Catalogue Essay: Aubrey Levinthal at Nancy Margolis

AubreyLevinthal, Breakfast at 13th St, 2018, oil on panel, 36×48 inches

Contributed by Samantha Mitchell / In his definition of heterotopia (of which utopia and dystopia are types) Michel Foucault writes about the mirror as an agent of transformative realization of self in place – simultaneously illuminating and falsifying our own image:

I see myself where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface… [f]rom the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there.

Mirrors are a frequent theme in Aubrey Levinthal’s work, both literal and implied. Her self-reflexive paintings often feature figures that resemble herself and her family – a brunette woman, a bearded man, and a young child – and self-portraits in the studio with brush at hand are an homage to a classical tradition that is very much alive in her technique. The work creates a narrative thread that explores a specific kind of contemporary domestic life that mirrors her own. These reflections present a complex, brooding image of young motherhood, at times a bright floral haze, at others a dimly lit miasma.

Aubrey Levinthal, Waiting, 2018, oil on panel, 30×24 inches
Aubrey Levinthal, Reflection as a Painter, 2019, oil on panel, 48×35.5 inches

Nursing (Boot) is at once an aggressive and tender depiction of motherhood, a feminist reimagining of Madonna and child. The body of the infant, almost indistinguishable, melts into its mother’s body, while the mother confronts the viewer with a direct, withering gaze and the sole of her boot. In Breakfast at 13th St., a scene at a nuclear family breakfast table, a mother and father appear completely consumed in deep, dark, thought while a baby stares intently out from the background. Seemingly unnoticed, a bouquet of flowers morphs into a surrealistic globular lozenge, bubbling out of a vase, suggesting the existence of an alternate reality within the grim intensity of this one. Echoes of influences like Nicole Eisenman and Berthe Morisot reverberate through Levinthal’s uncanny mealtime scenes, where figures congregate with brooding expressions, rendered in thin, feathery strokes and washes.

AubreyLevinthal, Young Therapist, 2019, oil on panel, 48×45 inches

Where Levinthal’s paintings are often celebrations of sumptuous offerings – food, flowers, ornately patterned wallpaper and textile – this current body of work casts these joyful trappings in a distinctly ominous and foreboding light, operating instead as memento mori. The bouquets are dark and wilting, flowers bent at the stem. Tables are littered with Chinese takeout containers and various fruit rinds, and the refrigerator is only occupied by condiments and milk.

AubreyLevinthal, DoubleMirrors, 2018, oil on panel, 30×24 inches

A scene from a flesh-toned office where a fashionable young therapist charges her Apple device while in session is a bright pink foil to the other largely greyed-out paintings, and features the same confrontational boots, now submissive in their spot on the analyst’s couch. In Double Mirrors, a woman stands in a bathroom with baroque wallpaper while the faucet runs, considering reflections of her shoulder and half of her face cut up between two mirrors above the sink. These moments of decorative indulgence are counterpoints for the figures within, who are at once intense and absent, slipping between presence and invisibility.

Aubrey Levinthal, Night Fridge Milk, 2019, oil on panel, 30×24 inches
Aubrey Levinthal, Nursing Boot, 2018, oil on panel, 24×18 inches

With this work, Levinthal offers the viewer a world within her own that is simultaneously real and surreal. Familiar visual themes that appear throughout the work – face, flower, earbud, boot – are a refrain, arresting in the same way that one might recognize their own body within a dream. Like the mirror, the paintings both reflect and dissociate, opening an illusory space where narrative becomes fractured and plays out in a suspended reality.

Aubrey Levinthal,” Nancy Margolis Gallery, Chelsea, 523 West 25th St., New York, NY. Through June 1, 2019

Note: This essay originally appeared in the exhibition catalogue for the show.

About the author: Aside from her work in the studio, Samantha Mitchell is the Arts and Exhibitions Coordinator at the Center for Creative Works, a studio for adults with developmental disabilities, and is the managing editor of Title Magazine, a publication devoted to writing on the arts in Philadelphia.

Related posts:
Ginny Casey: Disembodied hands and lumps of clay in Philadelphia
Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary artists’ approach to motherhood
Cecily Brown on motherhood: “You’re forced to be more conventional”

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