"The visual arts have never seemed to me divorced from the sciences. One need only look at Leonardo da Vinci, after all, in addition to more contemporary artists like Robert Smithson and Buckminster Fuller,” says artist Ellen K. Levy in the catalog for her current exhibition, “Decoding Metaphors for the 21st Century,” on view through Sunday, April 19 at Rider University Art Gallery. “After art school I initially focused on medical illustration but found that this combined the least creative parts of science and art. Since the advent of the computer, data visualization and data flow in real time have opened up new, productive areas, and the fields of imaging and image studies now hold the promise of real creativity. However, my own artistic interests lie in capturing the sensual dimensions of science and its generative processes as well as some of its drastic ramifications for nature.” An artist’s talk takes place at the gallery on Thursday, March 26.
Levy’s artistic career has centered around the combination and relation of art and science. The roots of this combination are not only intellectual, but also familial, as her father, Max Victor Kaplan, was a pharmacist and a writer, and Levy’s mother, Mae Klein, was a teacher and art educator. Levy’s father was born in Moscow, but his family moved to New York when he was quite young. Her mother was born and raised in Brooklyn. Due to civil unrest and a string of burglaries of pharmacies in their neighborhood, Levy’s parents moved the family, including a very young Levy and her older brother, to Mt. Vernon, NJ, where her father and a partner set up a new drugstore. Even while Levy was in junior high school, her mother encouraged her to attend the Art Student’s League in New York City, which she did, almost weekly, drawing from nude models. “I always felt I was an artist and I needed to work at it as frequently as possible,” says Levy.
Although Levy was awarded a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, her mother encouraged her to attend a liberal arts college to broaden her depth of knowledge and she went to Mt. Holyoke College in Massachussets, earning a bachelors in zoology. At Mt. Holyoke, the seed of her artistic career was planted, while she began to combine art and science, at one point even receiving a commission to make transparencies of the development of the frog embryo for her professors. According to Levy, the professors knew of her artistic talents because, “I was painting and drawing all the time. There was always an empty studio in the art building and I could be found there anytime.” Later Levy continued her art education at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, earning a diploma in painting in 1980.
Around the year 2000 Levy began to use the computer as an aid to her artistic process, which originally started, she says, “as a way to bring text to [my] work, which you can see as a contemporary adaptation of Rauschenberg using silkscreened text and painting over it. I often used industrial images in my paintings, so to incorporate patent images was a very natural thing.”
Her interest in patent images is partly due to the fact that her father-in-law was a patent lawyer, and Levy always liked looking at the patent drawings available to her. “The early ones really were works of art. The problem is they kept getting standardized and more official looking and less like art, and finally became mass produced.”
Levy uses these patent images, from all realms, in her own art, and embraces, even exploits, the evolution of them. Says Levy: “Patents almost have an inverse relation to artwork. When they become out of date they often become works of art.”
She says her works on paper since 2001 often consist of paint that she applies over prints. “Like others, I love to layer images and textures. For me, juxtaposing paintings with new media helps force a confrontation of two worldviews that some consider irreconcilable.” In Levy’s piece titled “Vehicle Assembly Building” the viewer sees the use of older patent images of space suits. These images, slightly out of date, allow the viewer to reflect on both da Vinci diagrams as well as pop art assimilation of commercial/mass-production imagery. Not only the images themselves, of outdated, never-realized products, reflect this span of time but the physical execution by the artist does as well. From a distance, the pictures look like reproduced copies, but up close one sees that they are hand-drawn, often gestural, with the smoky, linear quality only a stick of charcoal can give. This artwork is saturated with such illusion, or evolution of style and technique. Throughout, Levy offers the viewer visual information sometimes obviously hand-made and collaged, but sometimes the viewer can only wonder which effects are computer generated.
In “Proliferation,” which is a seemingly traditional drawing on paper, Levy offers the viewer an image of movement that is both cellular and geological in scale at the same time. This traditionally drawn kinetic image is derived from very contemporary tools. “‘Proliferation’ is something continually changing on my monitor. I scanned an image that derived from two sources — one source was a drawing made from a photo of bacteria growing in a Petri dish (recall that I am licensed as a microbiology technologist). The other source was an image from the newspapers of cows dying from mad cow disease. I then applied an open source cellular automata (ca) code to the scanned composite and captured it just as it was about to lose legibility. What I liked about it was that it visually looked like an abstract expressionist work, but it was generated from CA rules. But the rules lead to an open situation rather than a foregone conclusion,” Levy says.
“Altering the Magnetosphere (N. Tesla)” is an exemplary work, and is featured on the cover of the show catalog. In it, Levy has cut and expanded/turned an original work on paper and pasted it to a board, and then painted upon it. Some of the board is left bare, a technique not uncommon to abstract expressionism, and the overall gestalt of the work is expressionist also. But looking more closely, you see Levy’s signature, incorporating both printed text and free hand elements, architectural and organic forms, diagrams and color strokes. “I took the patent text as if it were an instructional guide and rotated the cut-out sections. The paint then reinforces the new layout so that it becomes hard to mentally rotate it back to the original state. But if you try to connect the text from the different locations, it is possible to reconstruct the original. Tesla had all sorts of amazing ‘recipes’ for altering the planet and nearly destroyed New York. I wanted to make a critique about the massive reconstruction (often harmful) that we have brought about. But the art history codes here are pop art, naturalism, collage.”
Levy’s artworks have many layers, both physically and metaphorically, and offer the viewer so much to ponder as well as enjoy esthetically. Levy says, “I would be happy if the viewer can relate my work to her own sense of what it feels like to be living during these exhilarating, wonder-full, and terrifying times. Life is full of a range of experiences, and believing that art should be exploratory, I hope that my work will be seen in this light.”
Gallery Talk, Rider University, Art Gallery, second floor of the Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Thursday, March 26, 7 p.m. Gallery talk in conjunction with “Decoding Metaphors for the 21st Century” featuring paintings by Ellen K. Levy. 609-896-5033 or www.rider.edu.
Gallery hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.