Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Levente Sulyok's Pregnant Silences

The Hungary-born, Berkeley-educated artist weaves Spaghetti Westerns and corporate slogans into an aesthetically cohesive exhibition.

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A vinyl record turning silently in reverse is a good place to start; in any case, the gesture is too overtly poetic to ignore. Coming around the deck and entering the back exhibition space of Martina }{ Johnston, the West Berkeley home-cum-gallery, this is just what one finds: a sensor-activated turntable, poised to start spinning Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to the Clint Eastwood classic A Fistful of Dollars with the approach of a viewer. The mind responsible for this peculiarly quiet, though by no means mute, scenario is Levente Sulyok, a Hungary-born artist and UC Berkeley MFA graduate currently based in Wichita, Kansas.

Sulyok lays as the philosophical context of his work "the phenomenon when human desire, driven by various cultural ideals, is projected outward, then immediately re-produced, packaged and finally consumed by its very source as something it lacks." What better example of this phenomenon than an Italian-directed and -scored film, shot in Spain, that just so happens to be one of the finest depictions of the American West in the genre's history? A record running in reverse, indeed.

Such voluble silences, compressions, excisions, and about-faces pervade All the Paranoid Monoliths — an aesthetically cohesive exhibition if ever there was one. Accompanying the Spaghetti-Western record is a dust jacket riddled with voids: Sulyok has censored the eyes of the actors with black bands and excised dozens of key descriptors with white-out strips — one of the artist's preferred tools. "The Man with No Name ( ) arrives in ( ) unshaven, unwelcome," reads a modified caption beneath the movie's star.

Nearby hangs a large advertisement frame with no advertisement in it, its fluorescent backlights and exposed wiring becoming a sort of blinding content in itself.

True to Sulyok's distinctively Frankfurt School-inflected philosophical statement, the crux of All the Paranoid Monoliths — the title of which comes from a book by anarchist essayist Hakim Bey — is political, at least as much as the artist's oblique approach allows.

In the main gallery the viewer will find three large paintings of vibrant but loosely washed acrylic, depicting landscapes again reminiscent of the American West. Superimposed upon these scenes are chains of white, blocky letterforms that appear to have collapsed into themselves. In fact, they spell Where Vision Gets Built, The Strength to Be There, and The Power of Yes — the respective corporate slogans of Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Washington Mutual, three financial institutions culpable for and destroyed by the recent economic crisis.

In tiling the letters of these phrases (crypto-fascist poetry, as the exhibition statement eloquently puts it) on top of one another, Sulyok renders them as sturdy as they are illegible. The paintings, together with a sealed shipping box containing Amazon-bought copies of The Communist Manifesto and a scrolling LED text display turned toward the wall, amount to a whole roomful of records, all spinning silently in reverse.

All the Paranoid Monoliths runs through December 30 at Martina }{ Johnston Gallery (1201 Sixth St., 2nd Fl., Berkeley). 510-558-0993 or MartinaJohnston.org

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