For Lev, A Proper Goodbye
There’s something magnetic about the table. Maybe you notice the three chairs, pushed out as if they have been left mid-conversation. Or the gritty surface, with that speckled black that looks like your fingernails on their worst and most creative days. Or the cassettes stacked haphazardly on top—Neil Young, Duke Ellington, two mixtapes with neat, tiny scrawl in black pen. Everything about this feels conversational: you want to pull up a chair and ask the artist why he left this when he did, and when he’s coming back to it.
But that’s not possible. The work has outlived him, and so have the other artists in the room.
The table anchors Circling Lev, an exhibition showcasing the work of Karacabey “K.” Levni Sinanoğlu two years after the artist died unexpectedly in his Erector Square studio at age 51. In placing him with 12 of his mentors, friends, and former colleagues from Yale University, Hampshire College, and the Ely House itself, curator Debbie Hesse has given Sinanoğlu a proper and elegant sendoff, celebrating his life and work while tracing the lives he touched—and those that touched his.
From its outset—that table that pulls you in, and keeps you guessing—Circling Lev has a gentle but propulsive energy. Because of its rather expansive scope, it’s hard not to float from piece to piece—Clint Jukkala’s 2016 Night Vision beckons from one wall while Sinanoğlu’s Pink City Mandala (2003) winks out from another. A framed portrait of Sinanoğlu, propped like a totem on a radiator cover between them, reminds you why you’re here. This artist has left the world much too soon, with more to say than he ever got to.
Drift for just a moment, and your eye catches David Pease’s measured, map-like Katrina (2006) and Land of Lincoln (2007), a sort of ordered, deconstructed take on Julie Mehretu. Oh hello there, they seem to say rigidly from the wall. Thank you for coming. If you want to see how we’re still bound to Lev, you’ve got to keep looking.
It’s just a teaser for the works—what feels like hundreds of pieces, but is actually tens—that chatter and converse with Sinanoğlu’s paintings across the Ely Center’s two floors. To the right side of the front door is a recreation of the artist's studio, so packed with works it looks as if an artist’s studio has crammed itself into the space, and then invited all its painter friends for a party.
There’s no clutter here, just stacks and stacks of art, with the quality of a tomb you’d never dare to clean. The floors, walls and deep windowsill are flush with it—busy but almost reverently so. At the center of the action is another of the artist’s tables, framed on one side with his oft-used shark motif. Work by colleague and friend Carrie Schenck Haberstock looks on from the other, with a note about how hard it was to break the news of Sinanoğlu’s death to her young son, who he mentored.
It is sweet and not overly confessional, the blow made more emotional by the image beside it—a miniature where a young, fat-cheeked boy looks on. He’s sweet, clad in yellow and probably no more than two years old. But he also looks absolutely exhausted, as if the exhibition’s grief has seeped in past the frame.
These heart-to-heart conversations between works pop up all over the house: around corners and in hallways, up the stairs and by the bathroom where you least expect them. In an upstairs hallway, Turner Brooks’ Untitled and Joshua Marsh’s Glimpse (2017) share space with works by Sinanoğlu that Marsh owned, all of them chattering happily as they are reunited.
The rooms on either side of the chatter are particularly lovely. In the first, which looks out on the center’s big magnolia tree, Joel Werring’s massive, thick oils talk loudly to Sinanoğlu’s Self Portrait, a blue-faced, yellow-eared Lev in the style of Giorgio de Chirico. Brooks’ Untitled (n.d.) joins in in hushed, whooshing tones.
In the other, overlooking the center’s sprawling backyard, a tree bursts into flower outside the window, impossible not to look at as you round the bend and pass through a doorway. Inside, Sinanoğlu shares space with Gideon Bok’s thick, heaped oils and Katy Schneider’s polished, almost Vermeer-esque still lives. They're surrounded by more friends throughout the drafty house, including former curator and gallery director Paul Clabby, who knew the space in its former life as the John Slade Ely House.
While so much of the show’s momentum comes from this posthumous cross-talk, we also get a sense of the artist, whose work stands out in bright oranges, blues and pinks, with nods to the New York School, surrealism, and metaphysical art. Sinanoğlu, we learn, in softly-rendered birds and cypress trees; he is spherical doorways that seem to glow orange; he is circus tents and empty chairs.
In the room to the right of the downstairs foyer, Sinanoğlu is pure poetry, his paintings From Here and There (2005), From Where To Where (2006), and earlier Untitled (Still Life in Yellow) sharing space with William Bailey and Clint Jukkala.
And he has his audience for it. Circling Lev is a heartfelt sort of wake for an artist gone far too soon. As the Ely Center’s willing audience, we don’t just celebrate Lev. We sit Shiva for him; we drink to him; we wave our brushes and oils in the air as his ghost passes in every room.
And we remember the places we knew him—often surrounded by art. You look at the photos that are scattered throughout the house, and you miss him. You look at the paintings and find that you are home. You find yourself hoping he is too.