Night Moves

Welcome to David Levinthal's world

Photo by Jack GouldSome things should only be done under cover of night. What those things might be, I'm not exactly sure since I personally lead an unblemished existence. But if I were to hazard a guess, those things would include coke parties and hookers. One should never see hookers, say, in the morning, standing on the corner when one is, for instance, taking one's son to school. That's just icky.

But at night, oh, at night, things that are gross in unforgiving daylight take on a shimmer and a mystery. You don't see the big pores. You don't see the ugliness, the lines from the amped-out methness. Things that are squalid and seedy and downright sad look better, sexier and less hagged-out in moonlight.

David Levinthal's "Modern Romance" at Cal State Fullerton's Main Art Gallery comprises a series of untitled photographs snapped from 1983 to 1985. The main feature is a darkness so thick it becomes its own character, inking out a good three-quarters of each tiny Polaroid (Polaroids, by the way, that are exquisitely finished—none of yer tacky flatness here). Only patches of illumination pop through, and even then, they're usually hazy and ambiguous. We squint and peer, our eyeballs practically chafing on the panels. It is a lot of work, and it is still almost impossible to tell what's going on. One can only assume—one is conditioned to assume—that since it's black night, something nefarious is being committed. Some images are pixilated, like he's grabbed the scene straight from his TV. Others are just pools of white skin, barely discernible, doing their best imitation of pretzels in awkward sex positions.

Levinthal poses dolls and toys in tableaux, in various states of undress, but they're not the happy, perky, ironicized toys one would expect.

For one, with the groovy French-cinema-dreamscape focus, you can only very occasionally tell they're dolls instead of people caught on surveillance tape; for another, I bet if it weren't so damned French-cinema-dreamscape, we would be able to see nipples. It's that kind of show.

Levinthal's been working with dolls for 40 years; his "Hitler Moves East" in the '70s used dolls to narrate Hitler's campaign to eradicate Jews and Gypsies. Before that, he worked with bubbly Barbie dolls.

Here, Levinthal takes his cues from '40s film noir; all that's missing is a dick in a fedora.

A woman stands on a street corner; surely she isn't just waiting to cross the street? A man stands on the sidewalk, his hands in his pockets. Even though we only see him from the back, we can tell he's leering at the blonde walking by—and every woman, in Levinthal's world, is a blonde. The best scenes offer us a voyeur's look through well-lit windows. In one particularly vivid scene, we look into an office at a man behind his desk, a woman standing uncomfortably by. Outside, a car idles. I imagine rape, harassment, blackmail. Nothing good can come from this scene. But that ambiguity—what the hell is going on here?—irks me terribly. I'm not a big fan of subtlety. Whether in plays, movies or artworks, open-ended endings drive me nuts. I see them as abdications of the artist's responsibility to tell me exactly what to think and feel—they're cop-outs. And that particular scene is the most straightforward of the bunch. I dislike having to use my imagination; if I had one, I'd be off on a beach writing my novel instead of reporting on other people's imaginations. And aren't artists supposed to be the ones with that particular attribute?

Other Levinthal images—ones you can see! Crisply!—present a clear homage to Edward Hopper; his Nighthawks is there with its big-windowed diner, as are his sad, half-nude girls alone on their beds. These days, all those tributes to Hopper (I've seen at least a half-dozen in the past year) seem like so much fodder for Pageant of the Masters—though I'd like to see Pageant of the Masters try its hand at the sad nudes

 
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