With the onslaught of holiday madness, it is perhaps most appropriate to look at Nina Levy’s funny, disturbing and oh-so-true portraits of social identity. Levy’s sculptures are consistently playful and grotesque, the horror of everyday masks we wear to placate or nourish others laid bare. What I like is the absence of celebration or judgment in her work—there is a sense of the beautiful always on the edge of insanity. For instance, her piece Greeter (2002) features a 6’4 version of the artist herself, positioned at the entrance of her exhibit. The face and hairstyle is primarily feminine, yet the clothes and height suggest a kind of androgyny, placing the body in a liminal space.
Besides the greeter’s height, her grin is the only other exaggerated and most artificial aspect of the body. Of course the stance and grins plays on social norm of the artist as object, always on display. However, the pose also comments on norms of “niceness”—how we (women especially) are always told to wear a smile. Stretched to take up half of her face, the greeter’s teeth are bared to suggest an aggressive or even predatory attitude. Meanwhile the woman’s distant, haunted eyes and her arms held behind her back create a paradox—she is both threatening and powerless. How many of us feel such a dichotomy in social situations where we are expected to be strong, happy, and pulled together when we feel none of things?
Toss (2006) creates the most immediate sense of the ridiculous as a giant baby’s head is being tossed between two trapeze parents. We are thrown into a Rabelaisian world of strange laughter, for the two parents seem barely strong enough to throw or catch the baby. Adding to the humor, or perhaps the horror, the viewer next notices that the parents have lost both of their heads. The baby looks mesmerized or possibly on the edge of being scared, as its gaze is focused downward (where maybe its own body lies). The chaos and wonder and danger of raising children is encapsulated in this one in-between moment, of not knowing whether the child will make it or not. But the sculpture holds more dangerous questions for the larger society, for how much are we gambling with our children’s minds—aka, their education? Have we blindly turned education into a performance, one we can’t even navigate anymore? Likewise, the work also begs us to wonder about how the younger generation might feel towards the older ones given the legacy of climate change and the deficit they will be left with.
Family Resemblance (2006) also playfully indicts a society that has become more kid oriented, rather than truly integrated. Parents of young children especially get caught up in the pressures of choosing the right schools and extracurricular activities while working full time, so often “losing their heads” in the process. The little boy focuses on the viewer with a troubled gaze while the parents look up in wonder. Levy related how her son started screaming after seeing the image of his parents looking like him. An uncanny moment, to see the familiar become so strange by becoming too alike.
Levy’s Ticklish (2008) might elicit laughter first on seeing a woman’s breasts replaced by a baby’s adorable, chubby legs. I would argue that the humor immediately gives way to horror since like breasts, the legs protrude out, yet their size is not a normal baby’s size but much larger. The oversized legs twist society’s misguided fascination with bigger sized breasts, always only in service of a sexual other. Levy’s work reminds us that breasts have another function—feeding a child—which receives much critique when performed in public. Levy’s arm position also suggests that more of the child might emerge or even that the child is trapped forever inside her. Her gaze looks downward as if breastfeeding; her expression unreadable. She shows neither joy nor fear but more calm interest, examining this new relationship with her body. The absence of sadness in the woman’s face could be questioning the the pervading cultural construct of how breasts should look (firm and perky), no matter what the circumstance. That rigid boundary is one the grotesque could forever play with, being at heart a boundary creature. Levy’s work employs the carnivalesque since her bodies are always in the process of becoming, of morphing into some other recognizable, yet unfamiliar form. These “fixed” transitions push viewers into an ambiguous space where a sculpture suddenly becomes their uncanny other, finally bringing hidden identities into the light.