There are few spaces better suited to an encounter with the unknown than the faintly eerie, subterranean chamber at Packer Schopf Gallery. Like the crypt of some secular church, its exposed masonry and weathered cobblestones house curious objects; musings on death and rebirth personified by artist Lauren Levato’s ten spare, graphite-on-paper self-portraits.
Precisely drawn, the works in “Wunderkammer” envisage the body—only superficially the artist’s own—as time’s reservoir; a site where life’s events, both tragic and triumphant, accumulate and transform. Levato’s drawings achieve this emotional resonance by uncynically mining a rich vein of symbolic narrative that’s fast become an endangered species in more academic genres.
In works such as “Self Portrait as Thief in the Night” or “Self Portrait as St. John the Baptist” Levato depicts animals and insects that assume the character of specific individuals (father), events (familial death), and memories (a traumatic upbringing). Rendered within her figures’ bodies, these creatures signify passing moments that become irrevocable parts of ourselves. And by transforming personal incident into universal lore, her drawings make for absorbing reflection.
Allegorical virtues aside, there’s a sensuousness that these drawings long for. The works’ burnished, classical execution conflicts with their essentially romantic motivations, and the compositions are just too damned predictable. Like paper dolls, Levato’s ethereal alter egos never deviate from their central placement—which is odd, given the impassioned currency the works trade in. But, importantly, Levato’s drawings take an emotionally fraught, honest and maybe naïve relationship with the world and just put it out there. You don’t see that too often.
Nevertheless, it’s not enough for art to be content illustrating content; it needs to embody it as well. This is where Levato’s recently awarded USAP grant comes into play. Impressively crowd-sourced in order to afford her the opportunity to enhance the “scale, scope, and media” of her work, perhaps it’s not too much to hope that future pieces in her “year of curiosities” will possess sensory qualities that rival their already sophisticated symbolic ones. (Alan Pocaro)
Through February 16 at Packer Schopf Gallery, 942 West Lake. Artist talk: February 9, 1pm.