“I considered myself a poet before I considered myself a visual artist,” said David X Levine, who recently spoke to Pasatiempo by phone from his New York studio. “I suppose in many ways I still am one. There’s definitely a poetry aspect to some of the work in this show.” On Friday, Dec. 17, Levine’s first solo show at Eight Modern, titled She Kept Her Heart Parked on a Hill, opens with a public reception.
Levine is often mistaken for a synesthete — someone who links the stimulation of multiple sensory or cognitive pathways at once, such as the perception of color and sound. “There’s always been some confusion about that,” Levine said. “It’s true that I am very inspired by music in my work and that I can retrieve some sensation of color after listening to a particular song or album for days or weeks or months on end, which I do a lot and have done for a long time. But I don’t believe what I experience is synesthesia. It’s more about focus and deep listening.”
Born in Massachusetts in 1962, Levine began working as a professional artist in 1990. Many of the abstract, color-graphite drawings on paper chosen for the Eight Modern exhibit — some with elements of collage, all created between 2003 and 2010 — allude to music. For Levine, there’s really no separating sound, poetry, and pencil. “I love the paintings and color composition of Giotto di Bondone [1266-1337],” Levine said. “There’s a naturalness about his composition; it’s not studied or forced. It just exists. I relate to him the most, I think.” In almost the same breath, Levine mentioned a few early Abstract Expressionists, plus Warhol, Lichtenstein, Paul Feeley, and Rothko. “I think I relate to these artists more on a spiritual level than a stylistic one. It’s less about the shape and color fields they created and more about the meaning. It’s about having very serious intent to go along with the medium, even if that intent is playfulness.”
Levine said that his intent, which is grounded in emotional call-and-response and not in left-brain thought processes, is relayed through the use of bold color, abstraction, pattern repetition, and the occasional inclusion of small blocks of text — a combination he knows is hardly groundbreaking, but one he attributes as much to the world of popular culture as he does to the world of painters with recognizable names. “I’ve been thinking a lot about color TV lately,” he said, “and how the palette of color TV when shows like Gilligan’s Island were first aired relate to Warhol’s work at the time. Warhol’s use of colors was very specific, and those colors belong to a specific time in pop culture and Pop Art. The influence is inevitable. In my case, I think of The Odd Couple as fine art. You can see numerous uses of color and pattern in my work, even newer work, that relate to that show and that era of television and pop culture.”
One of Levine’s more important studio tools is the music of Brian Wilson, a man 20 years Levine’s senior and at one time the compositional force behind the Beach Boys. Included in the Eight Modern exhibit is a piece titled Carol Mountain Green, a reference, Levine said, to a girl Wilson had a crush on when the singer was in his 20s. “They knew each other when she was in high school,” Levine said, “and then Carol Mountain got married. Wilson kept in touch with her, even calling her at her house. When he first started calling her, she had no idea who he was. The husband knew about it, and the couple had kids at the time, and the husband was fine with it. There was nothing lecherous or creepy about the situation. It had poetry to it. It was so innocent. It wasn’t an erotic yearning.” Wilson was just trying to hold on to love, recall a memory — attempting to express some kind of lingering emotion. “And that’s something he was able to do through his music,” Levine said. “I can relate to that, but I get there through color, shape, and letters.” Levine plans to attend his 30th high school reunion High School Reunion this year, and a deep sentimentality about those days allows him to relate strongly to Wilson’s unusual relationship with Carol Mountain. “It was an important thing in Wilson’s life, and he still owns that,” he said. “I think that’s important for an artist to hold onto: that sensitivity, that romantic idealism.”
Levine’s emotional explorations aren’t all flowers and sunshine. In a 2010 work titled Sonderkommando, he uses collage, muted colors, and sharp angles to stir feelings about the death-camp prisoners who were assigned by German soldiers to facilitate the execution of their fellow prisoners during the Holocaust. “I was trying to do a series of memorial drawings,” he said, “and I was struck so hard by the story of these prisoners. I spent quite a while on those pieces.” Another tribute in this exhibit is to Queen’s Freddie Mercury, a simultaneously fearless and flamboyant presence in rock music who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991.
Levine began his art career as a painter, working in oils, and made the transition to color graphite pencil around 2000. “At some point, I just realized the pencil produced stronger work,” he said. “The way I do it, I get to saturate the color like you can with oil paints.” In pencil, the binder for the pigment is wax. A day or two after a drawing is created, the wax rises to the surface and grays the drawing, washing out the saturation. “I buff the drawings down with cotton, and then in a month or two, the residual wax will rise up again,” Levine said. “After two or three months I can get all of the wax out and make the drawing as brilliant as it can be. For me, the process is highly meticulous and requires a strong amount of focus, because buffing a slight portion of one pigment into the line of another portion ruins the picture’s potential brightness and color separation. That’s where a lot of my mechanical intent lies and without doing it correctly, the emotional intent is lost as well. And the picture is ruined. I’m used to working to within one-sixteenth to one-thirty-second of an inch when dealing with placement in my compositions, and I’m still working on the process, making in more exacting.” Might we suggest a month of nonstop listening to the technical precision of math rock?