(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1994)
The Eye Gallery’s current show reveals an elegantly ordered, personal fascination with visual gender codes by Canadian artist Nina Levitt. Mining turn of the century photographic portraits from the Notman Archives, Levitt produces a renegade body of select imagery that explores, among other things, good old fashioned lesbian invisibility, the missing body in institutional representation, as well as lurid 1960s yellow press sensationalizations of bad girls.
Levitt’s individual pieces mix art strategies from John Baldessari’s spin on appropriated stock photography to Millie Wilson’s comment on subjectivity in her Museum of Lesbian Dreams. Her theatrical systematizing and blatant seductions of hide and seek are best described by Alison Gillmore in the Winnipeg Free Press:
Levitt’s central interest is the hidden sexual possibilities in nominally conventional images. “Submerged 1991” takes a group portrait by turn of the century American photographer Alice Austen, repeating it but always blocking part of it, so it can not be read as a whole. The image features two pairs of embracing women. Levitt’s cropping of the photo tends to underline rather than disguise the joyful, slightly bashful exuberance of the subjects.
The very sweet and physically tender friendships of upper class women in the Victorian age were quite acceptable. (It’s said that Queen Victoria didn’t bother to outlaw lesbianism along with male homosexuality simply because she couldn’t imagine it.) Seen in a post-Freudian light, however, these girlish affections seem more like sexual undercurrents in otherwise very straightened lives.
“Calamity 1991” uses a photograph of Calamity Jane, who dressed – and sometimes passed – as a man of the Old West. Levitt singles out a few telling points – hands, lap, feet – that seem to signal a “femaleness” in Calamity’s butch persona.
But the final effect is to suggest the arbitrariness of what is deemed male and female. (And there’s a certain connection between Calamity Jane’s western cross-dressing, and the rather femme vanity of the average male cowboy, with his high-heeled boots and tight, brightly color shirts.”
However, this kind of project cuts both ways. It revives what has been passed over within ‘the record,’ while precariously navigating the pitfalls of exporting contemporary values onto historical data. Here the artist succeeds in an exquisite re-reading of her material while avoiding oversimplified graftings of the present onto the past. Her strategy of widening the margins of archeological ambiguity while narrowing the focus on critical details calls attention to the conceits of historical narrative, social constructions of sensibilities, and hence, the nature of difference itself.
This is the central debate around which revisionist history revolves. By cocking your head to the left, the artist suggests you may survey the palimpsests that forever influence interpretations of significant change. Think, for instance, of how many versions of Stonewall, the origin myth of the gay movement, are begging to be re-told. With regard to the aforementioned rebellion, this exhibition, then, is timely, as it questions as well as attempts to locate, own and respect the mind-boggling subjectivity and contradictions that are part and parcel of formulating a collective past.