When I first heard about Jonathan LeVine releasing a book titled Delusional, I got puzzled and extremely curious. How could an alternative arts powerhouse like this, whose gallery – the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York – is not only a curated art space, but also a real institution for illustration, comic book, graffiti, street art and pop culture lovers worldwide, define its professional path with such a strong word?
Turns out his fascinating life story, with all of its twists and turns, is a must-read for every single person trying to make it in a creative field. We had a chance to sit down with LeVine for an interview, and here’s what he had to say:
LF: You have been described as “a co-conspirator with the art and the artists rather than someone who was looking to make a buck.” Simply asked, why do you do what you do?
JL: I am greatly inspired by the artists and the artwork they make. They give me the opportunity to promote and to some extent collaborate with them. I studied art in college and realized I couldn’t sit in a studio for 8 hours a day by myself as I am far too social a person. Also, I feel I am able to reach a larger audience by representing many artists as opposed to just being the one artist making work.
LF: The book title comes from what your friend Carlo McCormick thought about his idea: “Jonathan was a young and energetic curator with this delusional idea that he was going to have a gallery and make a living at it – I though he was out of his mind.” If you could start all over again, would you do anything differently?
JL: I would have approached it differently mentally. I would have been less hard on myself and enjoyed the process but the journey would have been the same. I regret none of it otherwise. It’s made for an interesting adventure.
LF: In a fearless move in 1996, you sold your entire punk record collection for $300 to print a poster for your first show at CBGB’s 313 gallery. Were you absolutely confident that it would be a success? Do you consider this was a turning point in your career – when you decided to go into arts instead of music?
JL: I wasn’t confident of the success but I was confident that what I was doing was important. It was definitely a turning point as I was willing to sacrifice something that was a huge part of my identity at that point to move in a new direction. I remember thinking it of it that way at the time. That I was trading one thing for another not knowing for sure where it would lead. Music had been a huge motivator, inspiration and a place of solace. It was and is my co-pilot in life.
LF: Lots of mentions of you wearing a fez hat – a fashion statement? a trademark? a hat to keep the thoughts in place?
JL: Initially it sort of fit with the retro nostalgic influences of the art I was showing and the subculture I was involved in. It was a way for people to find me in a crowd as I am short. I also have a fascination with the Shriners and collect Shriners memorbilia. I like the mystery and the fun of the Shriners and how they represent a simpler time with a cool aesthetic.
LF: Before the Internet – how did you find the artists, and how did they find you? What has changed now in the way you scout for new talent? Does it feel like there is so much talent out there and so little time and wall space?
JL: I would find artists by looking at underground comics, children’s books, subcultural magazines and illustration directories. Initially I was interested in illustrators who’s work blurred the line between art and illustration. After awhile people started to know about my curating efforts and I would meet many artists that way. Sometimes I would walk into a bar or coffee shop that exhibited art and find an interesting artist that way. I started initially curating shows with my own art work and those of my friends I had gone to college with. There was a wide variety of ways I would find art before the internet. It is very easy to find good work these days as there are many blogs, art magazines and websites to hunt for talent. There are definitely a lot of amazing, talented artists out there. There are far more than I could ever begin to show. It is frustrating sometimes as I would like to show them all.
LF: Can you name a few artists we should keep an eye out for and / or upcoming exhibitions you’re really excited about?
JL: There are a lot of street artists I like who are working very diligently on the street. Some are How & Nosm, Interesni Kazki, M-City and Aryz. I am always excited for all the shows I have at my gallery but a few that are going to be particularly exciting this year are Jeremy Geddes and Ashley Wood as I have not worked with them before. We are also putting on a very large scale show with Invader which should be epic.
LF: Being in the punk rock scene and at CBGB all the time – who are your favorite characters you met in that scene? Favorite punk rock group? Memories you’d like to share?
JL: I always had a vast amount of respect for Hilly Kristal the now deceased owner of CBGB’s. He was a very gruff guy who kept to himself but he was fiercely independent and would never compromise his beliefs and values. He provided a platform to some of the greatest artists/musicians of our generation and a haven to develop their unique voices.
I was fortunate to have one of the biggest punk rock clubs in the whole country five miles from my house in Trenton, NJ during the 80’s called City Gardens. Every major punk band would come and play that venue multiple times so I got to see a lot of amazing bands and meet a lot of interesting people who influenced and inspired me.
I still am still very much involved with the punk rock community in NJ where I live and keep in touch with many of the people I knew in my youth, going back as far as 27 years in some cases. There are too many people to mention but I am glad many of them are still in my life. I have a lot of favorite bands. Some of them are Minor Threat, anything Ian MacKaye does, 7 Seconds and many early Hardcore bands from Boston, NY and DC.
LF: There is a lot of debate on what to call the artistic style that you represent – how would you describe it?
JL: I try not to call it anything as I don’t think the artists should be labeled too narrowly. That said I have been known to describe it as Pop Pluralism.
LF: If you could give one advice to young undiscovered artists wanting to get their work into a gallery, what would it be?
JL: Do your research on galleries. Find one that fits the work you do. Go to lots of openings. Network with lots of artists and people involved in the art world. Be patient and persevere.
LF: How fast do you live?
JL: Not as fast as I used to but I can still hang in there with the best of them.