Waxing Poetic: Charlie Levin's Paintings as Performance

Posted By Irene Hsiao on Mon, Dec 15, 2014 at 7:50 AM
SF Weekly

The apocryphal etymology of sincerity has its origins in the idea of artistic perfection: that a well-chiseled marble sculpture would not require the sly application of wax to fill cracks or repair contours, thus, it was sine sera — “without wax.” 

This account of the word has been disproven, and artists working in encaustic techniques have similarly challenged wax’s association with defects. Among them is Charlie Levin, who applies wax to glass to create paintings that seem thickly textured and opaque as plaster, yet which, when lit, reveal more stories than a stained glass window. 

“The magic trick is about controlling transparency,” Levin says. 

She is describing the way her paintings show an entirely different image when they are lit from the front or behind, producing a visceral astonishment and perplexity that that the eyes could be so deceived about the nature of the object. Yet she could also be talking about the impact of her work, which produces layers of meaning that question what we can know about the world and those in it: stolid, seated figures on a neutral ground rise up and become muscular Blakean demigods wrestling one other or traversing a barren universe in her massive four panel painting SecondSight (2003), a pale face darkens and broods in a portrait, a mirrored surface in which you see the full length of your body becomes a skeleton in one of the eight panels of Face2Face (2011) — an x-ray, a memento mori, a reminder of the generic and the strange that lurks beneath the surface of all mortal things. 

Despite the complexity of her images, Levin says:

“The end result of the painting is not the point. It is only an artifact. The way I see life is that we are the product of our experiences, including who we are born as, and our families, and our environment, and the things that happen to us. When you meet somebody, you can’t see that. You see little bits and pieces. And they change, and we change.” 

Consequently, painting for Levin is a process rather than a product, an art form that has found a natural outlet in performance. As a student majoring in art and philosophy, Levin had the realization that, rather than creating static images, she could create immersive environments in which the viewers walking through would become the figures of the painting. 

“It’s all about the body,” she explains. “It’s not a room of stuff that people get to see; it’s about the interaction of your body in this space.” 

An early installation The Square Root of Infinity (1992), created in collaboration with a dancer and a musician for a course called “Dance and the Related Arts,” whetted her appetite for fortuitous intersections of movement and visual art. This lead Levin to seek work with several Chicago theater companies, including Lookingglass Theatre, before establishing Local Infinities Visual Theater in 1996 with collaborator Meghan Strell. 

It was in a Local Infinities piece called Wax and Wayne (2002), in which Levin and Strell used 200 pounds of wax to tell an adaptation of the myth of Pygmalion, that Levin realized the act of painting itself could become a performance. Levin painted the story in colored wax on a clear, human-sized panel of Plexiglas, gradually replacing a white form with the blushing figure of the living sculpture Galatea. 

“The point is that the image itself changes and changes, each time leaving pieces and parts that overlay each other. The result is something completely different, made of the sum of its parts.” Performing the piece at the Oerol Festival of Site-Specific Theater in the Netherlands, Levin discovered the play of light she calls “the magic,” which touched off her investigation in encaustic painting. 

Her Berkeley studio is still littered with experiments in wax — nubbins and curls erupting from the aluminum tins like petrified sea creatures neatly categorized by color and opacity, and studies in white wax colored by opaque titanium and transparent zinc on oblong lengths of glass arranged like a series of microscope slides. 

Based in the Bay Area since 2010, Levin has exhibited work at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the Oakland Art Murmur, and the Performance Art Institute, as well as created installations for CODAME, The Wayfinders Performance Group, The Decameron at Fort Mason, and China Lounge in Pleasanton. Earlier this year, she collaborated with technology and performance company Kinetech Arts in TheOtherSight, a performance on surveillance in which panels from SecondSight served as a moving set that exposed visual secrets as it was washed over by digital flames and water ripples. On Tuesday, Levin previews a work-in-progress performance of her own, Single-Point Perspective: The One Truthiness. Using the transparency and mutability of wax to tell a visual story in live painting that considers our ability to recognize other bodies as our own, Levin reminds, in this, as well as her whole oeuvre, that a picture presents the illusion of a world in which all things can be perceived, though it exists within a world in which perspective limits our understanding. 

Kinetech Arts Featured Artist Program presents Charlie Levin in "Single-Point Perspective: The One Truthiness" at 8:30 p.m. on December 16 at KUNST-STOFF arts, 1 Grove St., S.F. Admission is free; $5 suggested donation


PAC/edge Performance Festival

by Carmen Marti
(written for the Chicago Reader)
March, 2004

What you see is rarely all you get with Charlie Levin. Take the name. Must be male, right?


Charlie Levin, whose true birth name is a deep secret, is a 34-year-old woman making her living as a freelance designer.

No, she's GirlCharlie living as an artist in Chicago since 1992. Many may know her as a performance artist, originally with the troupe she co-founded "Local Infinities Visual Theater." But GirlCharlie hasn't performed in nearly two years. That's because she's been painting, generally large-scale wax images on glass. But as a performer, she often painted her body, enacting the metaphors she's interested in as a painter.

Sound confusing? It's not really. In fact, at the PAC/edge Performance Festival last year, Levin's wax painting installation, "Second Sight," was simply cool. The viewer came upon four large, richly painted glass panels hooked to a box with four switches. As each switch was flipped, a light source transformed the mythic, figurative images on the panel into something completely different.

In many ways the piece perfectly captured Levin's philosophy about life and her art. "When we meet people," she says, "we only see a small fragment of them. There's always more to the picture, there are always multiple truths. Everything I do is about multiple views."

Exploring this multiplicity and seeking some semblance of insight and connection led Levin to major in both philosophy and fine art at the University of Michigan. The product of an "arts heavy childhood" – Levin's grandmother attended the School of the Art Institute; her father did community theater – she combined her interests by studying transparency in experience and by employing transparent materials in her artwork. Thus Levin's early creations were books made with layers of transparent paper and paintings done on glass.

But it wasn't long until Levin decided she wanted the figures she was painting to be live people, and for the environments she was creating to be actual ones. So, in college Levin also started exploring theater and performance.

When it was time to graduate in the early 1990s, Levin chose to move from Washington D.C., where she grew up, to Chicago, where her grandparents and extended family live, and where she already knew people at the Theatre School of DePaul University. "Chicago had young energy," Levin says, and she wanted to immerse herself in the emerging arts scene.

She began participating in the theater community, interning at Lookingglass and getting her first gigs as a set designer at Organic Theater Company. There, she wanted her contribution to the production to act almost as one of the characters, for the set to "have an equal voice in the show." At about the same time, Levin was involved with others in the performance art community, and collaborating with actor Meghan Strell as "Local Infinities."

It was through that union that Levin found her current interest in wax. When they were working on the piece "Wax and Wayne," she realized she could paint on glass during the performance and that it would dry quickly enough to work in real time.

"That was a discovery," Levin says. "Wax is the perfect medium to express that there's always something more." With wax on glass, she can show complexity through hidden layers, revealed through the movement of light. Viewers engage with the art by following what is variously made visible

This year in the PAC/edge Performance Festival, Levin has returned to the stage with a new work called "SecondPlace." She has advanced from a box of light switches to a new technology developed by Josh Flachsbart of Northwestern University's Intelligent Information Laboratory. Now, when the actors —Levin and Natalie Brewster Nguyen — move, they trigger a mechanism that projects their silhouettes in other places on the stage. This, combined with a soundscape by Nguyen and Chris Heinisch, creates a state of flux that viewers must navigate to make sense of. It's all very much like our everyday experience, Levin says.

"With all the information overload [we face]," she says, "the skill to success is to say 'no.' What you filter out is how you get along. We have to ask how things relate to us. How they work, how we work and how we deal with constant change. The show is about how we find each other in this constant state of flux."

In addition to Levin's performance piece, she has a new installation at the PAC festival. This piece, "Handle with Care: Direct Mail and the American Dream," departs from wax and glass to further explore our culture of information overload. Using nine years of junk mail received by one elderly couple, Levin illuminates the manipulation and greed underlying political propaganda.

"SecondPlace" will be performed on Saturdays at 7:30 and 10 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. from March 13 through April 4 in the Lobby Studio of the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. "Handle with Care: Direct Mail and the American Dream" will be on view in the 2nd Floor Hallway of the theater from March 12 through April 18.