Silvia Levenson is a visual artist and political activist born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1957. When the military took control of the Argentine government in 1976, Levenson immigrated with her family and children to Italy and has lived there ever since. She has a background in painting and graphic design but is mostly known for her use of glass and kiln forming. She uses glass as a narrative medium, tackling subjects such as domesticity, travel, exile, human relationships, and womanhood. For her, glass is a useful medium to reveal the ambiguity of human relationships, the painful truths in them that are either unseen or that we would prefer not to see, and she reveals them by recreating mundane objects such as sofas, kettles, perfume bottles and even pink grenades out of a medium that can be both easily broken and is routinely used to protect, separate, and hold other objects. She constantly combines it with mixed media and text.
Her early life and background had a major influence on her first works. In 1995, while serving an artist residency at Bullseye Glass Co., Levenson created her piece It’s Raining Knives for her first U.S. exhibition. The juxtaposition of the colourful tiny glass homes on a bright green lawn with the achromatic, jagged glass knives hanging overhead awaken the fear and paranoia that characterised the 70s and 80s in Levenson’s home region, as many Latin American governments became dictatorships and their countries soon became embroiled in bloody civil wars. Levenson herself was personally affected, a cousin and an aunt were victims of the Argentine government’s efforts to kill and disappear anyone who opposed them.
Levenson has said that she dislikes the idea of virtuosity in art. Feeling, pathos, and intuitions are the foundation of her work. For another project inspired by Argentina’s painful truths, Missing Identity, she created baby clothes from glass and once again utilised imagery like her glass knives. Eventually, the dictatorship ended and there were efforts to bring justice to those who suffered under it, but the gaping hole the victims left in their family members’ hearts remained.
The glasswork is admirable but its power is not in it’s beauty, but the emotional effect it has on the viewer. The sheer amount of baby clothes- there were 130 of them- and empty chairs with glass shoes contribute to this and as the title suggests, it’s about what is missing rather than about what is there. Barbed wire and pikes are also part of Levenson’s arsenal for revealing the uncomfortable. Sofas, teapots, beds- all things that could be associated with placid home life- are given a second look by Levenson, and it’s not altogether flattering. The pastel colouring of the glass says one thing, but the pikes say another. She thrives in pointing out the contradiction between the imagery that is constantly being marketed as pleasant and desirable, and the reality that is often attached to it.
Levenson’s work has always had a feminist undercurrent but her most recent work goes further, exploring the particular experience of being a woman, being married, and the painful truths that do come with it for many women. Stirred by a U.N report announcing that it had found that, “home is the most dangerous place for a woman,” and that six women were killed every day by someone they knew, she collaborated with her daughter (also an artist herself) Natalia Saurin to create hundreds of ceramic kitchen plates, a project titled The Most Dangerous Place. The plates had messages taken from the internet stamped on them, such as “You asked for it”, “Without Me You’re Nothing”, “I’ll Never Do It Again”, “Me Too”, and “The Future is Female”. Due to the COVID -19 pandemic, the planned exhibition was cancelled and photographs were taken instead, showing women, including Levenson, posing with the plates wearing a mask with her iconic pink grenade on it protesting domestic violence against women during the lockdown. The pink grenade has been a constant symbol in Levenson’s work, usually coupled with kitchen objects and replacing the traditional figure of a couple on a wedding cake in a piece titled Til Death Do Us Part. It has represented familial conflict and the relationship between men and women.
With contemporary artists being increasingly influenced by current events, The Most Dangerous Place is more explicitly political, its use of text as the main artistic element ensures that its purpose is undeniable to all. Though she has previously stated that she does not consider her work to be universal, Levenson’s use of personal experience continues to resonate deeply and the influence of politics gives it a universal reach as in the wake of the Me Too movement, feminist protests led by the young in Chile, Argentina, and Mexico have taken up the fight against femicide and in favour of the depenalisation of abortion in the new contexts of the pandemic and lockdown. Abstraction is coming back to the spotlight. Additionally, Levenson works in Spanish, Italian, and English, and is active on Instagram, where many artists have strong presences today. In a world where the internet ensures information is democratised and easily translated, she is able to reach many audiences. In some ways, Levenson’s art is more relevant than ever.
Silvia Levenson is a survivor, an exile, a woman. She walks on uncomfortable shoes and knows other women do too. Through her art, she shapes glass and places objects before it to be a reflection of deeper truths as she treads on the politics of being a woman.
Follow Silvia at @ silvia_levenson.