Marilyn Levin, “Cycles of Time” @ Toomey Tourell through August 25, 2012.
If you know the topography and culture of India, Marilyn Levin’s current cycle of paintings, made during an extended stay in that country, will call up familiar sights and sounds: of rivers, deltas, temples, ragas and other things associated with the subcontinent. If, on the other hand, you know nothing of the place, but are conversant in the language of post-Abstract Expressionist painting, the effect will be similar: you will understand that Levin is on a quest to grasp and give form to the ineffable.
You see it in her repeated use of ancient symbols such as the circle and in her use of metallic gold paint, both of which she deploys in a quasi-symbolist/surrealist manner. Such things, over the past century, have become universal codes for spiritually oriented art.
In pursuit of it, the Boston-based painter hits the target with richly hued, process-based works in which paint is allowed to puddle, coalesce, drip, congeal and, in general, mimic natural processes. There are a handful of tentative, embryonic paintings that seem underworked, but the strongest stand with the best biomorphic abstract paintings you are likely to see. They feature evanescent, multi-layered washes overlaid by muscular gestures, mostly circles.
There are, of course, many contemporary painters following this path. Three California artists that come to mind are Jimi Gleason, Joan Moment and Nellie King Solomon; but you could easily trace the lineage of such work back much further, as Peter Frank did in a trend-spotting 2005 article in Art Ltd. In it, he coined the term “Flow Painting” – a catchall meant to describe a variety of methods by which artists mix accident and intent, allowing allow thinned paint to "seep, gush, pull and surge" while marshaling those forces to express their own ideas. It’s one of the steepest mountains a painter can climb. It requires supreme knowledge of how paint behaves when turned loose to do what it does naturally and an equally profound understanding of when and how to bend that behavior to one’s own ends. Given those requirements, flow painters tend to exhibit an Eastern philosophical bent, both in how they approach their work and in the imagery they present.
Levin fits the mold, but stamps it with her own imprint: in paintings that look like arrested geological events; in radiant, free-flowing watercolors that give off the sensuous, hothouse charge of Indian miniatures; and in gestural works where process and gesture pretty much balance each other. Those in the first category sometimes feel decorative owing to the reflective sheen of metallic paint; but in those where she allows stains to predominate, oozing unimpeded out into watery alluvial fans, the results can be stunning, as in the symbolist-tinged Time Becoming, where a Redon-like eye stares out from a ghostly bulbous formation. Her purplish watercolors from the Raga series are arresting, too; they buzz with the teeming energy of a chemical reaction frozen in time, with forms that follow no predictable pattern, either within a single work or within the series. Levin’s paintings that unite accident and incident are, to my mind, her strongest because they harness the respective strengths of both approaches, integrating the kind of scabrous surfaces that can only be achieved through controlled experiments, with bold, gestures that assert the artist’s conscious intentions. In that realm, two paintings that stand out are Spirit of the Ganges and Reflections in Time. In each, circles figure prominently, and they express, more forcefully than anything else in this exhibit, the point Levin is trying to make, which is the essential unity of all things and the uniform path they travel: the cycle of birth, life and death.
–DAVID M. ROTH