Hannah Levy has exhibited broadly since receiving her Bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 2013, showing at such distinguished venues as MoMA PS1, the Palais de Tokyo, Hannah Hoffman Gallery, James Fuentes, and Marlborough Contemporary. She also appeared on Cultured Mag’s 2018 list of Young Artists. Her work typically contrasts metal, modernist, work-a-day design with fleshy silicone forms, departing most prominently from late Surrealism’s similar juxtaposition of materialities. For the artist’s most recent show, one view now at C-L-E-A-R-I-N-G in Brooklyn, her practice gets a concise review.
At C-L-E-A-R-I-N-G, Levy’s works are low-slung across a single gallery room. Three nickel-plated forms resembling patio chairs, one resembling a coat rack, and one a hat rack, are strewn across the floor. A lone rod supporting a video screen descends from the back corner ceiling into the center of the room, like some sort of gracefully inverted periscope. Each form, barring the television-peaked one, also wields a pink, silicone component. The coat rack suspends a beige silicone jacket form. Balanced on the hat rack is an intricately carved bicycle helmet – alabaster according to the gallery checklist. And across the chairs, silicone stretches taught, adorned with pink and cream colored pearls. The installation’s video features manicured hands dissecting an oyster pearl by pearl – at once sexualizing the documentary aspects underpinning the show (innovations in pearl mining and incommensurate price cuts, or more generally a lack thereof) while nodding to Facebook click-bait video production techniques (over-emphasized sound effects, hyper-cropped focal point, birds eye perspective, etc.).
Levy’s work, at its core, investigates materiality and labor, juxtaposing flashy, exaggerated surfaces of industrial design with skin-like blankets of hand-cast silicone. Levy also confesses an affinity for silicone as a form built from layers of otherwise non-solid matter. She sees this as an innately biological quality – the same growth process occurs in human nails, oyster pearls, and embryo growth. Thus, her comparison of factory output and craft as opposing modes of production comes full circle. By incorporating pearl mining into this particular show, Levy highlights the material qualities of Silicone, while introducing economic concerns into her otherwise bodily-oriented sculptures. Pearl mining is levied here to strengthen the work’s underlying ties to Surrealism, allowing for a more scholastic reading of this relationship through the lens of commodity fetish, which the artist goes into in more depth in an accompanying text.
Indeed, ties to Surrealism are woven through Levy’s work. The forms she creates do invite viewers into a certain post-Freudian sexual environment, and her aesthetic pays homage not only to Miro’s floppy surrealist forms of the 1930’s, but also to late 1960’s neo-Surrealists like Claes Oldenburg – and later, Eva Hesse. Levy’s work is not odd, unfamiliar, obscene, or unconventional in a gallery setting – although it might have been in the mid-20th century. It is clear that Levy has a tight grip on the history of Surrealism, and that her work does stem from this narrative, but in an age when the internet is providing new means for production, and quickly making both physical labor and physical objecthood somewhat obsolete, one has to ask what makes Levy’s work a citizen of the contemporary world, other than its birth date.
This could perhaps be elucidated most immediately by offering a 1966 quote from Paul Thek, who also cited Surrealism as a defining movement in the development of his artwork, and whose most recognizable pieces encase flesh-like masses in glossy vitrines. Of this work Thek says, “The dissonance of the two surfaces, glass and wax, pleases me: one is clear and shiny and hard, the other is soft and slimy. I try to harmonize them … “ Following Thek’s advancement of art beyond Clement Greenberg’s suffocating formalist lens and Pop’s limited ironic vocabulary, Levy’s echo is perhaps somewhat obscure. Swamp Salad reads as an ironic self-effacing critique of commodity fetishism and feminism, drawing parallels between pearl farming, upscale jewelry markets, the female body, and the manufacturing of artist personas and styles that increase value by adhering to institutionalized market expectations, but the question remans: to what end?
In an era of burgeoning political instability, Levy’s work challenges formal distinctions and assumptions, showcasing a world of bodies in flux, and identities open to change and reshaping, all underscored by modes of production and consumption. Questioning how one might proceed forward, Levy asks the question of just how the world might be able to move out from under the current rhetoric of capitalist labor. The an answer does not appear so simply is perhaps her most incisive critique.
Swamp Salad runs at C-L-E-A-R-I-N-G Bushwick until March 11th.
— S. Parnon