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I thought David Levinthal was black. The invitation for his show at the Menil Collection, "Insistent Objects: David Levinthal's 'Blackface,'" featured a photograph of a blackface figurine. In the art world, a host of contemporary African-American artists have been appropriating racist imagery for their own devices. I assumed Levinthal was one of them.
A talk was in progress when I got to the exhibition's opening. Discussing the work were a Menil curator and a man who began talking about how he shot the photographs. As he was speaking, it dawned on me that this was Levinthal -- a balding, middle-aged white guy.
I'd received a catalog of the photographs in the exhibition the day of the opening and briefly flipped through it before heading to the show. Myriad blackface figures were included, representing a pantheon of grinning racist caricatures -- mammies, Uncle Toms, bartenders, porters, bellhops, cooks, little kids eating watermelon, natives -- with huge red lips and bulging white eyes emerging from coal-black skin. Each was beautifully lit but straightforwardly shot against a dark background. There didn't seem to be any commentary in the photographs. I thought it was weird, but brief first impressions are often wrong. The work might make more sense in the actual show.
But hanging on the walls, the photographs reaffirmed my first impression. They just seemed like an artful documentation of a collection of racist artifacts. The lush, selective focus of the giant Polaroids reminded me of food photography; the photos seemed more like a display of technical expertise than a conceptual decision. I didn't get why anyone would address this subject matter in this way, let alone a white guy.
Many of Levinthal's photographs were taken of objects from the Menil's wide-ranging collection. Some are currently on display in the Menil's library. The figurines, among other objects, are part of the museum's scholarly project "The Image of the Black in Western Art." Additionally, Levinthal has actively amassed a large collection of blackface bric-a-brac for himself.
African-American artists such as Fred Wilson have used these kinds of figurines in their own work. In one piece, Wilson took a 19th-century photograph of a black family and then recomposed the arrangement of people using a racist tchotchke in the place of each family member. He contrasted the reality with an assembly of white-constructed stereotypes. In video works, he has smashed mammy figurines with a baseball bat. But using this kind of imagery has been highly controversial for some. Artists such as Michael Ray Charles and Kara Walker manipulate the racist imagery they mimic, but they have been accused of glorifying the racist depictions they appropriate.
So how does a white artist end up making work with blackface figurines? I doubt Levinthal is a racist or that his goal is to glorify racist imagery. Looking at his past work (www.davidlevinthal.com) provides an insight into his motivations. Levinthal has a long history of making lush photographs of toys and figurines many people would consider offensive -- from Nazi soldiers to pornographic statuettes of women.
His earliest series of photographs, Hitler Moves East (1975-1977), staged World War II scenes using toys and shot them in grainy black-and-white so they felt almost like archival images. Levinthal's series of naked women seems almost real at first. The huge plastic breasts aren't that far off in their unreality from giant silicone ones, and the soft focus imparts a misty soft-core-porn quality. Levinthal has a fascination with toys and kitsch, and in other series, he focuses on cowboys and Indians, Barbie and baseball figurines. For each series of photographs, he arranges the figures in groups or stages them with environments and backdrops.
In contrast to many of Levinthal's other works, the blackface figures aren't manipulated. While for other series, Levinthal built tiny sets, staged scenes, arranged the figures or shot them from dramatic angles, this series -- although it has lush lighting and selective focus -- has less of a point of view. As opposed to his other works, "Blackface" reads like a documentation of the objects.
In his talk, Levinthal said people had criticized the work for being too beautiful. Addressing the issue of a white guy making art about black people, he said that Fred Wilson has asked him how he (Levinthal, a Jew) would feel if he (Wilson, an African-American) made art about the Holocaust. Levinthal told Wilson he wouldn't mind, saying that the important thing is that people remember the Holocaust just as he hoped they would remember the history of these racist figurines.
Levinthal pointed out that these objects originally were made for white consumption, and although I don't think he intended it, his photographs play up the kitsch appeal. He doesn't address the offensive nature of the objects. There aren't rules in art -- anyone can make art about anything -- but that doesn't mean it will be successful. Artists tend to make work out of what they know, what is important to them. In his past work, the Holocaust, sexy girls, boyhood infatuations with cowboys and Indians and baseball have resonated with Levinthal; he had something to say about them.
I think this work fails because Levinthal doesn't have any reason to make work about African-American issues other than the collecting impulses that led him to acquire these objects. A panel discussion hosted by the Menil included painter David McGee and Charles H. Rowell, editor of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. McGee and Rowell, as African-Americans, talked about their own work and their relationship to racism. William Christenberry, a white artist, talked about growing up in Alabama and encountering the Klan. Levinthal said he didn't have any stories like that, having grown up in the affluent, liberal San Francisco Bay Area. There were no black kids in his school, and the only black teacher was a Rhodes Scholar from the Caribbean. Levinthal cited the existence of a Sambo's restaurant in his town as his brush with racism.
You don't have to grow up in Klan-infested Alabama in the '50s to be a white guy making work about race. Levinthal isn't an idiot; he knows this stuff is offensive, and that it grew out of racist impulses. But his understanding is an intellectual one, not one rooted in personal experience. The primary reason behind these photographs is his ongoing fascination with toys and vintage kitsch. Recording this stuff without comment doesn't work. People make mediocre photographs all the time, but mediocre photographs about incendiary material can come across as insensitive. The Menil is highly aware of the volatility of the subject matter, and organizers have talked with community leaders and held panel discussions. The show has acted as a catalyst for discussion about race and its depictions in popular culture. If only Levinthal's "Blackface" had something to say.