Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Randee Levine Embraces the Unexpected

Randee Levine, “Chinese Lanterns & Cherries,” mixed media, 30 x 30 in.

At first glance, it seems the key to poignant feeling in art is simplicity. Surely Randee Levine’s “Empty Vessels,” one of 18 mixed-media impressions now at Phillips, could hardly be more simple or more striking. Two monochrome items of tableware, perhaps a cruet and a small bowl or handleless pitcher, appear framed as in a niche. They’re drawn in brown chalk or crayon on a yellow form that frames and fills them in. But as the details are enumerated, it becomes apparent they’re not so simple after all. The yellow picks up again, outside the black frame, while the blue interior contrasts with the vessels’ color zones, which they meet in the only clear lines among blending hues.

Levine describes the interaction of color, perfected here in the blue niche and yellow vessels, as having fascinated her throughout her career. Subject matter and the process by which the artist turns it into content are natural allies, though routinely sundered in modern art, but Levine has chosen to focus on their interaction, much as she does with color, and use both to explore another form of interaction between, as she puts it, “determining things and letting things happen.”

Minimalist painting with a yellow pitcher and bowl outlined against a dark teal background, framed with a muted yellow and black border.

Randee Levine, “Empty Vessels,” mixed media, 30 x 30 in.

It is, of course, impossible to tell when an artist does something deliberately and when she allows it to “just happen.” Jackson Pollock was supposed to have let the paint drip, but any discerning viewer will have seen that it drips pretty much where he means it to. Likewise, Levine is in control of her brush and her colors. Still, it seems unlikely that she can fully anticipate what will happen when she puts this color next to that one. A painter in a different mood might well scrape one off if he doesn’t like the result, and presumably what this one means is that how she judges each step determines the next forward step, and not a retreat. Literary readers may note a parallel to the celebrated Argentine novelist César Aira, who does not rewrite, but instead resumes each writing session from precisely where he left off.

These mixed-media works, as Levine describes them, seem to naturally tend towards autobiography, or at least memoir. That is, they seem to record if not the painter’s life, at least what passes before her eyes: “Community Garden” and “Lunch at the Coast” could be either. Both “Chinese Lanterns & Cherries” and “Oranges and Wine” actually depict not the named objects, but paintings of them still on the easel—what might be termed meta-paintings. “Life on Campus” could be psychological portraiture, or just a campus map. Names abound: Bibbi, Brunelli, Sylvia, Lilith. So do hints about what was going on during the painting: “Responding to Light” and “Trans-Plants.” The titles have in common that they feel more like verbs, words of action, than names of things.

In conclusion, at least for now, while the description of her intention could very well be a formula for some very hard work, it doesn’t preclude pleasure as an operating principle. Indeed, it seems quite possible that Randee Levine’s secret may be that she is that artist, perhaps a member of a larger group than we know, who is having fun in her work. Maybe, “I paint what I like, and I like what I paint.” Here’s wishing it’s so. 

Abstract mixed media artwork featuring a collage of various paper elements and painted sections in green, blue, and yellow tones, set against a mustard yellow background.

Randee Levine, “Responding To Light,” mixed media, 30 x 24 in.

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