Of secrecy, revelation, and remembrance by Lauren Ross, for VisArts Richmond

Of secrecy, revelation, and remembrance

Lauren Ross


Forget-me-not,--the blue-bell,--and, that queen

  Of secrecy, the violet: what strange powers

Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,

  When in an Eye thou art alive with fate!

-- John Keats[1]


Elissa Levy’s artistic practice encompasses multiple media, blending mechanical reproduction, handmade processes, and a sensitivity to materials. Of secrecy, the violet unites several of the artist’s recent works with new ones made over the course of three stays in Richmond through the Quirk + VisArts residency. The exhibition’s title draws enigmatically on a poem by John Keats and its ode to mystery and fate.

Levy mines media representations, with a focus on printed newspapers, to consider significant people who are in the public eye. Her intention is, in part, to explore the allocation of power. For several years, her emphasis was on athletes and soldiers, figures who embodied a cultural obsession with strength, prowess, victory, and dominance. More recently, she has shifted her eye to politicians and world leaders, who arguably embody and employ those very same qualities. While Levy’s past emphasis was primarily on visual representation in the form of photographs, she has widened her scope to examine the juxtapositions of text and image that comprise printed reports. Levy observes newspapers’ reflection of personal aspirations and anxieties: “The newspaper is a real reflection of people… it mirrors the things we think about, people’s behavior, their expectations… there’s an element of it projecting your fears, and also projecting your hopes.”[2] Simultaneously, newspapers shape broader social and cultural perceptions of the people, events, and issues deemed to be the most pressing and capture them for posterity.

Fittingly, Levy’s embrace of mechanical reproduction often is expressed through analog or digital printing, and she outputs such processes into editions and multiples. Levy will sometimes use an image more than once in the same piece or repeat it across a series. This repetition of visuals is akin to the nature of media itself, which repeats information ad nauseum, but with variations depending on the hour, day, or media outlet. Factual information shifts, according to when and how we receive it.

As with the mechanical and mass-produced, Levy embraces the handmade and handcrafted. She achieves a balance between these two poles, in part, through her penchant for experimenting across a variety and materials and techniques. The exhibition features paper, leather, aluminum, plaster, and new and vintage fabrics, manipulated through such methods as laser etching, silk-screening, wet molding, and digital printing. The combinations allow Levy to manipulate materials through draping, bending, and molding and to play with the resulting shapes. Often her work defies expected differences between flat and volumetric forms. For example, flat fabric pieces like Rise and Fall (Symmetrical) and Roanoke Times #1 and #2 fool the eye with their printed images of folds and shadows, blurring the differences between two dimensions and three.


Richard Nixon

During the year leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Levy paid particularly close attention to media depictions of Hillary Clinton, the candidate poised to make American history as the first female president. Although emotionally invested as a Clinton supporter, Levy tried to approach this work with a degree of detached observation. The artist, along with millions of other Americans, anticipated an historic victory. After Clinton’s loss, Levy’s anger, disappointment, and anxiety made it difficult for her to continue her work. Donald Trump dominated the daily news cycle, but Levy was not inclined to adopt him as a subject. A change seemed in order.

Levy turned to media reports of Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation of the presidency. The shift was, in part, to give herself the distance of history as an emotional cushion. Additionally, the parallels between Nixon and Trump felt strong and apparent to her, most clearly in the investigations into clandestine operations by both men, as well as the specter of impeachment that forced Nixon’s resignation and has hovered over Trump’s term from its start. The more Levy mined contemporaneous reports on Nixon, the more parallels she saw to the current President, including musings on both men’s personal wealth and questions over the legality of acts committed by members of their circles.

Levy most often sources her material from The New York Times, widely considered the paper of record in the US. With this new work, she adds an additional source; during Levy’s first visit to Richmond in January 2018, she purchased a copy of an April 1974 issue of The Roanoke Times from a vendor of vintage newspapers and magazines.[3] Several works in the exhibition are based on media representations from both papers, drawing on regional and national coverage alike. In addition to the front-page headlines, she adapts stories that offer up local perspectives; “Virginians React Calmly,” one story flatly announces, alongside a grid of photographs of residents, accompanied by brief quips giving their personal takes on the situation. These “average Joe” views are a common media formula, but it is debatable whether such presentations are in fact reporting, shaping, or changing opinion.


Violet Gibson

Running parallel with—and occasionally overlapping—the Nixon reportage is the exhibition’s other historical narrative thread, making its way into Levy’s artwork for the first time. Levy’s distant relative Violet Gibson (1876 – 1956) attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini in 1926. Gibson’s remarkable story is surprisingly little-known. She lived much of her life in isolation and clandestineness, so even those closest to her were not fully aware of her internal life. Gibson was born to a gentry English family in Ireland, from whom she rebelled, with such gestures as moving to London, entering a bohemian artistic circle, and dabbling in mysticism before converting to Catholicism. She suffered from various physical ailments and, most likely, from mental illness (diagnosis of mental illness in her day differed considerably from today’s standards, so it is difficult to make a definitive declaration about this). Gibson became progressively erratic and isolated over the years, and a mental break may have occurred when her fiancé—an artist, about whom very little is known—died unexpectedly in 1909. Violet isolated herself to pursue her Catholic faith in solitude, eventually relocating to Rome where she lived in a convent. In Italy, she became increasingly concerned with political affairs as well as the repression of Catholicism; Mussolini’s rule was marked by his anti-clerical stance and verbal attacks against the Church. It is not entirely clear what spurred Gibson to act, but on April 7, 1926, she went to the Piazza del Campidoglio, where Mussolini was making a public appearance, pulled out a gun, and shot him. Despite her close range, the bullet only grazed Il Duce’s nose, resulting in a non-life-threatening wound. Violet attempted to fire a second round, but the bullet jammed in the chamber of her 1892 revolver. The crowd of Mussolini supporters descended on Gibson, beating her. Police intervention likely spared her life. She was arrested, tried, and convicted of the attempted assassination. Mussolini declared her to be insane and deported her to Britain. There, Gibson was committed to a mental asylum where she spent the remaining thirty years of her life.

Levy draws on reports and archival documents of these events as sources for her new work.[4] In Violet Eyes, Levy reproduces part of a British newspaper’s article on the incident. The report features a sensationalistic crop of a photograph to isolate “The Honorable Violet Gibson’s eyes,” as if these “windows to the soul” might allow the viewer entry into the mind of an aristocrat-turned-criminal. Levy added an Art Nouveau-style wreath of violets as a framing device, further highlighting the newspaper’s emphasis. The accent on her eyes has a poetic link to Gibson’s namesake flower, as many of the hundreds of species of violets are noted for the dark coloring at the base of each petal that together form a central pattern resembling an eye, as Keats refers to in his sonnet.

Among the historical documents Levy sources are items used as evidence in Gibson’s prosecution: a scrap of paper found in her pocket on which the location of Fascist Party headquarters, Palazzo del Littorio, is written; a five lira banknote with hand-written inscriptions, “Vive Mussolini” and “Avviva Mussolini,” and a large stone concealed in a leather glove, which she carried in case she needed to smash a car window to access her target. Each of these crucial items are reinterpreted by the artist in varying materials and forms. In Of Secrecy, Levy re-envisioned the stone tucked inside Violet’s glove as a collection of sculptures made by pouring wet plaster into vintage black gloves. The resulting pieces assume distorted, somewhat grotesque gestures, with the plaster swelling, oozing, and overflowing from its leather containers. Red cord draped over and among the sculptures visually connect them, but also suggest rivulets of blood (the same red cord appears elsewhere in the exhibition, draped like a garland around printed fabric, or poking out of the tops of wax sculptures like dysfunctional candle wicks). In the exhibition, these glove sculptures are installed below a photograph, printed on velvet, of Violet being arrested. Policemen escort her through the Palazzo dei Conservatori courtyard, which contain remnants of the colossal statue of Constantine, including two giant hands that echo Levy’s crafted forms. Levy has reproduced other documents and newspapers on laser-etched leather; some pieces are left relatively flat while others are wet-molded into sculptural volumes. Some of the original documents, such as the torn envelope corner found in Gibson’s pocket, were diminutive, yet Levy has increased their scale, granting them greater heft to correspond to their importance in shaping Gibson’s fate. Leather is a new material for Levy. Organic, corporeal, and visceral, it is imbued with vulnerability and mortality. References to the body abound in these works, in leather skins, vintage handkerchiefs and tea towels that show marks of use, as well as in images of faces, hands, and fingerprints.

Violet’s body is most explicitly on display in the immediate products of her arrest—her mugshot and ink blotter fingerprints. Violet’s mugshot is a remarkable image; the mob beating she received is evidenced in her torn collar and bruised face. Despite this, she gazes at the camera with her head held high, looking simultaneously calm and unapologetic. Levy has reproduced the image and accompanying fingerprints in laser etching on perhaps the least expected choice of material found in the exhibition: ostrich eggs. The eggs are displayed on stands that Levy cast in resin, based on Renato Giuseppe Bertelli’s 1933 continuous profile of Mussolini, an infamous Italian Futurist artwork that was embraced by its subject as an official portrait. The form (which Levy also cast in wax in candle-like sculptures) makes an explicit connection between Futurism and Fascism. A more obtuse link is Levy’s opinion that ostrich eggs conjure the spirit of the 1930 Futurist Cookbook, a publication that is equal parts food and theater, offering up ingredients and dishes that are often nonsensical and bizarre. The eggs also invoke associations of willful ignorance, based on the common myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when threatened. In the context of fascist suppression, such willful ignorance is perilous. The frenetic profile of Mussolini playing a supporting role to the serene visage of Gibson (even in the very moment she loses her freedom) perhaps turns the tables on their power dynamic and celebrates one of the few people who refused to turn a blind eye to the fascist leader’s crimes and menaces.

Levy’s consideration of Violet Gibson’s life is inflected with her concerns about gender imbalance. She views the expectations put on Violet as highly gendered, making Violet’s rejection of convention all the more courageous. Additionally, Levy feels that Violet’s diagnosis and treatment reflected the era’s tendency to dismiss women as fragile and “hysterical” (this term itself is, of course, biologically derived). Several choices of materials in the exhibition reflect the feminine, from eggs and their associations with fertility, to tea towels that evoke the domestic realm. By contrast, other fabric pieces in the exhibition are draped over dowels like flags or suspended from the ceiling like banners, suggesting more militaristic, masculine uses of cloth.


Of secrecy, revelation, and remembrance

Levy’s two narrative threads stretch alongside each other, alternatively drawing nearer and pulling away. In a series of works, Levy has silkscreened vintage cloths with a newspaper photo of Nixon, his palm pressed against his face in a gesture of shame. Levy’s intention is to evoke religious shrouds, such as the one at Turin, which some believe to be imprinted with Jesus’s visage, or more contemporary objects on which the faithful claim to see images of Christ or Mary. After Mussolini was wounded by Violet, mythic stories were born about the cloth he used to stem the flow of blood; a fanatic follower claimed to have preserved it like a holy relic. This conflation of a president or prime minister with the son of God questions the separation of church and state, as well as the very nature of fanaticism and falls from grace. Gibson was deemed insane for the violent expression of her devotion, but one could also question the faith of Mussolini’s supporters who accepted his ascension and authority despite the severe suppression of liberties and waves of brutal violence that defined his rule.

The Nixon and Gibson narratives most explicitly intersect in pieces like Rise and Fall (Flora and Fauna), a draped fabric work that layers the Nixon front page story with organic elements, including violets. Nature appears in other places and forms; a snake shows up in pieces such as Rise and Fall (with Snake). The Biblical reference of the serpent triggering the Fall is explicit.

Taken collectively, the works in this exhibition swirl around the character and consequences of power, secrets, and crimes. How does the media influence the perception, fates, and legacies of those whose private lives unfold in the public eye? What divides truth and myth, democracy and fascism? Levy does not dictate specific readings or conclusions, although it feels clear that by encouraging her viewers to remember recent history as well as historical acts of resistance, she is guiding us to think about the present moment. The exhibition begs such questions as, where is the thin line between sanity and lunacy, or between independent direction and group-think? Who are the true enemies of the state? It also urges consideration of the complexity and slow unfolding of history. The past may be difficult to comprehend, but it is also dangerous to forget.


[1] John Keats, “Blue! — ’Tis the life of heaven — the domain,” 1818.

[2] ENGAGE video commissioned by the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, produced and edited by Departure Point, 2018.

[3] Later, a friend gifted to Levy a copy of The Richmond Times-Dispatch from the same day.

[4] Levy’s primary source is one of the few extensive accounts: Frances Stonor Saunders, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2010).