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I recently sat down with Dan Levenson in his Glassell Park studio as he prepared for his upcoming solo show at Susanne Vielmetter Projects. Levenson has fabricated, in the most inventive sense, a fictional art school, The State Art Academy, Zurich or SKZ–it’s Swiss-German acronym. The academy provides much of the context for his extensive body of work. His paintings are named after students in attendance at the art academy. He also creates the wooden lockers to house student work and shipping crates for when the students are ready to enter the global art market. There are many layers to Dan’s work, and there were just as many in our conversation as we touched on topics ranging from academia and institutional critique to the metric system and Martin Kippenberger.
Barnett Cohen: Much of your work, your paintings and sculptures, stem directly and specifically from your imagined art school, The State Art Academy of Zürich, complete with students, a curriculum, and a prefered brand of cigarettes. How and when did you arrive at the idea for the school?
Dan Levenson: It started when I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College joking with some friends about how art students are fetishized. That there’s something pornographic about art students and art stars—kind of grimy geniuses. Students have 12 to 24 months after graduating from MFA programs to capitalize on their status as shiny new commodities. Artists are constantly being produced as new, interesting, sexy…
DL: Emerging. I feel like young artists often don’t have a chance to develop, and so the artists, the artwork, and the thinking are undeveloped.
BC: Why set the State Art Academy in Switzerland?
DL: I needed a fictional setting for the school. I needed a time and a place. Switzerland just works in so many ways. It’s sort of bland and generic and modern and you can talk about culture and language and ethnicity and nationality and even race without offending anybody. Those are things that I wanted to talk about because those are absolutely things that construct artists.
BC: Do the materiality of the paintings and sculptural work reference a particular time period?
DL: The paintings look old and damaged because of the narrative aspect that underlies the work: a group of Swiss artists emerged from the SKZ, an art school that emphasized formal rather than subjective concerns. This is, I think, the basic idea of modernism: a search for universals that could be emancipatory; those ideas seems antique now. That is why, in part, the paintings look antique. In my narrative, the SKZ closed or was abandoned in 1999. The paintings, along with some furniture and other artifacts, were recovered from its ruins.
BC: To what extent do you think of your paintings as props?
DL: The question about (theatrical) props is a very good one. My question in return is to what extent are all paintings theatrical props? If all paintings are theatrical—and the act of “being-an-artist” is just an act or performance—then what becomes of sincerity? Maybe a more honest approach is to admit, right off the bat, that all paintings are in some sense merely theatrical props. We can then get this nagging doubt about authenticity, which has haunted the 20th century, out of the way; not so as to become cynical but so that we can allow absolute sincerity, or commitment, back in.
BC: Do you see your creation of the school as a form of institutional critique?
DL: I love the legacy of institutional critique. It was coined by Andrea Fraser and she inverted the phrase “Critique of Institutions” from Benjamin Buchloh and embodied the legacy that he identified. I think it was an act of genius on her part, and I like that legacy although I am critical of it. Early influences for me were also Hans Haacke and Mel Bochner, and their idea of framing, or being framed. Discrete autonomous art objects are confined to their physical selves and I wanted to create something that could point outside of itself. That first of all points to the institution. The painting on the wall points to the white cube and that points to all kinds of other circuits. That is what I am trying to do.
BC: How far down the fictional rabbit hole have you traveled? What is your role as the artist, the creator, and the fabricator of this narrative?
DL: I like to compare my role to that of the author of a novel. I am not part of the novel and the characters in the novel are absolutely not to be taken as “alter egos.” It’s very important to me that the emphasis in the project remain firmly on the institutions: the art school, the art supply company, an associated art gallery, a cigarette company, etc, and not on any individuals. Names appear only once: as titles of paintings and in lectures that I give, but nothing else can be known about the individual biographies of the students. I am not interested in glorifying the achievements of individuals but only in understanding what circumstances produce individuals and allow—or prevent—individuals from emerging.
BC: With your upcoming exhibition, I am thinking of your shipping crates. You’ve made locker cabinets for the students of SKZ and I wonder if the crates represent an exit from the academy and into world of commerce?
DL: The crates definitely represent globalization. Shipping is the way that crap comes from China to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It transforms our lives for better and for worse. That’s what happens in the art world. Perhaps the era of biennales is over, maybe the era of brick and mortar art galleries is over as well. The global art fair circuit is growing more and more intensive. All of this has to do with globalization and its effects on the art world. My fantasy of being an artist is just sitting in my studio and doing my work. When you’re exposed to this giant grinding machine, if you’re going to face it directly, you have to arm yourself somehow and that’s what the shipping crates are for me.
BC: What else are you thinking about or what else is at stake for you on the eve of your debut?
DL: I have had the good fortune of being totally unsuccessful for eighteen years since finishing my MFA. I have therefore had a lot of time to work in the studio; I have had time to develop. At the same time, I feel completely blindsided by the upcoming show. It’s just scary to suddenly be exposed to the market, to be exposed to the public, to be answering questions in an interview. Once things are out there, you can’t retract them, you can’t rethink them. And I am someone who overthinks everything.
BC: Given the extent of your practice—the fabrication of the school, and your sculptural and video work—do you still regard yourself as a painter?
DL: Definitely. I have always loved painting. I think it’s one of the deepest ways of addressing representation and materiality. That’s how I started out. However, I didn’t like the idea that as a painter, you’re confined to this rectangle and that’s all you can address. I needed ways to address the larger framework in which paintings happen. When I was in grad school at the Royal College of Art in London, I literally made work about frames and became interested in Haacke and institutional critique.
BC: And through your long body of work, your paintings in particular are highly coherent.
Dan: Even though I fight against and am critical of it, I understand the need to be coherent and that you have to expose your incoherence over time. Just as there are no individual biographies in my work, my practice as an artist has to be about my work and not about me—not about my personality. I’m boring. Martin Kippenberger could afford to be eclecticist because a cult of personality gave his practice an air of coherence. I am not Martin Kippenberger. I’m not doing coke in motels.