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Gambit Weekly Echoes in the Silence

By D. Eric Bookhardt

JULY 20, 1998:  The history of art is the history of marks. The first drawing comprised lines inscribed in the earth with a pointed stick. Later, charcoal and colored pigments enabled a wider range of tones, and the invention of brushes eventually gave us painting as we know it. But the line has always been the most primary graphic device, and artists have been making their mark with it ever since.

While the traditional arts of Asia and Native America remained rooted in line drawing, Western art largely eschewed the ascetic rigors of the line in favor of more atmospheric patterns of paint. Yet the line drawing remains the test of an artist's mettle; any mark that seems at all out of place, more sloppy than surgical, automatically raises questions about the work's validity as "art." So the line is a paradox; it is the most "primitive" and yet also the most rigorously demanding of expressive gestures.

For instance, when Picasso's flamboyant abstractions first garnered attention in this country, people laughed. "My kid coulda done that," the naysayers opined. But when faced with his masterful line drawings, typically executed in a single, precisely fluid movement of a pen point over paper, the critics fell silent. The acid test was passed; the artist had proved himself to be as prodigal as he was presumptuous.

While lighter, brighter and not so profound as most Picassos, the line drawings of Benjamin Levy at NOMA display an admirable precision nonetheless. With their dreamlike storytelling style, they recall something of Chagall, but with an illustrational verve suggestive of Saul Steinberg. Yet, beyond their art world pedigree, they are also accessible, witty and entertaining.

An Israeli who emigrated to New York in the 1960s, Levy creates whimsical dream scenes from memories of his childhood in Tel Aviv and from old photos of his father's family in Yemen at the turn of the century. And although his large and colorful Arabic-Jewish family was ethnic even by Israeli standards, Levy's buoyant humor and coyly psychological style give his works unusual appeal. In fact, their somnambulistic aura has much in common with magic realism and the dreamlike dramas of Latin fiction.

In Mystery Guest, a pair of dapper gents sit at a dinner table under a stagelike canopy on a beach. Sharply dressed in the style of Hollywood's golden age, the men's eyes stare blankly as a nude woman behind the canopy's curtains gazes expectantly across the sand. One of the men absently fingers a fish while a faceless, fully clothed outline of the woman stands outside the canopy like an after-image. A cat observes them warily as a sailboat in the background plies the sea like a child's toy under the sultry sun.

It is hardly a scene from a travel brochure, yet there is a familiarity about this, a sense of the irony that abounds in life's little interludes, in the spaces that fall between our conscious actions and unconscious reveries. People agree on plans, but then there are personal agendas, schemes so vulnerable to subconscious whims that most of us are not fully aware of them even as they happen. This is the realm of life as theater, what the Bard meant when he said that all the world's a stage. And it is this role-playing, mask-wearing sensibility that Levy portrays in his images. So this is a kind of personal mythology in pictures, reality as it appears to the subconscious, or dreaming, mind.

This narrative approach makes for a stark contrast to the equally subconscious sensibilities of Bernard Mattox's paintings at Wyndy Morehead. Here, abstract forms set the tone, and while they appear much the same as in Mattox's sculpture, their effect is somehow more suggestive of Klee, or even Kohlmeyer, when transposed into paint. With their abstract flotsam and jetsam adrift in a colorful sea of symbols, Mattox's paintings are much more typical of what is meant by "modern art" than most of what we see in Levy's picaresque parables.

Yet some of Levy's drawings evoke classic surrealism. In The Visit, a sleeping (or dreaming, or dead) man lies abed surrounded by the people in his life: nudes with heads like roosters, bellhops and prelates and babes with bobbed hair, mustachioed guys astride bestial masked women. All surround the sleeper with their assorted threats and temptations, the human zoo in full bloom.

His paintings, however, are more obviously illustrational, like slick magazine art with overtones of Richard Lindner. While lacking the terse ambiguity of his drawings, similar sensibilities apply, though in cuter, more colorful fashion, as if intended for mass appeal. So no, Levy is no Picasso -- but he does have a flair for transcending cultural boundaries, for transforming ethnic or personal concerns into universally accessible expressions.

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