Local Spotlight: Dee Levinson at Touchstone Gallery

If artwork in museums signifies a kind of rooted, historical achievement, then the working artist is the seedling from which this history will continue to flower. It is old growth and new growth, working in tandem to create an organic creative ecosystem. The responsibility falls on local artists to make Washington a destination not just for fine art, but for a dynamic culture of the arts.

In keeping pace with this pseudo-thought experiment, the paintings of Dee Levinson occupy a unique place among the creative forces of old and new. On view at Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Ave. NW, through Feb. 28, Levinson’s work is contemporary, fresh and alive, while also recalling a romantic classicism from across the art historical landscape.

Upon first seeing Levinson’s paintings, the idea of “Greco-Nouveau” materialized quite immediately in my mind. Imagine if Alphonse Mucha or Gustav Klimt were to make studies of ancient Greek sculptures: marbled, graceful and stoic figures with a stark, two-toned contrast against dramatic light, enveloped by flowing planes of flat textile and floral patterns. The compositions seem to billow forth from the canvas.

In the best possible way, they are rather like paintings of sculptures, capturing a certain ethos and grandness of the ancient arts in an altogether new light.

And yet there are a range of other aesthetics and influences that Levinson folds into her work. “Le Reina Plata” is a bold portrait of an aged Native American woman, whose face bears a wise, matronly pride as it gazes into the distance. This pose could invariably signify something like the envisioning of new horizons — say, promise for future generations — or a more sober reckoning with her own mortality and place in a vast, beautiful world.

Surely, there is a purpose and a history in this painting. But like a Greek sculpture, this portrait also has the power to transcend historical knowledge with a more universal, inherent beauty. It is at its core a depiction of humanity, imbued and heightened with a historical specificity and distilled into an eternal moment.

Levinson uses this aesthetic vocabulary to build emotional connections and leave distinct impressions with her audience. By turns searching and exploratory, beautiful and moving, bold and delicate, her work is a delight.

It is also work that connects currently with our city’s museum offerings. It is hard not to make connections between these paintings and the recent exhibition of Hellenistic bronze sculptures at the National Gallery, “Power and Pathos.”

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