How Lauren Levato went from drawing insects to drawing herself

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It's difficult to separate the intimate details of an artist's life from an understanding of his work. That Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic and likely bipolar adds a layer of meaning to the violent revelations of his paintings. Picasso was a lifelong womanizer, and it isn't difficult to see his contorted forms—often modeled after his lovers—as women bent to his will. But for men, individual biography is secondary to their primary identity as artists. They're understood as artists first, philanderers and alcoholics second.

But what about women? Does the female artistic identity enjoy the same priority over the sordid details of a private life? Can a woman mine the depths of her own emotional existence, draw from her own flaws and pain, and still transcend her biography? Or is she destined to be confined to a narrow, even pejorative, interpretation?

As artist Lauren Levato says, "We're all afraid of becoming Sylvia Plath."

The ghost of Plath looms large over the female creative process. Go too deep, reveal too much of your emotional self, and you run the risk of being branded an indulgent, histrionic woman, awash in the Dionysian, devoid of the Apollonian, and one bad day away from turning on the oven. Sounds a bit hysterical, I know. But as much as Plath has become an unfortunate cultural punch line, she functions as a kind of cautionary tale for women artists. And thus artists tend to limit themselves for fear of a similar critical fate. They don't hit their heads on a glass ceiling so much as the top of a bell jar.

Levato is a perfect example. In person, she's disarmingly forthright about her personal history. But as an artist, she has avoided any subject matter that could be construed as even remotely personal. For much of her career in visual art (she is also a writer and poet), Levato has focused on precise anatomical renderings of insects in graphite. The subject matter itself is traditionally unfeminine because the stereotype dictates that all women are terrified of bugs. But there's also something in the method—an obsession with exactitude and control, with recording elements of reality as they objectively exist—that's traditionally unfeminine. Because women, the story goes, are ruled by their passions, whereas the cerebral realm—that of order, logic, and cool analytical detachment—belongs to men.

But while much of Levato's work can be read as an effort to edit and control, she is also an exemplar of the dizzying freedom that awaits when you simply let go. Last week, she successfully funded Wunderkammer: A Year of Curiosities. Raising $12,000 through USA Projects, Levato, who only recently began a full-time studio practice, will devote all of 2013 to pushing the scope and scale of her work. The project will kick off in January with an exhibition at Packer Schopf Gallery in which Levato will show a new, intensely personal side of her work.

Wunderkammer has its roots in the sudden death of Levato's father in 2010. In the wake of his passing, she grew consumed by the ways in which the body can fail and began incorporating images of human organs into her work. While her drawings from that period expose a vulnerability previously unseen in her art, the work is still meticulously rendered and tightly controlled; her bugs are still there, swarming from the ventricles of a quieted human heart. But as time went on and Levato overcame grief, she began to experience something she hadn't expected: the joy and terrifying lightness of being truly free.

Though they were friends at the time of his death, Levato and her father had a complicated relationship. She says, "There was abuse between us." They'd made their peace, but Levato never realized how heavily he weighed on her until he was gone. She says the experience of this realization was sudden and intense, like a demon leaving her body. For the first time, Levato belonged to herself. And it was then that she realized that she'd never done a self-portrait. She says she could've never drawn her own body while her father was alive. Now she has created an entire series featuring herself as subject; it will be included in the Wunderkammer exhibition. Unlike her drawings of insects, the self-portraits are loose and fluid, the work of an artist just discovering a subject and giving herself plenty of space to evolve.

The Wunderkammer funding will also allow Levato to continue her experimentation with handmade ceramic frames. Frames, she says, are a narrative device that either furthers or truncates the story it surrounds. All of the pieces in the Wunderkammer exhibition will be displayed in Levato's frames. She may be giving us a more personal look at her life, but she's controlling where the story begins and ends, too.

Knowing aspects of that story, I don't look at Levato's work and see anything other than a talented artist pushing the boundaries of her work. I don't see a victim, a girl with daddy issues, or a pretty red heart bit in two. Lauren Levato is an artist creating herself in her own image. And that takes balls.

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