how new york artist dean levin is making his mark
The hotly tipped artist talks to i-D about his first NYC solo show.
Photography Katie McCurdy
"My studio's usually pristine," said Dean Levin when we met at his white cube of a Tribeca studio. The only furniture was a pair of tables and chairs, a couple of bookshelves, and a large piece of machinery (a CNC machine for cutting materials, as he later explained). Apart from some clutter near the door, it was pristine almost to the point of being clinical. The only rogue elements were a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a bottle of Goya hot sauce, sitting in a funny little diptych on a shelf. It was not the space you would imagine a so-called "bro artist" occupying.
Levin is 26 and Google search results tell you to expect someone who is basically Ted from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure with a paintbrush. An exhibition roundup published by the Observer the day before our interview recommended a new solo show by "Keanu Reeves lookalike" Dean Levin. And an interview from last fall describes the artist as a "West Coast skate kid reared on pot and punk rock" who speaks with a "surfer dude's lilt."
But there isn't anything hapless about Levin's work. And while his words do come out at a California crawl he's more likely to reference Mies van der Rohe or Robert Irwin than drop a "dude."
Levin's first New York solo exhibition opened at Marianne Boesky East earlier this month. Like his studio, his sculptures and paintings communicate a kind of architectural precision. Unsurprising, perhaps, since Levin spent six of his 26 years in architecture school. "I grew up with a mom who's a fashion designer," explained Levin. "So design and fashion were always in my childhood. I spoke to a lot of people about what to study: art or architecture?" He eventually settled on architecture. And he says everything he makes now still has its roots in what he learned from his professors at Pratt, even if his artistic practices are self-taught.
The current show brings together pieces from two series he's been working on, and for which he's increasingly becoming known. The first is a set of convex paintings, six of which, in this installation, project from the wall like a row of puffed-out inky buttons. They're reflected by two pool-like paintings on the floor, which let you see their curves from all angles. The other is a pair of mirrored panels printed with gridded lines, transferred from a much smaller original hand-drawn grid that Levin fed through a computer.
What ties them together? The show's title, "A Long, Narrow Mark," is the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of a line, he explains. Both series play with our perception of dimension and space. And a third element, a single tall wooden sculpture, wobbly like a piece of driftwood but standing away from the corner like a fireman's pole, takes the idea one step further. Its shape is more organic than usual for Levin's work and owes its curves to the human error in his initial hand-drafted grid. He blew up a section of his original graphite mark and recreated it in wood, to make what is, almost impossibly, a three-dimensional line.
Explanations aside, Levin's work is also super satisfying to look at. His materials reflect his fashion tastes — he's into Belgian designers and name checks Stephan Schneider — almost as much as architecture. The tall, thin sculpture, for example, is made from cedar. "I used to work at [Takahiro Miyashita's] Japanese clothing store Number (N)ine during college," says Levin. "At the end of the day we had to put cedar onto the racks to protect the clothes from moths. I liked the feel of the blocks, so I've always had cedar in the back of my head as a material. It's dark, it takes pigment really well, and it won't warp. Plus, it smells nice… and I guess you won't have moths?"
And when it comes to actually sourcing materials, he has a solid network of New York art friends he can tap. "I call the Still House guys first," he says of his friends at the buzzed-about Brooklyn studio collective. "And Peter Coffin — I used to work at his studio. And a while back I asked Anthony Pearson for a good bronze guy." In terms of collaborating though, he's not quite sure yet. "There are a lot of politics involved," he says slowly, "I do like duo artists. I've always wanted to be part of a duo. So I mean, I could collaborate with my friends. I just have to find the right one."
For now, he's not too worried about moving at his own pace, though. "I don't mind taking my time. I think of myself as young and there's still so much ahead," he says.
"A Long, Narrow Mark" is on view now through June 7 at Marianne Boesky East, 20 Clinton Street.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Katie McCurdy