Untitled, from the series American Beauties (1989-1990), 20 x 24 Polaroid Polacolor Print
Apart from American Beauties and Barbie, the center gallery also included six works from the Baseball series, including three identifiable individuals who viewers could regard as archetypes: Sandy Koufax, the Orthodox Jew who refused to pitch Game One of the ’65 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur; Yogi Berra, arguably the Buddha of Baseball, who somehow transformed Italian working-class idealism into all-American heroism; and Jackie Robinson, “42”, who suffered for the sport over the course of his titanic and transformational quest to integrate Major League Baseball. Unusually it seems, unlike these stars, Levinthal’s women inhabit predominantly unidentifiable spaces, whether the dark confines of 1950s-style mens-magazines, or the ultimately plastic surrealism of a toy universe, while the men inhabit the specific confines of history. Whether these distinctions are intentional is unclear; but somehow there is a troubling oscillation between trope and triumph.
The third gallery contains works from two more series: four works from Passion, and ten from Mein Kampf. In one work from Passion, a saint stands hands outstretched, palms up, eyes downward; it is a mirror opposite of the image of Yogi Berra, who in the preceding room stood arms outstretched, eyes gazing toward the heavens, hoping to catch a wayward pop foul. The inference that sportis religion can’t be overlooked, although given the exhibition’s installation it is not readily evident. Instead, Passionand Mein Kampf engage in a discourse of good and evil, although in fact, they don’t really engage much at all. The more intriguing connection seems to be between the women of American Beauties, and the abject horror of the naked women in Levinthal’s concentration camp images—the similarities being so subtle that one wonders if a doll from the former series appears in the latter.
Recognizability, familiarity, and accessibility are all qualities that Playland compels. But somehow, it feels as if—in today's contemporary context—some of the larger issues being addressed are trapped within the frame: when Yogi Berra reaches for the stars, for example, I was reminded of Robert Redford in The Natural; while American Beauties challenges ideas of feminine beauty, many contemporary college-age visitors are just on the cusp of being too young to remember Anna Nicole Smith, much less Jayne Mansfield, and somehow the images don’t suggest a Kardashian. So maybe the problem is that, in its totality, Playland makes each series have difficulty situating its specific voice. Each is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the next. There are too many ideas being explored, too many issues being addressed, to truly situate the exhibition. This is a challenge with any survey exhibition, particularly when the similarities between the visual language the artist uses means that each image has to be approached carefully, examined thoughtfully, and considered fully. Given the demands that such requirements place on even the most informed museum visitors, perhaps a David Levinthal series is better experienced in moderation, like fine wine: sampled, critiqued, and then . . . the choice is yours.