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The paintings of Aubrey Levinthal are autofictions rendered with pigments. Based in Philadelphia, Levinthal paints private moments that often involve herself, her family, and her acquaintances. Her work depicts commonplace routines — for instance, opening one’s fridge at night, looking into the bathroom mirror, eating a meal, going to a bodega, or staring out the window. Frequently staging herself as a participant, the artist presents shifting versions of herself among the quotidian rituals of life.
At first glance, Levinthal’s paintings have the intimacy and immediacy of Snapchat posts. They bristle with private minutiae. Examine a few and you’ll know what her kitchen and bathroom look like; the food and flowers she prefers; and her choice of shoes, apparel, and mobile devices. Yet despite the symbols of real life, Levinthal’s paintings are also fantasies. Her self-portraits rarely look like her. Her ever-changing avatars exist in a world that has been transmuted and reimagined. Shifting freely between third-person and first-person point of views, her work investigates a divided self among the domestic realm that is her own viscerally felt creation. Replete with products of modern-day consumer culture — iPhones, earbuds, plastic bags, water bottles, and Chinese takeout containers — Levinthal’s paintings introduce a parallel order where the quotidian is in dialogue with other artists.
In “M & C” (2018), included in Levinthal’s current solo exhibition at Nancy Margolis Gallery, a woman holds an infant near a patch of cloud-like white hydrangeas. The mother is locking eyes with the viewer. The sanctified Madonna and Child archetype evoked in the image is unsettled by the somber mood. The mother, riveted to the infant by the blue baby carrier, seems despondent. She has dark circles around her eyes and the left half of her face is shrouded in shadow. The painting’s enigmatic title offers a clue to another level of meaning. According to Levinthal’s gallery talk, the composition was inspired by Mary Cassatt’s 1884 portrait of her brother, Alexander J. Cassatt, and his son. In fact, the two paintings are mirror images, revealing a visual exchange between the era of Cassatt and the age of the Ergobaby that is forged by women.
Other artistic allusions abound in Levinthal’s highly personal visions. Echoes of Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Mary Fedden, Fairfield Porter, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, and others lurk among Levinthal’s self-portraits, family scenes, and still-lifes. In “Breakfast at 13th Street” (2018) a young family eats pancakes served on gray plates. Syrup and juice bottles, as well as a pink vase with a balloon-like burst of flowers, rest on a gray table, the table’s corner cleaving the composition and relegating the couple to opposite sides. A baby peers from a high chair, its face partly covered by the father’s “76ers” t-shirt. The man’s awkward stance suggests that he is distressed, while the woman, wearing a bright pink sweater, stares at the tabletop. Tension reigns over the scene, heightened by Levinthal’s formal mastery. She accrues her muted colors in layers. The alluring pinks of the mother’s skin are mitigated by the blue-gray shadows. Each hue looks sand-papered, as if laundered too many times — an effect Levinthal achieves by scraping her panels with a razor. The mood of the scene is familiar to any new parent shell-shocked by sudden postpartum entrapment and lack of autonomy. Every element on the table is semi-abstracted, tilted, unhinged. The simplified bowl of grapes harks back to Mary Fedden’s still-lifes. The painting also subtly alludes to Matisse’s “Conversation” (1912), a domestic scene in which a standing man in striped pajamas towers over his seated, browbeaten wife. But the dramatic tableau in “Breakfast at 13th Street” is not about the couple’s power dynamic. As in much of the work in this show, the dominant emotional register is that of aloofness or disconnection.
Levinthal’s images of the self — her fragmented identities as a painter, mother, wife, and friend — are often sidelined to the periphery of her compositions, especially when other figures are involved. In “Family Vacation” (2019), the viewer has to look closely at the breakfast scene to spot the mother’s bob by the left edge. Both “Double Mirrors” (2018) and “43th St. Pho Café” (2019) include only a sliver of her reflected face. In “Dark Roses” (2018) you can see nothing but the artist’s eyes amid shadowy plants. And in “Young Therapist” (2019) the self has become invisible. It’s a first-person view indicated by the painter’s crossed ankles and feet in the bottom of the picture plane. The viewer is looking at the awkwardly seated therapist through the eyes of the artist; we are squarely inside Levinthal’s head, sharing the same retinal experience — a moment of becoming the other person, which is the very point of Levinthal’s autobiographical project.
The show’s kaleidoscope of personas and states offers a poignant commentary on motherhood, marriage, and domesticity that upends traditional notions about each one. Highly intimate and specific, Levinthal’s work channels the zeitgeist of our pixelated times. Looking at her paintings, I couldn’t help but think of the autofictional books of Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, which focus a microscope onto the everyday minutiae of the authors’ personal lives. Like these novels, Levinthal’s paintings create a sense of unmediated access to their creator’s world and interiority. We experience her paintings as if chapters of an ongoing book, whose protagonist, if we look closer, is ultimately us.
Aubrey Levinthal continues at Nancy Margolis Gallery (523 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 8.