‘Contents/Discontents -- Abby Levine’
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Jesse Sublett, Fri., Jan. 18, 2002
Contents/Discontents -- Abby Levine: Irony Alive & Well at 1313 S. Congress
Gallery 1313, through January 31
Last month on the fashionable SoCo strip, a new gallery opened called Gallery 1313, a name that seems to promise offerings rich in symbolism. The storied block of 1313 South Congress Avenue is home to the Continental Club, two vintage boutiques, and an establishment called Just Guns. New Jersey-born artist Abby Levine, whose big, brightly colored dioramas often suggest a trip to a toy store deep in the subconscious side of town, could hardly have dreamed of a more appropriate location for her most recent Austin exhibition.
Working predominantly with wood, using Japan color and a scroll saw, Dremel tool, and woodburner, Levine creates deliciously complex 3D pieces with interlocking architectural structures festooned with icons, fetishes, and cutout figures of historical, political, and cultural significance. Altar-like works such as Be Careful What You Wish For and Pie in the Sky are highly narrative. Unintended consequences, Pandora's box, the global economy (believe it or not), and the tyranny of money are frequent themes. But such cautionary tales are delivered with a sense of fun that suggests we shouldn't let these things get us too down. The all-pink China Dollar, for example, undulates sexily in intricate lace patterns whose holy icons include Mao, an army tank, and what appear to be flying fish. At the very least, the pieces generally offer so many nooks and crannies to explore that the journey of inventorying and decoding the symbols and images is always worth the trip. Levine's work always makes me think and smile at the same time -- a pleasurable sensation.
Although she grew up on the East Coast, Levine has lived in the Big Bend area for the past 10 years. One of the best pieces in the show is the totemic Belly of the Beast, which was inspired by a trip to Austin in 2000, when the city was still flush with high tech cash. This Austin beast has tiny men imprisoned in its bared teeth, wings made up of what appear to be soulless suburb cul de sacs, and a digestive tract coiled like a scorpion tail dangling down into the fires of hell. The moneygodbeast is speckled with too many other symbols to mention, and as always, the potentially dire message is leavened with Levine's usual bright colors and such humorous symbology as the dancing Hushpuppies -- the "loafers" -- trodding on the heads of the oppressed workers of the world.
Harvey Hotel has a huge starburst/windmill in the center linking various dioramas of motel life, including eerily realistic swimming pool and bar scenes, while a pay TV reminds us to "have a nice day." The piece evokes a sense of cheesy cheer, but also an underlying queasiness. A post-September 11 work, Afghan Poppy, was inspired by Afghan prayer rugs, which traditionally incorporate war images, such as grenades or other weapons. This poppy seems to be growing out of oil derricks, and its petals are decorated with images of historic Afghan soldiers.
U.S. History $1.01 is a painfully twisted 6-foot-long dollar bill dangling a Frisbee-sized Lincoln Liberty penny from a huge chain. Go Global also features representations of various peoples around the world reflected on satellite dishes, linked together by a heavy chain -- united by technology and commerce while held in bondage by those same forces. Just beneath the main body of the piece juts the hem of a pinstripe suit -- like a smirk or a wink.
To paraphrase an old saw, accounts of the death of irony since last September 11 have been greatly exaggerated, and the amazing Abby Levine provides three-dimensional proof that it is still a powerful way to communicate and process ideas about life, death, and pop culture in America.
A large sampling of Levine's work can also be seen on her Web site, www.abbyart.com.