Still Life is often a great divider between one artist and another. To some it is the province of paintings to match the couch, for others it is a source of renewed discovery, a place to make unexpected connections, to invest the mundane with thought, even with emotion.
Edward Levin is exhibiting approximately forty works spread across three rooms in the Jerusalem Artists’ House in his exhibit “Still Life,” curated by leading contemporary artist, Jan Rauchwerger. They are predominately oil paintings, with a few done in encaustic, a technically difficult medium involving mixing pigment and warm beeswax.
Septuagenarian Levin, born in Minsk in the former Soviet Union, after many years as a refusenik, immigrated to Jerusalem in 1976. Following solo shows in London, Paris and at this same Jerusalem venue in the eighties, his resume is quiet for twenty years, with nary a solo exhibit. His entry into the Israeli art world is referred to in a conversation from 2011 with Professor Wolf Moskokovich , which accompanies this current exhibit. Levin, ever feisty and opinionated, looks back on this time, acting as a mildly amused bystander in the Israeli milieu, observing “from the shadows,” as he rails against “the ruling (and militant) trends in art of our days.” Levin chose to remain true to his standards and goals rather than join what he calls “the triumphal procession in the Naked King’s retinue.” He continues,
“But even if I knew beforehand that I am predestined to be the only spectator of my paintings, I’d prefer to remain in private with my principles and purposes in fine arts. And there is no price that can impel me to give up independence and freedom… Actually, in the history of art it was quite rare for an artist to feel in harmony with society.”
What then, is so controversial in these works that would cause the artist to stay clear of the prevailing art world? Or the art world of them? Levin himself points to the answer: he is a man out-of-synch with the surrounding society.
A quick scan of the current exhibits in the Artists House confirms this. U.S.-born Margot Gran shows a spare, visually slight installation called “Project Runway 2: Pack and Go” examining preparation for travel including a floor mock-up of an airport runway and with hanging ceramic pieces showing, for instance, a line drawing of an open Chinese food take-away box flattened. Also from the U.S., Miriam Smaller, in “Living Seeds,” shows work from her subjective take on the experience of pregnancy in various media, and Ethiopian-born Or Tesima in “Stain,” her first solo exhibit, shows a sensitive and fully- realized exhibit about coming of age combining photography of her nieces and an effective video showing her squeezing her own breast which extracts liquid continuously. They all speak to an engagement with contemporary concerns, sometimes heavier on the concept than on the visual.
Levin’s works, the result of a life time at the easel, are part of an entirely different conversation. He is not interested in the current fashions, the tweet of the minute. It is too easy to dismiss Levin’s paintings as being Old School, which they certainly are. Despite light subjects, like vases of colorful spring flowers, the dark brooding of the artist creeps into some of the works. His fluid brush strokes are confident; second nature. These works, while not reflective of today’s times and concerns, in another sense, are timeless. They are more correctly seen in the context of a chain of artists’ examination of the world around them with an openness to observing form and the relationships between objects.
Confronting inanimate objects is a seemingly easy task. Unlike portraits or figures, the subjects stay put, and refrain from distracting chit-chat. Unlike landscape, the lighting and other variables remain in the artist’s sole control. The apparent ease is deceptive, because the difficulty lies in treating everyday objects in an unanticipated way. Levin’s works are indebted to his predecessors, from Chardin through Soutine and Morandi.
A series of fish heads are shown which reveal Levin’s love of irony. Chardin’s stingray and Soutine’s response to it are recalled in these works, where two heads of fish each point an eye staring back at the viewer. The fish heads, in their varying positions seem to be posing a quizzical or accusatory look as to their state – literally, fish out of water, perhaps Levin’s take on the immigrant experience. Similarly, in the lovely “Sabras,” above, one wonders if Levin is investing the work with a statement about “the Sabra” as a personification of elusive Israeliness.
In the series “Architectural Composition” Levin’s works show an affinity to works by Morandi, where he groups objects in varying heights and paints them reduced to their basic geometric forms. Unexpected connections are made by the curator’s grouping three paintings of round pomegranates with a small portrait, suggesting that one round object and another can and should be considered together.
In the more complex grouping “Still Life with Palette and Self-Portrait” Levin places against the crossbars of his easel an odd combination of garlic hanging from a nail, his palette, a hanging white cloth and, resting at the bottom edge of the work, is a painting of the artist holding brush in hand. Though the dominating cross-shape, shroud-like cloth and nail, are perhaps a statement of victim-hood or martyrdom; it is likelier that it is an idiosyncratic combination that simply appealed to Levin at the moment. With or without analysis, it is a painting well brought off.
Besides still life, the exhibit is rounded out with a number of items lifted from his pack-rat style cluttered studio that are a source of inspiration for Levin, all icons in Western art history. Additionally, a number of early landscape paintings are shown, including this one, seen through the grate of a window – bars of protection or bars of containment? We do not know.
Exhibit continues through March 3.