In Schmatta at Rachel Uffner Gallery, Talia Levitt puts a magnifying glass to both the grit and the shared experiences that define New York City. Through layered, sometimes kaleidoscopic paintings, the artist homes in on the everyday people, animals, material culture, and urban infrastructure that are emblematic of the city, but not often celebrated. Her painting method entails applying acrylic with piping bags, stencils, and freehand to create a trompe l’oeil effect and the impression of faux embroidery. Minuscule individual stitches of paint emphasize the works’ patchwork appearance. 

Levitt references textiles throughout the show, first in the exhibition title, Schmatta, taken from the Yiddish word for rag. The term became common in the early 19th century, as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the US and began working in the garment industry. Levitt’s family has been in New York’s textile business for generations, intertwining the city’s history with the artist’s own. She invokes this connection in her imagery, painting garments on clotheslines, a sight common in some neighborhoods today and often associated with the close quarters of Lower East Side tenements, where many immigrants lived. 

Drawing inspiration from these histories, Levitt’s complex, layered paintings require attentive viewing from up close and afar and resemble palimpsests, not unlike the city itself. In “Drawing on the Train – Day/Night” (all works 2023), for example, a composition that at first appears to be a patchwork quilt reveals roses, birds, and hands upon closer inspection. Interspersed are nods to art history, including dead flies and skulls associated with memento mori and books, flowers, and writing implements from Dutch vanitas paintings. A checkered border surrounds these patchwork vignettes, and a frieze of cogs and wheels spans the bottom of the work, as if supporting the quilt from below. Small, three-dimensional bones and teeth adorn the surface in this bottom portion, perhaps alluding to the people and animals of New York’s past. 

Viewed from afar, another scene is visible. As the eye traces a bright blue line, a drawing of a subway car interior unfolds. Figures fill the train, some tiredly sitting with their heads resting on their arms, others standing and leaning against the door. Additional veiled and overt references to urban infrastructure are apparent in other works, such as the subway car and station hidden in “Drawing on the R” — another image within an image — and the sewer cover featured prominently in “NYC Memento Mori.” Discarded candy wrappers and bottle caps also appear in the latter, alongside an empty coffee cup and face mask. Dead pigeons are interspersed among these items, comprising an image of modern urban decay and an everyday scene in the city.  

Levitt’s interest in the macabre and mundane aspects of life in New York reveals her deep connection with the city. Emblematic of this is “City Bird,” a painting of a large dead pigeon. Elevating the image of the deceased animal to a subject worthy of a portrait, the reverential work pays homage to the city’s collective pet. Levitt’s is not a tourist’s view of New York, but rather one that reflects both her family’s history and her real, lived experiences. 

Talia Levitt, “Drawing on the R” (2023), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
Talia Levitt, “NYC Memento Mori (sm)” (2023), acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 inches
Talia Levitt, “City Bird” (2023), acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
Talia Levitt, “59 Warren Street, Tribeca” (2023), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 48 inches

Talia Levitt: Schmatta continues at Rachel Uffner Gallery (170 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 17. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Annabel Keenan is a writer based in New York. She specializes in contemporary art and sustainability. Her work has been published in The Art Newspaper and Artillery Magazine among others.