“Ever since I began working with toys, I have been intrigued with the idea that these seemingly benign objects could take on such incredible power and personality simply by the way they were photographed”
“I began to realize that by carefully selecting the depth of field and making it narrow, I could create a sense of movement and reality that was in fact not there.”-David Levinthal
His initial success came early with his series Hitler Moves East. The collection depicts the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Levinthal grew grass seed in potting soil on a plywood table to represent the Russian Steppes. He had to trim it every week with scissors.
It started without his exactly willing it. One night he took a mat knife and started cutting into shoe boxes, cardboard, and foam core. Joining the pieces at the corners with tape, he began to arrange them to suggest a miniature office, hotel room, pool hall, foyer, or a narrow corridor viewed through a doorway. He was intrigued by what emerged without much conscious direction and by how little he needed to produce an effect.
His big hands were clearly unsuited to the task of fashioning what the reveries called forth. Completely absorbed, he had no difficulty. Besides, he was satisfied with constructions of the crudest sort. Paste-togethers, they were for himself alone, nothing he would have wanted to show family or friends. Nor were they anything that fanatics of the small, among model-railroad hobbyists or dollhouse aficionados, would have admired for their intricacy or seamless true-to-life detail.
The spaces were suggestive, fragments of larger unseen wholes. Excited, feeling his way, he contrived diners, motel exteriors, garden apartments. He was in love with their promise of narrative. It inspired him with a plan: all he needed to do was make the sets look good enough to be photographed.
They had to contain certain specifics. From hobby shops he bought a selection of wallpaper in tiny designs he liked “Dauphine,” a pink French stripe, but he used many others. Plagued by a bleeding gut, he had a fondness for the refuge of bathrooms; for a miniature of one of these, he cut a shower curtain from clear acetate and decorated it with colored-dot adhesives. He cut up pink dollhouse flooring, called “Nostalgia,”11 that simulated bathroom tiles. He used a larger black-and-white or red-and-white check for pavement alongside what took shape as a motel swimming pool, a newspaper kiosk, a restaurant, or a forties-style jive joint. He got hexagonal tile for subway stops and plastic brick for streets.”
From this website.
Like the night-shrouded California house where he initiated these tabletop theaters, nearly all were nocturnal. It was essential to distinguish between the kinds of artificial light that each scene required. He put dollhouse lamps (standing and desktop), with hat like shades, into the hotel rooms or lobbies. He bought tiny, round-globed street lamps and positioned them at his fabricated curbs. The light sources had to spot, graze, or flood the spaces, selectively, to convey the dramas he was after.
He enhanced the geometry with light’s mercurial moods. A pattern of venetian blinds in windows and doors, achieved with strips of transparent tape, threw stripes on the walls, turning the three-dimensionality of a room into a kind of urban prison, warding off fictional sunshine.
Hidden pin lights, taped to the cardboard and directed under dollhouse lamps, gave them a dour electrical glow, suggesting a poetics of alienation and estrangement. The places were insomnious, with eyes, ears, and infinite patience. They might be waiting for the return of a departed inhabitant, or conceal the body of a victim, or shroud a lonely young woman, staring at empty walls. The paintings of Edward Hopper come to mind, as does Walker Evans’s affinity for abandoned habitations. Hopper’s multiple angles and receding rooms had been an important point of departure, but the fabricator’s lighting soon replaced the painter’s psychological restraint with a new kind of emotional heat. Evans’s classic American documents were obvious prototypes, but their detachment was too cool to be inspiring.
Yellow or red acetate over the pin lights blasted streets and offices with infernal heat. Blue in movie theaters, subways, parking garages, train-station waiting rooms, and hotel cubicles was deliberately “thin” to conjure a world of depleted, dying-on-the-vine, door-to-door salesmen, third-rate con men, “bald-headed men who comb their side hair across the top,” lost souls waiting for the next deal.
His lighting didn’t imitate the sun or moon. It abstracted the space, heightening the aura of being lost. He liked neon bleeding from pulsating advertising signs and theater marquees onto shiny pavements.
Neon was heroic. Like spilled paint, its reverberating hues linked situations logically disconnected. Night light in the city exposed hidden corners–the entrance to a motel, seen from the street, striptease artists in their dressing room. It transformed the office of a lone employee, absorbed in an after-hours phone conversation, into a lurid hellhole. Eerie, nuanced, bold, tragic, the light “made something out of nothing.” As anything he wanted it to be, it seemed entirely new.
But nothing he was doing was new to him. The spatial emanations were figments of a lifetime of dreaming. From the beginning, as with his grandfather’s room, this had to do with the way physical enclosures harbored the hidden.
Engrossed in a philosophy of deep play, he made the unintended visible. Energized by tabletop trial and error, he was amazed by his attention to detail and the need to get things right. If a scene required a police car, he painted an ordinary toy car black and white to convey the effect.
Manipulating the small in deliberately contracted spaces, he felt himself expand. Controlling memory and time, strangely, he became a tourist in atmospheres that suggested his own inner life and, more mysteriously, its elusive prehistory.
He chose miniature personages, less than an inch tall and perfectly articulated. He poured over vast offerings of these diminutives in the model railroad catalogues. The most vivid ones, “intended for modelers . . . not recommended for children under 14 years” because they had “pointed extremities,” were made by Preiser, in Germany. Plastic and “carefully hand-painted,” many Preiser figurines, connected with railroads, feature signal-box workers, track-maintenance gangs, delivery men with loads.
Preiser’s figures also emulate every imaginable modern, human gesture. Collected, mostly in groups of six, housewives spill buckets of plastic water, beat carpets, sweep; on their knees, they scrub floors. There are wedding parties (choice of Catholic or Protestant), film and television crews, hospital emergency teams, groups of photographers, passersby, dancing couples, shoppers, teenagers, moped riders, figure skaters, every posture of the modern commuter, chefs, wedding guests, graffiti sprayers. For crowds, a single package contains twenty-six “passersby, standing and walking.” At a “bargain price,” one could acquire a tiny mob of 190 people
Testing the water in 1982, he photographed, in black and white, a toy-furnished street scene with lamppost, mailbox, parked cars, and a male “commuter,” seen from behind. Isolating the figure gave the vignette its charm, but it remained a street scene of toys.
Ever the strategist, David Levinthal risks seeming idiotic, throwing off those who seek to understand him. He likes declaring, with innocent aplomb, how much “fun” it is to make art with toys. Some apologists play along, naively taking him at his word. Others seek to give his method the currently acceptable artistic cachet by grouping it with that of practitioners of goofy, postmodernist theatrics. Peter Schjeldahl describes Levinthal’s style by saying that he “belongs to a 1970s generation-post-Vietnam cohort of disaffected ironists ranging upward in refinement from David Letterman to Cindy Sherman,” whose attitude is “marked by ferocious skepticism.”
Such categorizing not only misleads; blindly, it robs the artist of his actual intentions. Garry Trudeau, who knows him well, observed differently.
To hear David Levinthal talk about his art is to sometimes come away with the impression that he couldn’t possibly be up to anything consequential. He smiles too much. He’s too self-effacing, too slow to rationalize any ambiguities in his work. He actually respects his audience, believing them capable of processing powerful, provocative images on their own. This child-artist with his toys expects the rest of us to act like grown-ups.
Finding supreme comfort in a near-maniacal search to possess all kinds of small things from the world of children, David Levinthal discovered in manipulating these things the necessary arenas for addressing an open city of artistic possibility.
In the mess of play, David discovered something he’d never been taught, the intelligence of rapture, the sacredness of enthusiasm.
Because little figures are the bedrock of his work, their various assignments have been recounted endlessly. It is well-known that from age eleven through high school he sustained battles with toy soldiers for days on end. He was faithful to his tiny comrades longer than anyone would have deemed appropriate. As a college freshman he filled two rooms in the family house with the figures and played with them during vacations behind locked doors.
In his twenties, nostalgia for this sort of solitary aggression was so strong that after buying a new box of the little fighters he made a photographic record of each step of unwrapping the package containing them. The “Combat Series” sequence is a dialogue of hiding and display, from an initial view of the mysterious object, concealed under paper and string.
Every philosophy of play insists on the fact of this authority, whether the player be child or adult. Where artists are concerned, Baudelaire’s “Philosophy of Toys” explored play through a romantic theory of artistic creativity by linking it to the “spirituality of childhood.” Later, the poet elucidated this more completely in “The Painter of Modern Life,” calling genius “nothing more or less than childhood recovered at will.”
Furnished, lighted, and populated, David Levinthal’s tabletop settings, versions of the dark rooms of his own brain, would be subjected to greater abstraction by a process that he’d determined from the beginning. He photographed them, but not as he’d photographed anything before.
Find the rest of the article here.