Babes (and more) in toyland

Cowboys ride roughshod across blazing desert landscapes. Voluptuous bathing beauties frolic in the sand. On a darker note, a steely-faced Hitler stares into the void, and unnervingly cheerful “blackface” characters grin inanely.

What kind of bizarre tableau is this, you ask? Some schizophrenic documentary on the Learning Channel? No. These scenes are part of artist David Levinthal’s postmodern look at culture — through often unsettling, large-format Polaroid photographs of toys and dolls. By turns deeply disturbing and dazzlingly beautiful, Levinthal’s images run the gamut from Barbie dolls to toy soldiers, from provocative Penthouse-type spreads to grim Third Reich nightmares.

Levinthal’s work questions our cultural assumptions, as well as the very nature of how we perceive — and create — reality. The disparity between seemingly innocent childhood playthings and the cultural meanings bestowed on them is key to Levinthal’s art.

The artist’s adventures in toyland began in 1972, when he was a Yale graduate student. Working with his classmate (and now-famed Doonesbury cartoonist) Garry Trudeau, he created a mock photodocumentary of Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia using tiny toy soldiers. Many of the toys were photographed on Levinthal’s childhood bedroom floor; to evoke the frigid Russian landscape, he used common household items. “I highly recommend Gold Medal flour to create snow drifts,” he told attendees of a gallery talk held recently at the Asheville Art Museum, given in conjunction with his current exhibit there: Disquieting Tales From Toyland.

Eventually published in a book called Hitler Moves East in 1977, the photo series became a cult favorite, particularly among young artists exploring new mediums and methods. The art world had not seen work quite like that before; Levinthal went on to influence artists/photographers like Cindy Sherman, known for her “mutilated doll” works.

The stark images of soldiers in the “Hitler Moves East” series are photographed in grainy black-and-white — they have the look of old newsreels — a departure from the rich, nearly hyper-real saturated colors found in his other works, and in direct contrast to the eerily evocative theatricality of his related “Mein Kampf” series (for which he photographed tiny, bizarre Hitler figures that he found in Austria).

Why the initial interest in toy soldiers? “I was part of the first TV generation,” Levinthal explains (he was born in 1949). “So I grew up with images of war. I lived war vicariously through toys, movies and TV.”

Levinthal says “Hitler Moves East” is his favorite among all his work. “It was the first,” he notes. “It was the purest. It was done at a time in my life when there was absolutely no thought about showing work in galleries or trying to be successful. It was sort of raw, youthful enthusiasm. I broke so many rules, because I didn’t know rules existed. … Some of the early work I did on the linoleum floor has a rawness to it that’s so wonderful. … The energy was coming from making the work and being excited about it, and discovering new things … you know, [like making] a river out of crepe paper.”

Levinthal’s “Wild West” series evokes a poignant childhood nostalgia in the artist. “Cowboys were pop-culture figures in the ’50s,” he says. “And I was obsessed with them. I wanted to wear my favorite cowboy shirt and Red Ryder gloves every day.” In fact, some of the toys photographed for this series were his own. “I found a photograph of myself in 1954 playing with some of the cowboy figures [I later photographed],” he remembers. “So I like to say that I began working with cowboy images in 1954, predating all postmodern photography.”

Beneath the sentimentality in the “Wild West” series, though, lie troubling stereotypes and a visceral frontier violence — the savage warrior, the horse thief awaiting the noose.

Speaking of disquieting stereotypes, Levinthal’s “Blackface” series has generated the most controversy of all his work. The offshoot of a project originally to be based on the film Birth of a Nation, Levinthal photographed black memorabilia from the early part of the century — grinning Amos and Andy faces, Aunt Jemima cookie jars … images that perpetuate blatant and often cruel stereotypes. By photographing and displaying these images, is Levinthal somehow glorifying them? This was a charge raised in 1997 by Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which canceled a show containing some of the “Blackface” images before it opened. The institute’s board of advisors charged that Levinthal wasn’t sufficiently “critiquing” the items he photographed.

“Of all the work I’ve ever done,” explains Levinthal, “that series has touched the most sensitive and rawest of nerves, but not in the black intellectual community.” In fact, prominent black scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. have supported the works as important cultural documentation, and Spike Lee used some of the images in his film, Bamboozled.

“I gave up the Birth of a Nation idea because I felt the objects were so iconocally powerful on their own, so I decided to shoot and frame them like portraits,” Levinthal describes. “It’s like photographing a piece of sculpture, but editing in such a way that you draw out the power of the object.” In this case, the power is an awful one — much like the dreamlike tableau Levinthal created in his “Mein Kampf” series — derived from the consequences of the stereotypes and the knowledge of who created them. The objects are horrible in their subtext, but strangely beautiful in their artistry.

Dangerous curves

Four of Levinthal’s series — “Barbie,” “XXX,” “American Beauties” and “Desire” — focus on the female form, or, more specifically, on its objectification. Barbie dolls are photographed in the manner of Vogue layouts, bringing to mind the fashion photography of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. In fact, a Barbie “stylist” even showed up when Levinthal shot the photos. “Some of the dolls I was working with are worth about $10,000, so the owner sent a stylist with all these miniature accouterments, like a miniature steamer. She immediately started steaming the dolls’ clothes.

“Barbie traces cultural sensibilities, especially the way Mattel has transformed the dolls and their clothes over the years to fit with the times,” Levinthal notes. “And in turn, cultural sensibilities are generated by toys. In the ’50s, the boys always got cap guns or play gas stations; the girls got dolls and playhouses. Toys play a big role in the socialization process.”

In his “XXX” series, Levinthal used more “adult” toys — figures built from model kits that depict unclad women in frankly sexual poses, reminiscent of girlie-magazine spreads. The images blend reality and fantasy, organic and inanimate, as the narrow depth of field used to set up the shots breathes an eerie life into the figures (that are actually only about a foot tall).

“People frequently ask me if the women in those photos are real,” notes Levinthal. “But the fact is they look nothing like real women.” He expounded on the topic to one interviewer recently: “I would say the dolls are hyper-unreal, because women don’t look like that. There is a sort of unattainable perfection that only exists in fantasy. But the whole idea of using the word perfection is incorrect, too. They are women without a soul. There’s a sexuality, but there is not intimacy — which is the way a lot of men prefer women.”

Moreover, this series addresses pornography’s troublesome intersection with popular culture. “I mean, Hustler magazine and The New Yorker talk about the same things these days,” the artist notes. “When I was a child, model kits were for cars and that sort of thing; now the kits encompass these sexual figures. Pornography is so public and so accessible now. I grew up in an era when the Sears catalogue lingerie section was considered very racy.”

Levinthal mentions the charge he gets from working with such an an immediate artistic process (the Polaroid shots come to life within 75 seconds). “It’s very invigorating, but draining, because you’re instantaneously creating,” he notes.

“It was kind of difficult when I started doing this work in the ’70s,” he continues, “because it was not accepted in the art world. Being very different, it was marginalized. The irony was that, starting in the ’80s, the stuff I was doing became popular. I cherish having the opportunity to be a part of that new movement.”

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