Steven J. Levin

Steven J. Levin, Venus and the Sleeper, 2010, Courtesy of the Artist

Steven J. Levin understands the experience of looking at art. That understanding is evident both in his craftsmanship as a contemporary realist painter and in his celebration of museum spaces. Levin has a flair for the interior genre, especially for scenes in traditional-style galleries in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What kind of architectural design fosters meaningful engagement with artworks? That question stirs heated debate today, but Levin makes a fine case for the dignity and intimacy of traditional museum rooms. In 4 O’Clock at the Met Museum (2008), our vantage point is the main hall of the nineteenth-century European galleries, next to a bronze statue and Pierre-Auguste Cot’s delightful academic painting of lovers on a swing, Springtime (1873). We can look through a small room to another space, with red walls. Seven figures are visible, including a guard and a small child, and most are looking at the art, not just glancing at it on their way somewhere else. The Exhibition (2012) focuses more tightly on the communication between viewers and paintings: the man with his back to us in the symmetrical composition seems as absorbed in the nineteenth-century painting as a figure contemplating the moon in a Caspar David Friedrich work.

Levin, whose father was a commercial artist, grew up admiring the great American illustrators and studied at the Atelier Le Sueur, in Excelsior, Minnesota. The atelier followed the Boston School tradition, which had its roots in nineteenth-century Paris. Levin’s paintings evoke a sense of continuity with the past, often most effectively when he depicts some off-hand scene of contemporary life. In Venus and the Sleeper (2010), set in a domestic interior, a Venus de Milo statuette and traditional paintings on the walls identify an art lover’s space, but the separation between the occupants—the woman napping on a sofa, the man visible through the door, across the hall in another room—creates complex lighting opportunities and premonitions of melancholy. Levin cites the influence of Vermeer and Edward Hopper. Like Hopper, Levin looks at individuals obliquely, using posture, rather than facial expression, to convey emotion. He filters earlier styles through his sensibility to make graceful amalgams of the current and the timeless. In Interior, Midnight (2012), Vermeers—we know they must be reproductions or fantasy homages in this handsome but not grand old house—dot the walls, as we look from the hall through the columned doorframe into a parlor where a woman reads her glowing laptop computer.

Levin sees the world through a series of frames, and doorways serve as visual architecture for his interiors. Frames are important to the easel-painting tradition, which favors domestic-scale artworks. (The photographer Thomas Struth explores a different art-viewing experience in his shots of viewers overwhelmed by huge paintings at the Vatican or Venice’s Galleria dell’Accademia.) When Levin painted his Self-Portrait (2005), he aptly took the frame as his compositional focus. Wearing a red shirt, he confronts his audience through a black picture frame mounted on an easel. A pencil sketch of his face is attached to the easel. Artists often use mirrors as symbols for the mysteries of image-making, with the properties of revealing truths and creating illusions. Behind Levin, his doppelgänger looks at himself in a mirror, multiplying the subject further. It is conceptually clever and lucidly painted.

Levin works in a variety of genres. His landscapes tend to be symmetrical in composition and evocative in lighting: long shadows give an air of the uncanny to the streetscape Brewery Buildings (2012); Evening Star (2013) transfigures a view of railroad tracks and blurry trees with blue-white snow and an incandescent yellow-orange sky. He tries his hand at mythological scenes, such as Metamorphosis (2012), where, in a revolving door improbably set in the woods, a regular guy turns into a winged figure. But Levin seems most comfortable dealing with the real world and the fruitful ambiguities of mimesis.

His still lifes are striking, with an off-beat charm. Bird’s Nest (2013) showcases a beautifully rendered mass of twigs and straw and a broken egg shell, but the emergent creature is a yellow butterfly, vibrant against the blue backdrop. For several years, he has been working on a series he calls Plumage, which features an array of hats, some decorated with feathers but all representative of the human impulse towards decorative display. The possibilities this simple premise offers are surprisingly varied. In Plumage 2 (2011), a jumble of hats with different colors, patterns and textures occupy a wooden shelf, along with a bird, a nest, a broken shell and a butterfly. The backdrop is a sky full of clouds. In Plumage 3 (2013), there are fewer hats, and they are neatly arranged on a marble ledge. On the right, a tower of three hats rises. A nest is cradled in the silky lining of an upturned hat. A white dove perches, a slightly surreal presence against a plain blue backdrop. Plumage 4 (2013) zeroes in on three hats stacked one atop another: one with a black-and-white hound’s-tooth pattern, a blue one with a diagonal feather and a soft black velvet, topped with an egg poised on a tuft of nest straw. Broken shells add a touch of poignancy, against the backdrop of a Romantic skyscape. Without drifting into allegory, Levin has found a playful way to consider the relationship between nature and art, vanity and transformation. Steven J. Levin’s work was recently featured in the “American Masters Show” at Park Avenue Fine Art, Sarasota, Florida, and in “Still Life, Floral and Trompe l’Oeil,” at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco.


American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume 31, Number 2