Monday, April 20, 2015

Cammofleur #4, Janet Levy

Cammofleur is an artist project consisting of interviews with Mary Anna Pomonis and women in the artworld. The conversations focus on female power and the dynamics of creativity and success.

Janet Levy

Mary Anna:    Well thanks for coming to talk to me today. I really appreciate it. I just wanted to start off with talking with you about all of your different projects and project spaces because, of course, you had See Line Gallery here in Los Angeles, with a program that I loved.  I know that it started out as an artist space and I wanted to hear more about your practice as an artist curator.

Janet Levy:     Okay, I guess I'll start with Santa Monica, where I first founded the See Line Gallery. It was actually my media office which evolved into a gallery. I always had in my mind the idea of having a gallery, but the gallery evolved from my own practice. In response to my own practice, I was doing curatorial projects and curating my own exhibitions and just really passionate about curating. So I started my program there and it involved, actually, just an artist that I knew from Paris.  He came and he wanted to show his work to someone, so he hung work and then I thought, Why don't I just do the gallery in my space here? It was a small 350 square foot space but I did some very unique shows.

                        The one I think that got the most recognition was Surface Sounding, which was about ten artists. I curated the curators; I selected ten curators and they each selected an artist, and letting go of that was a very interesting project but it came out amazingly well. There were ten different artists in a tiny space but it came out beautifully, and that was a significant show for me. Some pretty predominant artists and people participated, Alexandra Grant being one of them. We started to develop a relationship over the years from that particular show.  And Lisa Melandri, who, at the time, was the curatorial director at Santa Monica Museum and is now in St. Louis. So I went from there and I've curated over 40 exhibitions with the See Line Gallery. From My Universe: Objects of Desire, where there was Todd Gray's project within a project.

                        For me, more so than being a dealer, I like the curatorial platform and starting a concept. I'm very good with titles and the idea of a concept. Then making that happen-- that coming to fruition--is really what I enjoy doing the most. So my focus is really on the curatorial element of it and now I've gone back into the studio and I'm focusing again on my own practice. I've always done work, but now I'm back in the studio and focusing on that. Last February, I let go of the gallery, See Line Gallery, which was a good feeling. It was also like saying goodbye to something that you've created and developed, but it's onto what I really want to do: these larger scale projects or projects in other places, as in New Orleans.

                        I just came back. I was in New Orleans for four months as part of Prospect. It was one of the Prospect.3+ shows Franklin Sirmans curated.  He was a curatorial director for Prospect, so that was really an amazing, significant show. My show was called Cry Me A River. I referenced the torch song by Julie London, as I do often, when I curate a fun focal point, which is referencing either music or film, just because that's what's in my mind and my interests, so that the concept had dualities and double meaning: water ritual, spirit, symbolism. The venue was very unique. It was in the oldest Masonic lodge in Louisiana and it was just spectacular. It's a show I've been really proud of. It came out really well. There were thirteen artists, primarily from Los Angeles and New York.

                        See Line Gallery was rolled into Janet Levy Projects. That was the inaugural show for Janet Levy Projects, which is going to encompass me focusing more on these curatorial projects as well as my own practice.

Mary Anna:    Right. It's interesting. I'm familiar with Jen DeNike's  work because we were in a show together at the Company. I am also really familiar Todd Gray too,  he's done really interesting projects that deal with ritual. So when I saw the idea for the show, and that it was going to be in New Orleans, I thought it was just a really appropriate title and then also just space for their work and then also just for the concept of the show. It seemed like it was a really appropriate dealing with that rich history of New Orleans and its spiritual history as well, which I thought was really interesting. And it has the quality of spiritualism even in the title.

Janet Levy:     Thank you. I'm very conscientious of space when I curate. I actually had had another venue for Prospect originally, and a few different artists, and changed the entire concept when I had the venue. So I do always consider what the space is when I'm working. I don't try to make something fit into something. I work with a main artist, a main concept, and then with the spaces and work with that.

Mary Anna:    Right, and that makes total sense because your shows are thematically very interesting. I've went to many of your shows when you were at the Pacific Design Center and I discovered a lot of really amazing artists in your shows, and a lot of artists' work that I don't think really was shown anywhere else in Los Angeles. Specifically probably Ebony Patterson's work and--

Janet Levy:     Eamon O'Kane.

Mary Anna:     Yes, Eamon O'Kane. Many artists wouldn't have had any West Coast recognition probably without you advocating for their work and putting them in these tight groups or these conceptually rigorous shows, which I always really appreciated about your space.

Janet Levy:     Thank you.

Mary Anna:     I'm sad that you're not here anymore but I'm glad that I ran into you at the fair.

Janet Levy:     Well I think I'm going to prepare for 2017. I do want to do another show in New Orleans. Now it's not no longer biennial, but a triennial.  For Prospect 4, I'm already considering what the show will be, so I want to have a home base. I think I have decided to keep it here in Los Angeles and then do projects there and go back and forth from here and there and other places. I'm also a Swiss citizen, so I really began my curatorial practice there. When I was curating shows on my own, I had a lot of support from the city. They were really generous and I was able to curate and present my work and they were very supportive of my sculptural practice.

Mary Anna:     Okay, and are you dedicating more time to your sculpture? Your sculptures are beautiful.

Janet Levy:     Thank you.

Mary Anna:     I'm really excited that you're working more in the studio. That's great.

Janet Levy:     I think it's like anything; it's where you focus your energy.  And I am always thinking about shows. I always have. That's my idea when I'm curating something. Part of my thought process is an idea of something around that's in my surroundings that makes me think of something I want to put together as a show--but I am focusing. I did a whole new series. I closed the gallery, See Line Gallery, at the end of last February, so I could focus on my work and independent curatorial projects. I went back into the studio in March and from March to October, I created a whole body of work called Bite Down, and I was one of the artists in Cry Me A River.

                        Bite Down was a series of alabaster pieces that are reminiscent of animal teeth and reptile teeth and they all had double names and symbolizing this unseen tension and they were presented on a table. I had a black table and Rachel Neubauer had her stunning gorgeous ceramic pieces that were on a white table and the Masonic lodge for Cry Me A River had a black and white checkerboard floor in this long, long building. It was really pretty incredible. So now I have this whole series that I've been presenting for residencies that I want to do. It's state-specific and it involves agates. It's called Butterfly Double.

                        So I do have in my mind what my next body of work is when I get back into the studio because I gave up my studio when I went to New Orleans and I'm looking for a new one. So I will focus once I get in there. I'll get the inspiration of what I'm working on next, but meanwhile I have this whole project for my own work that's Butterfly Double, and as my curatorial work, I also have blended that I had. It was a show that I realized that I want to do another edition probably for New Orleans, or somewhere else, that references music and musicians that are visual artists. They're doing both practices equally well. So I have a lot of things in the works.
Ebony Patterson installation at See line Gallery, Fashion Ova Style, 2010

Mary Anna:    That strikes me as being particularly strong and female. I think of women being able to multitask and do many different things and do things exceedingly well. That is maybe not a traditional arc that we would consider to be like the mythic male art genius, but it is the way women are. We're relational and I think that the idea that you could be a very successful curator, and have conceptually rigorous work at the same time, and also be working on extended projects, and moving around and doing everything and holding yourself to this equally high standard--that's the thing.

                        You have this engaging charisma that people talk about when they describe great curators.  You're an exceptionally good write and a good speaker. You're good at engaging with artists intellectually, talking with them, finding people and bringing people into the conversation by creating a sense of community around the work. It's just amazing to meet somebody that's good at all of those things and you do it with high heels on. You've got that thing about you.

Janet Levy:     Thank you. I have to say I don't feel very strong in writing. It's a practice thing I think. My strengths are in the overall visual, and putting the pieces together in the conceptualization and organization of that--that is really where my strength is. I wish I was stronger in writing.

Mary Anna:    I'm going to give you that credit. That's why you are good--you don't think you are. I think it's one of those things that requires constant maintenance and you're somebody who's constantly maintaining everybody's career and your own, and I think the writing is part of that. You're always tweaking it, making it better.

Janet Levy:     Yeah, I think I'm good at looking. If somebody is writing something and then I can pull the tough process of it together. I guess it's just like anything. It's like practice. I want to focus my energy on my sculpting. I don't want to focus my energy on writing something.

Mary Anna:    It's great to see you channel it into your own work because you deserve that. You've done a lot of work and been very generous to a lot of artists.

Janet Levy:     Thank you. It's really fascinating now that I've stepped back.  I'm trying to put my creative thoughts out there, and now that I've closed the gallery to do Janet Levy Projects, I've kind of reflected back on everything I've done and in a way of viewing yourself from outside. It's really kind of incredible. You can't really see everything that I've done. I think a lot of people know one side of me or another side of me. They don't know that I started in Switzerland, that I have a passport from there and that I have my own practice. That's something new. I've shown over forty shows. I've shown Pae White, Liz Larner and Evan Holloway--some really incredible artists. At this point in my career I want to get that out there more, too. I think it's very difficult and I need to make that happen now. I keep going, going, going, and I need to be reflecting on what I have accomplished and put it out there in the world.

Mary Anna:    Yeah, it's interesting because I think that Alexandra Grant is actually the person who told me about you first. She said, "See what she's doing. She's doing really exciting things," and encouraged me to meet you and talk to you because Alex and I are old friends and--

Janet Levy:     Yeah, she was a supporter from the very beginning. She's been following me. She was one of the first. I had a lot of supporters early on  and she's definitely one of those.

Mary Anna:    I think I met Todd Gray through you.  And I met some really amazing artists through just stopping in and saying, "Tell me about this person," and you'd say, "Oh, they're right here."  You've always been very generous socially and a connector for artists, which has been great because I love Todd's work and I saw him perform at your space.  I think he was performing as a shaman.

Janet Levy:     Yes.

Mary Anna:    It was so powerful and it was a good five years before people were talking about social practice art in contemporary art space and there he is doing it. It's this great studio practice in Africa and he is performing and drumming and it was the most powerful, interesting thing that was there at the Pacific Design Center at the time. I thought, this is really interesting and it's in the context of this big glass box, this big modernist cube-like space and then here is somebody breaking down all of that, just completely defying it, playing drums and screaming at the audience, and really engaging people as an art space, making it not polite, making it an inevitable confrontation or conversation. You couldn't avoid him in that space, which was really nice because the Pacific Design Center is very reserved--

Janet Levy:     Well I really think he's under the radar. I have this sense that in the next couple of years he's going to really get out there. If you look and you go back and you reference my shows, I always like to carry more established artists with emerging artists. I think it benefits everyone and I know a lot of galleries don't feel that way, but in my program, and the shows I've produced, I like working like that. I like referencing out or just going over all the shows that I've produced at See Line Gallery to see where people are now. Like Zoe Crosher, I was showing her work early on. A lot of artists whose work I've shown early on--where they're at now; it's encouraging to me to see. I really work on intuition. I don't do a massive amount of research but my intuition is usually very good and spot on. To see what's happening later on with these artists' careers is fantastic and I really enjoy that.

                        I have some very generous supporters. Blum and Poe has been so great to me with lending work and Brian from 1301 PE. When I started early on as an early curator, I wasn't really that established, and to be able to lend me work and support me--I'm so grateful for that because there are a lot of other opposite side of that where people, if they don't know who you are, when you're a young emerging curator--young in the sense of new. I want to say new or not so established--

Mary Anna:     That's great. It's interesting because I've had that experience too, trying to cold call and borrow work.  Some people are very friendly and excited to talk to you about your concept and some people are not. It totally depends on the energy of the curator or director and you don't know, but you do find when somebody has that sense of sincere interest in the work, that there's a bond there, a kind of bond.

Janet Levy:     It is a personal relationship and so you find those people that are supporting what you're doing, and you don't waste your energy, from the other people who aren't getting it, or don't want to understand or support it. I think it aligns itself because of the programming. A lot of the artists that Brian Butler shows at his gallery--Diana Thater, I did a project with her and she was one of the first artists who introduced me to my love for video, to make me understand and feel like I can really get behind video. In the '90’s, I saw a piece of hers and so to be able to show her work, someone who is so influential to me, was really super exciting and it means a lot to me. Those are some of those things that you go, "Yes, this is why I do what I do."  Its the passion of having something that means a lot to you.
Bite Down, 2014, Janet Levy

                        So it's been really interesting and I've learned a lot in these forty shows that I've put on and I'm just excited for this next step where I am now.  I still have the curating but now that I've put my energy on doing these shows and other peoples' work for seven years, I need to now put my energy back. I can still do that, but I need to always remember right now that my practice is the most important.

Mary Anna:    I think the titling is really interesting and the idea or the metaphor of biting down is fascinating to me. It does express a kind of tension of wanting to make work and be successful and there was an element of clawing your way to the top. There's also some sexual energy there, too. And there's sensuality that's implied because when you think of biting, you think of flesh. It's also like you're thinking in the eyes of somebody who just interacts with it. You can tell it's labor intensive to make that work. You're really, really working that surface and making it beautiful. I know as an artist that anytime something looks smooth and beautiful like that, it means an incredible amount of work. I can really relate to this work and I see all the struggle in it beyond the beauty.

Janet Levy:     Well, I like what you picked up because all the work that I make actually is referencing some underlying meaning and sexual tension. Butterfly Double is the same with the double meaning and there's going to be engaging with the agate stones that are going to be called by different butterfly names from the region where the piece is made. There will be lots of pretty, dirty things, which is from George Bataille, Story of the Eye, which is about referencing sexuality. So it's over the years. I've been working with stones since the '80s, so it's a long time and it's developed. To have this, you can see how it's evolving into where it is now, and you go back to a lot of my earlier works.

Mary Anna:    I think there is an element of sexuality there, but its the fact that you have to work for it. You could feel the sweat and tears and all that good stuff that's in there.

Janet Levy:     It's really interesting because I had this first conflict, having been curating for so long, and then having this new body of work including myself in the show with people like Jim Shaw and Penny Slinger and Jen DeNike. But then I think, I always do this. Why is it different for me? I always incorporate emerging artists in other shows and I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't a fit, but it engaged really well with the work and it was so interesting to see how people responded to it and without people knowing who it was. It was such an amazing reaction where people was like, "Whose work is this?" And, "The work's so tactile," "I love this," and wanting to touch it. It was really good for me to see that and made me feel comfortable in curating again my own work into an exhibition.

Mary Anna:     I think it's brave and I'm glad you're doing it because I think that a lot of times... I'm part of a curatorial collective now and we're all women and one of the reasons we are together curating rather than as individuals because so often women do provide emotional service in the community, and then we can't include ourselves because we feel excluded. But if there's a group, then you feel less like you're individually doing it. But why is that? Why do we feel like we can't do two things at the same time? To me its a deeper bias against the way women are, which is that we tend to do lots of things for lots of people and we tend to spread ourselves around but that doesn't necessarily mean that we're not exceedingly good at all the things we do. I think it's that--

Janet Levy:     I also think it really is not only that element of it, but that there is a perception. And that perception I wouldn't cross as a gallery owner putting on a show is How I would feel about it if I would view somebody that was a gallery owner and then they're curating their work into a show and they're not known for that? It's a weird perception. But for me as an artist curator, it's a whole different element and I'm in a space, I'm curating a new show, it's not my gallery. I was okay with that. I would not have been okay with doing that in the gallery and I think that's valid, that makes sense. Artist curators curate themselves into shows all the time but it's weird, especially for me being well known in Switzerland as a sculptor but not here and then somebody says, "Oh wow, so she's including herself. She's a gallery owner and is including herself in a show." It’s different then--

Mary Anna:    Right, then it's an artist project. Yeah. I think your curatorial work is an extension of the artist project, which is a different thing.

Janet Levy:     Yeah, and I was really well received. I pulled it off and I'm really proud of the show. It came out amazingly well. We, as women, tend to forget to honor ourselves and say, "I did that. That was amazing." You feel like you have to give to everyone else and not look and reflect and say, "I busted that out. I did that. That was incredible." So I'm going back and doing that, where I'm really focusing on, "You know what? You did some amazing shows. You did that. That was incredible."

Mary Anna:    It's true. We don't, do we? It's hard. It's actually hard to say, but it's amazing that you are, and I think that's great.

Janet Levy:     Yeah, and that's where I'm at and it's a really exciting place to be. It's just like a clean slate where See Line Gallery is now archived and Janet Levy Projects is really open to what is next. We definitely are incorporating New Orleans. My practice is in the forefront and what's next, which is also really exciting.

Mary Anna:    Well I can't wait to see.
 Janet Levy:     Thank you.
Janet Levy at Prospect 3 + New Orleans, 2014