When the pandemic started, Andrew Leventis had one refrigerator; now he has four. By the end of the year, he hopes to have ten.
This may sound gluttonous, but the fridges won’t be accumulating any more food than what was in his first one. Leventis, a local artist and professor at UNC Charlotte, has been working on a series of larger-than-life-sized paintings for the past year that depict the insides of refrigerators and freezers. The series, titled Refrigerators (Vanitas), is a collection of photorealist oil paintings that make art of pandemic nutritional necessities like frozen chicken teriyaki, Wonder Bread, and lots of Corona (the beer, not the virus).
“It’s something I never thought in a million years I would paint,” Leventis said. When previously scheduled artistic plans were cancelled due to the pandemic, he began looking around the house for inspiration. “One day, I opened up the fridge, and the lighting was just perfect,” he said. He snapped a picture on his iPhone and began to paint.
Leventis is a still-life painter whose works have been featured in galleries domestically from California to New York City and internationally from Italy to the Netherlands. He has also had a number of exhibitions in the U.K., where he received a Master of Fine Arts from Goldsmiths College of the University of London. In fact, two of his fridge paintings were shortlisted for this year’s Aesthetica Art Prize, a prestigious award offered by the U.K.-based Aesthetica Magazine. The paintings are currently featured in the York Art Gallery.
A Charlotte native who graduated from Charlotte Christian School, Leventis grew up around art and paintings. His maternal grandmother painted, and his mother was also artistic. According to Leventis, his mother regretted never having pursued art professionally, and so encouraged her son to explore and pursue the arts seriously.
“She always had crayons out for me to color with, pencils out for me to draw with, and encouraged me to watch those public access network shows on PBS back in the day where you could paint along with the artist,” Leventis said.
When Leventis was 10 years old, his father took him to visit his aunt, who lives near Seattle as a working artist.
“She had this gorgeous, two-story artist studio. It was kind of this dream art studio.”
His aunt would let him play around with her paints, which were mainly watercolor and acrylic, though she also had some oil paints, to which Leventis was immediately drawn, particularly because “all the public access artists used oil.” Oil paints would remain his medium of choice, and his aunt would remain an important influence.
Leventis continued working at his art through high school and became an undergraduate at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. While there, he often painted portraits, which helped him develop his interest in photorealist art. (He rarely paints people anymore: “I guess I kind of got burnt out on it.”).
After his master’s program in London, Leventis succeeded in establishing himself as a gallery artist – he began to have work featured in galleries in London pretty consistently – but he wanted to pursue a teaching career, as well. This, matched with a desire to be closer to family, brought him back home and to UNC Charlotte, where he has been an assistant professor since 2016.
Leventis used to have studio space in Plaza Midwood, but today his dining room doubles as a classroom and art studio. Though he prefers for his works to be complete before opening up to viewers and critics, he said being homebound with his partner, UNC Charlotte professor of Art History Jim Frakes, has really contributed to his projects.
“We’ve had a lot of really interesting conversations that have helped the work,” Leventis said.
One thing about living with an art historian, Leventis mentioned, is that it often puts his own work in historical perspective. For the Refrigerator series, for example, he references “vanitas,” a genre of still-life paintings that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries to symbolize the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Leventis thinks of his series as a contemporary vanitas, particularly relevant during the pandemic because of the ubiquity of death, as well as the obsession with getting and storing objects and food.
“[Vanitas reminds us] that everything we have is here today, gone tomorrow,” Leventis said. “Everything is fleeting.”
Vanitas warns of the vanity human beings can fall into when thinking of themselves in immortal terms, often brought about by materialism. Materialism and its expression today obviously differ greatly from that of the early vanitas painters by whom Leventis is influenced. In particular, photography is incredibly accessible and omnipresent. Whereas the only way to see a two-dimensional color reproduction of an apple in the 16th century would be to paint it, today anyone can snap a picture of anything and share it everywhere in seconds.
Leventis uses photography as a tool for reference, but preceding the sharing of his images are months of labor. His paintings take days to dry. Leventis works in layers, and for the fridge paintings, which are each one-and-a-half to two times the size of an actual fridge, a completed painting takes about a month. The question could be raised then, why take so much time to paint a realistic picture of your fridge, when you already had the picture? Is still-life painting obsolete in 2021?
“It’s a really good question,” Leventis said. “For one, there’s a historical value because whenever you’re painting, you’re having a conversation with the paintings that came in the past. It’s a really human impulse to paint and draw.”
In fact, the prevalence of photography today may just make painting even more important.
“Painting in general is a really a valuable thing because by its very nature it gets us out of this quick media impulse,” Leventis said. “[On social media] you can be fire-hosed with all these rapid images, if you’re not careful about what you’re looking at. Painting is a good opportunity to slow down, to think about the stroke and think about the mark you’re making.”
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