At Play in the Field of Dreams

Devouring David Levinthal’s Playland, on view recently at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, was like overeating at an unlimited buffet. You were reasonably sure you should stop, but you were just not sure quite when. What made the exhibition so difficult to situate was that it was, like any exhibition that focused predominantly on works from a single gift, both enhanced and limited by what was contained therein: 40 of 59 works recently obtained from an anonymous donor, as well as an additional 6 pieces drawn from three Birmingham collections. Why the additional works were necessary is unclear, but—coming from Levinthal’s Baseball series—they added elements of accessibility and familiarity. 

The exhibition filled all of AEIVA. In the smallest gallery were nine images from Wild West, Levinthal’s ongoing series that explores notions of American expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the historical subjugation of Native Americans. Using a wild, white horse as its key image (I couldn’t decide here if the better soundtrack would be Michael Martin Murphey’s Wildfire or Peter Rowan’s Free Mexican Air Force—“Mescalito riding a white horse”), Wild West was a soft, shallow depth-of-field gallop through an unspecified expansionist history. What this highlighted, from the outset, was the sheer evocative power of the toys Levinthal photographs, which are themselves bounded by the limits of their own meaning. While both the wall text and contemporary cultural criticism may call into question the appropriateness of using “Cowboys and Indians”, either the terms or the toys, when situated within their historical frame these images become manifestations of both adolescent white male Hollywood fantasy from mid-century and a nostalgic comment on how far culture has come. In some ways, this critical doubling is the shadow that haunts the entire exhibition.  

In the adjacent gallery, four works from American Beauties vied with nine pieces from the Barbie series in an attempt to determine how best to negotiate the often problematic and stereotypical representations of women. One look at the voluptuousness of a work from American Beauties, and viewers stepped into a vaseline-coated land of blurry desire, constructed from plastic depictions of feminine perfection. Barbie, on the contrary, is a study in representing aspirational womanhood after the fact—forcing viewers to wonder just what the true questions are. In context, American Beauties and Barbie did not set up the tried and tired representational dichotomy of virgin/whore, but arguably instead one of idealized versus homogenized. In both instances, the issue was that neither had a voice: both Barbie and American Beauties are constructed representations, not unsympathetically, of the issues that are being explored. But, in looking at both, I was reminded of a piece from another series, Desire (1992-1992). The late advertising impresario Jay Chiat, having seen a work from that series, mistook it for a photograph of his then wife. 

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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.