"Earth Steeped/Tierra Caliza"

The South African born artist, Simon Levy, came to Mexico from London establishing himself in the village of Valle de Bravo.

Levy's incursion into "land based" work is sculptural, with shapes so primary, that they evoke the organs and deep tissue of the innermost confines of the human body and being. The "organs" pulse in a visceral expression with primary emotions. The strokes on the large canvases appear to have been executed with his entire body.

The rational processes that inform Levy's work echo in the background. They are elaborate and sharp, it is as if these more distilled functions had stepped aside or been restrained, to give testimony to the throbbing movement of shape and condensed masses of colour. The artist worked intensively in the manufacture of adobes - earthen blocks bound with pine needles (ocojales) and the sap of nopales - with his friend and collaborator Don Cresensio. Through this intricate work process Levy learnt from the richness of Indian culture that survives and transcends subjugation and exploitation. Simon Levy's respect for his collaborator is evidenced in his paintings through his highly developed skill in mixing and grinding his own pigments and his use of texture, exploring the inner body and its relation to the exterior landscape. Simon Levy uses "re-inscription" as a means of contextualising his work conceptually. As he distills his ideas about painting and technique he engages the listener because his process is reflective.

Gobi Stromberg, Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico

Text in conversation

G.S. When I look at your paintings I see a solid movement that follows through the entire length of the canvas and behind the intention of the brush strokes.

S.L. One gesture or form can easily be two and a half meters long. Our eyes cannot consume this at one glance. With a disappearance of the background I place a deeper concentration on the forms, often with a distinct sense of entirety in relation to our body size. The eye can absorb the painting differently than it does surveying terrain panoramically. when I was working with earth and making adobes I found a similar sensibility in the closeness of the earth and the completeness of this experience.

G.S. On the basis of your work with earth do you think that the completeness and intimacy of forms focused on texture and colour are similar?

S.L. The absorption or preoccupation is similar. The need is the same. I bring my experience of adobe into my art as an act of cultural consciousness, tradition and history. We wait until we are dead to bury or surround ourselves with the earth. Adobe is a way of life. it represents our connectiveness and cognisance with the earth, who claims it, and what we do to it. It is central within Mexican culture. My work with adobe was a manifest physical immersion into the earth, dancing on it, feeling it and the ultimately deforming / reconstituting its form to make adobes. if we want to make paintings from nature, we have to try and understand our relation to it. It is this re-shaping of nature in the world of plasticity that reveals the essential. It is the search for the essential that is the backbone of cultural practice. It is a basic need to explain ourselves, to forge a relationship with nature as a culture.

G.S. There is a containment in the shape of adobe. Does that containment make one focus on the texture and what is happening with the material itself?

S.L. The form of an adobe is satisfying and ancient. Its surface and inner texture are a complete entity. This containm,net of its form allows us the freedom to focus on the culture, texture and properties of adobe. painting is as much about looking into the paint to find meaning as about any other pretext of meaning. This is why I make my own oil paint, to bring a knowledge of the consistency of the paint and purity of the pigment into my handling of it on the canvas.

G.S. One of your paintings is dedicated to Arshile Gorky. Can you say something about the forms?

S.L. it also a homage to the plough - the cutting edge of the hand plough. It presents us with a tricking of time in respect to cultures that still use the hand driven plough and the negation of this within the drive of "globalism". I was interested in the curved edge that holds and releases the earth; the lines that embody the ploughed movement. Gorky's references and recollections of the plough from his childhood was something I discovered after this series of paintings. All forms have inner and outer qualities, whether they are taken from nature, are man-made or a combination of the two. many of my shapes do evoke this duality in form, juxtaposing bodily organs and natural exterior / interior worlds. What is more important is the recognition that each form has its own drama or tension as it presents its own challenge within and resolving that duality. I look for the drama of a form I am drawn to. It is a delicate balance between spontaneity and thinking the form out. It might sound unusual for an abstract painter to talk of the "drama" of form in relation to plasticity. I do not necessarily believe in compromising feeling in the fulfilment of a squeaky clean inert aesthetic. (I mean some things are best a mess).

G.S. And the relationship between the forms?

S.L. Their relationship with each other is unusual and very rhythmic. I want them to conspire their own collective dramaturgy, but in an unpredictable manner. I make no distinction between negative space and solid space in respect to tangibility, light and dark, therefore the forms also coalesce or transcend meaning. light always changes with an infinite number of dramas going on. Interior views through window frames or doorways give us a familiarity through their marinations. part of my experience and looking is to challenge that narrowness. To change my axis of looking. In other words, to gain insight into life other than through the tyranny of framed perceptions.

G.S. There is so much of looking and seeing from the world of artists. Who else do you bring with your work and into your studio in Valle?

S.L. So many. Painters always work or copy from other painters. The tragedy is only when we copy ourselves! I can name a tiny part from this process. i think the potency of Ellsworth Kelly's work is formidable, with this ethic of making shapes from things we have seen. Arshile Gorky has given us a singular sensitivity of his own. I am drawn to many ,and issues in works from Cuba and Brazil, also to performance works I have seen evidence of like Ana Mendieta's "On giving life". One of the great influential modernists Constantin Brancusi affects me profoundly, especially with respect to primal forms, their archaic and modern properties, and how they work as a metaphor for time.

G.S. Have your experiences in mexico affected your thoughts and your relation to the work of Brancusi? You were saying how you admired his concentrated energy in primary forms.

S.L. His work has a distinct consciousness of where he concentrated his forms in relation to their sculptural bases, that is, how he located his work in the world. What I really understand from Brancusi and looking at unaltered natural forms in rural Mexico (where I live) is how useless it is to copy nature. If we understand nature we have to deform or reshape it in someway to make art from it. Looking for drama in nature is also looking for the drama of ourselves; if we understand this plasticity in ourselves and how nature lives alongside that plasticity then we can learn more from nature and about ourselves.

G.S. Where does this core knowledge of what you have learnt come from?

S.L. This really takes us back to where we started in this conversation. The distance and intimacy of these paintings. The physicality of an intimate space can perhaps be attuned to a child's space and vision without the internalised obstacle of framed perceptions. I have the advantage to shift the axis of vision suited to my aims and experience. Everything has its tyranny, its drama and its wonders. perhaps the most rewarding view lies outside of national metaphors in explaining ourselves but opening cultural frontiers to those who are prepared to look.

Translated from the Spanish by Margarita Esther Gonzalez

Earth Steeped

A Stain upon Silence[1]

Margarita Esther Gonzalez

Apportioning to visible things their colours and still restoring to outward sense its full efficacy, committing to surer light the world illuminated and myself awake

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651 -1695) Fragment from the First Dream [2]

With the metaphors offered by the earth, Simon Levy constructs a universe where primal forms emanate as if from clay to forge landscapes; here, pigments are transformed into textures or fields of light fraught with nuances. The broad gesture of his strokes seem to defy the boundaries of the canvas while, at the same time, serving as a vehicle to venture upon a thorough, meticulous exploration into the plasticity of form, with an earthly corporality that expels shadows. He simultaneously exposes the self in its profound linkage with the landscape as the true creator of identities. In the words of the artist: "It is in the encounter with the self with the landscape and with mortality that we begin to shape our relationship with the world". [3] The axis of Levy's exploration, in pictorial spheres as well as in his sculptural installations, reflects on what Octavio Paz, when referring to Sor Juana calls "the revelation of non-revelation," to see what is in front of our eyes, to see what is there, and ultimately to use what is there, together with the lights and darks of the mind - the light underneath the stone. Divested of all narrative concerns, Levy's microscopic gaze penetrates the landscape, transforming it into a forum where the strength and vulnerability of the world within forms is evidenced. Underlying his intention is a need to make a poetic collage, perhaps by means of deforming nature through plasticity, "to arrive at some kind of crucial point that transcends aesthetic fulfilment, forging a critical, manifest relationship with nature and between ourselves". In profile with thorns, the circularity of a profile delineates the intuitive distribution of colours: oxide and cadmium reds with an edged fluid sap green constructs an earth marked by the architecture / culture of subsistence. The colour creates planar resting points; a curved edge separates a receptacle containing thorns, seemingly shed or fallen from the sinuous line of the profile. By contrast, in Naked, he leaves behind the distance between well-defined points, surrendering to his obsession with light and darkness. There, within those contrasts, seeds revealing naked curves become forest dark. Interstices are destined to hold the ephemeral. The use of light, the balance of oils, pigments and beeswax allows one to grasp the essence of forms and charged silences. It is precisely in this act of denudation, amid these silences and empty spaces, where Levy inscribes his own history, thus finding his distinctive voice. The relationship between the dimensions of physical forms in Gotas once again transports us to a microscopic view, bent on deciphering contained forms by approaching them in a more intimate manner. These drops, charged with emotions, are transformed into an internal visceral landscape. None of them merge into the horizon; it simply does not exist. The forms, drops, or seeds appear almost singed; the rhythms in the centre surrounded by luminous stains deceive the eye in a colourful subterfuge and only gradually is the eye allowed to discover another chromatic density. This use of form is concretised with greater plasticity in Profile. Dedicated to Chaim (Soutine). Consequently, every figure surrenders to an interplay of movement where, almost in the centre, a stain of dark opacity sits quietly, serving as an anchor to the composition, while allowing the rest of the forms to evolve in a series of strokes imbued with eroticism.

Levy's concern with plasticity and deobjectivation in their relationship with the essential earth is cardinal. He shares Beckett's obsession for unveiling that other reality, thus Morton Friedman's words could be well applied to his work. [4]

Beckett would write something in English, translate it into French and then translate that thought back in the English that conveys that thought…He wrote something for me…every line is really the same thoughtsaid in another way. And yet the continuity acts asif something else is happening. Nothing else is happening. What you are doing, in an almost Proustian way, is getting deeper and deeper saturated into the thought.

The central motif in Facing you and I is an outburst of colour, where contained forms and an acute fluidity in communication attempt to convey the impossible. Incenced brush strokes reflect upon closed posture which deny the voice of the other. The chromatic scale, once again derived from the earth, is encircled by light, as in a dance where both the external and internal colours serve to establish other - albeit unconscious - dialogues, in an unmistakeable reference to Foucault: "I am what I do not think." A yet more cerebral plasticity is found in Childhood. "No shadow in my childhood/but was red with sun," which makes Alfonso Reyes' verses in monterrey Sun, his own.[5] Like the poet, Levy seems to recall "No doubt: the/ dogged me when a child. It followed at my heels."[6] Art becomes a memory exercise. The memory of the sun falling vertically, the imprint from light remaining after closing his eyes, at that very moment when there is no room for shadows. In his memory, the chills moves through densities of yellows, invaded by the sensation of continuity with the world, without knowing or even asking where he begins and where his surrounding ends. It is the attempt, therefore, to recapture this experience of unlimited expansion, the trace of light inscribed in the memory. The external light in the internal domain.

Mexico City


1 "I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon silence", as quoted by Deirdre Bair in Samuel Becket. A Biography.

2 Mexican poetry. An Anthology. Compiled by Octavio Paz. Translated by Samuel Beckett. New York, Grove Press, 1985.

3 This and other quotes of the artist were the result of several interviews in November - December, 1999 / 2000.

4 Morton Feldman, taped lecture at Darmstadt, 1984, quoted by Francesco Pellizi, in Traducere et Tradere", Rres 32, Autumn, New york, 1997.

5 See 2.

6 Ibid.