Tuesday, April 3, 2012

LAUREN LEVY makes Intricate Sculptures
out of Wire & Buttons & Fabric & Generally Brings
Uncommon Beauty to Life's Enriched Pageant

The first time I saw Lauren Levy's work, it was part of a group show at D Berman Gallery back in 2001. I don’t recall what else was in the show ~ and there must have been much good stuff ~ but those objects, those small dresses and houses built from layer after layer of colorful buttons and wire, have never left my mind.

In 2001, I was still married to the playwright Molly Rice ~ which I mention because she was with me at the show and she’s got fierce aesthetic sensibilities ~ and she was also stunned by Levy’s work. We looked at the sculptures, then looked at each other, and our thoughts were somewhere along the lines of: “Wow, these buttony creations are as deeply evocative as they are well-crafted and visually beautiful; this is important work by an accomplished artist.”

Well, accomplished, certainly.
But by no means, contrary to what we’d assumed, established.

“I was part of a group show at Women & Their Work in 2000,” says Levy. “I just applied. The woman who worked there as the assistant director encouraged me, and I think she was largely responsible for me getting in. So I was in this show, and it was like the biggest thing in my life. And David Berman immediately asked me, because it was also the first night for his gallery, and he called me the next day and asked if I wanted to be in his gallery. And I said, uh, I don’t know from galleries. And he said, well, neither do I. And it was perfect, we just kind of went along together.”

This was followed, over the years, by more shows at D Berman, and several shows ~ alone or as part of a group ~ in other Texas venues. Culminating, at least buttonwise, in the 2009 “Beneath the Palm of My Hand” solo show at D Berman, in which Levy’s sculptural work morphed from 3-D into more 2-D arrangements of buttons on fields and lengths of fabric: No less intricate or compelling than those dresses, those houses, those horns.

But also, rather suddenly, uh-oh, 86 the buttons.

“I got sick of doing buttons,” says Levy. “People called me The Button Lady, and I hate that. It sounds so kountry-krafty, so hot-gluey. I don’t like it when people can’t see beyond the material.”

Brenner: Well, sure. But, hold on ~ how’d you get started with buttons in the first place?

Levy: I went to art school at UT in the late 80s, and I had absolutely nothing to say. It was a time, generally, where all the painting was more or less abstract. The figure hadn’t really come back into artwork yet, so the painting at school was abstract, the art ~ not all of it, but a lot of it ~ was very conceptual. And being kind of a process-oriented person, I couldn’t connect with anything that was going on there. At the time there was this big difference between craft and art. And, y’know, I was a cool person, I didn’t really want to be associated with the pot-makers and the turquoise-ring-makers, so I went into nursing school almost as soon as I graduated. And then, when I was in Portland, I found my voice doing metalsmithing. I was making not so much jewelry as small objects, and I just became possessed by it. I finally felt like I Have Something To Say, and it was just electrifying.

And when I came back to Austin, I was seven months pregnant and it was a really depressing time. Because I was just burning up inside with stuff to say and things to make, but when you have a baby, you’re kind of in prison. I’d had real unreasonable expectations of what babies were like: I figured they just slept all the time. But, no, they don’t.

And I was an avid knitter at the time, and I’d collected all these buttons. And I guess I started with wire ~ wire that didn’t need to be soldered, that I could just bend it all around and make what I wanted. And somehow I got the idea of stacking the buttons up one by one, as an equivalent to stitches … so I started making little articles of clothing out of wire and buttons, in lieu of the knitted things I was making.

Brenner: What fascinates me is that a million people could do that,
but what they did would look like crap.

Levy: Really?

Brenner: I don’t know about wire and buttons, specifically, but when people take typical crafting materials, they tend to do stuff that looks like, if not crap, then like what somebody’s non-artistic grandma did when she had spare time between issues of Reader’s Digest. Kitschy craft or crafty kitsch, or whatever. But then somebody, one in a million or whatever it is ~ you, in this case ~ can use the same sort of materials, and it results in, well, it looks like some of the finest art there is.

Levy: It’s a fine line sometimes, isn’t it?

Brenner: Well, I’d say that it’s more obvious sometimes, that ~

Levy: Well, not about myself so much, but, yeah, I guess you can immediately tell ~ like with abstract painting, for example. Everybody looks at it, like at a Franz Kline, and a lot of people would think “What’s the point? My kid could paint that.” But it’s really the most difficult, thoughtful, not-process-oriented painting.

Brenner: So you started out by using buttons to make these articles of clothing, dresses and shirts. How did that transform over time?

Levy: Now that I think about it, they kind of transformed from the inside out. They were shirts, and then I started filling them with things, to express something else, and then the thing that was being expressed through the garments was the thing that I was making.

So the shirts and dresses started disappearing and the narrative dropped away. There came an end to the stories ~ I wasn’t really interested in the stories anymore. And that was kind of a weird moment, when the narrative fell away and I just started making things and then the story would come. It was so exciting to make something without trying to define it, to just give in to the original impulse ~ make it ~ and then it became obvious that of course there was a story there.

So narrative became secondary. And I guess that’s the immediate starting point of how I ended up making the stuff I’m making now.

Brenner: And for a while you completely stopped using buttons?

Levy: Yeah, I packed all the buttons up, stuck them in my various storerooms, cleaned them out of my studio altogether. I had to leave myself open to the possibility that that was done. Because I wanted to start over, to go back to making art in a thrashing-around, searching way. To allow myself to be bad. It was nice to be bad. To make stuff that kind of sucked. But then I’d make stuff out of non-button materials … and I didn’t like any of it. It was depressing.

Brenner: And is that where the drawings came from, those back-of-the-head braids?
Don’t tell me you just recently picked up a pencil for the first time and ...?

Levy: Well, it seems like, when I was really young, I was that person in class where somebody was always saying, “Draw this for me, draw that for me,” y’know? And somewhere along the way, like most people, I decided I Can’t Draw. Like, I just couldn’t do it.

So I quit drawing altogether. I didn’t draw in high school, and I especially didn’t draw in college ~ I didn’t take drawing, even though I got an art degree. Because I was so petrified of it. And I decided, at some point, that I was a fraud. Like, “I’ve been hiding this deficit, this inability from the world.” So I decided that I would take a year off and just draw.

This was around the end of 2006, right after that D Berman show. I was kind of burned out ~ putting that show together took a lot of time. And I wanted to give myself the opportunity to have one of those exciting kind of moments where you realize “This is it: This is where I take off, and now I look for the boundaries within this.” And I drew all the time, I drew and drew and drew. And I read, and I looked at drawings. I’d get stacks of books on drawing and I’d stare at drawings. And I got really educated about drawing in general. And nothing ever came of it, really, although I have suitcases full of drawings.

And then I was walking my dogs in the neighborhood, and it was Big Garbage Day. And I walked by a house where this person had just put something out. And it was an old 19th century box, like a shipping box from some sort of military suppliers, and in it was this family’s photographic history going all the way back, from the 1800s, from the first era of studio photographers, going up to the 1960s, and it was stuffed full of these photographs. And there were several other boxes and suitcases, and I had all four of my dogs. And one dog is terrified, and one dog hates the other dog, and one dog is like “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”

So I was standing in the middle of the street with all these dogs, and somebody came up and helped me out and took the stuff home. I still haven’t gone all the way through it. But what I did look at, there were these really candid photographs that were obviously family members of the photographer, because they were very animated, not at all like the photographs he took in his studio: They were really spontaneous.

And one of them was the back of this woman’s hair, with this elaborate Victorian hairdo. And I went, “This is what I’m gonna draw.” And I drew it in ink, and in pencil, and the hairdo kept getting bigger and bigger, up to the point where the person wasn’t in the drawing at all. Then it became just a big ball of hair.

And I was posting the drawings on Facebook, when I was first getting into Facebook and reconnecting with people. And I had this sense of time, like how, even though some of these people and I had nothing in common, we had this connection that had lasted through all this time. And so the drawings, the hair, became a kind of metaphor for time. Well, not even a metaphor, it kind of ~ it is time. Isn’t it? Can you say that?

Brenner: Well, it’s ~ as much time as anything else is.

Levy: Well, it embodies time. So that’s what these pieces are: Time and work. And so I’d started drawing again, and I’d made myself ready for the impulse, for whenever it would come. And when I found what I wanted to draw, the skills were there. And I looked back at all my older drawings, and they’re obviously like student work ~ but it’s nice to see the struggle.

And what I’d regarded as a lack of drawing talent … well, talent’s overrated, really. It’s just work. If you work at something, and it may take a lot of work, yeah, but even people with talent really have to work at it. Because, if you don’t, it just goes to waste. So I worked hard, and in the end I made drawings that I liked, that I felt were more than the sum of their parts.

Brenner: But you’ve also gone back to using buttons again?

Levy: As I was doing those drawings, I realized “This is where the sculptures are going.” So I started making long vertical pieces ~ like long twisted braids made with buttons ~ and I love them. The ones I’m making now, it’s really strange: I’ll get a piece of cable ~ industrial, galvanized cable ~ and pull it out, cut it when it feels like the absolutely perfect length, and they’re always as tall as me. They’re always my exact height. Isn’t that weird?

Brenner: That’s kinda weird.

Levy: It’s really weird. It happens every single time, and I’m not even pulling the cable out vertically. But I’m gonna do them even bigger, gigantic, and they’re not going to rust. That was the thing about the wire ~ it rusted and drove me crazy.

But, yeah, here I am again, using buttons, and I know I’m running the risk of being The Button Lady, but, y’know, that’s just where it is. And there are drawings to go with it, too, these really obsessive, process-oriented drawings. So I’m back to time-consuming, obsessive-compulsive kind of stuff.

Brenner: Obsessive-compulsive ~ or maybe just really giving a damn
about what you’re doing.

Levy: Yeah, maybe.

Brenner: You don’t think so?

Levy: Well, I don’t know.

Brenner: Is it a thing that, when you do it, you feel like you’ve finally scratched an itch?

Levy: Kind of … but it’s also nice to go on automatic, you know? Which is something that knitting taught me, through the process of just doing something over and over and over.

I can remember one time when I was in metal-smithing class, and I made something that was really time-consuming, and I went, “Oh, I’ll never do that again.” And the woman I was taking the class from said: “Why? Make a ton of them.”

And I realized, yeah, that’s just kind of what you do.

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