Lauren Levato: Mutagens & Symbionts
By DANIEL MAIDMAN, April 2020
“Lure I” is the first of the disturbing photographs in Lauren Levato Coyne’s current body of work, “Mutagens & Symbionts.”
I have been following Lauren Levato Coyne’s work for many years now. It has always been distinguished by its semiotic density. I think of her “Wunderkammer” drawings as her first complete, mature pieces.
In this series of similar self-portraits, she established a compositional framework within which she was able to add and rearrange various objects of personal significance. Their identities and configurations added up to a mesh of meaning. As statements to think about, these images were partly decipherable, partly cryptic. As images to look at, they were dazzlingly satisfying.
Sadly, once you get it right, you have to move on, and Levato Coyne recognized this necessity. She has worked through a number of ideas in the seven years since that early project. First she made drawings in a similar style, with size or rendering inflated beyond the limits of the original series. Later she experimented with materials, producing increasingly strange and involved constructs. I think of the drawing phase as having been a search for further reward in an already-mined vein, and the sculpture phase as preparation for the current work.
This is a case study of huge importance for the serious life-long artist. We go through stretches of making art that synthesizes everything we have to offer into a brilliant, complete, and original form. And then we go back to work, seeking without thinking that we are finding, until one day everything falls into place, and all those painful hours and years of doubt abruptly clarify themselves as the inevitable and necessary steps toward the next revelation.
With “Mutagens & Symbionts,” Levato Coyne has seen the sculpture in the rock that was her own accumulated body of materials and images. She has trimmed away the excess, leaving behind the riveting and essential work that her secret artist-mind was groping toward. These pieces are simple and pure. All of their parts work together toward a unified impression. Her work is recognizably hers: she has once again established a baseline self-portrait. This time, the baseline is “photograph of self dressed in dark formal clothing with biomorphic head distortion.” And once again, she creates meaningful variations within that baseline. In “Lure I” above, there are butterflies on her sleeves and a crystalline cyclopean eye. In “Lure II,” there is a single long-haired nipple, as discomforting, and for similar reasons, as Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup. And in “Some Distance Felt,” there is a tangle of silvery hair, a fox-like fur collar with its own single eye, and a showgirl’s bare thighs.
Photography is not drawing. It wants to pick up all kinds of irrelevant details; it is brutally difficult to reduce what the lens notices to a controlled and minimal framework. Notice how much work Levato Coyne has put into making sure only her intended imagery survives into the final image. That rigor and sparseness helps the viewer, unconsciously, to recognize that everything here, however inscrutable, is meaningful. The exteriorized, unfolded map of the self in “Wunderkammer” has, in this work, curled inward to a mouthless, nearly silent, intensity.
Now, it is a fool’s game trying to figure out what Levato Coyne’s work particularly means. But every twist of the historical knife – sorry, turn of the wheel of history – brings some recent art into focus as the speech of the oracle. Levato Coyne takes her place alongside Kokoschka, Dix, Kafka, Orwell, and, oddly, Dean Koontz, in having given anticipatory artistic voice to What Came Next.
Her characteristic semiotic overlays really heat up when placed in context of the Covid-19 situation. Her use of the mask reflects our own panicked turn toward masks. But her stated topic, mutagens and symbionts, denies the ultimate feasibility of separation. The actions she depicts speak to a mania for maintaining boundaries, but her dark figures begin to blend into their dark backgrounds, and her transformed faces have that nightmarish quality of a self one does not notice until, looking in the mirror, one does not find the beautiful integrity of the human face as one remembers it. Rather, one sees that the enemy is inside the city, and in fact may always have been there; there never was an “us,” safe inside the city, nor a city. The beautiful human face was the illusion, and the reality, perceived at last, is a roiling interpenetration of mammal and microbe, a distribution of consciousness over an illimitable, irreducible terrain. WM
Daniel Maidman is a painter and writer. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections, among them those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and Gemini-winning screenwriter Jeremy Boxen. He has produced paintings in collaboration with best-selling novelist China Miéville, award-winning poet Kathleen Rooney, independent film icon Martin Donovan, and noted installation artist Erika Johnson. Maidman’s art and writing on art have been featured in ARTnews, Forbes, Juxtapoz, Whitehot Magazine, Hyperallergic, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, MAKE, Manifest, and The Artist’s Magazine. He blogs for The Huffington Post. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.
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