Lisa Levy in dialogue with Art Spiel
Right before the Coronavirus outbreak prompted a mass-shutdown of New York City’s galleries and museums, multidisciplinary artist, radio show host and (self-proclaimed) psychotherapist Lisa Levy recreated her classic guerrilla art project ‘Studio 54 Reject’. On the opening night of the “Studio 54: Night Magic” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Levy stationed herself outside the institution’s main entrance. Standing behind a small table encircled by red velvet ropes and four stanchion posts, she gestured toward a sign reading “Studio 54 Reject T-Shirt, $20” while imploring passersby to take pride in “reject status” with the purchase of a shirt, newly re-designed in gold glitter and the official logo.
For much of her artistic career, Lisa has rallied against elitism in the art world, so it makes sense Studio 54 inspired some of her earliest work. Reminiscing about nightclub’s allure, she described its essence as “the democratization of exclusivity culture — perpetuating the illusion that anyone bringing their “fabulousness” to the gates of Studio 54 would be recognized and invited inside, allowing ordinary people to experience the “Jetset lifestyle” and rub elbows with the rich and famous.” It wasn’t long before she recognized a similar trope playing out within the contemporary art world as well — those with money, talent, connections, looks, or taste could be accepted into the inner circle and gain access to all top-tier private events and opportunities that are elusive to regular people. So it seemed only natural for Lisa to revisit this performance in conjunction with opening night for Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective.
However with the COVID19 crisis in its infancy and New Yorkers just beginning to self-quarantine, museum attendance was down lower than usual for an event of this scale. Coronavirus “the great equalizer” was at work, making this a particularly poignant evening for the debut re-performance of ‘Studio 54 Reject’. Because ultimately, this piece serves as a reminder of how all human beings are fundamentally interconnected, no matter what materialistic trappings we adorn ourselves with.
Here, Lisa Levy shares with Art Spiel some reflections on the experience and hidden benefits of embracing “outsider status”
AS: How has this project evolved since its inception 40+ years ago?
LL: I love looking back on it as it shows me my nature to do work like that. I got on a career path about 2 years later which led to my jobs as an art director in advertising which I did for almost 30 years. I didn’t start creating art on the side until 15 years later in my late 30’s I started performing in my mid-40’s. I started working as a full-time artist less than 10 years ago. I love how this t-shirt project combines art and performance together
AS: How has taking ownership of the “outsider” role allowed you to transcend its setbacks?
LL: Somewhere deep inside I desperately want to be embraced by the system, but I honestly just don’t have what it takes and I don’t even know what it is. And when I mean “The System” I don’t just mean the art world, I mean every system I am ever involved in, from being a security guard during college at the Philadelphia Art Museum, to working in advertising and absolutely in art, with a scattering of inclusions. I have to be purposeful in not taking on work – paid work or my own work – that requires fitting myself into an uncomfortable mold, because I’ve learned (the hard way) that backfires.
AS: Originally you performed outside the Studio 54 club itself, but this time you were outside the Brooklyn Museum entrance. How does the change in location factor into the performance? Were the reactions from spectators any different?
LL: There was definitely a feeling of Deja vu holding up the t-shirts and barking. The biggest difference was with intention. When I did it the first time, I wasn’t thinking “art,” I was trying a social experiment, likely motivated by anger at being rejected, and my desire to embark on a “new in New York” adventure. This time, it really was a performance. I got the idea when I read that The Brooklyn Museum was doing the show, Night Magic: Studio 54. I had a larger budget than I did in 1978, so I re-designed the t-shirts with gold glitter as well as the real logo, which I was too afraid to use the first time.
In terms of the location, my concept was totally in context of the Brooklyn Museum exhibit. I wanted to reenact my unique perspective of the Studio 54 experience. It made sense to do it guerilla style just as I did the original. In 1978, it was a completely different story. My performance was outside the nightclub among the crowd, stationed in front of the most discussed social scene in the world at the time. We were on the outskirts of the crowd selling the shirts – people laughed then, and they laughed even harder this time.
AS: Much of your artistic practice is concerned with challenging ego & pretentiousness, particularly within the contemporary art world. Do you view “shedding one’s own ego” as absolutely-essential to the creative process?
LL: I don’t think of it that way. I just know what works best for me, which is mining my own honesty with myself. Ego can distort your self-image – for better and for worse. Art is subjective. It’s a challenge, yet crucial to be in touch with one’s own values of what’s good and bad work and not just take for granted what the art world is saying. Of course, I want the art world to recognize my work in particular, I think almost all artists feel that way. Owning that thought is important for me to independently evaluate, appreciate and be influenced by other artists’ work as well as my own.
AS: Do you feel society is more accepting of outsider culture than it was back in 1978, when you originated this piece?
LL: Yes and no. Inside/outside is much less defined, more fluid. Also, the entire planet has become searchable and/or bookable — so exclusivity is based on different metrics now.
AS: Any big surprises you weren’t expecting during this initial re-performance?
LL: The coronavirus. I’ve been planning this project since they announced the show in January.
AS: What is the primary takeaway you want to give spectators with this performance?
LL: I wanted to draw attention to all the absurdity, humor and fluidity associated with obtaining “insider status”, and how we as a society deem who is “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. How crazy it is that we invest our egos in gaining approval from a gatekeeper who observes us briefly from a distance? But mostly, I just wanted to make people laugh.
AS: Anything else you want to add?
LL: I am super proud of this project, mostly because I did it completely of my own volition and I feel like it’s a success, even though I only got to do it for a few hours due to the quarantine. It was really satisfying getting the shirts made after all the design experience I’ve had and my own budget that could pay for the shirts to get done exactly how I wanted them to look. My biggest wish is that the Brooklyn Museum can reopen so visitors can see the show and I get to do my t-shirt sale again, but if that doesn’t happen, I am more than satisfied. I realized about a week later how lucky I was. When I was in front of the museum that Thursday night, I wasn’t ever planning that the museum would be closed after that. As time goes on, I am grateful that I didn’t have the disappointment of putting the whole project together, not getting to experience it and then have to look at the shirts that no one got to see.
Nathalie Levey is an art publicist based out of New York City. After working in the music industry on PR campaigns for the likes of Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, and Esperanza Spalding, she founded her own independent firm Color Brigade Media, specialized in the visual arts and music publicity. She is passionate about fostering creatives at all stages of their careers, utilizing art to champion social justice and personal growth.