In the Studios: Steven J. Levin
Steven J. Levin has been painting for more than three decades, and as he comes into the home stretch of his “mid-career years,” the ideas are coming faster than he can paint them. The Minneapolis-based artist has worked hard to earn the ease that his studio life now affords him, with several years of rigorous training preceding decades of actively pursuing opportunities for growth and change. Today Levin paints in a style that he describes as “modern classicist,” which respects the tenets of the classical tradition while allowing in the influence of certain modern concepts. In this interview, Levin recounts some defining moments of his artistic journey thus far, including the life-altering advice he received from Richard Lack, a pivotal conversation with long-time gallerist John Pence, and how he learned to give himself permission to enjoy the process of art-making, while letting his style evolve.
AM: Let’s begin by talking about your studio practice. Where is your studio currently located, and how many hours a week do you spend there?
SL: My studio is in my home in Northeast Minneapolis, which has become a sort of artsy section of town. There are a lot of old warehouses that have been converted into artist studios, as well as newly opened craft breweries and distilleries and many new restaurants. I had rented various studios for many years and had always planned to eventually have a studio at home. I’ve been here for fifteen years now. I love being able to just walk into the studio to draw or paint in the evenings or look at my work and plan the next steps. I spend about forty to fifty hours a week in the studio.
AM: You describe yourself as a “modern classicist,” trained in the methods modeled after those used in nineteenth-century Paris. Do you mean the French academic tradition a la Jean-Leon Gerome’s École des Beaux-Arts, or is it more from the French Impressionist influence of nineteenth-century Paris? Or both?
SL: It’s really both. The Boston School tradition is a classical academic or atelier-style training (drawing from the live model, plaster casts, anatomy lectures, etc.) coupled with the Impressionist way of seeing color and rendering form, which stems from a purely visual color impression. My “modern classicist” self-description is how I characterize the slightly different direction I’ve gone from the training I received in that Boston School tradition. I don’t consider myself an Impressionist anymore as my style has changed over the years, but rather I’m a classically trained painter who applies that vision to modern subjects.
AM: You grew up in and live in Minneapolis, where the atelier tradition has been quietly burning for several decades. When you were looking for a school to attend, what made you select the Atelier LeSueur over, say, Atelier Lack?
SL: I started out at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design but left in search of a more thorough training in drawing and painting. The LeSueur school was an offshoot of Richard Lack’s atelier. At LeSueur I studied under several different Lack graduates, as well as Lack himself. LeSueur had a bit more freedom in the curriculum, which is why I went there.
AM: The classical realist term was of course coined by Richard Lack in the early 1980s. Although he received some criticism that it was a slight contradiction in terms, he defined classical as that which respects beauty and order and defined realism as that which represents nature. Is this your definition of classical realism as well?
SL: That is essentially it, but both terms are understood to refer to the subjects depicted as well. The realist tradition is usually concerned with scenes of everyday life whereas the term classical usually encompasses the tradition of larger themes: mythological, imaginative, or religious compositions, etc. Richard Lack was very much interested in both approaches.
AM: You explore many different moods, subject matter, and styles in your work—from Hopper-esque interiors and night scenes, to trompe l’oeil still lifes, to classical portraits. Which subject and style do you find yourself most drawn to these days?
SL: I’m still drawn to everything these days. I’m doing a series of Hopper-esque exterior scenes, also continuing with the still lifes and portraits. The only exception is probably the trompe l’oeil subject. I took part in that for a while when I was with the John Pence Gallery, as those exhibitions were a regular feature there.
AM: There is a hint of satire and whimsy in several of your paintings. Was there ever a time when you thought you took art “too seriously” and found the need to be lighthearted, or has this always been your artistic personality?
SL: Yes, I started to expand my subject range back in the late 1990s. Some of the other artists with whom I was exhibiting were doing some really interesting things with their subject matter. I began to realize that painting didn’t always have to be so serious, and that it was okay to paint things that were just plain fun.
AM: At the same time, many of your paintings are thought-provoking and contain allegory, metaphors, and symbolism. In the Books and Butterflies series, for instance, what is the story behind the imagery?
SL: The books and butterfly series is partially about the visual simile between the pages of the books and the butterfly wings, and also about the contrast between permanence and transience. The books, or rather what is contained in them, has a kind of permanence, whereas the butterflies are very transient things. The inclusion of the Odd Nerdrum book is simply because he’s a painter whom I admire.
AM: You have been painting for several decades. Can you look back at this point and see certain life experiences or challenges you have gone through that gave you a new perspective on your painting? Or that pushed you forward in some specific way?
SL: I’ve long thought of my interview at the John Pence Gallery as being a turning point for me. This was in 1993. I had gone to San Francisco to meet him and see the gallery, and he sat down with me and slowly went through my portfolio. Up until that point I had been used to hearing mostly compliments about my work. Well, John gave me about the most bracing feedback I’ve ever received. Afterwards he encouraged me to take a look around the gallery at the work on the walls. It was pretty humbling. Thank goodness he took me on anyway, and I spent the next several years working to improve so I could better compete with the other artists there. It was a great experience.
AM: What criteria has to be met in order for you to feel you have reached a finishing point or place of satisfaction with a particular painting?
SL: It’s partly about a certain level of finish, but composition is also a big factor. It has to feel balanced and have a certain flow and feel. If there’s a passage that just seems jarring I’ll re-work it. I like making changes on a composition because it always feels like I’m improving it. Ultimately, though, the challenge is getting the work to match as closely as possible to my original idea of it.
AM: Who was your greatest teacher, and what were some of the most important lessons he or she taught you?
SL: I’d say Richard Lack has been the most influential teacher. He had a very calm, masterful sort of presence. His knowledge about painting and art in general was broad and deep. He had a term, “the big look,” and this was something we heard practically every day in my student years. This was probably the most important lesson he imparted about painting. It refers to the Impressionist approach to painting, specifically the way of looking at nature as a whole entity rather than looking into the particular part you happen to be painting. Viewed this way, things appear differently and more unified. Beyond that it was the example he set in his work, his absolute seriousness of purpose, and the high technical bar for his work.
AM: What are some of the unexpected influences or inspiration that have fueled/are fueling your work? (Comics for instance? Looking at your Ink painting.)
SL: My inspiration comes from a variety of places. Much of it comes from great art of the past, but also the Golden Age of Illustration, Art Deco, photography, and movies. Yes, maybe even comics, which I used to copy as a kid for the beautiful line work. For a time I thought I might want to pursue a career in the world of comics or cartooning. The Ink painting was a bit of looking back at a path not taken.
AM: What is currently on the easel, and what are you planning to work on in the months ahead?
SL: I’ve never had so many works and ideas in progress as I do right now. It seems the more I paint, the faster the ideas come. I wish it had been like that in the early days, when I used to struggle for subjects. I’m doing a few portraits and also a series of figure works set in city streets at night, which I’ll also be exploring in a series of etchings. I’m continuing my books and butterflies series as well.