DAVID LEVINTHAL:
BLACK FACE

Janet Borden Gallery through February 28

by Horace Brockington



The scrutiny of the image of blacks in America continues to fascinate and intrigue artists and historians. Not since the 60s' and late 70s' preoccupation with the black image has there been such a production of artistic work and research into the myth of black life in America.

A younger generation of black artists emerged in the late 80's and early 90's, and Lorna Simpson, Clarissa Sligh, Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lyle Ashton Harris were seen in countless multi-cultural exhibitions which sought to address issues of identity, race, and gender. More recently, artists such Kara Walker with her ante-bellum cut-outs and Fred Wilson's wonderful photo-installations of ceramic figures have again shown a new direction with the ability of artists of color to mine the wealth of black history.

David Levinthal's exhibition, Blackface, addresses this same subject matter, but the stakes for this artist are vastly different. Even before this work was shown in New York, it had become a cause celebre due to its cancellation by the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art. Already making itself a maverick for "tough" art, having previously mounted the now infamous Mapplethorpe exhibition, the ICA after much deliberation chose to cancel Levinthal's exhibition. Concurrent with the International Center for Photography's current retrospective exhibition, David Levinthal 1975-1996 where eight of the Blackface images are included, the Janet Borden Gallery in SoHo is covered with these images, making for a highly confrontational and thought-provoking exhibition.

After having countless discussions with artists and historians about these images, I decided that the one voice I had not heard from was that of the artist himself. After a brief inquiry at Borden, the artist agreed to sit down and talk to me about this work, its source, and its relationship to the larger body of his work. What follows is a edited version of several hours of interviews with the artist.

Among all the questions and contradictory emotions that Levinthal's work might suggest to people of color, the first of which is the questions why is a white artist creating reproductions of some of the harshest images of black Americans? But David Levinthal can not be blamed for the existence of these images. They are freely available, and I personally think that he has the right to appropriate and use these images in his work, but I think he must equally be accountable for their interpretation.

One issue that becomes clear after talking with the artist is that Levinthal is sincerely attempting to create a dialogue about racism. He is insistent that the works are intended to be seen as controversial. What they are not suppose to do is offend. But it is not these highly seductive photographs that are offensive to some, but their subject matter. They speak to a concept of black people in America, that despite all our development and achievement many Americans still consciously or unconsciously think of us in terms of these stereotypes.

What these stereotype figures suggest is a type of conceptualized system of black people in America; verbal and nonverbal behavior that is demeaning, and here lies the problem many artists and intellectuals have with their usage.

However, there is another school of thought, shared by many collectors of these blackface objects, many of which include professors, scholars, and curators, namely, that they are equally images that need to be collected discussed and addressed. To suggest that a white artist can not be involved in this dialogue seems rather specious given that many of these blackface objects were made by and exclusively for whites

What follows is a summary of that conversation:

My aim for the exhibition at ICA was to get them to deal with the issue of racism from within the institution . . .

I was not trying to question the notion of political correctness, but I wanted to make the viewer look at the issues of racism, the economic threat of the migration that took place during the 40's and 50's in America. These objects were primarily made for a white society to perpetuate the stereotype . . .

These objects carry a lot of histor,y and I think that is why artists such as Fred Wilson and myself are dealing with them, except that we are approaching them differently. We all have different perspectives on these objects . . .

I am quite conscious of the fact that people are uncomfortable with these works . . .

The title of the exhibition Blackface makes reference to many facades, presentations, poise and physicality of the figures. The title is also borrowed from the name of a journal of a black film-making company. But the terms also refers to both blacks and whites. Historically both blacks and white used blackface for theater roles. But gradually these images were used to perpetuate stereotype attributions to black people. I am reminded of the photographic works which I did about the American West. There again it was about mythology, a time that no longer exists, and how the characters became part of American culture, just like the name "Sambo" bears little reference to the historical construct . . .

I would like to give you a little pre-history of the Blackface works. My initially intention was to do a series of works about the film The Birth of A Nation . . .

As an artist I responded to these figures. I found many of these objects at flea markets. I keep the object on my shelves until I decide what to do with them . . .

I recall that the idea came to me through several conversations I had concerning the south and Klansmen. It was through these discussion that my intention turned to re-create The Birth of a Nation. Later I went to Atlantic City to an antique convention and purchased many of these figures. When I came home and set the figures on a flat file, I began to realize that these figures had a validity on their own. I think my initial intention was to use The Birth of A Nation as a narrative structure for the series of works, but I gradually started to photograph the figures as cultural icons . . .

When people look at my work there is a lot of ambiguity, people often think I pre-plan these series, but I really don't. It is only by working that the series evolves. I tend to approach projects with a sort of liberal arts background. I immediately start reading about the subject, this I attribute to my father, a emeritus professor in California. I sort of totally immerse myself in the subject by reading the material written on it . . .

What intrigues me about this body of work is how prevalent this stereotyping has been . . .

What I have found interesting is how this stereotyping has been so continuous and for such a longtime, what does this say about our society? I equally found it interesting in going to the flea markets that there is an active market for these figures, and they are great sellers. I am continually reminded that these are objects made for a commercial market . . .

I am equally aware that some people look at them and think they are important to discuss, while others find them so horrific that think they shouldn't be shown . . .

I'm trying to use them in several ways. One way is to ask the viewer to think for themselves. How do they see these objects which are so much a part of our culture when they are presented as cultural iconography?

I was upset by the cancellation of the ICA show, we had fifty of these images to be presented in an installation, and it would have been a good place to discuss the issues that these works raise; primarily issues of racism, not just in our country, but France, and Japan, other places which have been making these figures. I can think of no other group of people that have be so negatively caricatured for such a long period of time . . .

My interest in these figures is that I am overwhelmed by the both the horror and beauty of these images . . . similar to ones response to Goya's images of the horrors of war. You are drawn in and revolted at the same time . . .

describe my work as intentionally ambiguous. I like the viewer to look at my work as almost a Rorschach text, they are about the reality presented . . .

The technique I used in the Blackface Series is not that different from the way I photographed the American Beauty Series. Both body of works operate on the notion on the transformation of the image. All my previous work had a narrative flow, but here I wasn't building a background. To me the objects are so powerful that I simply present them they way they are made. There is a little editing going in the images, I was simply recording the object. I was framing them to present them as strangely as I can. There is a narrative in the work, if you know the history of the objects . . .

These are caricatures that you see over and over again, and I was curious why the particular iconography keeps repeating itself . . .

Any time you approach the subject of race it is rather impossible to engage in a rational discourse, it is rather difficult to step back and look at the history of this issue in our culture . . .

There is always in my work the risk of antagonizing people. There are always going to be people that are hurt by this subject, but I think it would be wrong to back away from the subject if I thought it offended people. I think it would paralyze you as an artist if you don't deal with offensive subjects. I think I bring integrity to my work and I am willing to defend it, talk about it on a congenial level, especially if it provides a dialogue . . .

I am very happy with the work. I think I have achieved what I finally turned to, if not what I set out to create. I look at the body of work at Borden and I see a powerful and provoking show that makes it very difficult for the viewer not to think about these subjects . . .

The work has context because of the issues that are addressed in it; namely history, race, sexuality. If we don't allow ourselves to have full and open dialogue about racism then we are going around the subject. I was strongly affected by the 60s when people felt comfortable dealing with these issues in society . . .

I have always thought people caught up with my work later as opposed catching on to it immediately. I think in the body of work I have created over the course of years, I have stayed consistent with pursuing my own aesthetic and my own intentions . . .

I am still going in the same direction, even if it seems current now. I think what a lot of artists are doing now is visually responding to history . . .

I look at these object as almost memorabilia. Not surprising some people treated these objects with a sense of nostalgia and yearning for the past. We must again rememberl these images were made for a white society . . .

People are often intrigued by my subject matter, but I don't feel like I'm going out there looking for these things, its more like it finds me. I try to express the history of the object and where they came from . . . I'm attempting to peel away layers, not create timely or topical issues. I think racism and stereotypes, whether racial, sexual . . . are issues that are prevalent in our culture and that they deserve conversation. I think we have to take a look at these issues and I hope that the viewer when looking at the Blackface images is taken aback by what they are seeing . . .

In looking at the artist's previous series American Beauty, Mein Kampf, Desire, the Wild West, and Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-43, David Levinthal clearly tries to move on rather difficult terrain, and good for him. I think it would be extremely difficult to judge this work outside his complete body of images, which is why the ICP exhibition is cuncurrent with the Blackface exhibition at janet Borden.

Does it offend? Only, if you think certain subject matter is gender, racial or sexuality exclusive for mining by that particular group. What I think is essential is that we each bring our own histories to the table in dealing with reality. This work may offend some. For others the work, may affirm their stereotypes of black people, but for this group I don't think Levinthal's work or any artist works would have changed their view point.

I think Levinthal's work touches on a important issue: Does the issue of the redefinition of a particular image rest only in hands of those who these images speak about? Who has the responsibility for correcting these images?. As many art historians of color can attest, the field of African Art History has continually been approached with a type of missionary/colonial ideology. Only now have young black scholars started rejecting this traditional approach in favor of a re-writing of African art history. Perhaps we, as western artists and historians, should welcome work that creates a dialogue and concern about identity and depiction of people of color.

I have long held the view that art doesn't have to be easy, and that tough art need not be lacking of aesthetic beauty. I must agree with Levinthal that the question remains why do these images contine to excite people and what is the manner of dis-empowering them, the images?

Levinthal's series is important in that his work addresses how art/objects reflect stereotypes that are based on anti-black bias. They show object that function for a society that revealed its dislike for blacks by engaging in negative stereotypes. These low ethnocentric subjects revealed the notion of the expectant ability, effort, aspiration of blacks as conceived by an American society.

Unfortunately many of the viewers may believe that self-image and determination have make these images obsolete, however Levinthal's photographs reminds us that many of these ideas towards blacks still persist in our contemporary society.

While many contemporary black artists on an international level are attempting to make a deliberate move to counter long standing negative stereotypes of blacks and insist on their recognition as individuals, the existence of the negative stereotype remains. Part of the problem is that perceived stereotyped are reinforced by other media sources, by political activities, economic factors which make interaction and inter-group relationship very difficult. These works reveal how difficult it is for artists to use blacks in their work without speaking of issues of race and racism, identity, and myths of cultural and racial homogeneity

These images address issues of aggression, anxiety, social competence, anger, sadness, happiness, attractiveness, intelligence, popularity, family functioning, and social acceptance. These issues transcend race and this is Levinthal's works' larger contextual importance.

Negative stereotypes of the color black and black American are common in many cultures. With these stereotypes in mind, many artists are attempting to find the means to neutralize them. These artists are engaged in trying to achieve a more positive and distinct social identity of people of color be they, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or black. The resultant images operate on the theoretical perspective that the conceptualization and development of positive racial/ethnic identity can be achieved through addressing the myths about these cultures and their traditional or historical depiction. They seek to create images that transcend negative stereotypes about minorities. As a result their themes address perceptions of self- sufficiency, self-image, racial/ethnic identity, racism, and socioeconomic competitiveness, gender status, social roles, religion and spirituality Occasionally they attempt to both document and comment on these themes creating a new and rich body of work relating to the image of blacks in art.

David Levinthal's work must be viewed as part of that link between categorization and stereotype activation. He is less concerned with evoking the negative stereotype as he with questioning its very presence. Levinthal's works address both the associative and inter-group bias perspective from which these stereotype are derived, and on a broader level comment on the theory of category- stereotype relationship. Levinthal's Blackface series becomes important for contextualizing the issue of racism, questioning its very structures, and narrations. They are useful outside of being very seductive images for the researching, composing and rethinking the image of blacks in America.

Copyright ©1997 Horace Brockington & REVIEW All Rights Reserved