallery is set in opposition to clear signifiers of home, laboratory, and outer space. The clarity of this spatial fragmentation allows Leavitt to compose pseudo-collages out of partial environments. The exhibition follows the mood set by drawings such as Landscape with Exercycle and Interior (1991), which create conscious confusions within the space represented. In this pastel drawing, three different kinds of spaces are spliced, bringing together a landscape of mountains, a view of a forest, and a curving modern interior. An exercise machine hovers in the foreground, bridging the space between the forest and the interior but belonging to neither. This exercycle cannot exist in simultaneity with the architectural elements and landscape that are detailed beside it. Nonetheless, Leavitt brings them incongruously together to signal the uncertainty of the space in which they exist. The projections in Telemetry Set function similarly, presenting a shifting orientation and confusing the space represented in installation with images of garden plants and ceiling fans.
Leavitt makes no attempt to veil the discontinuities of space: the lights that frame A Small Laboratory are plain to see, the cut-out quality of Arctic Earth is immediately evident. Leavitt’s interest lies in the union of these intertwined spaces, in the transparency of the simulacrum. Arctic Earth directly addresses this discrepancy of time and space, abandoning mimesis for magic and imagination. Raised from the cold concrete of the gallery floor by wooden platforms, slats guide viewers into this pretended space. Both distant and close, a rotating planet is visible through open French doors on a projected screen that is partially obscured by dark, heavy curtains. Behind, the planet Earth rotates sideways on its axis, the sun glinting coldly in the distance. Though the image is compelling and suggests the narrative of science fiction, viewers are never wholly taken in, nor are they meant to be. Leavitt manipulates space as another medium that may bring its own formal qualities to a composition. In spite of their impossibility, these sets also necessarily engage a narrative structure, implying actions that go unfulfilled. In eroding realistic representation, Leavitt returns the set to its purpose as a space in which viewers may suspend their own reality in order to enter one of possibility and alterity.