FIRE IN THE HEART
An article concerning the Shroud Drawings
And other recent work by Chuck Levitan
The recent work of Chuck Levitan raises issues which are ignored. This work creates an assertion, echoes a concern, states a concern that is kept in the shadows.
The art world of America ignores the cries of the human heart, it ignores the faces of its people, and it denies the spiritual yearnings of its people. Most importantly, the official art world of New York ignores and excludes the work of any artist, Chuck Levitan included, that dares to express and confront the conditions of existence from any point of view that is not cynical, abstract, materialistic, clever, entertaining, diverting, fashionable art historical or aesthetic theory regurgitation.
The heroes of the pop art era specialized in the cynical replay of the artifacts of consumer life. The systemic artist glorified the empty but dizzying manipulations of perceptual systems that created enigmas to stupefy the senses. The Op artist, the pop artist, the earth artist, and the concept artist created visions of human ego power at work: they dazzled us with technique, they dazzled us with earth moving power. Surely photo realism cannot be said to touch us with its frozen displays of dead looking people and dead landscapes. The huge heads of Chuck Close looks look cadaverous monsters. All life is removed and what we have left is something that looks like a Frankenstein. The value of the work seems to lie in its technique, in its dogged insistence on the systemic repetition of a program.
In this situation, the work of Chuck Levitan is revolutionary. It is not a revolution of means. It is a revolution of ends.
The work that explores the Shroud of Turin makes this point vividly. Discounting for a moment the complexities of those efforts designed to prove or disprove the authenticity of the shroud, let us consider the meaning of the Shroud in the context of artwork. If the image on the Shroud were the real image of Christ, then it would have had to have been created by burning emission of pure universal energy, the same kind of energy that lies at the heart of all being. It would have had to have been the kind of energy that is making the sun burn, that fuels the stars, that kindles the life within every living cell pulsing on this earth.
More importantly, it was energy of transformation. It was a moment of transformation of matter into pure life, death into non-death, defeat into absolute triumph. For, in that long ago moment, was not Christ of Nazareth the one who seemed to be defeated and laid to rest by the fears, the greed, and the self righteousness of those who had power over bodies, and lands, and beliefs. But Christ, Christ made manifest a deeper and a higher power· a power that burnt through the cloth, the shroud of death, a power that broke open the tomb so technically and finely wrought, that startled the soldiers so well arrayed in their armor and armament. The Shroud of Turin is the vital symbol of the power of spirit in direct confrontation with the powers of material, and law, and reason.
If art is real, if artwork is meaningful, if it is to be regarded as something more than an empty display of techniques, a control of media, an entertainment for the restless and idle mind, then art must take hold of and must express the essence of that message which is embodied in the image of the Shroud of Turin.
For a moment let us look at the work that compromises this series of drawings that Chuck Levitan has created in the spirit of the shroud. They are barely perceptible. They dance on the elegant surface of the drawing paper in the same way that light dances on a wall, provoking images, mystifying us till we gaze ever harder and find some configurations that astonishes us.
The drawings are full of this kind of surprise. They emerge from the light surface of the paper and come together to show us the face of Christ, the face of the man at peace in midst of an obliterating agony. The image of Christ begins and ends the question of matter, of medium, of content in relation to technique. The means is totally sublimated to an end, which transcends the means.
This effort alone denies primary place to art as materialism or pure indulgence of the artistâs ego. While it is true that pure expression of content can be achieved and has been achieved in artwork that is not inspired by symbols like the shroud, for the most part, contemporary art has engaged in a kind of aesthetic narcissism. Artwork has looked at itself and played too long with itself, it has avoided the most poignant issue of playing, the drama of life itself, the interplay of self and other, the dance of life, which expresses the exuberance, and mystery of life and death.
In this respect, the abstract expressionists, epitomized by Pollack, aimed for the pure expression of spirit through the medium of matter totally energized by action, emotion, and the aiming for a transcendent wholeness, a wholeness both sensual and timeless. In the work of the expressionists, nature was not only an illusory metaphor it was a fact expressed by the conditions of painting itself.
Thus, art called forth inspiration from the experience of those who were in the presence of the artwork. This is the highest level of art. It is the level of transformation. It is the level to which the work of Chuck Levitan aspires.
In choosing the shroud, Levitan identifies with an image that includes every stirring face of the human experience: bloodletting, courageous dedication to principle, suffering, and triumph over every obstacle, honesty, manhood, and undefeated spirit. By focusing on the face of Christ and by excluding the artifacts of consumerism and the heroes of pop culture, Levitan defeats both cynicism and cheap nostalgia.
In our time, artists like Gioconetti, Kollwitz, Hopper, Manzu, and Bacon have sought bravely to make this same kind of spirit explicit through the persona of the figures in their paintings, drawings and sculptures. Others like Beckman and Groscz have dealt with the mortally wounded and the bizarre. They have embodied the sense of the Christ figure. Yet there has been no American artist who has dared to directly address the issue of the passion·regardless of their level of talent or the overall aspirations of their work as visual artist.
In addition to the shroud drawings, Levitan has engaged in creating a series of larger than life size portraits of persona from his intimate life. Once again these works are hand-made and they display all the refinement, allure and expressive potential of a hand inspired.
-by Robert Harding, New York City, January 1982