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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.