Good Looking

7 February 2024
By Paul Schmelzer | Photography by Ackerman + Gruber

Through his art, David Lefkowitz ’85 might prompt you to see things anew.

David Lefkowitz ’85 has a favorite photo. Sometime in the mid-’70s, the Lefkowitz brothers—among them David, a mop of brown hair locked down by a visor, Chuck Taylors visible under the fringe of his bell bottoms—hoist massive boulders in the air.

“They were made out of foam, but it just looks weird, like I have superhuman strength,” the Carleton art professor says. “I love that image because even back then I was playing with notions of appearance and reality, what’s real and what’s imagined.”

young people hauling large foam boulders in the 1976
Igneous Illusions: In the summer of 1976, the Lefkowitz family took a road trip to Los Angeles, where brothers Jerry ’86, Paul, and David discovered a playground filled with foam boulders. It’s an early example of his interest in the “disparity between representation and reality,” he says.

If his studio on Three Oaks Drive is any indicator, it’s a sensibility that’s only intensified in the decades since. On a work table are tiny versions of abstract paintings by Ellsworth Kelly and Josef Albers, made only out of Post-It Notes. A stack of glossy tourist brochures advertises a fictitious “college town situated in a parallel universe that neatly overlaps Northfield,” in Lefkowitz’s words. On a wall, a cross-section of a tree, its rings rippling out toward a rough bark perimeter, is revealed upon closer inspection to be fabricated from cardboard. But this isn’t mere trompe-l’œil: the impulse behind Lefkowitz’s art isn’t to just “deceive the eye.” While he says he has no agenda other than making an art of “capaciousness,” Lefkowitz’s creative output seems designed to encourage those who encounter it to look closer—at art, and just maybe, the broader world around us.

One-Man Group Show

Lefkowitz jokes that every solo exhibition he’s had has been a group show, and a studio visit bears out the wide range of materials, forms, and approaches his work can take. In one corner is a minimalist column made from stacked copies of Sculpture magazine, but with a mind-bending twist: seen from above, the cover photo of the top issue shows the same column from the same vantage point as the viewer. A painting on a wall, Chromatic Mixology for Beginners, feels like an instructional diagram from a dated science book, depicting various vials and test tubes linked to color swatches by lines of paint. A handful of others offer maplike depictions of continents from above, each landmass named in Esperanto. Above the front door a sports pennant cheers on the other guys: “Visitor.” Against a wall rest protest-style signs exhorting “Stop Perpetual Urgency Right Now.”

Art history professor Ross Elfline is drawn to the humor and intelligence of these pieces, but given the strength of the conceptualism, he wonders if Lefkowitz’s skill might go overlooked. “David can really, really paint,” he says. “His hand is incredible. If he wanted to, he could absolutely be selling work left and right, but at the same time, he’s more interested in exploring his ideas in a humble and intimate way.”

As if to illustrate this melding of concept, craft, and intimacy, Lefkowitz grabs a package: two pieces of foam core taped together. Inside are recesses in which he stores his Pictures of Common Detritus, a series of miniature paintings in dollhouse frames that have all the luster and realism of seventeenth-century still lifes. With titles like Elongated Stringy Schmutz and Plaster Chunk, each one represents, in actual size, “crap I found around the studio or in my kitchen,” he says. “Like that”—he points out a crumpled bit of paper on the floor—“or a dead fly.” The series pays homage to Dutch painting and “to the attentiveness and the kind of devotional paint process that I still love.”

It’s art that upends a common strategy of Pop artists: while Claes Oldenburg celebrated the mundane through monumentality—think: a 45-foot-tall clothespin in Philadelphia or the colossal Spoonbridge and Cherry in Minneapolis—Lefkowitz does so in ways that are gentle, humorous, and humble, all to call attention to that which we might not otherwise notice.

Being Serious, Not Acting That Way

Born and raised in Nashville, Lefkowitz is the son of a physician father who sang in the Nashville Symphony Chorus and a mother who to this day remains “really resourceful and crafty.” But aside from the occasional museum trip, his family wasn’t particularly artsy. He credits that impulse to innate curiosity and an offbeat sense of humor shaped by the likes of New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast and Saturday Night Live.

In junior high, he learned about Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaist best known for exhibiting off-the-shelf snow shovels and bottle racks as art. “Most people who aspired to be artists at the time hated him. Like, ‘He’s just thumbing his nose at all the hard work I’m doing,’” he recalls. “But I loved it. I thought it was funny and smart and posed questions about what the nature of art is.”

He started paying attention to other artists, like Ed Ruscha and Marcel Broodthaers, who share Duchamp’s playfulness and unorthodoxy. “Some of those people get to have it both ways. They get to both be taken seriously but also not,” he says, noting a lesson he learned then: “You don’t have to act serious to be serious.”

It’s a notion he and his brothers, Paul and Jerry ’86, took to heart when they joined with friends to form the Young Nashvillians, a band that earned a local following in part for decidedly not playing their hometown’s ubiquitous country music. Their sound wasn’t easy to categorize—“my whole modus operandi is actively avoiding categorization,” Lefkowitz states—and their musical chops weren’t exactly refined. “One of my college friends summed us up as: ‘You guys sound a lot like the Muppets,’” he recalls. “It’s not something to be particularly proud of, but it was true.”

One online clip from a 1982 rehearsal features the banter of a young Lefkowitz, tambourine in hand, introducing the tune “Flip Flop”: “This is a song about casual footwear!”

“We were certainly interested in making fun of pretentious genres of music,” he says.

He later brought this off-kilter approach to cultural production to Carleton, where he earned his BA in art, then to the MFA program at the University of Illinois–Chicago. He returned to Northfield in 1997, and ever since he’s been teaching painting and drawing and continuing an independent practice that has seen his art featured at venues from the Walker Art Center and the Rochester Art Center to the Northfield Arts Guild Gallery, where in 2013 he presented Nrthfld: The Nirthfolde Visitors’ Bureau.

Cows, Colleges, and Conceptualism

A lesson Lefkowitz took from Duchamp: “If you place something in a context where your expectation is to treat it as an object of contemplation, it is.” A lesson he took from the Young Nashvillians, whose name (and theme song) poked fun at a local bank’s young investor program: tongue-in-cheek critique can be fun. He activates both ideas in his conception of Northfield’s doppelganger, Nirthfolde.

The main manifestation of the project is a series of maps and brochures, sized to fit roadside tourist-info racks, all bearing the logo of the Nirthfolde Visitors’ Bureau. These formats both convey the complexity of the motivations behind tourist marketing and serve as a critique of a town Lefkowitz loves but feels “can be too small-town-y sometimes.” He says, “It’s important to be critical when [tourism] is a crassly commercial thing, but also to recognize it’s a basic human impulse to want to draw attention to [oneself]. Like: ‘I want to show you where I live—both because I want to benefit from your visiting, but also because I think you might be interested.’”

One brochure, headlined in a Tales from the Crypt–style typeface, urges viewers to “Visit Nirthfolde’s Mysterious Monoliths of Mystery” and asks whether those oft-overlooked street-corner electrical boxes are “primitive structures, religious icons, or elaborate hoax?”

Another maps the locations of the Sod Wedges of Nirthfolde, 89 odd patches of green rolled out on street corners across town. Another takes the form of a subway map, reimagining Carleton’s walking trails as the “Cowling Arboretum Contemplative Transit Map.”

“I love that conflation of a system that you normally associate with an urban area onto a natural space,” he says. He’s intrigued by the abstraction involved with transit maps: there’s not always a one-to-one relationship between the symbolic diagram and the reality it maps, resulting in a “haziness between what’s real and what’s not.”

Lefkowitz’s latest Nirthfolde project plays with that haziness as well. Another glossy fold-out, Nirthfolde’s Historic Popular Moniker Park maps the trees adjacent to the Weitz Center for Creativity. He’s assigned a decade to each quadrant of Central Park and renamed the 97 trees there using American first names popular during those decades: in the 1920s, there’s Mildred, Ethel, and Roy; the 1980s section features the likes of Lindsey, Kyle, and Jessica. While each tree already has a scientific name—Carl Linnaeus named the buckeye Aesculus and the silver maple Acer saccharinum—to Lefkowitz they’re Keith and Lois.

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

Addressing trees by forenames implies intimacy. We name our pets, Lefkowitz points out, yet many farmers refrain from naming livestock destined for the freezer case. “What does it mean to give something an identity?” he asks. “Are there ways that we can engage with the world that might resensitize us to the environment?”

His thinking conjures the words of botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who in 2015 noted that the average American can name 100 corporate logos but only 10 plants. “Learning the names of plants and animals is a powerful act of support for them. When we learn their names and their gifts, it opens the door to reciprocity.” But given that we’re talking about the goofiness of transforming the crabapple, genus Malus, into Wendy, another sentiment from Kimmerer comes to mind. A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who famously went to forestry school to learn why goldenrod and asters look so beautiful together (as chronicled in her book Braiding Sweetgrass), Kimmerer notes that while her education gave her valuable lessons about nature, it taught her only “the names of plants, but not the songs.” With Travis, Janet, and Gary, perhaps Lefkowitz is suggesting we learn a new melody.

“I think you could argue that anything that is a reflection of care and attention is a worthy endeavor,” says Jade Hoyer ’07, an assistant professor of art since 2022 and a former student of Lefkowitz. She thinks the humor of Popular Moniker Park could draw those who experience it into deeper engagement with the details of our natural surroundings—seeing the trees for the forest, as it were. “It might spark thoughts about the history of naming within the Social Security Administration or the changing demographics in Northfield and what that reflects about the local ecosystem of trees,” she says. “And what does it mean that Laverne was chopped down last summer?”

Elfline agrees, likening the project to a Trojan horse. At first blush, it’s a “rollicking, quirky thing, but it’s really much more poignant and deep when you start thinking, ‘What if we looked at nature on a first-name basis?’”

He sees Nirthfolde—and all of Lefkowitz’s art—as utopian, but not in the popular sense of a harmonious, blissed-out paradise. “Looking at the word’s Greek roots, it really means ‘non-place,’” Elfline says. “There’s something about David’s practice that has always been about this idea of the ‘what if.’”

“He’s thinking about possible ways of inhabiting the world that could be different and using his art as a way of imagining the hypothetical. But at the same time it’s impossible, it’s a fiction, it’s not real,” he says. “With Nirthfolde, it is the town of Northfield but it’s kind of . . . off. What if a town actually activated those leftover bits of sod? Nirthfolde is both Northfield and not Northfield. And to me, that’s delightful.”

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