After listening to the advice of docent Marina of the San Jose Museum of Art to slow and see art, my husband and I went upstairs to see David Levinthal’s photographic exhibit, MAKE BELIEVE. We read this quote at the exhibit’s entrance wall:
Toys are intriguing, and I want to see what I can do with them. On a deeper level, they represent one way we socialize the young. —David Levinthal
We enter a dimly lit room, suggestive of a romantic restaurant or a boudoir. Although we rush because of a babysitter’s deadline, the impact of Levinthal’s life-like photographs sticks with me, months later.
He creates photographic dioramas drawing from cultural images such as Barbie, baseball, World War II and pornography. The first two untitled photographs are from Levinthal’s 1989 “American Beauties” series. One photograph of a minature pin-up doll inspired by Marilyn Monroe shows the back side of a bikini-clad blonde woman standing with her hands in an “I give up” position. Her left hip juts out while the top half of her “cheeks” peek out, split down the middle, from a barely-there bikini bottom. What is the message of the pin-up doll to little girls?
A nearby placard states, “[b]y dramatically blurring the images [in ‘American Beauties’], Levinthal invoked the sexuality—and the illusion—of 1950s Hollywood.”
A pastel-hued photograph of a nude female doll partially reclining on the edge of a bed is part of Levinthal’s “Modern Romance, 1984-86” series. The softly fuzzy image of the female doll evokes her isolation in her bedroom.
A set of photographs from the series “Desire” feature blurred closeups of polyurethane women trapped in bondage. I’m disturbed by the level of intimacy displayed by the toys in these scenes, then learn Levinthal created “deliberately provocative photographs in response to the increasing proliferation of pornography on newstands.”
I think about how pornography—often presented through photographic images—objectifies, making a real woman seem like a toy instead of a thinking and feeling person with her own desires and dreams. Levinthal’s photographs work in reverse, using toys to suggest real women.
On an adjacent wall, above a photographic series of baseball figures, is this quote:
Ever since I began working with toys, I have been intrigued with the idea that these seemingly benign objects could take on such power and personality simply by the way they are photographed. —David Levinthal
In “Baseball, 2003, ” Levinthal creates a sense of movement depicting Babe Ruth at bat and, in another photograph, the back side of Willie Mays catching a ball. I stare, wondering what these toys of athletes communicate to young boys.
Levinthal’s “Mein Kampf” renders a darkened and slightly blurred image of Hitler in front of a white rail with a white sphere of light behind him. Does the white light suggest his deification to an adoring audience? For me, the image conjures up old footage shown during a history segment in elementary school. I recall a grainy black-and-white image of Hitler shouting out his hate-filled message to the masses and I shudder.
If something is beautiful, you’re seduced by it a little bit. Then you think, oh my God, this is what I’ve let in. [These] images that deal with the pageantry of the Nazis are seductively beautiful, as were the actual pageants. The issues these works raise are extremely important…Childhood play can have a real darkness around it. I enjoy bringing that out.” —David Levinthal
Though months have passed since I saw Levinthal’s photographs of toys, his powerful images still disturb and disquiet me—a reminder how society socializes our children, and we can so easily and unwittingly let in the darkness.
Levinthal’s “MAKE BELIEVE” exhibit runs through November 30, 2014 at the San Jose Museum of Art.
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Photo by Soe Lin, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Dolly Lee.
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Dolly, very interesting… wow. The power of playthings. Do you attribute the artistic power to the observer’s experience with a particular toy, or do you think there is more to it? Fascinating. Thank you. 🙂
This was my first exposure to Levinthal’s work and it definitely made me think.
I think part (if not a major part) of the exhibit’s artistic power comes from how David Levinthal photographed the toys…he set out to provoke thought and he did.
And I would guess an observer’s experience with a particular toy & general life experience (e.g., woman? mom?) probably affects the artistic power of a piece.
L. L. Barkat says
I think we animate toys with what we need to animate them with. Which is perhaps the role of toys in one’s life.
It’s interesting to consider whether a toy can animate us, too. Which might include the maker’s vision of life, or not.
Musing on things.
My son’s stuffed animals animate both me and him — when he was younger I told him detailed stories of how the animals came to life and got into crazy predicaments. Interestingly, for the the last two nights, he’s crawled his 10-year-old gangly self onto my bed and begged for stuffed animal stories. He tells me which animal to use as the main character and he gives the setting.
For a couple hours, we switched roles. He was the “teacher” who gave me guidelines for fiction and I was his “student.” Of course his squeals of laughter and wild kicking of feet helped propel the storyline. 🙂
L. L. Barkat says
Sweet story, Darlene 🙂
Maureen Doallas says
I think it would be fascinating just to observe viewers reactions to Levinthal’s repurposing of toys. This is the kind of exhibition where a book to capture viewers reactions can be so telling.
I find Levinthal’s interesting especially because of his deliberately provocative approach that’s meant to get viewers to question their own ideas about the subjects.
I know of Levinthal’s ‘War Games’; it was at the Corcoran here in Washington more than a year ago. The list of subjects he’s taken on includes space, netsuke, and baseball, and even The Passion. His Website offers quite a few images for those who want to take a look at his work.
Ah…a secret camera set up…hmmm, it would be telling…
As always, thank you for sharing your insights.
Although you’ve shared some interesting points, I’m not convinced this is something I’d like to see.
Why does he want to show the dark side? To examine evil intent? To show the opposite of the light? To make us think?
L. L. Barkat says
I love these questions, Darlene. Really, they are questions about the function of art. What role does art play for you? How do you see it positioned in society? (Good, bad, or otherwise 🙂 )
My personal stewardship of art, what I create and what I see/taste/touch/smell/hear needs to be about beauty, light, redemption–basically, the awe and wonder of creation. I don’t fancy evil, obscene, rude, etc.
I reckon art, like beauty, as it is said, is in the eye of the beholder – but it’s not just that, the heart of the beholder counts as a measuring tool too.
L. L. Barkat says
So, if I hear you correctly, art is about creating the experiences of awe and wonder?
Would that be its role in society, too?
I’m wondering, while we are in this conversation, what the role of art has been historically.
Darlene & L.L.,
I think there is also a distinction between the kind of art one wants to create vs. the general role of art in society.
I agree, Dolly. I can barely put my own thoughts into words, let alone those of society. 😉
And L.L., yes, perhaps that’s it in simple words: awe and wonder.
Thanks ladies, for the conversation. I learn so much down here in the comment boxes.
Thank you for reading and for your questions.
This is my first time viewing Levinthal’s work and we didn’t know what we were going to see…when I read the title of the exhibit, I initially expected something more whimsical and light.
From reading Levinthal’s quotes and the placards, I got the impression that he wants to provoke thought and discussion about the role of toys in socializing children.
And I like how L.L. addresses the question of art’s function in society.
Thanks for the added information, Dolly.
Even though I live in a very rural one-stoplight town, I see that an art gallery has opened. There’s usually a light blue, old-time bike with a basket parked parked out front. A fuchsia colored bench is off to the side of the door. Because of how you inspire through your pieces, I may have to take a peek inside. 🙂