Philip Levine is an artist who, if you are not already familiar with his work, you will soon come to know. With recent appearances, performances and features at Somerset House, Central St. Martin’s, the V&A and as part of Ben Moore’s Art Below project, which puts art on the London Underground, Levine is going from strength to strength, supported by big-name sponsors such as Gillette and by a close-knit circle of collaborators. It is on a bright evening by Regent’s Canal that I join Levine and two of his most prolific collaborators – the make-up artist Kat Sinclair and the photographer Al Overdrive- to watch as they shoot the Art Below campaign.
We meet in King’s Place where Levine, whose canvas is his own head, is having a satirical slogan- ‘No Thinking’ in the style of a ‘No Smoking’ sign- painted onto his head, working back and forth with Sinclair in a remarkably fluid way that reflects their long-standing partnership and familiarity with each other’s processes and ideas. We are soon by the canal and against an industrial, futuristic background- in fact, Felice Varini’s striking ‘Across the Buildings’ foil installation over the Victorian brick buildings by the water. As the shoot begins, the collaborative aspect of Levine’s work is again evidenced in his easy relationship with Al Overdrive, who works at lightning speed and directs instinctively, seeming not to even look through the lens yet capturing ‘the shot’ within moments. Having know of Levine through his already-iconic ‘Crystalize’ work, which involves the adorning of his head with hundreds of Swarovski crystals, I had expected the process of his shoots to be painstaking and long but in fact, the shoot was much more dynamic than any fashion shoot I had ever worked on before. Levine is at heart a performer and possesses a fascinating energy, harnessing his ideas into a statement and spectacle that is succinct, bold and high-impact. By working in such close collaboration with others, his process encourages the flow and exchange of creative ideas and there is a palpable, really quite beautiful freedom of ideas within his work, which is essentially grounded in the living, breathing platform of his own body.
It is in this way that Levine pushes the boundaries of what it means to be an artist because his work, and his own role as creator, are in constant flux. Walking with him around King’s Cross every passerby has their own reaction and as a result, his work- and his artistic project in its widest sense- are constantly reflective and affected by the context in which they are received. When standing on a plinth at the V&A, Levine and his work push at the boundaries of the classical institution and so ask questions about the nature of performance art, a living juxtaposition of old and new against the setting of a museum built in 1852. When received by commuters on the Underground, Levine’s outlandishly decorated scalp is almost shocking by comparison to the grey commuters, providing a humour and whimsy to the mundane.
This subversive element has echoes of Warhol and Keith Haring, especially as Levine’s work enters more and more into the mainstream and wider conscience, having already appeared in international news media and on billboards all over the world. It is estimated that an average of 40,000 people will see the ArtBelow work in just two weeks, forcing Levine and his crew of collaborators into the public sphere. Levine hopes to use this virality for good, putting a positive social message at the foundation of his work; beginning with the destigmatising of baldness. Levine works closely with various charities, most recently with C.A.L.M, The Campaign Against Living Miserably, which raises awareness of depression amongst young men.
Levine is an artist breaking boundaries; from medium to process to exhibition, he rejects and subverts all the traditions of artistic creation in order to drive a positive message of creativity, and art capable of social change. After witnessing him on-set with his collaborators, and being even temporarily part of such an energetic creative exchange, I left inspired and excited to see what Levine has in store for the world in years to come.