David Levinthal, Bad Barbie: Vintage Photographs

November 4 - December 5, 2009

John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz Bookseller is very pleased to announce their new exhibition, David Levinthal, Bad Barbie: Vintage Photographs. The show will open with a reception for the artist on Wednesday, November 4th from 6 to 8pm and will run through December 5th.

This sequence of photographs, all made in black and white, dates from 1972 and represents Levinthal’s first explorations with the use of toys in making his art. He deploys the commercially ubiquitous dolls, Barbie, her “boyfriend” Ken, and G.I. Joe in a series of poses and tableaux of sexual liaison and activity. The young artist was responding to a contemporary atmosphere of new sexual license enjoyed by youthful America following the liberal-leaning social upheavals of the 1960s. Barbie, already a popular icon, had morphed into the preternaturally blonde, tanned, buxom California beach model so desirous of the era. Levinthal shoots her in scenes of sexual libertinism, solo and with partners, reveling in her freedom and sexuality. She gives pleasure and is pleasured in return. Levinthal’s Barbie, exuding the progressiveness of the times, blithely crosses the racial divide in her carefree eroticism, hooking up with a black G.I.Joe action figure for several carnal encounters. Joe sports a modest Afro, a look of military alertness, and a necklace chain advertising he is hip to the flow.

Though these small clothing details are carefully arranged by the photographer, Levinthal has not yet surrounded his subjects in the more elaborately dressed environments that serve to create an atmosphere and key an emotion in his works. There is an absence of scene dressing, just notes of suggestion: a towel on the ground invokes a beach; Barbie’s car passing Joe conjures a roadside; a bath and a vanity unit create a bathroom. This Barbie, high on the moment, eschews the boudoir, or a bed, for her sexual trysts and acts on impulse to fulfill her desires. Though Levinthal subsequently worked on a project involving the Barbie doll, Barbie Millicent Roberts (1999), these early experiments of his have never before been exhibited. He used a Rollie SL66 camera and black and white film for his early projects. Black and white was the favored medium of serious “art photographers” of the era and Levinthal, by training it on toys – products deemed beneath the dignity of serious cultural exploration – was drawing attention to a form of social myopia he has since explored with profound results. We see him working out details regarding suggestion, lighting, narrative, and atmosphere, all notes he deploys with great sensitivity and confidence in later projects. The most immediate project to emerge from these early investigations was his celebrated Hitler Moves East publication with Garry Trudeau.

The comparable rawness of these images offers another appeal. They not only present a sense of work in progress, but also recall something of the artlessness associated with sexploitation and pornographic imagery- two industries that were expanding hugely at the time these photographs were made. Barbie herself has been put to work in all manner of culturally transgressive uses since that time; this is hardly her only x-rated feature. Though Barbie, and more notably Joe, have always fallen a little short when it comes to anatomical correctness, little girls and little boys – and viewers everywhere – are only too ready imaginatively to fill in the missing parts. And that, in many ways, has been what Levinthal’s work has always been about.

In conjunction with the show, JMc&GHB Editions is publishing a new book featuring David Levinthal’s Bad Barbie series. Bad Barbie, a 62 page paperback with 37 photographic reproductions will feature an introduction by Richard Prince and a narrative by John McWhinnie.

David Levinthal was born in San Francisco, CA in 1949. His major projects include Hitler Moves East (1977), Modern Romance (1986), The Wild West (1989), American Beauties (1990), Desire (1991), Mein Kampf (1994), Blackface (1996), Barbie Millicent Roberts (1999), XXX (1999), Netsuke (2002), and Baseball (2003). He has been the recipient of numerous important arts prizes and fellowships, his work has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally, and has been collected by numerous institutions. He lives and works in New York City.


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