Jill Levine’s small, vibrantly colored assemblages and postcard-size gouache-on-paper works in this intriguing show, titled “Cats Talk,” hung in the gallery like folkloric totems. Their abstracted anthropomorphic elements seemed on the verge of coming to life.
Levine has traveled all over Mexico, visiting ancient ruins in the Yucatán, around Mexico City, in Puebla, Oaxaca, Vera Cruz, and, farther south, in Honduras and Guatemala. Mesoamerica is a palimpsest of indigenous visual cultures. Prehistoric Olmec, recently rediscovered Maya, and famously bloody Aztec are writ large in Levine’s work.
Painted Styrofoam sculptures, six in total, were hung at eye level, engaging viewers directly. Bulbous protrusions radiate from the works, suggesting sets of arms, horns, eyes, ears, and wings, reminiscent of Hindu deities or Manga comic characters. Covered with bold, colorful graphic designs that recall the reliefs carved into Mayan temples and stelae, the sculptures promise comforting and protective magical power.
The gouaches here were studies for the multidimensional sculptures. Like graphic tarot cards, Mesoamerican iconography and ikat-textile motifs are superimposed onto animal forms—lizards, owls, frogs. Arranged in rows, the gouaches acted as connecting dots between each sculptural shrine. A doorway in the middle of the gallery was painted with the same motifs, suggesting neon orange and blue temple pylons.
Essentially erased when the Spanish conquistadors burned and destroyed Mayan codices upon arriving on Mesoamerican shores in the late 16th century, the Mayan chronicles were finally decoded and resurrected in the late 20th century. Viewers of Levine’s work must undertake a similar task of deciphering form and meaning. This exhibition was an homage to the complexity of visual cultures both recognizable and pleasingly, albeit frustratingly, still somewhat impenetrable.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 98.