“Is Covid at My Door?,” detail from 180 photographs in 3 sections, archival digital prints, total 72″h x 40″w, 2021/2022 (From the artist)
The artistic quality of Judith Levy’s “At the Heart of the Matter,” with installations ranging from video to mixed media to photography to sculpture, is beyond reproach and reflects the artist’s decades of experience as both social critic and visual minstrel. Her latest entry into Kansas City’s artistic catalog represents an effort that is both deeply personal and bravely communal in the way in which it addresses some of the most calamitous dilemmas facing humanity and the planet. And although the messages of the work are not subtle, they are indeed suitable to the time and place in which humankind finds itself. Just as the occupant of a burning house screams for help rather than asks with a whisper, Levy’s creations are the anguished howl of a world imperiled.
If we are to believe French author Voltaire’s eccentric character Candide, who boasts of “living in the best of all possible worlds,” then it behooves visitors to “At the Heart of the Matter” to steel themselves for a journey into one of the worst of all possible worlds.
A segment of the gallery populated with vintage souvenir postcards, part of Levy’s “Postcards from the Present and the Future” series, offers a glimpse into one possible fate that awaits the earth as it cooks itself alive. The colorized, matte postcards feature natural landmarks and human edifices that have been popularized and commodified for generations; some visitors will undoubtedly recall having seen similar items among the flotsam of local antique malls. It is only upon close inspection that viewers will note how the artist has expertly doctored the images with gouache to illustrate the ravages of climate change on our most beloved destinations.
The technical triumph of Levy’s modifications cannot be overstated. Each individual postcard looks as authentic as the day it was printed; the environmental carnage she has wrought blends seamlessly into the images. From Roosevelt Dam in Arizona shown crumbling and inundated with floodwater, to a desiccated Yellowstone National Park bereft of flora, every detail feels real.
At the same time, her discipline is commendable. The scenes of devastation are not lurid or sensational, nor is there any hint that the artist relishes the havoc she has unleashed — the postcards simply reveal what Mother Nature may do in the continued absence of human restraint.
As viewers conclude their tour of Armageddon, they will find little respite before confronting the most conspicuous and complex work in the exhibition. An installation titled “It Can’t Happen Here” (in homage to Sinclair Lewis’s novel of the same name), consists of platforms holding cherubic porcelain figurines reading books to each other. Situated between these dioramas is a monitor, and beneath the tableau, in a literal pile on the floor, lies an abundance of lumber and literature.
Levy’s sculpture leaves nothing to the imagination, which seems appropriate given the fervor with which local governments and school boards have raced to ban books in recent years. The volumes she has scattered atop the pyre include perennial targets of censorship, such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Animal Farm,” as well as more contemporary selections like “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.”
Meanwhile, members of the Lawrence, Kansas Public Library staff read aloud on the monitor the titles of several hundred books recently denounced by a Texas state legislator as being harmful. Their solemn narration is periodically interrupted by footage of an actual public book burning that recently took place in Tennessee. Ominously, the participants do not wear white hoods or swastikas; they look completely unremarkable.
“It Can’t Happen Here” should disturb its audience, and Levy has crafted the prologue to a conflagration that truly feels like an obscenity. The sight of condemned books strewn atop logs — indoors, no less — suggests imminent intellectual violence.
Additional components of the exhibition unfold relentlessly and challenge viewers to reckon with the coronavirus pandemic, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and brutality against the transgender community. To absorb the totality of Levy’s work is to subject oneself to a sort of emotional trauma by proxy, but the gravity of her message resonates with the desperation of the Zeitgeist.
People make choices every day about the kind of world they want to inhabit, and “At the Heart of the Matter” is a somber reminder of the weight of this responsibility.
“Judith Levy: At the Heart of the Matter” continues at Studios Inc., 1708 Campbell St., through Oct. 22. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, and 5 p.m.to 8 p.m. on First Fridays. For more information, visit studiosinc.org.