mehryl levisse's staged dreamworlds invoke family tradition and bdsm
i-d magazine (online)
text by alice newell-hanson
The French artist blends the dusty rooms of his great-grandparents' homes with carnivalesque masks in his new show ‘Birds of a Feather Fly Together.’
Two of Mehryl Levisse's aunts are professional mourners. They live in Urbino, a medieval city in the north of Italy. (A third aunt was also a professional mourner but is now retired.) According to Italian Catholic tradition, funeral attendees should remain dignified and dry-eyed, only crying vicariously through paid professionals. When Mehryl goes to family funerals at which his aunts are also present, non-family mourners are hired. As a result, Mehryl has never seen his aunts at work and has become captivated by the idea of it.
His new show in New York, Birds of a Feather Fly Together at Catinca Tabacaru Gallery, features a black pearl-embroidered lace mask that is directly inspired by his aunts but also reminiscent of BDSM gear. It's one of six new sculptures, displayed on a plinth in the middle of the gallery, that each conjure a strange mixture of tradition and transgression.
Everything Mehryl does within his artistic practice begins with his family, Italian on one side, deeply rooted in northeastern France on the other. Mehryl grew up in Champagne-Ardennes, an agricultural region by the French-Belgian border in which he says "nothing happens." His grandparents and close French relatives live in a scattering of houses that have been handed down through the family for four or five generations without so much as a new coat of paint. "Nothing has changed," he says, "Not the wallpaper, not the curtains, not the furniture. Everything is so dusty."
As a kid, Mehryl's imagination fed on this dust and chintz and family folklore. The dense vegetal motifs specific to Champagne-Ardennes wallpaper have been the backdrop of his creative world since he became a practicing artist. "I can't produce something that isn't part of this pattern," he says. The walls at Catinca Tabacaru are currently wrapped in overlapping sheets of printed orange and purple paper that evoke a kind of kaleidoscopic dream world.
Hung on top are the artist's large-format photographs, in which his own body is often the focus — arranged amongst knickknacks from his family homes in solo tableaux vivants. He fills his sets with surreal props that include: hundreds of mussel shells, a kitschy deer statue, a taxidermied duck, human hair, and a fleet of toy boats. "All of my photographs are projected by my brain exactly as they are," he says. "I see all the elements in my head, in those exact places. Then afterwards, I search for the materials to recreate the scene."
Mehryl's process is both minimalist — he trained as a dancer from the age of four and sees his body as the most economical means of expressing himself — and also wildly maximalist. (See: La Monture, a photo in which a body seems to have face-planted into a room covered entirely in orange shag-pile carpet.) At home in Champagne-Ardennes he has a 1000-square-feet storage space in which he keeps every prop or artefact he's ever used in his work. (As part of a show at the Centre Pompidou last year, a curator asked him to reproduce a section of this archive in the gallery.)
One image, in which a former boyfriend reclines Odalisque-like on a dining table encrusted with seashells, took Mehryl three years to complete. He kept arranging the shells until each one was precisely where he wanted it. He redid it six times and scrapped several earlier compositions because the table cloth wasn't perfect. He eventually found the blue-and-white check version in the final image at his grandmother's home. The sherbert-colored wallpaper came from his aunt's house.
The characters in Mehryl's scenes (sometimes played by him, other times by family members or friends) inhabit domestic worlds that are familiar but disorienting. In Faire Tapisserie, a pair of bare butt cheeks emerges from between rolls of dark carpet, as if partway through a game of naked hide and seek. The work's title is a French idiom that evokes the idea of blending in with the furniture or being a wallflower (literally, being a tapestry). The line between where bodies end and rooms begin is never quite certain.
The show's title, Birds of a Feather Fly Together, is a reference to the critical theory of organization and a coda for understanding Mehryl's process. "The exhibition is about the fact that all these pieces have common themes," he explains. "When birds fly in flocks, their placement isn't random, there is an organization. Each bird adopts a position according to the other birds. The photographs, masks, and wallpaper in this show are all linked to each other, like the birds."
In other words, each image is a direct product of his world — a childhood memory or waking dream reconfigured by a movie he's seen or a painting he liked. And the sum is greater than all the very specific parts: being inside the show feels like exploring someone's hippocampus and seeing all the strange images circulating there.
At the root of it all is family. Talking about his mourning aunts again, Meryl adds that his great-grandmother has also been in mourning (not professionally, though) for three years. She has only worn black since the death of his great-grandfather. "These codes about grief and death have been in my family forever," he explains. "I only wear black, too. I don't know if it's just who I am, but most members of my family are the same. People call us the Addams Family."
Birds of a Feather Fly Together is on show at Catinca Tabacaru Gallery now through July 9.