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Count the growth rings

Sharon Levy makes an expansive journey into a scary-romantic place: 'The Wood.'

September 02, 2007|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

ARTIST Sharon Levy comes across as modest, unassuming, maybe a little shy. She wears her sandy-colored hair in a short, boyish cut, and her clothes, on interview day, are simple, practical: a royal blue knit shirt and navy work pants.

Then there are her shoes -- silver, strappy things that defy the rest of her wardrobe, like a riptide of playful flamboyance beneath a calm sea. Her sculptures of trees can be a bit like that as well, a mix of the straightforward and subversive, the understated and whimsical.

The work's multiple personalities caught the attention of the Santa Monica Museum of Art's Lisa Melandri and Elsa Longhauser when they first saw it in April during UC San Diego's Open Studios event. Levy had set out some of the work that she was readying for her master of fine arts show in May. Two of those pieces, as well as a new, third sculpture, will go on view in one of the project rooms at the museum starting Saturday in an exhibition titled "The Wood."

Scheduling a show directly out of a visit to a graduate student's studio was a first for Melandri, the museum's deputy director for exhibitions and programs: "This was a rarity for me, but the work was so mature and had sensibility, like a fairy-tale forest -- romantic in a way, but funny and awkward in another. The work is majestic but also obviously man-made, and that's a great tension. It was serendipity that [museum director Longhauser] and I saw the work, we fell in love with it, and we had a place to put it where it fit with the program as a whole."

Levy's show opens concurrently with William Pope.L's "Art After White People: Time, Trees & Celluloid . . . ," which includes an installation of painted palm trees titled "The Grove" and, in the other project room, Loren Holland's "Black Magic Woman," an installation evoking a moody, Louisiana landscape.

Levy, 30, will be showing "Cookie," which looks like a thick slice from a gigantic tree, the kind of thing on display at a natural history museum to illustrate growth rings. Nine feet in diameter and 3 feet thick, "Cookie" stands on end and is actually a painting on stretched canvas, edged in foam that has been roughly cut and painted to resemble bark.

"I wasn't trying to make it trompe l'oeil; I just wanted it to look like a painting," said Levy, in a conversation in a UCSD professor's studio that she's borrowing for the summer. "I joke that this is my Agnes Martin. It's repetitive, meditative."

With its matte surface and concentric rings of gray, mustard, tan and varieties of brown, "Cookie" is more illusionistic than Levy expected. When viewers approach it, they feel compelled to touch it, as if to confirm what the brain has already registered: This object with the awe-inducing presence of a natural artifact is entirely contrived; it contains no wood at all.

Competing impulses are complementary

Levy's other two sculptures, which she refers to as "clusters of young pines," are made of plywood sheets cut into silhouetted tree forms, stained dark brown and interlocked like standing paper dolls. They invoke a punning circularity of their own: industrialized end product conjuring the appearance of its own original state, lumber masquerading as forest, wood pretending to be woods.

Like "Cookie," the plywood trees force a marriage between artifice and nature, between the two- and the three-dimensional.

"I guess I want the best of both worlds, where you see [the work], and you're taken in by it, like you're walking into a forest, but at the same time you also see how things are fit together," Levy said.

Threading through her work are competing impulses made complementary. Drawing and painting merge with sculpture. She is interested in the uniformity and practicality of cheap, knockdown furniture, the kind that comes flat, in a box, ready for assembly, and also in the illusionism inherent in stage sets, the planar props that evoke a fully dimensional reality.

She didn't come across the work of Giuseppe Penone until "The Wood" was well underway, but the Italian sculptor's sensibility resonated powerfully with her. Penone has investigated the form and life cycle of the tree since the late 1960s in work that engages change, time and the transmutation of organic materials. Richard Artschwager, the playfully cerebral furniture-maker-turned-artist, has also been an influence on Levy's work.

Much of her imagery derives, ultimately, from childhood memory, she says. Prior to "The Wood," she made sepia ink paintings about her bedroom and the basement in her childhood home in the suburbs of Atlanta. Her work with trees traces back to memories of patches of forest near her home, as well as the Hudson Valley landscape of Bard College, where she received her bachelor's degree.

"The school was surrounded by woods -- just that feeling, being so close to something that had this scary, overwhelming power that you really could never feel entirely safe in or couldn't feel like you fully understood."

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