Artist Michael Gac Levin Explores Parenthood in 'Yellow Brick Road' | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Artist Michael Gac Levin Explores Parenthood in 'Yellow Brick Road'

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Published December 6, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


"Date Night"; - COURTESY OF HEXUM GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Hexum Gallery
  • "Date Night";

At Hexum Gallery in Montpelier, the current exhibition is titled "Yellow Brick Road," but it's not about The Wizard of Oz. Rather, the term that suggests a magic-strewn journey is a conceptual portal through which we might view Michael Gac Levin's paintings and drawings. Nothing is quite what it seems; his allegorical work is strange yet inviting. It's also deeply personal.

The Brooklyn-based artist, father to children ages 3 and 6, acknowledges that much of his current work navigates the relationships of parents and children.

"I spend a lot of time reading to my kids," Gac Levin said in a phone interview. "A lot of kids' books are really profound — they have so much to say about how rich and full of lasting meaning childhood is. It brings you to reflect on your own life."

Many of his paintings feature an odd coupling: strawberries and traffic signals. And their relative scale is preposterous: In a series of 15-by-18-inch oils titled "Strawberry Block With Downed Signal," an enormous berry in a building-like basket looms over a forlorn yellow signal box on the ground. In "#3," a tiny tree leans supportively against the signal. (It's easy to anthropomorphize here; in a world with gigantic fruit, anything is possible.)

"Strawberry Block With Downed Signal #3" - COURTESY OF HEXUM GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Hexum Gallery
  • "Strawberry Block With Downed Signal #3"

The traffic signal is handily symbolic. "An object that says yes or no seems like an easy fit in my thinking about parenthood," Gac Levin said.

All of his images grew out of daily drawings that Gac Levin began during a stint as a stay-at-home dad. Forced to curtail a painting practice, he turned to his sketchbook. Eventually, "I felt like my ideas were growing on their own without me even thinking about it," he said. "The strawberry came out of that."

In these paintings, his subjects are perched on a table-like surface that dissolves into the background. The works simultaneously pare and push the parameters of still life. And they have an inexplicable glow.

Gac Levin's handling of light and shadow is cinematic in "Date Night," a 24-by-30-inch acrylic on canvas. Here the strawberry plays a smaller role sitting behind a bulbous tree that in turn hides behind — or props up? — an oversize signal box. Facing them is a small, multicolored car, the light from its headlamps a yellow triangle. At the back is a blocky, rust-colored building that might be a living room chair; the green field below is grass or a thick rug.

"Punishments" - COURTESY OF HEXUM GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Hexum Gallery
  • "Punishments"

The perceptual trickery of "Date Night" underscores Gac Levin's sense of the shifting ground in parenthood. "You can feel that you're in this vast space, and then scale changes and everything is different," he said. "As a parent, sometimes you feel huge and powerful, but you can also feel shrunken when you can't meet a demand."

Other paintings reference different dynamics — with the artist's own parents. Among them is a small oil, curiously titled "Punishments," which centers clasping male and female hands. At first glance it seems like a handshake, but both are left hands. Gac Levin said he hadn't even noticed that he painted them that way. Perhaps the painting unconsciously reflects how memories revise themselves on the way to adulthood.

"I have a strong interest in [Sigmund] Freud," Gac Levin said, "and there's never anything fully without intention, even if you're not aware of it."

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