Fascinated with the perception of light and the role it plays in our experience of the world, Chris Levine is an extraordinary artist who is perhaps best known for his portrait of the Queen.
Born in 1960 in Ontario, Levine studied in London at the Chelsea School of Art and earned a master’s in computer graphics at Central Saint Martins. He originally wanted to be an astronaut, then a drummer in a band and then an architect. He eventually turned to fine art, however, because qualifying as an architect would “take too long”.
Painting with Light
A self-proclaimed ‘light artist’, Chris Levine doesn’t create paintings in the traditional sense; rather, he makes work using a mixture of lighting techniques, photography and digital media. These can range from prints to large scale installations using lasers, natural light and LEDs. The artist has said that his fascination with light began when he saw his first laser beam during a physics lesson at the age of 11, and when he came across a hologram of Dennis Gobor, who invented holography, at the Science Museum in London. His work can also be said to be influenced by masters of light and colour such as Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor as well as visionaries such as Hussein Chalayan, whom he once shared a studio with. Speaking about his work with light, Levine has said, “What I’m trying to do with the light is to connect people at a level where you are not just observing something – you are light.”
In 2004 Levine created a sensational portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The work is unlike any other royal portrait in the history of Western art; here the most famous woman in the world is shown not in her traditionally regal pose but with her eyes closed, offering the viewer a glimpse into, as Levine puts it, her ‘inner realm’. Entitled Lightness of Being, the work was originally part of a commission to commemorate the Isle of Jersey’s 800th year of allegiance to the crown. It was born from a 3D holographic portrait of the queen entitled Equanimity which required the queen to sit still for 8 seconds at a time while a high res digital camera on a rail took over 200 images per second. Between each pass of the camera, the queen closed her eyes to rest them from the light and it was then that Levine hit the shutter and captured this rare image of the monarch in a meditative state.
While the Queen undoubtedly remains Levine’s most high profile subject, the artist has also worked with other kinds of royalty, including Kate Moss whom he photographed extensively in order to create a series of artworks that showed the model’s iconic face in a range of different lights. Titled She’s Light, the series included archival inkjet prints as well as lenticular lightboxes which brought the images to life. With this series Levine was perhaps looking to Andy Warhol before him who appropriated the iconic features of stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor using light and colour to transform their much photographed visages into high art.
Grace Jones & Philip
In 2010 Levine directed the music video for Grace Jones’ track, Love You To Life which featured the singer wearing a hat by milliner Philip Treacy encrusted with crystals that acted as a disco ball, reflecting the light Levine shone upon her. Commenting on the piece Levine said, "When I conceived and directed the video I wanted it to be just Grace naked and light. I didn't want to get distracted by fashion, which would have been so predictable. She has such a raw nature and that's what I wanted to tap into and amplify with my laser. The only prop was the crystal bowler hat – the object that was the catalyst for the relationship and project." This work was shown at Levine’s solo show Stillness at The Speed of Light at the Vinyl Factory in London in 2010, along with a series of giclee and screen prints derived from the collaboration.
As with his contemporary, Julian Opie, Levine has also created a series of artworks using LEDs (light-emitting diodes). Labelled ‘blipverts’ by the artist, they are often used in high profile installations such as a work made for Sketch restaurant in London, and a window campaign about the dangers of overfishing for Project Ocean at Selfridges. Levine also made a large scale backdrop for Massive Attack’s performance at Glastonbury Festival in 2008 and for Antony and the Johnsons’ live show at Wilderness festival in 2011 which was later restaged at the Royal Opera House.
Commissions & Exhibitions
Embracing the spirit of commerciality that can be found in predecessors such as Warhol and Jeff Koons, Levine has worked extensively with fashion brands, jewellers and even car manufacturers, adapting his innovative techniques to the world of advertising and events. Alongside this highly marketised part of his practice, Levine has also exhibited his work in institutions around the world, gaining critical as well as popular acclaim. His work has toured 12 countries with the British Council and he has also created work for MoMA, The Eden Project – which later spawned a collaboration with Jon Hopkins – and Tasmania’s MONA museum.
On the Market
Chris Levine’s original works can reach up to six figures at auction while his prints – often variations of his light paintings – are more affordable. As well as numerous colourways of his famous portrait of the Queen, Levine has also released editions of his photographs of Kate Moss and a portrait of street artist Banksy, shown from the back to preserve his anonymity. Additionally Levine has created a series of more abstract works such as X Marks the Spot and Atomic, which calls to mind Anish Kapoor’s colorful voids and protrusions.