I Four Paintings
The neon sign on the window says “open.” An empty seat waits for her inside. And still she dithers behind the glass, searching the menu for answers.
He lets the steam from his coffee stroke his chin. He’s so tired. He slouches, lets his arm droop onto the suitcase. The clock ticks away the minutes until his departure. In his mind, he’s already gone.
They may share a painting, but there is glass between them. The sign says “open” but it’s turned off. The seat is empty but it’s turned away from him.
Only the plants face towards each other — and even they don’t touch.
Depression is a glass pane between you and the world. Sometimes, it distorts the other side. Flowers droop prematurely, or become childish scrawls, the label “beautiful” instead of the real thing. Often, the glass gives you back your own sad face, obscuring everything else. But for the most part, it just locks you out. Nothing is different — except that you can’t get inside.
In her latest body of work, Aubrey Levinthal paints just this glass pane.
No one is eating the pancakes.
The mother huddles inside a cloud of nauseating despair. The baby may not be two yet, but he already feels the full weight of things. He keeps a careful eye on us from within his elephant pajamas.
The father is the saddest of all. He meets my gaze as directly as Victorine Meurent in Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass.” I am, somehow, complicit. He knows that I know something. His uncompromising sadness shocks me as much as Victorine Meurent’s nudity. Perhaps it is a form of nudity.
Surrounded by piles of discomfort food, a bouquet balloons in the middle of the painting. The flowers are stuck in a dark, topknot-shaped space. The vase doesn’t know how to go on anymore.
By now, the pancakes are completely cold.
I can’t look away from this painting. I’ve been to this brunch before — this brunch called depression. The one where even pancakes made of love don’t taste like anything.
So many of Levinthal’s paintings are like this. A pancake brunch, a family vacation, a July interior. Blissful topics rendered in shades of isolation.
Mother and son in a cloud of lilacs, their bodies so tightly bound they are almost one, the child’s nose buried in a bloom.¹ A blissful topic — or, as the exhibition catalog puts it, an exuberant one.
The mother is facing away from this bliss. Her topknot is as whimsical and round as the flowers, but its black forms a painful contrast to their white — as if the two hailed from two impermeable worlds. Her eyes meet ours. The dark circles around them are lilacs turned inside out.
A lone bare pine pines at the top of the painting.
This darkness is a new element in Levinthal’s work. The Aubrey Levinthal of prior exhibitions had a dark sense of humor, yes, but it was still a sense of humor. Now the humorous elements — a topknot like a lilac, elephant pajamas framing a serious face — are bitter ironies. Fuel to the darkness, not talisman against it.
What caused this change? It’s hard not to point to the serious-eyed baby, the baby snuggled up so beautifully, so frighteningly close to her. Could the depression I see in these works be postpartum depression?
These eyes have either just cried or will cry in a moment. Her overlong bangs can’t hide this. She stretches her hip, rests her foot against her knee. An attempt at relaxation; a gesture of shoving a heavy boot in our faces.
This is a mother nursing her baby.
I was spacing out once, staring at a bookcase, and I suddenly shuddered: “Something is terribly wrong with that book, but I can’t put my finger on it.”
This is a woman nursing her baby.² A woman suffering from Dysphoric milk ejection reflex (D-MER), a condition which produces feelings of profound hopelessness right before nursing.
II The Perils of Diagnosing
Four paintings, three diagnoses. Depression, PPD, D-MER. The labels force themselves onto the page; I don’t know how to talk about these artworks without them. The syndromes are precisely what holds me transfixed in front of the canvases: So this is what D-MER feels like.
All the same, I feel uneasy about my need to label, to jump to conclusions. Extracting a diagnosis from an artwork is a risky business. It’s so easy to flatten a multitude of meanings into a preconception or to mistake a persona for a person.
I know this first-hand. At the age of ten, I was brought to tears by a diagnosis extracted from my art.
The artwork was a self-portrait. At the time, I was preoccupied with the problem of personal identity: what makes me me, the very same person I was at the age of five, or even two, given how drastically I’ve changed in between? To express this puzzlement, I drew myself with sketchy, uncertain outlines. Everything about me was open to change and doubt. I was in constant flux — if there even was an “I.”
The sketch came into the hands of a child psychologist. She glanced at it and proclaimed: “Sketchy self-portraits mean a child is shy and overly sensitive.”
The overly sensitive child heard this and cried.
Here’s what they tell you. Your baby will be one big joyous gulp of milk. You’ll smile at him gently, head cocked to the side. A garden will burst into bloom around you, irises buoyed to improbable heights by the sheer force of motherhood.
Instead, once again, you know there is no hope. You’ve known it like clockwork, 10 times per day for 60 seconds at a time. Precisely when you and your baby are supposed to be sharing the most special of moments. When irises should be blooming, you weep.
“I must be a bad mom. Maybe I’m not cut out for mothering,” you think.
Perhaps Levinthal suffers from D-MER. Perhaps from depression, maybe of the postpartum variety.³ Maybe she’s just worn thin from teaching full-time, putting together two solo shows, and caring for her one-year-old. Or maybe she chose a misleadingly dark set of paintings out of a much more varied body of work for the sake of aesthetic unity.
That’s not really the point, though. The point is that there are too goddamn many docile Madonnas in art. The point is that the women who suffer from PPD or D-MER need the woman in “M&C” or “Nursing (Boot)” to be a fellow sufferer. Is that woman Levinthal herself? Maybe. Maybe not.
I can’t make a diagnosis based on a handful of paintings. But I can offer my interpretation to the women who so desperately need to be heard and understood. Instead of a smiling Madonna in a field of irises, I can show them a heavy boot and eyes that have cried. You’re not alone. It’s not your fault. You’re a good mom.
The number 1 remedy for D-MER is… awareness. Members of the D-MER.org forum overwhelmingly report that simply finding out that other women are experiencing the same thing makes their condition manageable. Suddenly, the negative emotions accompanying breastfeeding stop spilling over into the other moments of their days. Somehow even the hopelessness of the D-MER episodes starts feeling more bearable.
It’s as simple as awareness — but awareness is sorely lacking, among the general public as well as among medical professionals. The first published study of D-MER is only ten years old. There is no available data on prevalence, treatment, or underlying mechanism.
If doctors won’t help, maybe artists will.
III The Payoffs of Diagnosing
I like to imagine an alternative past in which my self-portrait is found by a shy ten-year-old instead of a judgmental psychologist.
“That trembling outline,” the ten-year-old would stammer, “that’s how I feel when I try to talk to strangers. You — you really get me.”
At first, I’d want to correct her. She’s missing the point. That’s not what that picture is about at all. Except, of course — that is how I feel when I try to talk to strangers. Because, of course, I am a shy and absurdly sensitive child.
So instead, I’d smile an uncertain smile and risk asking: “Have you ever thought about how much you’ve changed since you were two? In what sense are you still the same person? Have you ever thought that you might not be one person, but many?”
Her eyes would light up. “Maybe that’s why I hesitate before talking. There’s so much of me — which version do I show people?” She’d look at the painting carefully, searching for the right words. “It’s like my edges are constantly shifting.”
My eyes would light up too. “Right! And sometimes it’s shyness which shifts the edges. Around my family, I can’t shut up. With strangers, I can’t say a word. It’s like I’m two different people.”
“I’m like that too,” she’d smile. Then she’d add: “Except with you. You’re a stranger, but I can’t shut up around you!”
That psychologist’s diagnosis was a barrier between her and the child (and the art). She scanned the drawing for symptoms, extracted them, and looked no more, blind to alternative interpretations. But diagnoses don’t have to be like this. We can learn from the shy ten-year-old and use our diagnosis as an entrance rather than a barrier — as an invitation for deeper looking.
When I stared, transfixed, into the eyes of the mother in “M&C,” I was struck by an alternative interpretation. Maybe the seriousness in the mother’s eyes in “M&C” isn’t depression, only the artist’s self-consciousness. She looks out at us, breaks the fourth wall, steps away from the bliss of her life to check how it would look as art. Maybe the painting simultaneously registers a split in the self and an act of unification: self-portrait as mother and artist.
Like ten-year-old and current me (some things never change), Levinthal is preoccupied with personal identity. Most of her paintings are self-portraits. More often than not, even the strangers in her paintings have her face (or, occasionally, those of her husband or her son). As if there was no one in the whole world except their family of three. As so often with Levinthal, a saccharine sentiment turned sinister.
Maybe it’s like this. She comes to the studio, looks in the mirror, and asks: who am I today? Then she paints her identity for the day: Self-portrait as Mother, Self-portrait as Artist, Self-portrait as Grey-Haired Lady at Bodega, Self-portrait as my own Therapist…⁴
“What makes me me?” she wonders. “The very same person I was two years ago, given how drastically I’ve changed in between. Two years ago! When I wasn’t even a mother!”
Everything about her is open to change and doubt.
She’s cut to pieces. A single anxious eye in a mirror, a lonely shoulder in another. A poignant toothbrush blends into and strokes the red of her sweater.
The faucet is a crucifix; the person drinking from it a shadow.
Past the sharp mirror edge, the blankness of a wall. It will still be there when she’s gone.
One reading: in the middle of a deep depression, she’s afraid to even look in the mirror. She catches a glimpse out of the corner of her eye. That eye is startlingly sad. She feels like she’s on the other side of the mirror. The faucet reminds her of a tombstone. She’s cut to pieces; she can’t make herself whole.
Another: she sees herself in two mirrors at once. She’s struck by the rightness of this. She has recently become a mother; she has recently split in two. Her heart is running around inside someone else’s body. She’s a mother and a painter. She’s cut to pieces; she can’t make herself whole.
The way I see it, depression is a splitting of the self. One of you is cheerful, the other — hopeless. You’re separated by glass; sometimes you wake up on the other side of the mirror.
This is particularly pronounced in female mood disorders. It’s that time of day (lactating time), that time of month (premenstrual time), that time of life (postpartum time) — and suddenly you’re someone else.
But it can be the other way around too: splitting the self can cause or exacerbate depression. “Who am I? I’m not interested in the things I thought I’d always love — is something wrong with me? I’m not myself when I nurse — am I a bad mother?”
It’s not either-or. Levinthal’s paintings can be about depression and about personal identity, perhaps even about the relationship between the two.
As a ten-year-old, I only wanted to make a drawing about personal identity. I failed. My drawing expanded past all preassigned bounds, bloated with interpretations. It became a portrait of shyness, the self, and the relationship between them. In the end, it even taught me new things about myself, things I had no clue about when I put pencil to paper.
If Levinthal simply wanted to make paintings about personal identity, she failed too.
May we all fail so spectacularly.
Maybe it’s like this. You see yourself in a painting. (You see yourself in another ten-year old. You see yourself in a lady at a bodega.) You look and look and look (you talk and talk and talk), until you see it isn’t really you. You look some more.
When you finally walk away, you look different. More like the painting.
Somehow, the painting looks more like you too.
With their muted pink and softness which relaxes all my muscles, these flowers are worthy of Fantin-Latour. Except — they have eyes.
Behind them, another eye — of a dying patient attached to an IV drip… No, not an IV drip, an iPhone. Just sad Levinthal trying to find some comfort in music and flowers.
The iPhone, the eye, the “I”. A sad, sick pun.
Ay-ay-ay, Aubrey! I, I, I.
Aubrey Levinthal’s show is on at the Nancy Margolis Gallery in NYC until June 8, 2019.
 I’m not sure what kind of plant is actually depicted in the painting. They look like hydrangeas to me, but those don’t smell — so I called them “lilacs” instead.
 Actually, this is a woman whose let-down (milk ejection) reflex is being triggered, which can happen without breastfeeding.
 I should emphasize that these are distinct conditions. In fact, a mother with PDD but without D-MER will typically feel less depressed when nursing.
 It’s not really like this: Levinthal works and reworks her paintings over long periods of time, through an open-ended process.