Les Levine

Les Levine
Oakville Galleries, Oakville
January 22 – March 12, 2017

Credited with launching the term “software art,” Les Levine was in the vanguard of artists exploring the 1960s’ collision course with computation. Guest curated by Sarah Robayo Sheridan, Les Levine: Transmedia is a fitting homecoming for the one-time Torontonian, spanning early modular “drawings” and wall-mounted polyurethane “disposables” to the paranoid, Nixon-era audio environment of Wire Tap (1970).

Sheridan’s ambitious retrospective manages to feel spacious in Oakville Galleries’ Centennial Square site. Visitors are greeted by a 1964 CBC Television interview with a provocateur Levine in his Britain Street studio musing on the artist’s altered role in a consumer society.

Commanding the gallery’s central space is a stark matrix of kitchen chair fragments whose formal rigour betrays an Oedipal drama. The generic chair form conjugated by the monochrome grid of Twenty-four Drawings (1964) and related vacuum-form works commemorates Levine’s explosive apprenticeship to Mashel Teitelbaum, whose New School of Art incubated Levine’s astonishingly rapid transition from an early career as a process designer to international art stardom. Exasperated with Teitelbaum’s pedestrian pedagogy, Levine supposedly smashed the kitchen chair that served in lieu of a pedestal in the still life exercises that were a mainstay of the school. (To this day, the artist credits Teitelbaum as the catalyst for his subsequent meditations on the expendability of everyday objects, while noting that his own father was, not coincidentally, a furniture designer.)

The disarming sensuality of Mini Star (1967) showcases Levine’s trademark ability to orchestrate engaging environments with seemingly anomic materials like vacuum-formed acrylic. The transparency of plastic is a characteristically ambivalent metaphor; at once conjuring the democratic idealism of a young generation of New Leftists and dystopian visions of ubiquitous surveillance.

Ephemera generated by Levine’s Restaurant—the facetiously self-styled Irish-Canadian-American canteen that Levine operated in partnership with Max’s Kansas City owner Mickey Ruskin, and was the probable prototype for Gordon Matta Clark’s Food (1971), among a long line of artists’ restaurants—steals the show. Long prior to the advent of relational aesthetics, and several years before Joseph Kosuth’s theorization, Levine’s Restaurant floated the artist-as-anthropologist concept. Levine would further pursue this line of inquiry in his gossipy art world fanzine Culture Hero, whose underground aesthetic reverberated in Warhol’s Interview and General Idea’s FILE Magazine.

A conversation between Levine and Sheridan held at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design in conjunction with the exhibition underlined Levine’s departure from prevailing McLuhanite currents in the Toronto context that hatched this early body of work: the artist preferring cybernetic metaphors of “feedback” to describe the social dynamics of his practice as establishing “a zone outside the art world, looking at the art world, and saying this is what you’re doing.” The informatic “residue,” as Levine calls it, of the artist’s iterative process makes for compelling, and startlingly contemporary, viewing, listening and reading today.