With an admirable resolve, Levi creates psychological portraits that convey the depth and complexity of her subjects' internal worlds. This latest body of work, presented by women-led curatorial duo MAMA, expands upon her preoccupation with strangers and their digital presence, infiltrating forums and chat room sites to engage with involuntary celibates, a subculture of young, heterosexual men who blame women and society for their inability to form romantic or sexual relationships.
How to Paint an Incel
For many of us, feigning sympathy for the dark corners of the incelosphere may feel like too great a request. In these bristling breeding grounds for malignant ideologies and misogynistic violence, little room is left for tenderness, yet tenderness is just what Lorena Levi prescribes. In her upcoming exhibition MAXXED, the artist reveals the personal histories that bubble under the surface of this warped community.
"I wanted to access the individual rather than just my surface understanding of the group."
‘I found that the best way to hear stories from people that I don’t have a personal connection to is through these online groups,’ Levi says. ‘Often, they’ll centre around a particular subject and in turn speak in a lot of detail about it which is extremely useful for picturing a scene. People have become more aware of incels due to their strong online presence, and I became interested in how this had bled out into more public conversations of misogyny. I wanted to access the individual rather than just my surface understanding of the group. I think there’s importance in hearing reason behind action.’
The exhibition title alludes to the notion of maxxing, which in incel jargon functions as a suffix to refer to activities aimed at improving some aspect of one's sexual market value. For instance, looksmaxxing suggests an attempt at improving one's general appearance.
"He talked about his sister being a caring figure but treating him as her plaything”
In preparation for the show, Levi carried out multiple chat-based interviews with members of the subreddit group 'IncelExit'. The forum provides a digital space for over 14 thousand subscribers who have been drawn into the incel community but are seeking support in their attempt to retire from the manosphere. Each of the paintings in Levi’s charged series spin around conversations with these individuals, visually contextualising the frustration, desperation and shame closeted in its digital abditory.
'The conversations stemmed from a member’s post asking for help or seeking advice. I would reach out with questions tailored to their post and then about their personal history and why they think they got to the position of incel self-identification,' says Levi. 'They were introspective and aware of the problems with this group.'
Although all participants were aware of Levi’s status as an artist and her intentions to conceive a body of work based on their responses, no one ever asked her gender, perhaps assuming that her participation in the group meant she was male. Levi believes undoubtedly that their stories would have been considerably more guarded and defensive had she revealed this information.
“I want my paintings to look like there was a before and will be an after, almost like a cinematic scene”
A recent study published by the University of Exeter raised concerns after discovering that the nature of online incel activity was evolving to become more extreme and that real world events such as the 2018 Toronto van attack had had an impact on discussions. As sites are shut down, new ones quickly take their place, hosting dehumanising language that explicitly depicts violence towards women. Levi was conscious of not giving space to this rhetoric. The men and boys that the artist spoke to sought atonement in their earnest display of vulnerable masculinities, allowing Levi to recognise supplemental social dynamics that were playing out in this digital space.
'I thought that observing IncelExit would make for more fruitful conversations,' the artist reflects. 'This space mainly hosted discussions of sex and relationships but also mental health. There wasn’t any denial there. Because of the nature of the forum, it was a supporting and comforting place. It seemed to be more regulated than other forums which also allowed for more intimate and open conversations about the individuals rather than provocation and offensive dialogue.'
In The matriarch the artist explores the damning influence strained familial relationships in early childhood can have on one’s future self-perceptions. The scene depicts the personal history of a young man from Poland who had grown up with his grandmother as the figurehead and authority of the household. Framed, pride of place behind both contradicting figures is the man’s grandfather, a war hero, and an unattainable paradigm of manhood.
Another titled A Second Doll arose from a conversation Levi had with a man from Norway who disclosed his relationship with his mother and her air of detachment which had made him very close with his older sister. ‘He talked about his sister being a caring figure but treating him as her plaything,’ recalls Levi, ‘playing with him like a doll. These were the only female presences in his life, and he felt like those were the only two ways a woman could interact with a man, later finding he could not open himself to relationships or even casual interactions with women.’
By drawing rich accounts from her fieldwork, Levi is able to code narratives through physical gestures, emotional proximity and filmic composition. 'I want my paintings to look like there was a before and will be an after, almost like a cinematic scene,' she says. 'With books or films there’s time for stories to unfold but what I’m doing with my paintings is giving a quick point and enough clues for the viewer to imagine the story and begin piecing things together. The paintings are an interpretation of complex lives and the best way I could display them for other people to digest and explicate for themselves.'
Levi’s preference for hardwood as a painting foundation over canvas augments the layers of sentiment with textural depth and, as the artist describes, ‘gives the painting some warmth.’
‘The wood alludes to the domestic which a lot of my scenes centre around since the home is where people can feel most comfortable and where a lot of tensions creep in due to the space’s private nature,’ says Levi. ‘The wood grain plays a part in the whole composition and the panel no longer just plays as a surface; it becomes part of the painting.’
"an unattainable paradigm of manhood"
While the vehement overtones of incel discourse has, understandably, received more air time than the unhappy histories of its members, the artist’s humanitarian application of intrigue to her practice has drawn a little light out of the shadows of this curious phenomenon.
‘The painting The new comfort couch from my final conversation was with a man living in New York, who from the support of the forum has started seeing a therapist,’ Levi says reflectively. ‘Even though he is still battling with his ingrained feelings, IncelExit helped decide which path to go down. This gives me hope that people can make active changes.’ Whichever path they take, in MAXXED, Lorena Levi renders the complexities of incel psychology and reveals what happens when the echo chamber is ruptured.
Cover image: Lorena Levi, Black pill stains your teeth (detail), 2023. MAMA, MAXXED, 2023. © Image Courtesy of MAMA and the Artist