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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of September 11 - 17, 2002

Arts and Entertainment

Playing at the 
seams of reality

Express Arts Editor

Though ambiguity seems to be a central feature of modern American life, it is not a condition with which we are necessarily comfortable. To be held in suspension between two states is unnerving, because it causes us to question our perceptions and understanding.

Ambiguity is also at the core of David Levinthal’s photography—work that explores the seam between the real and unreal. Levinthal has an exhibit of his "Wild West" Series showing at Ochi in Ketchum, which will be up through September.

From the "Wild West" Series by David Levinthal at Ochi

Levinthal photographs toys. These are 3- to 4-inch figures that the artist has collected since he was in college at Stanford University. Often, he chooses American icons to examine issues that are anything but child’s play: racism, the ideology of the Third Reich, genocide, and the isolation of modern urban life. Through his use of mise-en-scéne, a large format Polaroid 20x24 and manipulation of focus, Levinthal creates the illusion of reality and motion. What’s more, he takes away the viewer’s sense of scale with his techniques.

Of "The Wild West" series, Ochi has 41 prints, many of them one-of-a-kind artist proofs, that is, prints without negatives and not part of an edition. The photographs are at once eerie and familiar, based as they are on television and film imagery of the mythical American West. Levinthal was born in 1949 and was much influenced by the television shows of the ’50s, many of which were the top-rated Westerns. The photographs in the series are, in general, bathed in the golden and sunset-red light of nostalgia and shot with a selective use of focus. They reference the characters of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane. What are in focus are themes of racism and the destruction of culture.

Rarely, if ever, does the artist show the faces of the Western figures. Part of the reason for this is surely to facilitate the creation of the illusion. But also, it may be a gesture of irony on Levinthal’s part: the reality of our history is not at all faceless. Real individuals, not just "cowboys and Indians," lived and died on the Western frontier.

After graduating with a studio art degree from Stanford in 1970, Levinthal enrolled in the M.F.A. program at Yale University to study photography. One of Levinthal’s instructors at Yale was Walker Evans, a photographer who stressed traditional methods: framing, sharp focus, true representation. Levinthal, by contrast, began experimenting with a simulated reality by photographing toy German soldiers. He and classmate Garry Trudeau, creator of the cartoon strip "Doonsebury," collaborated on a project in which Trudeau’s text and graphic design complemented Levinthal’s photographs. It resulted in the publication of "Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-43." Levinthal used his techniques to create the illusion of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II.

The artist went on to earn a degree in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981, and then to start a high-tech public relations firm in California. Selling the firm a few years later enabled Levinthal to move to New York and pursue his art full time.

Levinthal has tackled a number of difficult themes in his various series. In the "Blackface" series, he takes on the icons of white racism with close-up shots of the Amos and Andy figures. In contrast to the "Wild West" photographs, these are shot in great detail and without a backdrop. There is no choice but for the viewer to confront the stereotype. "Mein Kampf" addresses the holocaust and the Nazi ideology. The "Desire" series takes on themes of sexuality, pornography and sado-masochistic undertones.

Photography has always been a medium noted for its ability to represent reality accurately. Still, there are those who would say photography is not representational at all. How an image is chosen, framed, lighted or not, determines the effect. The artist very much has influence over how that reality is perceived. Levinthal certainly takes that idea to its logical end in creating the reality in the first place. It is a curious result that such play with toy figures, lighting, focus, and context may reveal more about the truth of the real world than the real world itself.



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