From early use of video to eye-catching billboard campaigns, Les Levine was very much an artist ahead of his time, writes Richard Fitzpatrick
LES LEVINE was eight years old when he first met Jack B Yeats. It was at the artist’s studio in 1943, which was above a shop on South Anne St, just off Grafton St in Dublin. Levine’s uncle, Victor Waddington, who was Yeats’s art dealer, took him there. It was a Saturday morning. Levine, who went on to become one of the first significant artists to use video, says it exposed a whole new world to him.
“I had never come in contact with any kind of an artist before I met him. I can remember the painting he was painting. It was a big painting that took up one wall and it was a painting of the sea. There were three horses coming out of the sea. I had no idea of what art was or who he was. I don’t think he was as well known then as he is now. He wasn’t much of a talker; he was a quiet man.
“My one thought was that he’s inventing a world — this world doesn’t exist except in his mind. That fascinated me. The fact that I can remember that painting so vividly, even at this late day, and I’ve often asked Anne, his niece, where that painting is, but nobody seems to know where it is. Maybe it’s an invention of my mind.”
Imagined or not, it was enough to stir Levine, who left for London at 14 years of age to study at the Central School of Arts and Craft. He returned to Ireland after his studies, but there was nothing for him in 1950s Dublin. “Everyone was emigrating,” he says. “You were told as a young man: ‘You’ll have to leave.’”
Levine went to North America, living in Toronto for a spell before settling in New York, where he still lives. He was at the vanguard of the city’s conceptual art scene in the 1960s. Today, his work is part of international collections in galleries around the world, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Centre, Paris.
This week, IMMA will feature a selection of his Cibachrome photographs in an exhibition that runs until the New Year. The photographs include 80 from The Troubles: An Artist’s Document of Ulster, 1972. Given his Irish upbringing, it was a personal project to undertake. He travelled around Belfast and Derry, doing interviews, going to IRA funerals, attending Unionist meetings and taking photographs, for almost a month in 1972. At the time, Northern Ireland was on fire.
“A young man was trying to plant a bomb in a factory and the British troops came and, as they say, completely riddled him,” he says. “I think they put 37 bullets into him. I was with the family when the word came in that that had happened. That is something that never left my mind.”
Levine makes the point that The Troubles was the first major media work of art. “It was the first work where an artist actually acted as though he was an arm of the media. What media is doing is gathering information and disseminating it to the public through newspapers, television and magazines. Essentially, that is what I was doing as an artist. I was producing information for public consumption.”
The IMMA exhibition also features some of Levine’s famous billboard campaigns from the 1980s and 1990s. These include the We Are Not Afraid campaign, which ran on the New York subway system in 1981.
“When I did the campaign, I said the work contains a secret and the secret is the way the viewer’s mind works. The premise of these kinds of works is to set up a situation that will create a dialogue between the viewer and himself, not anybody else. Some people thought it was about ‘the boat people’.”
Some New Yorkers also focused on the significance of it for the Aids pandemic that was engulfing the city at the time. There is a photograph in the IMMA exhibition of two founders of the Gran Fury artist collective, who were using guerrilla dissemination tactics to raise awareness about Aids, riding one of the city’s subway carts. Behind them is a We Are Not Afraid poster.
Levine stresses, however, that the campaign’s meaning has to do with a frame of mind. “It was more about ‘we are not afraid to be ourselves’, to be free, to act as we want to. It has nothing to do with any real, oncoming fear from the outside. It was more fears from the inside.”
Levine found himself in the eye of a storm with his campaign Blame God, which ran on billboards around London in 1985. A protestor poured a pot of black paint on one poster close to the Elephant and Castle road junction and the hoarding company, London and Provincial, tried to renege on its contract.
“The campaign was essentially about the war in Northern Ireland,” says Levine. “The British press wanted to imply that it was a religious war, when it was a civil rights issue. The only reason people were designated as Catholics or Protestants was because the Protestants had control of the police. They had control of the electricity company, of the gas company. They had control of everything. Obviously, if you were a Catholic, you couldn’t get work in those areas. It might have been taken to be a religious thing, but it wasn’t.”
Levine’s decision to call the campaign Blame God was contentious. “The police tried to arrest me when I was in London for the show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts,” he says. “The billboard company made the decision that they were going to take the billboards down, because the police said they were a public nuisance. Fortunately, we had a contract. We didn’t accept any free billboards, only paid-for billboards,” says Levine, “so when it came down to it, the billboard company had to relent and say [to the police]: ‘They have a contract. We can’t do anything.’
“People wonder why I don’t accept free billboards, but I learnt from that experience. You have to have a way of acting the same way a corporation does. There are a lot of people in the world who have to confront new art. If they had the power, they would say, ‘Stop that. It’s changing things. It’s making us see things we don’t want to see and feel things we don’t want to feel.’ If that would be the case how could art develop?”
Les Levine: Using the Camera as a Club – Media Projects and Archive is on now at IMMA, Kilmainham, Dublin
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