Peeling Back the Layers

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
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Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

In one interview, Pamela Levy was asked whom she photographed in the street as a basis for her paintings. "I identify with simple people, not too beautiful or too rich or too healthy. I photograph people of all ages, shapes and sizes," the artist answered.

Levy enlarged these antiheroes into enormous proportions in her paintings. The current exhibition of her work, curated by her son, Yuval Levy, at the Zaritsky Artists House in Tel Aviv (until November 25 ), features prints by Levy never before exhibited. Her prints and photographs were an integral component of her painting, serving as its foundation and background, at times for abstract patterns and at times for figurative characters. But in this exhibition they are presented as separate, independent works of art.

Levy, who died of heart failure eight years ago, painted the biblical Hagar, Lot's daughters, Macbeth's witches and many bathers, and many others from art history, as threatened figures. She created a feminine world of representation of individuals, grouped together, like an alternative lineage of father-less, husband-less women, exploited and expelled.

In her 1985 painting "The Rapist," for example, she used a photograph of teenage boys throwing a teenage girl into a pool, turning the scene into an annihilating sight of gang rape of a naked girl dragged into a black hole, the cave of terror. "Palestine, the Birth of a Nation" (1988 ), shows a naked girl in the midst of an attempt to flee, her arms behind her and chin held high, a kind of nightmare version of Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People."

"Man Pushing a Cart with an Angel" (1999 ) is a split canvas. The right-hand side depicts a man pushing a cart filled with white boxes and a black garbage bag, while the left-hand side shows a naked girl, twisted in fear, against the background of a black print of shadowy, devilish figures lying down. One figure faces the right-hand side of the painting, the other the left-hand one, as if repelling one another like the antimagnetism of similar objects.

In "Veronica" (2000 ), a little girl in braids spreads her arms as if crucified, the towel that had covered her now revealing a childish, prepubescent body. Her gaze is turned sideways as if against her will. "The vulnerability of young girls is unique," Levy said in a 1993 interview. "That's something I know from deep down, from being a little girl, on the one hand, and a little bitch and a flirt, on the other."

In other paintings, too, bodies run, panicked, in compressed, multidirectional flurries, detached from one another, always not yet mature or too mature, torn from their context, featuring in a unique form of layered collage, alien to themselves, to one another and to the place. The places are vacation spots such as the seashore and amusement parks, or garbage dumps and abandoned junkyards, garages and warehouse lots. They serve to represent mental or emotional facades, sites outside the law, of the suspension of seemingly happy, innocent times or of being left on the fringes, rejected and abandoned.

"It started when I was a cocktail waitress in Santa Fe," Levy recalled in that same interview. "That's where I got all the ideas for my painting: The place was crawling with scummy people. The bar was located among office buildings. All these creeps would come there, wearing their business suits and, once night fell, they'd turn into animals. We were under constant police protection, but to get rid of the cops wasn't any less complicated. New drugs would come in, cheap and unprocessed, directly from Mexico. People were flying high."

Rejection in Israel

Levy, born in Fairfield, Iowa, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Northern Iowa, and made a living in different jobs, working at one point as an assistant to a carver of wooden signs. In 1972, she moved to New Mexico and lived in an artists commune in Santa Fe. "She must have had good reason to leave Iowa," curator Naomi Tannhauser Kedar told the Jerusalem local weekly Kol Ha'ir after Levy's death at the end of 2004. "I had the sense something happened there. Something made her flee, perhaps the thing that made her deal with the subjects that concerned her."

In the mid-1970s, by which time Levy had moved to Israel, feminism was a foreign word whose meaning was still unclear, even in the world of Israeli art. But feminism in the United States was in full swing. Levy's early works - textile collages held together by hand-sewing - were made under the influence of artists like Miriam Schapiro, Judy Chicago and others from the feminist Pattern and Decoration art movement. The movement wanted to revive an interest in needlepoint, knitting, crocheting and sewing, which were connected, historically and politically, to women's work, and which were downgraded to the level of craft and considered inferior for many years. This movement emerged at a time when many "others" (African-Americans, gays, Asians, ecologists ) crashed through the gates of high art that had been closed to them. In Israel, it was called - with rude simplicity - "women's art," when it wasn't being ignored altogether.

Levy immigrated to Israel in 1976 because of her marriage to psychologist and art critic Itamar Levy. Here she started to collected carved, decorative wooden bowls and used them to create her early prints. At the beginning of the 1980s, she attended an artists workshop on silk screening and became an expert in her own right. She then made printing an integral part of her painting, creating a dialogue between printed monochromatic stick figures and blob-like figures painted on top of them with warm colors, building a relationship of domination and an attempted erasure, always characterized by national and gender tensions.

After she and Itamar Levy divorced, he moved to the United States with their oldest child, Samantha. Pamela Levy remained in Israel where, according to art historian and gender scholar Dr. Tal Dekel, she suffered as a convert to Judaism, as someone who hadn't mastered Hebrew, and as a woman in a militant, macho society. "I'm attracted to all sorts of weird, impossible guys who don't love me, and I stay attached to them for years afterwards," Levy said in an interview. The fact that she lived in Jerusalem and her non-Eurocentric artistic influences certainly didn't help her become accepted as an artist right away.

After being able to make art in the context of a fruitful feminist dialogue in Santa Fe with the other female artists, activists and intellectuals who gathered and worked there, it's easy to understand the sense of alienation Levy felt in Israel of the 1970s. The local art scene was dominated by another kind of conceptual politics, and Levy's works were seen as too soft and domestic, narrow in scope, marginal and criminally decorative. The use of an anti-canonical medium wasn't viewed as a significant political statement. "The bitter attitude she encountered evoked bitterness in her," wrote Dekel in her essay "Quilting the Soul in a Multicultural World: The Art of Pamela Levy," published in Hebrew in the magazine Mutar in 2010, feelings that "didn't pass even after she started gaining greater recognition as an artist in Israel."

'Unambitious excitement'

In the early 1980s, Levy made a sharp shift in styles and media, and started to paint her large figurative oils based on photographs. The works were constructed of three layers: illegible diary entries peeking through to the surface, a photograph or print, and painting. Some of the photographs were decontextualized and repainted against the backdrop of a landscape. In the art scene of the time, which was used to other kinds of collage, like those of Raffi Lavie and Michal Neeman, it was specifically the painterly fusion that represented something new and different.

"The paintings strike you at once because of their odd, unclear atmosphere, one that arouses unpleasant sensations in the viewer," claimed Dekel. "The human figures are estranged from their location, and often from themselves. The strange, unnatural connection between the figures and their environment creates a sense of detachment, artificiality, a type of unresolved tension, which causes the viewer a sense of confusion and embarrassment because of the discrepancy and discord."

The major curator to exhibit Levy as a feminist artist, and not in a derogatory or superficial way, was Ellen Ginton. In 1999, Ginton curated a large exhibition of Levy's work, summarizing a decade-long climax in her creative output (1983-1994 ). The exhibition got a cold-to-lukewarm reception. "One must say it in the simplest and clearest way," wrote one of the critics. "It would have been better for the Pamela Levy exhibition not to have seen the light of day."

"Levy's preoccupation with sex often seems capricious," wrote another. "The sexuality presented by Levy is hesitant and lacking in vitality"; "At times, the intellectual allusion becomes annoying"; "Artificial, unfounded, glued together"; "A suspect choice of figures"; and "Free, even naive realism, not faithful to details." These are just some of the reactions she received.

Even those who wrote of her work with enthusiasm stressed the erotic and sexual aspects in her paintings as uncomplicated joy, a pulse of life. "Strong, simple existential excitement," wrote Michael Segen-Cohen, "a credible, unambitious excitement." Once it was declared that the naked body in Levy's works represented nature while the garbage dumps represented culture, she was excoriated for the dichotomy.

Final acclaim

Levy's later works finally won acclaim. "The fortified wall of opposition to female discourse," as Ginton called it, was finally breached. Her personal and political syntax was finally identified. But the disparaging, dismissive attitude to her work left its mark. Pamela Levy became a success in the Israeli art world. She found her place. But her story was never told in a way that didn't transcribe the ideologies that were dominant at the time. Her story was told as if it were a detour, whether as representing the politics of another place (American feminism attributing importance to needlework ), as the painter of bohemian nudity, almost Matisse-like in spirit, or as a representative of a loose, postmodern joining of the high and the low. Her paintings were never examined as focusing on sexual trauma or as interpretable though it.

Levy's distorted, chaotic, disconnected world was attributed solely to influences by David Salle, Edward Hopper, Erik Fischl and the American photorealism of the 1970s. The body and the grief, the sex and the pain, were seen as two separate themes in her work, two distinct and parallel fields of interest. Thus it was also possible to discuss her work as a therapeutic postmodern symbolism, without saying what the therapy was for.

When Levy was asked about it directly, she avoided giving an answer. "Someone recently asked me if I'd been sexually exploited as a child, and if it was making me paint this way," she said. "I tried to explain that because I was with Itamar, who is a psychologist, I encountered psychotherapy long before my thirties, something that cleared my head out of all possible sexual taboos."

People wrote about feeling suffocated, anxious, becoming stuck, confused about Levy's work. No one said that her thematic project was in painting women as they are before or after an attack, women whose calm is that of the prey or the survivor, that their immense, fractured silence discloses a refusal to participate in exploitation, humiliation and shame. And no one said that Levy contributed one of the painting projects that most greatly expanded the discussion of sexual violence, that her paintings broke a little bit the taboo of talking about pedophilia. No one said that Levy excelled at painting the culture of rape.

“A Clown at the Beach,” by Pamela Levy (1989). Reproduction: Yuval Levy