Justine Crow meets artist Rachel Levitas
It is the aura of portent that first strikes the onlooker as this artist’s recent collection is revealed, the intimation that something insidious is afoot and change is seeping into the canvas. Rachel Levitas says that she believes most artists have the ability to sense a shift in the air and can perceive potentially catastrophic indicators before anyone else. As we ponder the foxes foraging on a draped trestle, the augury of some sort of collapse beneath the weight of their mischief, is never far from our suspicion.
Foxes, flags, dahlias, her vision is indisputably British and her family background takes some surprising routes across an unusual yet familiar map of political history and the artist grew up seeing the world through a particular ideological prism that took her beyond the iron curtain. In the foxes, we see new and opportunistic forces as they dismantle the old guard, the blowsy flowers referencing the more reverentially observed ostentatious still life displays of game and bloom once commissioned by the elite country estates.
Levitas finds much to be optimistic about however and there is a shimmer of playfulness in her work. Still Life Interrupted includes pictures that are an interruption of her previous set of expressions, Still Life Disturbed, and the series of works je suis désolé, considers the relationship of Manet and his muse, Berthe Morrisot. The eclipse of Berthe in these paintings is a comment on the role of artist and his muse, in this case, his female muse, also an artist. Madame Swann, although a fictional literary character, is also a muse and in the Madame Swann paintings represents the relentless social surge of her animal equivalent, the urban fox.
Not dissimilar to the fox, the artist herself has pluck but patience, plus a shrewd eye for advantage and her interest in the animals as opportunists was triggered by the sight of a single arrogant fox sitting on her doorstep that waited unfalteringly to be fed. Brought up in the far North, she has found stability in the city with a growing family, teaching, talking, observing, her airy modern studio overlooking Burgess Park a far cry from the stereotypical clutter of creativity. It is full of thought.
Educated at a “state comp” she was influenced by one of those fabled inspiring teachers who successfully saw several of his protégés arrive at the top institutions. Levitas herself studied at Camberwell before “falling in love” with the crumbling metaphorical and physical edifice of the Royal Academy Schools, saying that stepping into the ‘still life room’ and finding it filled with skeletons, a model of a flayed man and the cast of a real crucifix, she felt a jolt of recognition. Having trained extensively as a printmaker, her fascination is with discovery, deconstruction and corruption, and has won her several prizes including the Lynn Painter-Stainers.
The smaller pieces, as she experiments with surface and quality, have the effect of decoration on porcelain, possibly echoing the country house hierarchy, of china to be laid out, to be smashed. Grand trees also inhabit her landscapes as sentient signposts, prophesying the unsaid. While we have fun at the table, we disregard the warning of impending disintegration at our peril and certain sleek scavengers won’t pass up the chance to augment their good fortune.