Waxing Poetic: Charlie Levin's Paintings as Performance

The apocryphal etymology of sincerity has its origins in the idea of artistic perfection: that a well-chiseled marble sculpture would not require the sly application of wax to fill cracks or repair contours, thus, it was sine sera — “without wax.”

[jump] This account of the word has been disproven, and artists working in encaustic techniques have similarly challenged wax’s association with defects. Among them is Charlie Levin, who applies wax to glass to create paintings that seem thickly textured and opaque as plaster, yet which, when lit, reveal more stories than a stained glass window.

“The magic trick is about controlling transparency,” Levin says.

She is describing the way her paintings show an entirely different image when they are lit from the front or behind, producing a visceral astonishment and perplexity that that the eyes could be so deceived about the nature of the object. Yet she could also be talking about the impact of her work, which produces layers of meaning that question what we can know about the world and those in it: stolid, seated figures on a neutral ground rise up and become muscular Blakean demigods wrestling one other or traversing a barren universe in her massive four panel painting SecondSight (2003), a pale face darkens and broods in a portrait, a mirrored surface in which you see the full length of your body becomes a skeleton in one of the eight panels of Face2Face (2011) — an x-ray, a memento mori, a reminder of the generic and the strange that lurks beneath the surface of all mortal things.

Despite the complexity of her images, Levin says:

“The end result of the painting is not the point. It is only an artifact. The way I see life is that we are the product of our experiences, including who we are born as, and our families, and our environment, and the things that happen to us. When you meet somebody, you can’t see that. You see little bits and pieces. And they change, and we change.” 

Consequently, painting for Levin is a process rather than a product, an art form that has found a natural outlet in performance. As a student majoring in art and philosophy, Levin had the realization that, rather than creating static images, she could create immersive environments in which the viewers walking through would become the figures of the painting.

“It’s all about the body,” she explains. “It’s not a room of stuff that people get to see; it’s about the interaction of your body in this space.”

An early installation The Square Root of Infinity (1992), created in collaboration with a dancer and a musician for a course called “Dance and the Related Arts,” whetted her appetite for fortuitous intersections of movement and visual art. This lead Levin to seek work with several Chicago theater companies, including Lookingglass Theatre, before establishing Local Infinities Visual Theater in 1996 with collaborator Meghan Strell. 

It was in a Local Infinities piece called Wax and Wayne (2002), in which Levin and Strell used 200 pounds of wax to tell an adaptation of the myth of Pygmalion, that Levin realized the act of painting itself could become a performance. Levin painted the story in colored wax on a clear, human-sized panel of Plexiglas, gradually replacing a white form with the blushing figure of the living sculpture Galatea.

“The point is that the image itself changes and changes, each time leaving pieces and parts that overlay each other. The result is something completely different, made of the sum of its parts.” Performing the piece at the Oerol Festival of Site-Specific Theater in the Netherlands, Levin discovered the play of light she calls “the magic,” which touched off her investigation in encaustic painting.

Her Berkeley studio is still littered with experiments in wax — nubbins and curls erupting from the aluminum tins like petrified sea creatures neatly categorized by color and opacity, and studies in white wax colored by opaque titanium and transparent zinc on oblong lengths of glass arranged like a series of microscope slides. 

Based in the Bay Area since 2010, Levin has exhibited work at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the Oakland Art Murmur, and the Performance Art Institute, as well as created installations for CODAME, The Wayfinders Performance Group, The Decameron at Fort Mason, and China Lounge in Pleasanton. Earlier this year, she collaborated with technology and performance company Kinetech Arts in TheOtherSight, a performance on surveillance in which panels from SecondSight served as a moving set that exposed visual secrets as it was washed over by digital flames and water ripples. On Tuesday, Levin previews a work-in-progress performance of her own, Single-Point Perspective: The One Truthiness. Using the transparency and mutability of wax to tell a visual story in live painting that considers our ability to recognize other bodies as our own, Levin reminds, in this, as well as her whole oeuvre, that a picture presents the illusion of a world in which all things can be perceived, though it exists within a world in which perspective limits our understanding. 

Kinetech Arts Featured Artist Program presents Charlie Levin in “Single-Point Perspective: The One Truthiness” at 8:30 p.m. on December 16 at KUNST-STOFF arts, 1 Grove St., S.F. Admission is free; $5 suggested donation

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