"STREAMS" is a traveling exhibition of oil paintings and cello music by Joan Levy Hepburn. The last two images in this slide show are 3/D paintings, and should be viewed through red/cyan 3/D glasses. Click on this youtube video link to hear the music with the paintings. An exhibition book with an essay by Richard Shiff may be ordered by email on the contact page.
Essay by Richard Shiff, PhD - Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art, The University of Texas at Austin
More than any other modern artist, Pablo Picasso extended the expressive range of painting. But how far from the origins of his medium did he come? Around 1970, during his final years at work, Picasso became convinced that painting had barely progressed beyond its prehistoric manifestations in the caves at Lascaux and Altamira. Though modesty was never his mode, he believed that his achievements would prove slight in relation to what remained to be developed over an infinite future. Painting could hardly be dead—as numerous critics would claim in the immediate decades to follow—when so little of its potential had as yet been revealed.
The “immediate decades to follow” correspond to the career of Joan Levy Hepburn—despite all odds, an artist committed to painting. With allusions to a geological scale of time, her recent works spark this thought: What if the failure of painting to break from its prehistoric aspects were actually its advantage? Implicitly, Levy Hepburn’s series of Stream paintings takes this position. She doesn’t construct her imagery to evoke a primitive mentality, for this would amount to aesthetic affectation. To the contrary, her techniques are highly sophisticated, informed not only by years of studio practice but also by an advanced science of color, light, and optics. Aside from this body of empirical and theoretical knowledge, Levy Hepburn capitalizes on a recognition, which is for her instinctive: in every hand-drawn line and flow of color, we perceive an expressive movement that might have belonged to a genetic ancestor in the remotest past. Lines and marks of color, like bodily gestures and the human voice, are timeless means of personal expression. Whether they amount to mere abstract notations or congeal into rudiments of descriptive figuration (as in Levy Hepburn’s grisailles), elements of linear tracing hardly differ from the earliest forms of expressive human communication.
An art that strikes at the essence of its medium renders any number of conceptual divisions irrelevant. Analytical concepts imposed by critical commentary become unnecessary where feeling is paramount. Levy Hepburn’s art leaves in flux any distinction between the development of abstract forms and their potential to cohere as a representational image. Neither factor overrides the other: “All representational paintings must have a solid abstract foundation,” she says, referring to a sensitive, efficacious use of line and color. “And all abstract paintings represent something.” In Heads and Tails, the contrast established by planes of orange-ochre overlaid with loose waves of white and blue induces a vision of surface ripples and eddies above a solid base of ... what? We might as well call it rock—a streambed. At any moment, however, this illusion becomes as fleeting as the transient real-world vision it evokes. There are marks of red and green among the tones of orange-ochre. Do they represent forms of organic life within the microcosm of a stream? Are they reflections of life above and beyond the flowing water? In the Streams, the play of color at various structural levels—for Levy Hepburn sometimes sets chromatically intense primaries against a base of dull grays—appears so chimerical, and hence so engaging, that a viewer easily becomes involved with the physicality of the painted surface, a distraction from thoughts of representational reference.
Many works of art have this tension—they should have this tension, if they are any good. Experiencing Levy Hepburn’s painting is analogous to experiencing a song or a poem. We recognize that poetry has its proper sound as well as its proper meaning, according to its words. Because the words have a sound, and the sound itself projects meaning, a strict division of form and content becomes misleading. Accordingly, a set of markings should not be reduced to the style to which its characteristics seem to belong. Is Levy Hepburn’s art in the style of the early twenty-first century? Does it follow nature? Is it fantasy? These questions have no pertinence to any but the most academic concerns. Many modern artists, including Levy Hepburn, have roamed through the entire history of art in the West and elsewhere, combining mythology with acute empirical observation. Changes in the style of painting are superficial and transient. Style amounts to cultural fashion, an arbitrary evaluative term to be used by critics and historians. Modern artists have felt free to shift from one manner to another, sometimes within a single work. The lasting content is the identification of all painting—Lascaux and Altamira included—with human feeling. So Levy Hepburn’s mark-making, the basis of her visual art, is fundamental not only to her emotional life, but to human expression in general. It has both form and content; it needs no style.
With dimensions of three by four feet, Levy Hepburn’s group of Stream paintings are neither large nor small in relation to the active play of human hands. Their dense, compact compositions generate an intensity that extends their scale beyond actual size. The collective title indicates a general representational reference to a specific material phenomenon—the flow of water through a natural channel in the earth, a streambed. The specific stream observed lies on the artist’s property in Connecticut. The titles of the individual works are evocative and rather metaphoric. For example, Ancient Civilization and Cave Entrance make explicit reference to Levy Hepburn’s interest in the origins of painting—her sense (like Picasso’s) that we continue to be affected by the experience of the earliest humans, as if their consciousness remained at the base of our own. For this reason, Levy Hepburn constructs her images in layers, as if alluding to successive eras of time and human history. Titles such as Bones and Skin suggest not only an elemental human presence, but also the physical layering of the body, analogous to the layering of earth and water over a core of rock. Veins in the body are like the venous distribution of minerals in the earth or even like the earth’s waters, its springs within and its streams above. Wrinkles of skin correspond to fissures of the earth. These evocations and analogies are evident enough without the words of Levy Hepburn’s titles, given the way that she distributes hard edges and diffused colors, as well as opaque and translucent layers of pigment, inducing shifts in focus—a living, changing visual experience. Earth, body, and art seem united as a single life.
At least one work in Levy Hepburn’s series of Streams—it bears the title Changing Horses in Midstream—is allegorical (that is, it establishes an elaborate narrative, but does so indirectly). By the painter’s account, Changing Horses in Midstream takes inspiration from W. H. Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888), a notable pre-Raphaelite composition. “I had a dream,” Levy Hepburn says, “about the ornament on the bow of the boat of the Lady of Shalott.” This ornament appears as a top layer in Changing Horses, but seems partially submerged. The narrative reference is especially significant because it alludes to watery reflections and mirroring; it may also reflect the artist’s timeless fantasies. Most importantly, it introduces a different sense of what a stream can be—the so-called stream of consciousness. Our conscious experience has the fluidity of water and passes into dream as readily as it passes from dream into a state of waking. Just as the conceptual differentiation of abstraction from representation seems proven false (or inconsequential and anodyne) by the evidence of Levy Hepburn’s painting, so the division between the physical and psychological senses of a stream collapses: “The stream is complex [as a representational motif] because it includes actual material and reflections, but in addition to that there is another dimension that includes stream of consciousness, history, and memory.” Levy Hepburn accompanies her installation with a musical composition—a medium changing in time. “Music is generally accepted as an abstraction easier than the medium of paint,” she says, “but sounds often conjure visual images or memories of experiences in the listener’s mind.” Sounds flow in time like the stream of consciousness—or like colors in Levy Hepburn’s indefinite layering—or like the stream of evolution in the life-world of minerals, organisms, and us.