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Q&A: Artist Philip Levine on Art on the Body and Other Small Spaces

Philip Levine is an artist who began using his head as a canvas for creativity back in 2006 when he began to go bald. Using it as a form of artistic expression, Philip’s art aims to inspire men, women and children who are affected by something negative in their life to embrace their problem and use it in a positive way through art and creativity. Alongwith Andreia Costa Philip is the curator of The Smallest Gallery in Soho, 62 Dean Street, London.

Eli Goldstone: Thanks so much for talking to Run Riot. Could you start by telling us a little about The Smallest Gallery in Soho?

Philip Levine: The Smallest Gallery in Soho is a historic shopfront which faces onto Dean Street, in the heart of Soho. Anyone who has been to Soho in recent times knows that the area is losing its living layers. This is due to major redevelopment, with the spaces you walk around being primarily used as offices, restaurants or shops, offering very little in the way of thought-provoking, creative content.

An opportunity arose for Andreia Costa and myself to use the space as a forum to offer art to the public that catches the eye and provokes thought and discussion. As curators, we aim to activate the space by presenting engaging artwork which inspires and possibly challenges the residents, workers and tourists who pass by the window. By doing so, the space offers something different on the streets of Soho, while retaining a creative dimension for the local community.

The most recent work being displayed is called For Grenfell. It’s been about 5 months since the Grenfell Tower fire. For too many people, it is already a news story of the past; however, the people from the tower and the community still need so much support. As a society, we should not forget and keep discussing what happened, and must learn and influence those who can make the changes for all to live in safer places, as is their right.

We as curators wanted to keep the topic of the story alive by displaying a poem from the renowned poet Musa Okwonga. We then commissioned artist and designer Hannah Dickins who visually translated this into hand-painted demonstration placards.

Eli: Soho has become almost unrecognisable from the seedy, creative little enclave it once was. Can you see a revolt against the changes?

Philip: There is still the so-called seediness of Soho about. However, you are right, the creativity is not as lucid as it once was in the past. I am unsure if a revolt is happening against the changes. There have been protests but not much is stopping the change. Street artists will always be a form of revolt to the constant transformation. Certainly, what we are trying to do does redress what is going on in the area. New Progress seeks to highlight the physical impact of the things that we consume.

Eli: In what ways are you personally engaged with counteracting the effects of capitalism?

Philip: Andreia once said to me philosophers and artists are the first to interpret what is going on in the world and start discussion. As curators for The Smallest Gallery in Soho we are in a small way trying to counteract the effects of capitalism. New Progress is intended to raise questions about consumerism and get people interested in the issues, and not tell them all the answers. Once you lodge the seed of intrigue in someone’s mind, they can find as much information as they want by searching more about it and make their own decisions based on that information.

Eli: Tell us about some of the perks of becoming a patron of the gallery.

Philip: We are looking to raise £4000. The one I think is a no-brainer is the £5 perk. We will invite you to come down and view the artwork you've supported once installed, and you will also become a patron of The Smallest Gallery in Soho, with your name on the website (optional). The other great one is meeting with us curators or the artists Helen Pearce and Dan Sansome at the space to discuss the work and why it is important for Soho for £100. Other than that, you could just hit the pink ‘Back It’ button and donate any amount you want.

Eli: You are well known for using yourself as a living artwork. Are you moving away from this into curating, or will there be a collaboration between your own work and the gallery?

Philip: My work Headism was an organic happening by me experimenting with my head and then it grew into something more formal. I want to do more projects with Headism and have been thinking of ideas in mental health. But it felt natural to broaden beyond my artwork and curating is a logical progression. Both are part of a creative process.

Eli: Has using yourself as a canvas changed your relationship with your body image?

Philip: Yes, it made me very happy within my own skin and its ever-changing shape. When I first started doing my head designs it was turning a negative into a positive. This being using my head as a canvas for art from the impact of my receding hairline in my 20s. What I didn’t realise when my work became more public was that it would inspire other bald people who had it due to things such as alopecia or chemotherapy. Those people then saw they can utilise their baldness in other creative ways to counteract the negative impact it was having in their life.

Eli: Finally, tell us about the smallest thing we can do to make somebody's day better.

Philip: Whenever I am buying something I always ask the person who is serving me how they are doing and how is their day going before they ask me anything. You should see their face change and light up. I don’t think we ask people enough in those situations how they are and you can see it makes them feel better and that will benefit you as a person and a customer. Especially if it is your local cafe or market because you will see those people often.

You can help back The Smallest Gallery in Soho: New Progress here.
The Smallest Gallery in Soho
62 Dean Street, London.
More info.
Philip Levine: philsays.com