A Remarkable, Ordinary World
RAANAN LEVY'S paintings work on the attentive viewer slowly and quietly. It becomes clear, as they impress themselves upon you, that it is not enough to appreciate that they are competently, even beautifully, painted. The initial impression, also, that their handling and brushwork are conventional and their composition unexceptional, is misleading. It gradually dawns on you that these scrupulously judged images have a strange evocative power and are often arranged in unusual ways. They turn out to be altogether less expected than they first seemed to be. They appear to be very real, and then they seem not to be real at all, but figments of a dream or intense encounters in the memory.
Technically, Levy's work makes no attempt to dazzle by bravura or even to attract by an obvious originality. But as one watches his paintings - and that does seem to be the right word even though stillness, rather than movement, is of the essence in them - they start to yield the intensity that has gone into their making.
SOME of Levy's paintings actually appear to watch you. In his current exhibition at London's Crane Kalman Gallery (open until Nov. 27) is a small self-portrait. It is called a self-portrait (``Self-Portrait, Charcoal Bouquet,'') but it is first of all a painting of a mirror on a wall. ``Self-Portrait with Munch'' (shown on this page), has similarities to this picture. Mirrors reflect images, and the mirrors in these two works happen to reflect not the whole of the face gazing intently at them, but only part of it.
In the painting with Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter, the artist's reflection is, unrealistically, in black and white. In ``Self-Portrait, Charcoal Bouquet,'' more of his features are reflected - all of his mouth and nose but still only one eye, one ear, one cheek, and a little side hair. The other eye is obstructed by the mirror's edge. The dry surface of the surrounding wall reflects a soft shadowy light, but not, of course, any of the painter's unseen features. One is made unusually aware of the differences between surfaces and what they reflect.
The self-images Levy has painted are mirror images, and although most self-portraits are painted using mirrors, most do not admit it. In them, the artist seems to be confronting his own flesh and bone directly. Self-portraitists usually ignore the fact that a mirror image is in reverse and is distanced from the original more than we realize. But Levy, by specifically painting an image in a mirror, in reflective glass, and a partial image at that, has made it look as though the mirror has somehow originated the face. What might have been quite ordinary has become startling and compelling.
The subject matter of Levy's paintings is far from being the merely objective world it seems to be.
Although he reminds us of his crucial presence in his self-portraits, more frequently he is like the director and the camera-crew in filmmaking: We are to believe in his absence. This leaves the images on paper or canvas to speak for him. And these images are often familiar objects. But he never, it is true, leads us into the illusive world of Photo-Realism or trompe l'oeil. Although he clearly derives satisfaction from the capacity of paint to convincingly describe objects and their colors and textures, his realism is balanced by the fact that it is always paint - paint that he has applied - that the viewer is looking at.
AS if to emphasize that paint is his subject, when Levy first started painting after a long period of drawing and making prints only in black and white, he chose to depict the very raw materials of the painter: brushes, inks, bunches of charcoal sticks, pencils in jars, a paint-splattered rag, and above all, dry pigments (pigments in powder form). These, no less than such domestic still-life objects as a shaving brush or a spoon, come very close to an artist's essential accessories; they are symbol and part of him.
Extending this idea in a slightly different direction, Levy also paints ``art,'' for example, the self-portrait of Munch in the painting on this page. In another painting of a view out of a window, with a windowsill on which stands a bottle with a narcissus in it, a reproduction of a Velazquez is attached to the windowpane with masking tape. Levy studies the art of certain old masters and clearly sees himself as following a long tradition of figurative painting. To include some of their images in his own is not only to pay tribute to them, but also to show how they are as much a part of his vision as the objects he paints are.
Israeli born, Levy has lived and worked in Italy, Spain, Holland, and France. Today he has studios in both Jerusalem and Paris. Although some of his views through windows are identifiable as one place or another, his still-life paintings on the whole are stateless. They are universal, perhaps, in a way that landscape cannot be, and this universality is underscored by the kind of light that he prefers for them. He calls it ``timeless.'' It is not possible to tell the time of day from it.
But more than this, the light helps to lift an arrangement and ordering of objects into a kind of transcendent symbol, into his vision. If there is one old master Levy readily admits as a direct influence, it is the Spanish painter Francisco Zurbaran. ``Antiquities,'' with its ancient artifacts arranged with such sacred lucidity on a white sheet - like offerings on some altar - illustrates his debt to Zurbaran still lifes.
ONE further influence on Levy's work comes from the medium of film. The planning and editing of the films of Federico Fellini or Sergei Eisenstein fascinate him. His own procedures as a painter are very similar: an exhaustive and self-critical process of many takes; a tendency to think of paintings as ``frames'' that either succeed or fail and must be kept or rejected accordingly; a rigorous elimination of whatever seems to be distracting or unnecessary; and a highly selective discrimination of the final image. It may be to film that he owes something of the dreamlike nature of his work, its potency as after-image in the memory.
Levy is, in another peculiar way, a painter of memory rather than a depictor of subject matter. His method while painting - whether portrait, still life, landscape, or combinations of these -
is not to face his subject directly. His canvas or paper is not placed between him and his subject.
Instead he works facing his picture, and when he looks at his subject he turns sideways. In this way, he points out, there is an all-important split second when what his eyes see is transferred into memory. He then paints this memory image. It is perfectly clear from the intensity with which he describes this process that it is a great deal more than an idiosyncratic methodology. It is what critically separates the significance of his paintings from mere realism.