At the heart of the material”, Studios Inc – KC STUDIO
“Is Covid at My Door?”, detail of 180 photographs in 3 sections, archival digital prints, total 72″hx 40″w, 2021/2022 (by the artist)
The artistic quality of Judith Levy’s ‘At the Heart of Matter’, with installations ranging from video and mixed media to photography and sculpture, is impeccable and reflects the artist’s decades of experience as a social critic and visual minstrel. His latest entry in the Kansas City Art Catalog represents both a deeply personal and courageously communal effort in the way he tackles some of the most calamitous dilemmas facing humanity and the planet. And while the messages of the work are not subtle, they are indeed appropriate to the time and place where humanity finds itself. Much like the occupant of a burning house screaming for help rather than whispering, Levy’s creations are the anguished howl of a world in peril.
If French author Voltaire’s eccentric character, Candide, is to be believed, who boasts of “living in the best of all possible worlds”, it behooves visitors to “At the Heart of the Matter” to prepare for a journey into one of the worlds worst. of all possible worlds.
A segment of the gallery populated by vintage souvenir postcards, part of Levy’s “Postcards from the Present and Future” series, offers a glimpse into a possible fate that awaits the earth as it cooks itself alive. Colorized, matte postcards feature natural landmarks and human edifices that have been popularized and commodified for generations; some visitors will no doubt recall seeing similar items among wrecks at local antique shopping malls. Only upon close inspection will viewers notice how the artist has expertly doctored the images with gouache to illustrate the ravages of climate change on our most beloved destinations.
The technical triumph of Levy’s modifications cannot be overstated. Each postcard is as authentic as the day it was printed; the environmental carnage she caused blends seamlessly into the images. From the Roosevelt Dam in Arizona, shown collapsing and inundated with floodwater, to a parched Yellowstone National Park devoid of flora, every detail feels real.
At the same time, his discipline is commendable. The scenes of devastation are neither grim nor sensational, and there is no indication that the artist is relishing in the havoc it has wrought – the postcards simply reveal what Mother Nature can do in the continued absence of human restraint.
As viewers conclude their tour of Armageddon, they will find little respite before confronting the exhibition’s most remarkable and intricate work. An installation called “It Can’t Happen Here” (in homage to the novel of the same name by Sinclair Lewis), consists of platforms holding cherubic porcelain figurines reading books to each other. Between these dioramas is a monitor, and below the painting, in a literal pile on the floor, is an abundance of wood and literature.
Levy’s sculpture leaves nothing to the imagination, which seems appropriate given the fervor with which local governments and school boards have rushed to ban the books in recent years. The volumes she scattered atop the stake include perennial targets of censorship, such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Animal Farm”, as well as more contemporary selections like “A History of the Indigenous Peoples the United States”.
Meanwhile, staff at the Lawrence, Kansas, public library read aloud from the screen the titles of several hundred books recently denounced by a Texas state legislator as harmful. Their solemn narration is periodically interrupted by footage of an actual public book burning that recently took place in Tennessee. Worryingly, the participants do not wear white balaclavas or swastikas; they look completely ordinary.
“It Can’t Happen Here” should bother its audience, and Levy has crafted the conflagration prologue that truly sounds like an obscenity. The sight of condemned books strewn across logs—indoors, no less—suggests impending intellectual violence.
Additional elements of the exhibit unfold relentlessly and challenge viewers to consider the coronavirus pandemic, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and brutality against the transgender community. To absorb the entirety of Levy’s oeuvre is to submit to a sort of vicarious emotional trauma, but the gravity of his message resonates with the desperation of the Zeitgeist.
People make choices every day about the kind of world they want to inhabit, and “At the Heart of the Matter” is a grim reminder of the weight of that responsibility.
“Judith Levy: At the heart of the matter” continues at Studios Inc., 1708 Campbell St., until October 22. Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. the first Friday. For more information, visit studiosinc.org.