From Grace Jones, to Kate Moss and even the Queen herself, Chris Levine has an enviable repertoire of celebrity models to his name. Reputed around the world as a ‘pioneer’ of the Light Art form, his renowned piece ‘Equanimity’ has been noted as one of the most iconic images of the twenty first century. Here, we enter into Levine’s world of light, icons, family and the Queen.
I believe the more we consider light and tune into it, the closer we get to the source of life
Levine’s fascination with light started as a child and carried on through to his time at the Chelsea School of Art and Central St. Martins School of Art. He became “hooked from the start” on holograms as an art form whilst researching for his thesis, and it was this introduction that sparked a life-long captivation with the use of light in art. He recalls; “it seemed in the hands of technicians and, as an art form, it was full of potential. I eventually became more interested in the lasers used to make holograms and, from then on, it was about the light, not the image.” This interest is reflected in Levine’s work, with his art described as considering ‘light not just as a core aspect of art, but of human experience more widely’. For Levine, light holds a greater significance to our lives beyond its role in art, as he explains that “what we consider as light, that is the visible spectrum, is in fact a very narrow bandwidth of EMF. According to Einstein, we are compressed light. I believe the more we consider light and tune into it, the closer we get to the source of life”.
Levine’s first commissions, taken straight out of college, involved working with companies that he felt could use holograms in their communications. This included The Worldly’s front cover feature, Richard Branson, who he fondly remembers as encouragingly “giving me the time of day on his boat to show him holograms and talk about their future”. Despite starting a career of what Levine describes as “feast and famine”, in 2004 he was commissioned by the Island of Jersey to do a portrait of the Queen to commemorate 800 years of allegiance to the crown. It is this project, ‘Equanimity’, that many consider to be Levine’s greatest and most influential work.
For Levine, this initially seemed an unreal proposition. “I thought it was a friend pulling my leg when I first got the call. A hologram of the Queen? It seemed too far fetched! When I was summoned to the National Portrait Gallery to discuss the project I thought it was to shoot me down, as I was not a portrait artist in the conventional sense – I had done very little in the way of portraits – where was my body of portraiture? Why did I think I was worthy? On the contrary, they gave me a lot of support and enthusiasm for the commission”.
However, leading up to the shoot, Levine had a rather different approach despite the daunting task at hand. He explains that “truthfully, I was quite blasé about it until a week before the shoot. It had been in the diary for three years and I simply went through the pre-production motions. In the days leading up to it, I realised that the expectations from Jersey and the public were high. I had imagined that there would be a lot of input from the Palace and officials in Jersey as to what form the image should take and what it should be communicating. As it happened, it was left entirely up to me, which meant it would be me who would take full responsibility for the end result – good or bad. It was daunting – she is the most portrayed woman in history and I was expected to do something groundbreaking. Well then, why had no one done it before? I was very nervous”.
I got a call from the Palace asking what I’d like Her Majesty to wear. Excuse me? Whatever she’s wearing on the day will be just fine.
As if the pressure on him wasn’t already high enough, Levine’s responsibilities also included having to arrange the Queen of England’s wardrobe for the portrait. “A week before the shoot I got a call from the Palace asking what I’d like Her Majesty to wear. Excuse me? Whatever she’s wearing on the day will be just fine. However, given the opportunity to style the Queen, I was able to go through the crown jewels and decide which crown, and I got to choose her dress and pearls, one line of pearls please, not three. It was surreal on the day when she arrived in the Yellow Drawing Room, bang on time, wearing the very dress I’d chosen for her”.
Undoubtedly, to have the opportunity to dress Queen Elizabeth II is an accomplishment in itself, but something much more impressive happened on that day of the portrait. Levine managed to capture the Queen at a unique and altogether unplanned “moment of stillness”, rarely been seen before: “I shot this just as I was getting into meditation and it was very important to me. I was very conscious of Her Majesty’s breathing and wanted to create a sense of composure and stillness in the image. Icon is a word much used and abused nowadays, but truly I went in to the project to create an icon. I wanted to distill the image to pure essence so that it would literally resonate with the viewer.”
And Levine most definitely did succeeded in creating an iconic piece. ‘Equanimity’, alongside ‘Lightness of Being’, was presented to the National Portrait Gallery in 2011 to part of The Queen: Art and Image exhibition and was viewed by over half a million people in 2012. This iconic work has certainly put Chris Levine’s name on the map and lead to more incredible portraits, including those of Grace Jones and Kate Moss. With a new body of work titled ‘Geometry of Truth’ coming to London in April 2015, and after having two of his works, ‘Frankel Superstar’ and ‘Frankel Pop Icon’, form part of Christies The Art of Horse exhibition in Shanghai this past November, Chris Levine has undoubtedly come a long way from those “feast and famine” days of his early career.
Underneath all these iconic portraits, however, lies a very humble man, as we discover what he considers to be his greatest achievement: “my four happy, pesky children”. And what advice would the vastly successful Chris Levine give to his twenty-year-old self and to the readers of this article? “If the heart feels, go for it”.