Eidolons of Place: Bonnie Levinthal’s Another World at NAPOLEON

Eidolons of Place: Bonnie Levinthal’s Another World at NAPOLEON

an essay by Marianne Dages

Bonnie Levinthal is recently back from The Arctic Circle, which is both an artist residency and region that share the same name. I’ve come to her home to meet and talk about her work and the time she spent aboard a sailing ship, exploring the cluster of islands in the High-Arctic of the Svalbard Archipelago. At the kitchen table in her Philadelphia stone house, we sit down to drink tea and talk about the north. We talk about glaciers, animal tracks in the snow, and colors. How everything is untouched stillness, but also more, a flux of shifting ice saturated in the greens and blues of the perpetual twilight. Ponder over the sensation of an alien landscape where water, sky, and land become one, everything falls away, and you are just a tiny figure walking an uncharted path.

“How do you make work about that?” she asks out loud and makes a sweeping hand gesture of droll disbelief. How do you communicate with and about the sublime? Many artists have attempted to answer that question and in doing so acknowledged its impossibility. Watching Levinthal speak about her experience, looking off into the distance as she describes the geography, I sense a part of her is still out there on the archipelago, somewhere on the ice. She describes a desire for stasis, to keep time and the memory still so as not to disturb it. Because like a photograph, if the memory is accessed too often, handled and viewed in the light, it starts to fade.

Levinthal, a seasoned traveler, has made work in and about Greenland, Ireland, the Canadian Arctic and Iceland, to name a few. She is an educator as well, in her role as Associate Professor of Art for Penn State Abington leading groups of undergraduates in study abroad. Part of the teaching philosophy that she passes on to her students is that travel occurs in three stages: the imagining, the experience, and finally the response. Exploring unfamiliar territories opens the artist up to an overflow of new information and stimulation. The work that comes out of it becomes a compression of all three stages.

a child’s magic slate, modern version of the Mystic Writing Pad

I’m reminded of Freud’s essay A Note on “The Mystic Writing Pad,” in which he compares the way we accumulate and perceive our memories to “The Mystic Writing Pad,” a children’s writing toy consisting of a slab of wax under the cover of a removable celluloid sheet. To write, one presses on the celluloid and into the wax, leaving a dark mark where the materials meet. The marks are erased when the sheet is lifted, but a slight trace remains, the comparison made being that of “the appearance and disappearance of the writing with the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.”

The Arctic may be a place most true in its conceptualization. Untouched. Unseen. Not yet written over by the palimpsest of footsteps its admirers bring. Levinthal’s exhibition Another World; By a Route Obscure at NAPOLEON is about the in between, the passage through the before and after when encountering a new place. The source of the phrase “By a route obscure” is a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Dream-land.” Like the poem, the exhibition’s compositions are not representations of real, physical geographies, but foreshadow them in uncanny ways.

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
                 Out of SPACE—Out of TIME.

           –     Excerpt from Dream-land, by Edgar Allan Poe

Archipelago (Imagining Svalbard) and Archipelago are small paintings on Yupo mounted to board, a synthetic paper that lends a prenaturally smooth matte surface to the pieces. In the first, a gathering mass of white reaches tendril like from the edges. The turquoise blues and greens it obscures below are reminiscent of deep water or ancient ice. The latter’s is scratched and scored, the blue worn away to reveal a stony gray.




Archipelago (Imagining Svalbard), 2018 and Archipelago, 2018


The perspective feels out of body, hovering above. It is aerial, but the scale is purposefully left open to interpretation, it’s uncertain what exactly we’re viewing but if feels distinctly photographic. Like a photograph without a referent. Like Poe’s Thule, the mythological name for the farthest north, the archipelagos are “Out of SPACE—out of TIME.” They operate like memories or dreams recorded with the disembodied eye of the camera. I’m struck by how often Levinthal’s techniques mimic the properties of a lense, allowing the viewer’s gaze to move through flat planes of focus. It distills the landscapes into quick frozen moments. Sometimes the paint looks like a video still of snow.

The majority of Levinthal’s work is also presented vertically. It’s a photographic format associated with and in response to the human body.  Like a portrait, page, or window it relates to our faces and hands in scale and purpose. Smartphones have rendered it ubiquitous due to the way the devices are held, replacing the panoramic landscape of 35mm film as the popular default. The human scale makes Levinthal’s work feel intimate, as if it could be held in the hand like a mirror or tablet to be populated by the traveler’s reflections.

img_7604Spitzbergen, 2019

Before continuing our conversation upstairs in the studio, we stop in the living room and Levinthal showed me her collection of water and earth samples from around the world, an ongoing project. They’re kept in glass vials with black metal lids. Nineteen of the samples will become a piece titled Spitzbergen, the largest island in the archipelago and the old name for Svalbard, meaning “pointed mountains.” The desire to collect mementos, to transmute memory into objects of proof and leave evidence of one’s presence, is an instinctive part of travel. Because of the fragile environment, special permission was needed for Levinthal to gather the samples. Each vial is marked with the coordinates of where the materials were found, lending the piece a sense of gravity as they recall very specific moments in time.  She plans to have them scientifically tested, curious to discover if hidden contaminations, such as microplastics, might be found within. The samples of Spitzbergen speak of the tenuous balance and tension between civilization and ecology in the the arctic. Humans have already marked the ecology of the arctic in countless, irreversible ways.

img_1084For C.D., 2018

For C.D. is about how we leave our mark on the environment and the inverse, how the environment marks the person. The face of the painting is sanded away, slowly exposing the texture of a fragment of cloth beneath. The inclusion of the fabric embedded in the paint lends For C. D. an illusion of photo-realism, a bit like a photocopy. But it’s an alteration rather than a representation. The removal of material over and around the original cloth is a meditation on erosion, a gradual disappearance unnoticed until a tipping point is reached and the action becomes unalterable.

“Eidolon” is a name for a ghost, the apparition of something or someone real or imagined. It can also mean an image or representation of an idea in its most idealized form. Due to its inaccessibility and therefore mystery, the arctic historically functioned as a screen upon which our fears and desires for the terrible sublime could be safely projected. The arctic became a glamour, taunting the traveler with glimpses of a land beyond the farthest north. Today it is open for business. One can “Visit Svalbard” online to plan activities and book a flight. The “wild weird clime that lieth, sublime” is gone, yet its traces linger as specters of a half-remembered Thule in the collective unconscious. In Another World, Levinthal depicts the layered identities of arctic, the mythic and the real, while advocating for mounting ecological concerns. An eidolon can be in two places at once. The arctic, an eidolon of place, is two places at once.

About the author: Marianne Dages is an artist who writes and publishes books under the name Huldra Press. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.


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