THE “QUIETLY KINKY” ART OF HANNAH LEVY
“It’s not a lamp. It’s not a coatrack. It has bone feet,” explains artist Hannah Levy, describing a new piece she’s working on, one that adheres to her signature adaptation of furniture design, referencing several familiar forms at once but recombining them to create something new and totally absurd. Like hyper-designed minimalist home-ware from an alternative dimension or other planet, Levy’s work leaves the viewer scratching their head about the functionality of the object at hand. “It looks like it has some specific use or purpose,” she asserts, “but not one that’s quite placeable.” She’s taken to calling the liminal realm these objects feel destined for “design purgatory.”
I visited Levy at her studio in the South Bronx as she was preparing for her solo show Swamp Salad which opened Sunday, January 21, 2018 at CLEARING gallery in Brooklyn. As I arrive, she warns me she’s waiting for a call from the nickel-plater — the steel frames which she welds herself are then finished with an electroplating process to prevent corrosion. It’s only a few days before Christmas, and Levy is eager to get the plating finished before the holiday. Silicon molds and metal frames surround us as Levy elucidates some of the other ingredients going into this new body of work: rubbery squashes, three-quarter scale lounge chairs, pearl oysters, and a marble bike helmet. There are two textures that dominate Levy’s work: shiny and hard, and squishy and flesh-like.
Most of what Levy makes is sculptural but the first thing she shows me is a video to be featured in Swamp Salad on a TV-mounted to a 11-foot curved pole coming down from the ceiling. Reminiscent of iPad commercials as well as unboxing and slime vids, in the moving-image work all we see is a pair of hands from a top-down point-of-view perspective. The hands are taking pearls out of oysters, using their fingernails to extract the gemstones from the gooey mucus-y mollusk tissue. It’s a perfect companion piece for the a-functional furniture Levy makes. First, because the video is all about touching, which Levy’s works make you want to do but what you explicitly can’t do given the gallery or museum setting. And secondly, the pearl oysters encompass the same hard-gooey binary as Levy’s steel-silicone sculptures.
Pearls are a thread throughout the new show. There are several lounge chairs with nickel-plated steel frames and pearl-adorned silicone skins. The loungers are based on a Charlotte Perriand drawing, but Levy has produced them at a three-quarter scale. “It’s kind of the scale of a ten-year-old,” she offers, coding the furniture as decidedly tween before adding, “Scale in sculpture is a way to subtly dip into the uncanny.” Levy has colored the silicone a shimmery beige. “It’s a little bit similar to the flesh of the oysters,” she points out. “And then it’s also a similar color to Caucasian flesh tone.” So-called “neutrals” like beige, taupe, and light pink show up in Levy’s work time and time again. “I think a lot about how specific bodies relate to tasteful interiors and what that means,” she explains. “It’s fucked up, but also the idea of some overweight white guy in khakis sitting on an overstuffed flesh-toned chair, that's the same color and texture as his body, there’s something quietly kinky about that.”
Levy also plays with the class connotations of the materials she uses. The pearls threaded throughout Swamp Salad have an aspirational quality. Marble is another material she exploits as an indicator of wealth, but Levy always includes these luxury materials in incongruous combinations. “I like the super synthetic paired with something that is considered ‘classy,’” she suggests. In the past, she made a series of patterned laminate she created from scanning salami and other meats like mortadella and ham. “It really looks like marble. It’s only the peppercorns that give it away as not,” she says gesturing to one of the mottled pink sample tiles. “I really want to do someone’s kitchen with these. Maybe one day the right person will want meat countertops.”
Industrial design encompasses many of our biases, values, and aspirations, so while Levy’s work primarily interrogates industrial design, she approaches ideas of race, class, and the future by proxy. “Industrial design is the visual language of our everyday,” she contends. Because her sculptures are for the most part artworks though and not design objects — “I don’t actually have to worry about them being able to hold a human body,” she points out — the conceptual questions Levy proposes to design are even more strongly underscored.
“At the moment, I don’t really have a different thinking period versus making period,” notes Levy whose process traverses the library as well as the metal shop. “I think I’m most productive when I’m reading a text that I’m interested in but it’s a little bit boring and I drift off and let my mind wander,” she reveals, highlighting the material experience of engaging with theory. “A lot of these theorists, they're doing backflips of logic and language, it’s just a fun shape to think in.” It’s a shape she also approaches in her work, which she describes as having a “fun loopy logic.” The end result are sculptures that are both playful and sterile. “It has something to do with the history of minimalism,” notes Levy about the austere qualities of her work. She adds, however, that “as a visual strategy, paring things down really allows you to highlight or draw attention to certain subtleties, but then the challenge is all of a sudden all the small details really matter, and each of your human mistakes become very apparent.” Sometimes, Levy says that from the beginning she knows exactly how one of her absurd creations like silicone loaves of bread or oversized asparagus will interact with the shiny metal skeleton-like frames, but other times it’s more trial and error.
When I visit, Levy is still resolving the details for Swamp Salad. She shows me a few different squashes she’s molded, not sure which one is going to end up atop the coatrack-like sculpture in the show. Just as the sun is starting to set, the phone rings. Levy is relieved to make plans with the nickel-plater before the holiday. She still has more than a few long nights in the studio ahead of her, fortunately though, it’s a place Levy is happy to be: “I definitely enjoy the process of making things.”