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Nina Levy and her husband, Peter, share a studio space on the ground floor of their home in Williamsburg. Peter’s carpentry shop is in the front and Nina’s studio is in the rear, with doors that open into a back garden filled with colorful plastic climbing apparatus for their son, Archer. When I first visited Nina in December, the doors were closed, plastic covered the windows and the space was dominated by a huge cube of blue Styrofoam that Nina was carving into a seven-foot portrait head of Archer. The head is the centerpiece of Toss, a sculpture to be installed at Metaphor Contemporary Art in Brooklyn early next year. When I next visited, the Styrofoam cube was gone, replaced by the life-sized clay sculpture of a headless female figure with her legs hooked over an invisible swing and her arms reaching forward to catch something.
Levy graduated with a BA from Yale and received a MFA from the University of Chicago in 1993. Her sculptures have been featured in shows around the U.S., including solo shows at Peter Miller Gallery and the Cultural Center, both in Chicago, and Feigen Contemporary in New York City. She has exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, the Neuberger Museum, and the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Garden. Levy's outdoor works have been on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sculpture Center at Roosevelt Island, New York City, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Upcoming shows include a project at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, in 2006.
Jan Riley: How did you get started in art?
Nina Levy: I never assumed I was going to be an artist. But, I think I assumed that I was going to make things. It was an unpleasant discovery for my parents that I was interested in becoming an artist. Both of my parents are industrial designers and went to art school and I think they thought it was a foolish career choice, based on personal experience. They’ve always been remarkably supportive. But I know they wished I had chosen a more gratifying career path. I spent most of my high school/college education trying to talk myself out of it.
JR: What were your early influences?
NL: When I started out I was looking specifically at people who were making work that I thought I wanted to make, like Louise Bourgeois. I looked at a lot of work done right before figuration went out – work from the ’40s and ’50s- and I looked at the work that was coming into vogue, Charles Ray and Robert Gober for instance. I also used to read critical thinking about the body because that’s how figurative sculpture came back in. It was about the body, not about the figure. The body used to be – no, the figure used to be – an acceptable metaphor for the human condition. And then it became unacceptable somewhere in the ’50s and ’60s, and when it came back it was about the body deconstructed and under siege by science or technology. I read all the Zone books and all the other thinking about such issues. In some ways that’s less relevant to me now. I’ve gone back to accepting the figure as a metaphor for the human condition without having to re-invent it at every moment.
It seems ludicrous now, in hindsight, to talk about it, but in the late ’80s, in the environment of Yale, figurative sculpture was kind of pathetic. There was some going on. Erwin Hauer, for instance, was an excellent undergraduate professor. But as an art, figurative sculpture was something else. I developed this axe to grind about figuration early on and never dropped it. Now that it’s no longer an issue, it’s almost embarrassing to bring it up, but it seemed up to me to make the world safe for figurative sculpture, even though I thought that most figurative sculpture was, maybe, not the most intelligent work out there. I was mostly interested in finding a way to make smart figurative sculpture. Although, I’ve realized over the years, the stupider I think my work is, the better, or at least the more effective it is. Usually, I reject my initial concept for a piece for being too inane. Then in the process of making the piece, I end up back at my original inane concept. Stupidity is sort of the recurring theme; I’m finally accepting the stupid idea.
I started out doing very straight, traditional figurative work because it was a struggle even to make a convincing figure. Figuration can be very demeaning. You have to either have a language to deal with the body or a way to get around it; otherwise, you have an awkward quality. Certainly, there is work that has an awkward quality, and it is right and useful. But, only intentional awkwardness can be interesting. So, I spent the first few years just trying to develop a language and make a convincing figure, and I became interested in the basic technical problems– although, by themselves, the technical problems are useless. It is a whole body of knowledge in itself that is hard to pick up; and it didn’t come naturally to me. When I got out of college, I spent several years avoiding the problem by making figures that were about the gestural application of materials, and not about rendering skin and muscle.
JR: In your early work, you created a lot of multiple figures and now it seems there are very few multiples.
NL: I was always doing commercial work. I was originally helping my parents, and when I got out of college and wanted to make sculpture, it was a way to support myself using my skills. It had a significant influence on my work–by introducing me to skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise acquired and also to subjects. In my commercial work, I did a lot of mass-produced plastic items, and, for a long time, I was interested in the line between the handmade object and the mass-produced object. Everything I did was cast. If I was making dinosaur spoons for Captain Crunch, there were six million of them. In my own work, I was making somewhere between five and 500 things at a time. I was interested in sculptural objects that crept into everyday life, and in the smallest incidence of many. How few could I have of something and still have it be perceived of as a group? The work has a little less of a social component now. Or, the social component was like the consumer component. The objects were more like consumer items, and in my work over the last few years, I haven’t been so interested in making objects that evoke something you’d buy at Wal-Mart-toothbrushes, key chains. That’s what I was quoting before; I didn't just make toys for a living, I also made things like candy containers and retainer cases. I did dolls for a while. And, in some ways that brought me back to traditional figuration, because at the time when figurative sculpture was “out” and considered very stupid, millions of people throughout America were buying baby-doll effigies and little representational sculptural knick-knacks, so obviously the representational object was still very compelling for many people. While I might have looked down my nose at the people for whom I was sculpting Bugs Bunny for or “Baby Sean” (I mean that I hated their aesthetics) it was clear that these were very compelling representational objects. So, sculpting dolls brought me back to straight figurative work.
In the last few years, while I’m not uninterested in multiples, I’m more interested in the psychological dynamic of fewer pieces, or of individual pieces. They’re not all complete bodies, but I’m more interested in being focused on the psychological dynamic in the work. And, lately, the work is much more literal. That’s part of what always interested me about figuration – how literal it is. In other sculpture, something might be a vessel, or a useful object, or a decorative object, while figuration always solicits a very literal reading because we have such a literal relationship to our bodies. In some ways I’ve gotten more and more literal-minded over the years, or maybe more relaxed about making work that is open to being itself – going back to that stupid demon – by removing the extra layer of, well, it might be a container, or a car, but it’s also a body. Lately I’ve cut out anything that isn’t representational.
Ideally, you want to make a piece that unravels over time and has multiple readings. I think my starting point has always been about trying to play both sides-to make something that is beautiful and compelling, with a beautiful tactile quality, but that also has a discomforting subtext. For instance, a beautifully resolved body that doesn’t have a head, is at the wrong scale, or is in an untenable position. I start with the kernel of the resolved healthy object and the dysfunctional object, and then figure out how to make something that is simultaneously both of those things.
Those who never stopped liking figurative art tend to like respectful figurative art. When figurative art was out, people who still liked it didn’t like my work because it was disrespectful to figuration, as well as to the people represented in my work. For instance, the portraits: I spend a great deal of time on them, and I think that they are flattering images, on the whole. In the case of distilling somebody’s image down to an effigy, I don’t look to capture them in an unflattering moment – although I wouldn’t say they are grossly flattering, either. On the other hand, they are isolated heads, and they hang from the ceiling. It’s a fairly disrespectful treatment. People have responded very negatively to those portraits. I don’t see it as being disrespectful to those people individually, but I acknowledge that an isolated head is problematic in a literal sense as well as in a formal sense.
The isolated head is a sculptural convention that I, like most figurative sculptors, have struggled with for many years. I did a whole series of heads that were stuck on pikes, and heads in boxes, trying to find a way to resolve the decapitated head syndrome, and finally I just eradicated everything else- the neck, the shirt collar, and all the other conventions. I was trying to turn the heads into objects that made sense aesthetically and maybe were even psychologically complete objects. It is simultaneously celebratory and disrespectful. You hope that through making the image, you provide a way to, if not resolve, at least maintain the situation in an acceptable level of discomfort. I’m a very anxious person, and I think that a lot of my work is about communicating anxiety, which is not necessarily fun for everybody. Lately, it’s been the dysfunctional-parenting them: the lovely celebrated child and the complete distraction of the parent in the incompetent care of the child.
The piece for the show at Metaphor Contemporary Art is a good example. I don’t think I could ever make just a giant portrait of my son and have it just be about “I think my son is so wonderful that I want to make a giant portrait of him.” I really enjoyed studying his head and trying to make a satisfying object for someone who is not the mother of the child in question, trying to make a head that made some formal sense and had aesthetically pleasing qualities. But, there is something horrifying about a five-foot-tall head of a toddler. Again, it’s simplistic, it’s a metaphor for living with an extremely irrational and energetic and uncontrollable person. In the larger context of the piece, I wanted it to be beautifully, or at least attractively, resolved and to make aesthetic and formal sense, but on the other hand, it’s two headless people throwing a giant baby head – so…I have to work both ends of the spectrum at the same time, or it doesn’t make any sense to me.
JR: Will you explain how the work was made?
NL: The pieces for the show are cast. The center installation, because it’s going to be suspended from the ceiling, had to be cast because it needs to be lightweight and balanced. For the large head (of Archer), I made a core out of Styrofoam and then carved the Styrofoam very slowly and covered it in plaster and joint compound. Because the mold is a rubber and polyester fiberglass mold, it needed to be a finished piece. Often when I cast, for instance for the two figures that are accompanying the head, I do the figure in clay and leave it a little rough and then work on the cast. I finish the piece as a cast because my level of finish is hard to get in clay. Because of the size of the head and the weight, I didn’t want to do it in clay. It’s really nice that I can do this piece (the female figure) in clay. Gnawing away at something in Styrofoam for months is extremely ungratifying. I had an anxiety attack about the flame-retardants in Styrofoam. I was dressed up like I was working with asbestos, wearing a Tyvek suit and a respirator and gloves the whole time. Styrofoam goes everywhere- I couldn’t take it upstairs and feed it to my two-year old. I spent three months on it: thankfully it was winter. It is a pleasant relief to be working in clay, although I hate the process of plaster casting.
Pretty much all my work is cast. The technical process of casting has always been a huge issue from the very beginning. It definitely influences the type of work I make. There is no question that the mold-making process reflects back onto the way I model the objects to begin with, because at the back of my mind is the knowledge that I’m going to have to make a mold of this thing. Until quite recently, I cast them all myself, and I would spend, in some cases, as much or more time on the mold and casting as I did modeling the object to begin with. When I first started out, I remember thinking, “Oh well, in 10 years I’ll be able to hire people to cast my pieces,” and here it is 15 years later and I’m still casting my pieces and am only in danger of becoming the person that somebody hires to cast their work. At least over the last couple of years I’ve had some help from the people at Architectural Molded Composites, which has been great.
Polyester resin has been a constant issue as well, because of the toxicity. A lot of the time I spend on my work is unpleasant and somewhat adversarial. I remember being interviewed by someone from an suburban newspaper outside of Chicago. She was trying to develop parallels between art and athletics and wanted to know if I was in “the zone.” when I was working. She wanted to know what my mental state. And I said, “Well, usually I’m uncomfortable, sweaty, and pissed off. Not usually in the zone. I wear a respirator, a plastic suit and rubber gloves and feel very sorry for myself.”
JR: How are the pieces colored?
NL: In years past, I was very interested in the least figural color possible- all the figures and fragments were iridescent purple or lime green. Since my return to literalism, the outdoor pieces are painted in automotive paint, with an airbrush, and the indoor pieces are painted with traditional oil paint, by hand. I think that the painting helps them remain made objects, rather than attempts make things that look like actual people. I’m more interested in why you would make an effigy of a person than in making them into fake people. Things that are life-sized and represent people always have a startle factor. I occasionally startle myself with them. It is also this thing that goes on with figuration still- the value of the work is about the craft. And, it is an amazing craft. While I am very interested in craft, I would hope that it serves a larger, more formal or more psychological concern. It may also come from my background doing sculptural tchotchkes, because when you’re sculpting a puppy, what sells is that you’ve sculpted every hair on that puppy. The puppy may look like a sack of doorknobs, but as long as you’ve got all the fur rendered, the detail will sell it. I came to resent that idea.
COPYRIGHT SCULPTURE MAGAZINE 2005