David Levinthal, a grown man, can't help but play with toys. Cowboys, Indians, Barbie dolls, figurines clad in S&M-wear: All have posed for the photographer's large-format Polaroid camera -- one of six in the world -- over the past 30 years. Or better said, he has posed them. A graduate of the Yale School of Art, 53-year-old Levinthal began artfully tinkering with toys in the early Seventies when he positioned a series of tiny German soldiers plodding through snow (really Gold Medal Flour) and fighting battles in grainy sepia photographs. Re-creating Hitler's army moving through Russia, the compelling scenes accompanied text in Hitler Moves East, a slim book he produced with Yale classmate Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame.
In the intervening years, Levinthal's fancy may have turned from war but never waned from toys. The exhibition "From the Valley of the Dolls, 1985-2001" at the Daniel Azoulay Gallery offers a glimpse of his oeuvre. Five sharply focused shots of Barbie Millicent Roberts (yes, that Barbie), taken from 1997-1998, center on the Mattel model in her usual glamorous poses -- a Fifties diva walking a black poodle, a geisha girl, an innocent lingerie model. In larger recent Cibachrome explorations, she appears more sophisticated. Back to the camera in fitted black sleeveless dress, shoulder-length gloves, and short blond bouffant, she cuts a Marilyn Monroe-esque figure. Facing the lens in a sparkly strapless number, she casts a sly sidelong glance.
Still in the realm of playthings and fantasy with a decidedly sordid edge are the half-dozen images from the erotic series XXX (1999-2000), which show off, among many things, smudgy disembodied doll legs sheathed in garter belts and stockings and bare buttocks suspended in black-leather chaps. Anything but romantic, Modern Romance (1983-1985) features washed-out three-inch-by-three-inch color photos of lovers in action. Levinthal created tiny dioramas, shot them on video, and then captured the handiwork (some straight from the TV screen) with a Polaroid SX-70. A shrunken David Lynch film: The effect is oppressively voyeuristic, like a private detective conducting surveillance.
Boyhood games of adventure provide the fodder for the ten striking examples from Levinthal's The Wild West (1988-1989). Part The Last of the Mohicans, part Gunsmoke, the blurred images dazzle the eye with burnished brown, rust, red, and orange tones. A gunslinger entering a saloon, a speeding stagecoach being pulled by frenzied horses, an Indian paddling a canoe placidly through the woods, evoke a time when men were men and women, enemies, and territory seemed manageable.
Generating more questions than answers about warfare, stereotypes, beauty, femininity, love, sexuality, racism, voyeurism, and the significance of toys to people of all ages, Levinthal's photos offer an astonishing view of what he calls a "surrogate reality." And considering the climate in which we live, we need all the help with reality we can get.