Disposable Art, Process Art, Media Art: Les Levine’s Rule-Breaking Work

Les Levine, Red Tape, 1970. Collection of the Museum of Mott Art © Les Levine

In 1966, Les Levine installed reflective Mylar-coated vinyl to create floors, walls and ceilings in a gallery space at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). He placed fans behind the vinyl so that the walls inside would appear to undulate as they inflated and collapsed. A video loop allowed viewers to see themselves entering the installation seven seconds after they had actually come in, and all of the works that had been in the room previously were projected onto the mirrored Mylar walls. He called it Slipcover: A Place by Les Levine (1966).

In 1970, Levine was invited to produce a site-specific sculptural installation in the quadrangle of Hart House at the University of Toronto. Construction materials — including twenty-four concrete blocks and twenty-four bricks — were to be suspended from ropes hung between the buildings. He encountered stiff resistance from the University’s administration. The resulting art was not the suspended sculpture, but rather the interaction between the artist and the school’s bureaucracy, which he documented in correspondence, telephone transcripts, and photographs. It was process art — a work Levine called Red Tape, A New Work by Les Levine (1970).    

Also in 1970, Levine’s Restaurant, the only Irish-Jewish-Canadian restaurant in New York City, opened to serve “a taste of Mr. Levine’s childhood memories.” Dishes included “matzoh ball soup and chopped chicken liver,” and the restaurant offered a twenty per cent discount to anyone named Levine. Subsequently, a boxed edition of prints and multiples titled Levine’s Restaurant (1970) was issued by Edition Domberger, which included serigraphs, menus, a package of peas, and a vacuum-formed plastic sculpture of potato latkes.

Les Levine, Levine’s Restaurant, 1969. Collection of the Museum of Mott Art © Les Levine

The exhibition Les Levine: Transmedia, on view until March 12, 2017, at Oakville Galleries, brings together a selection of Levine’s works from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. “These were the works by which he first came to acclaim, and they put forward for Toronto a new model of what art could be about, and how it could connect to its time,” said the show’s curator Sarah Robayo Sheridan in an interview with NGC Magazine. “This was a transitional time for the city. There was an openness and desire for new paradigms, if not yet the language that would eventually describe such later concepts as conceptual art, process art, or media art.”

Levine was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1935. He was educated at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, and emigrated to Canada in 1957. “I taught drawing at NSCAD, television production at Wayne Paterson University in New Jersey, communications at NYU, performance art at Columbia. I’m like a cat with nine lives,” said Levine in an interview with NGC Magazine. Levine’s career has spanned more than half a century and has earned him a great number of solo shows and awards, as well as comparisons to Andy Warhol.

Levine is an innovator, using new tools — he was a pioneer in the use of video — and new language to describe the work of the artist. “His monumental installation Slipcover in 1966 was probably one of the first Canadian examples of installation avant la lettre,” says Robayo Sheridan. He is a media artist who “moulds media the way others would mould matter.”

Les Levine, Disposables, Collection of the Museum of Mott Art © Les Levine

One of Levine’s innovations was disposable art. He created thousands of vacuum-formed plastic reliefs called Disposables (1966) that sold for between three and six dollars each.

“People like to think that art is forever, but it has a lifespan like anything else,” says Levine. He contemplated the purpose of art, and came to the conclusion that its function was to raise consciousness and communicate ideas. Once that process was complete, art ceased to be art, and instead became “a historical, exotic object.” A piece of art “produced insight that it imparts, but after that it is just dying on your wall,” he adds. “So why not hang it for a short time and then get rid of it?”

Transmedia also includes Wire Tap (1970), a sound-based installation from the National Gallery of Canada collection. Occupying a dedicated room, twelve speakers mounted on the walls play recorded telephone calls that Levine made from his studio over the course of a year.

The phone calls are mostly with “manufacturers I was working with, so the recordings have a quality of being an inside look of the production of a work of art: where I could get plastics, how I should mould it,” says Levine.

“[Wire Tap] formed an index of his studio practice at that time,” says Robayo Sheridan. “On the other hand, it marked an important shift in what could constitute the material and subject of art — a new form of still life.”

Wire Tap is also a form of self-surveillance, making private conversations public. “At the time, there was a cultural interest in spies and wiretapping,” said Levine. “And now, the piece seems prescient, considering the surveillance state and Snowden. It is obvious that privacy no longer exists.”

Les Levine, Environment III: Slipcover at the Architectural League of New York, Collection of the Museum of Mott Art, Inc. © Les Levine

Levine’s work is both playful and insightful. His inventiveness gives his art a certain lightness, and his experimentation has made him something of an iconoclast. “People have called me a charlatan, an enfant terrible, just about everything bordering on criminal,” says Levine. “I don’t do anything to trick anyone. I’m deadly serious. I’m a workaholic. Everything I’ve done I’ve meant seriously.”

“While humour is an element that Levine has at his disposal, what is less examined is his absolute literalness,” says Robayo Sheridan. “His matter-of-factness is sometimes startling to people. In most cases, the works attempt to deal with a directness that is the opposite of mystification.”

Levine’s rule-breaking work in the 1960s and 1970s led to a flowering of conceptual art in Canada. “I hope I opened up permission to try new ideas. To some degree, that is the point: every good work of art should have a permission within it.”

Les Levine: Transmedia is on view at Oakville Galleries at Centennial Square in Oakville, Ontario until March 12, 2017. The exhibition will open at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario, in Spring 2017.

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