Studio visit with Jill Levine

Jill Levine, Abierta, 2019

Contributed by Susan Wanklyn / For many years Jill Levine has explored the territory between painting and sculpture. Her pieces are constructed with Styrofoam shapes, covered with rigid wrap and modeling pastes, and painted with bright geometric forms and symbols. On the occasion of her solo at High Noon Gallery, we met in her studio to discuss the new painted constructions.

Susan Wanklyn: I thought we could focus on the hybrid quality of your work. You have been consistent with your method and materials, but the painting has changed as have the shapes. First, what are they constructed from?
Jill Levine: I’ve been using pre-cut Styrofoam shapes, spheres, rods, cones, discs. In this latest work, I was excited to find Styrofoam numbers zero through nine. The sculpture is made from a Styrofoam core that is glued together and covered with layers of modeling compound and plaster-dipped gauze.

SW: In the current pieces you’re using a linear, almost gridded patterning. How has your flat painting on paper and tablets affected the sculpture?
JL: Working on drawings showed me new ways to approach my sculpture. I had schematic black lines in the drawings with the serape background or some sort of patterned background (like a textile or weaving) and I started to use the same idea on the sculpture.

SW: The black functions on the 3D form as a kind of seam or meridian. They remind me of a wacky version of the Leonardo drawing of the man with arms and legs extended. The pieces are very abstract, but at the same time, when we look at them we feel bodies. And the bodies are looking at us as well. Can you talk about that?
JL: Yes! And the funny thing is that I made a conscious decision to make symmetrical pieces. As soon as you do that you create a kind of totem.  I also found when I was making the flat drawings and tablets that I needed a narrative reference point for the overall shape. They’re not women per se but there’s a reference to the figure.

Jill Levine, Fanfare, 2018

SW: Could you talk about the origin of the tablets?
JL: After 2018 show with Colin Thomson at High Noon, I started building smallish slightly irregular rectangles. I wanted them to be book-size so you could hold them in your hand. The inspiration for the drawing came from a really whacky sign for the women’s bathroom in the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City. It made me think, wow, the sign for a woman, this universal sign we all know. The sculpture and tablets influenced each other, working in tandem back and forth. I saw the black line as an inner diagram of the body, the arteries, bones, veins, or sort of energy channels within a body, within a form. In the sculpture the line works in tandem with the form and can counter or ‘destroy’ the form. The color coming through is another dynamic. It can calibrate the form.

SW: Your new pieces are engaging–they demand attention—and there’s an odd transparency despite the bondage and compression. They return our gaze. How do you feel about their charisma?
JL: I think they have very strong personalities. I’ve always thought if you shut the light and left the room they’d jump off the wall, run around and jump back up almost as in a Disney animations like Fantasia. And I think these pieces are confrontational, not in an aggressive way, but they hold their space; they look at you, but they’re also removed, very contained. I’ve been travelling frequently to Mexico, and these newer pieces are more Mexican; in the boldness, the color, and the complexity. In the museum sculptures of  Pre-Columbian deities they might be only two and a half inches tall, but they have this stance, they’re there. It doesn’t matter if they’re big, small, whatever…you just can’t get away from it. It’s very important to me that the piece commands attention.

Jill Levine, Ofrenda, 2019

SW: They do. And the attention…it’s on the spectrum between Vaudeville and the Church.
JL: Yeah, I like that. I think they’re humorous.

SW: The pieces are also abstract.
JL: It’s important that they don’t cross over into a doll-like thing. They need to be ambiguous enough that you might be intrigued, yet not quite sure. They’re not defined.

SW: So, they don’t shut off.
JL: Right, they’re open.

SW: They also have animal qualities. They’re talking to the animals in us. And we can’t over-emphasize the importance of color in your painting.
JL: I really love color. I’ve done things in black and white, but I usually find when I begin applying the color, it adds another dimension.

SW: Your sculpture differs from other polychrome sculpture. You’re making a three-dimensional object where the painting is so crucial to it’s expression as a form. If the paint all wore off, it would be half itself. And yet we look at white Greek sculpture and still get so much out of it. I think your work is totally unique in that sense.
JL: I’m interested in the light the color gives off, in the space and expansion of the space the colors might affect in relation to each other. I’m also very conscious of using color that is non-objective. I don’t use local color; it’s got to be artificial. It has to have luminosity and a punch. I work every day and things just take me where they take me. It’s not a planned event; it’s an evolving response to myself.

Jill Levine, Two Step, 2016
Jill Levine, Triple Cross, 2018

SW: I know you don’t really think about magic directly. You have a straightforward, intelligent approach to the making of your work, which has this awesome power. It’s nice to know that that power is just a result of going ahead with making the object very carefully, methodically, and with an open mind. And you proceed from there into the creation of this entire ‘magical’ world.
JL: When I’m making a sculpture, once I’ve decided on the form, it takes a long time to build. I have no idea how I’m going to paint it. I mean, I really don’t have a clue. They’re not preconceived, there’s no drawing for it or formula for it. I build several forms, maybe 3 or 4 going at once. When I start painting, it’s a blank canvas. It’s a very intuitive process. In terms of magic…the magic is almost how it dictates what it needs to be. I know when it’s not working. I may finish something, look at it, and I can think it’s just not right, it’s not strong enough. When I muddle through all the mistakes and the frustration and come out on the other side, for me that’s the magic.

Artist bio (from gallery website): Jill Levine is a native New Yorker. She attended Queens College, where she earned her BA and also received a fellowship to the Yale Summer School of Art at Norfolk, CT. She earned her MFA from the Yale University School of Art, which included a semester at the Royal College of Art in London. She has been exhibiting regularly since the late 1970’s in both group and solo exhibitions. In 2000 she was the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2005 a NYFA Fellowship. Her sculpture is included among numerous private and corporate collections worldwide as well as in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and the Art in Embassies, Mumbai Embassy. She lives and works in New York.

Jill Levine: NOW,” High Noon, 106 Eldridge Street, New York, NY. November 14 to December 29, 2019.

About the author: Susan Wanklyn is a veteran abstract painter who had a 2017 solo at Galerie Gris in Hudson, NY.

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