Norman Mailer flaunts his double chin, and Jimmy Carter plays the fool in David Levine's drawings, now at Harry Lunn's, 3243 P St. N.W. Here, too, is Henry Kissinger, plump, nude, and tatooed, and Gertrude Stein portrayed in the styles of Picasso, and Edgar Allan Poe, whose necktie is a noose. Those caricatures, in pen and ink, are caustic, cunning, masterful. They please the viewer mightily. But they please Levine less.
In some region of his sould Levine seems to find his satires unworthy, his wickedness a waste. His predecessor, Thomas Nast, who savaged poor Boss Tweed, eventually experienced a comparable revulsion. So, too, did George Grosz, who struggled, late in life, to transfer his allegiance from the nasty to the noble. Why is it, one wonders, that some yearning for the high road, some loathing for the low, burns in every artist who seeks to serve the muse?
There is more warmth than loathing, less bile than compassion, in the Levine watercolors now on exhibition at the Phillips Collection here. In them he portrays the faces of his friends, Coney Island's beaches, seamstresses at work. Levine regards these paintings as his most worthy works; his drawings, he has said, are but the way he makes his living. His watercolors hang in gleaming gilded frames; their dusty colors are Old Masterish. In the little paintings, David Levine labors to ally his art to that of Rembrandt and Daumier, Prendergast and Eakins. These pictures are, in short, acts of homage to the arty.
When he blots or puddles colors, or paints a sandy beach, the shadows of a sweat shop, or a lacy dress, he shows us once again that he's a fine technican. But still these well-made watercolors are less than convincing. They seem to put on airs. Although he tries to hide it, his extraordinary gift for broad exaggeration, his instinct for the laugh line, cuts into those paintings. Look, for instance, at the way that Levine portrays noses.
In almost every painting here they seem a bit too notable, too colorful, too big. The "Presser," who bows over his iron in a gloom that's Rembrandt esque, has a nose too pink. His "Woman Wearing Sunvisor" has a nose too round. Even the young woman in Levine's "Introspection," his most pensive portrait, is marred by a nose that is a bit too long. "Some artists are turned on by hillocks, but give me a nose or an ear any day," Levine has said. There is about his Phillips show something slightly sad. Levine would love to soar, to be seen as truly serious, but he remains an artist caught in his cartoons, grounded by his gift. His Phillips exhibition closes July 20. His drawing show at Lunn's closes July 9.
"Power Objects: Ancient and to the Future," at Howard University's gallery of art, is a group show that once seen will not be soon forgotten. There is often something hollow, something unconvincing, in paintings that attempt to honor Africa and blackness with painstaking portrayals of cowrie shells and beads and traditional tribal patterns. What makes this show of sculptures so memorable and strong is that the objects in it do more than represent. They seem to summon ghosts.
The gallery is entered through a forest of tree-spirits made of steel by Ed Love. Some of them have mouths, some of them have arms, all are taller than a man. Abiodoun Khaliq's "Ancestral Fetish," with its feathers and its photographs, its mirrors, bells, and rusted paint can lids, is a strong self-portrait that conjures up the artist, his family, his childhood and his ancestral past. Januwa Moja's sculpture here is made of shreds of printed cloth that manage to suggest the shoulders and the might of some giant, headless being. Michael B. Platt shows us "A Spiritual Place," an environment in which feathered serpents, who all have human faces, slide out of the earth. Edgar Sorrells-Adewale used metal and bent nails and the softest pastel colors in a wall-hung work that seems to be less an object than a being. p
The strongest "Power Objects" here are worthy of that term. Much art of the West, of American and Europe, is an art of surface. The objects here, instead, recall reliquaries, caskets, containers made to hold the holy. The artists represented use all sorts of materials. Joyce Scott works with bones. A Michael Auld's "Ogun" is a creature made of the parts of bicycles. The sculptors represented here are not merely borrowing African devices. Somehow they've tuned in to spirits long ignored to presences forgotten. One leaves their show convinced that their motives are to some degree less social than religious. The International Sculpture Conference that ended here last weekend sent an unexpected energy coursing through this city. Those concerned with sculpture, and with the arts of black America, should not miss this show. Its organizers hope to extend it through mid-august.