Moreover, Levine's work is instantly recognizable, as much from her children's books (Wig, created with the B-52s, Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels and Shake, Rattle & Roll) as her record covers (Richard Thompson, the Verve Essential Jazz series) and magazine covers (seen Chronogram this month?). Hey, she's a steady seller at galleries in Los Angeles, as well as a fixture at museums all over the nation.
Nevertheless, the opening of "Tweet Suite: Birds of North America," a collection of new works by Levine in Varga's solo gallery, is a first. But it's also something of a homecoming for the artist, whose circle of friends in the area, from the rock stars she's photographed to the many artists and collectors she's gotten to know through both her paintings and Mystery Spot alter ego, will definitely make this the opening of the weekend.
Levine, who grew up in Chinatown but has had upstate connections since her parents bought a cabin in the area in the early 1960s, says that she took up painting in the early 1990s while looking for new challenges. Her photography, a career she practically stumbled into after college, had reached a peak of success and she was looking for new creative avenues. So, she now recalls, she went out one day and bought a package of paints.
The resulting works have a naïf, almost childlike (as opposed to childish) look that accentuates their narrative elements, as well as the keenness of Levine's innate eye for a wacky, homespun sense of beauty. Because, as she puts it, she's always painting to the best of her abilities, making up for lack of technique with other attributes (color/composition/humor/detail), each painting has a deep sense of integrity and honesty to it, unlike so many artists who come to a similar style for marketing reasons - to achieve an effect, as it were.
Levine points out that she is in no way an Outsider artist, although she fully appreciates Outsider art. Instead, she stresses herself as being fully self-taught, never having come near an art class in her life.
When she starts on a project, be it a commissioned portrait or her narrative paintings and current bird works, she often starts off with months of research, delving deeply into the stories that she's looking to tell with each piece. Part of what drives her as an artist - and in fact in all aspects of her life, from filmmaker to shop-owner - is an undying curiosity and enthusiasm for learning. She enjoys the entire process of all she does.
Levine loves to talk about the various treasures that she's found, and shared, via her Mystery Spot business - as well as how those strange items, from Veronica Lake ephemera to a shoebox filled with old stamps, can inspire her artistry. It's rarely an immediate thing, either; she describes how items can sit around for years until they click with some other idea she's pursuing, and presto! There you have a huge board painting depicting the history of the madly collecting Collyer brothers, or of the locally legendary Piccolo Midgets of Phoenicia. "I just love to go off on these treasure hunts," Levine says.
So how did she get onto birds, a series that's now seen her do Tweet Suites, and single species, for feathered friends found throughout most of the continent? "I was commissioned to do a piece for a calendar being produced in Los Angeles - something to do with Artistic Utopias - and I did a piece on birds. It was fun, because I don't usually paint from life," she recalls. "Then the response was so good, and I realized how much fun I'd had painting birds, that I thought I'd do some more and ended up, with a whole series."
In addition to some of her earlier bird works for West Coast, Rocky Mountain and New York species, among others, the new show at Varga will feature a large new "Songbirds of the Catskills" work, available in a new print release as well in its original painted form.
So how did the music work into the opening? Hurley, after all, has been infamous since his days as an eccentric planet orbiting the old Holy Modal Rounder sun and before. He released his first album of self-penned works on Vanguard back in 1965. "Elizabeth [Mitchell] and Dan [Littleton] are very supportive of everything I do," Levine said of her friends in Ida, who have also become known for their children's music and Smithsonian recordings of recent years. "When I told them when my opening was, they asked if they could bring along Dr. Snock [as Hurley likes to be called], since he was set to be in town doing an album with them."
Consider it a musical treat on par with having the Velvet Underground and Dylan playing a Warhol opening - although all eyes will definitely be on Levine's birds.
Levine adds that a percentage of all sales of the prints she will be making available will go to the local wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization Ravensbeard. "It just so happens that soon after I started the series, the Audubon Society reported that 20 of our most common birds - the ones we most often take for granted - have lost more than half their populations in the past 40 years," said Levine of her largesse. "I certainly got to know the personalities of my little visitors - the bullying blue jays, the skittish chickadees, the pair of mourning doves who never left each other's side - and I care for all their futures."
Furthermore, she points out that her original shop on the Boardwalk in Phoenicia, Homer and Langley's Mystery Spot (named for those same Collyer Brothers), will be opening this very same weekend.
The opening for "Tweet Suite: Birds of North America" will be this Saturday, May 24, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Varga Gallery at 130 Tinker Street in Woodstock, right next to the Cinema. For further information call (845) 679-4005 or visit www.vargagallery.com. For more on all things Levine, visit www.lauralevine.com - and be prepared to stay awhile.