April 13, 2009

Matvey Levenstein and Phong Bui

While preparing for his one-person exhibition at Larissa Goldston Gallery, on view from through May 9th, Matvey Levenstein stopped by Brooklyn Rail HQ to talk to publisher Phong Bui about his life and work. Here's an excerpt from their conversation.

Rail: When did photography come into your process?

Levenstein: It was probably around 92-93. I was making those self-portraits from observation. At the time I didn’t use photography whatsoever because from my earliest training in Moscow, rendering from photography was considered a real taboo. But, since I had already committed to doing everything backwards, the way Degas did it, why not try my hand at it? I remember going to the Met on a Friday night and seeing a small group of young people in their thirties and forties sitting on two or three benches and looking at paintings. And I was thinking, “They’re not artists. They’re not part of the art world. What are they looking at? Literally?” I realized what these paintings represented to them was a reflection and a picture of their own specificity in the world. I also realized, at least in Western culture, that paintings serve this almost biological need of representing back to us that which will never be again. So an autonomous painting represents an autonomous individual, both politically and emotionally, literally uniqueness. It made me rethink what I originally had abandoned: “How do you make a painting on a stretcher?” A painting has a discreet boundary. It does not dissolve itself into the nexus of life. It’s definitely not a piece of plywood leaning against the wall and so on.

All of a sudden all of those questions, however reactionary as concepts they may appear, became utterly interesting to me. It’s almost like people are being told something is wrong and yet there’s a guilty pleasure in knowing what is considered wrong. It’s a dirty secret and yet it’s a vital need. T.S. Eliot once wrote about Virgil, where he’s talking about the existence of a temporal provinciality, and universalizing a particular—not the place you’re from but the period that you’re living in. I think we’re definitely living in these kinds of provincial moments. Though most people think that that kind of autonomous painting was not possible after postmodernism, the least I could do is depict a condition under which it was possible. Through the act of painting I could create a theatrical situation. As long as these paintings were hanging together, you could believe in that condition of possibility. I wanted to avoid the splitting of painting into form and content. All of a sudden there were all these paintings that combined progressive content with reactionary forms and people started talking about technique and subject matter. I thought that was really reactionary in all the worst possible ways—like we’re back to 19th Century painting.

"Matvey Levenstein," Larissa Goldston gallery, New York, NY. Through May 9.

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