Marcus Levine: The Nail Artist Gets Hammered

Because of the crucifixion nails appear in more paintings than anything else in the tool box. Marcus Levine is doing his best to give them a better name in the art world.
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Because of the crucifixion nails appear in more paintings than anything else in the tool box. Marcus Levine is doing his best to give them a better name in the art world.

Before he became an artist who creates sculptures with nails, before he was doing well in the family business selling printers Marcus Levine was stood in the dark room at Jacob Kramer College with Damien Hirst.

“Damien and I shared an enthusiasm for photography,” says Levine. “We often used to chat in the darkroom together. It was quite a big course but we knew each other quite well.”

It was Hirst’s success that was one of the driving factors in Levine’s decision to act on his love of art.

“That one idea he had (Mother and Child – the infamous pickled cow and calf) was a stunning idea. Its not just the idea though, it’s having the idea and making it happen that makes it special. I look at that and think ‘I want to do that, I can do that.’ I’ve had one life and it’s been very good but it’s about breaking out of this mould, these clothes that you’ve been forced to wear for so long – shirt, tie and suit.”

After leaving Jacob Kramer and completing a degree in graphic design, Levine had a spell working in television, before taking up the offer from his father to move back up to Leeds and join his successful business flogging printers. It was whilst furnishing a flat bought with the proceeds of this business that he decided to return to his art training and create some works for his own entertainment.

“I really wanted the flat to be contemporary, with white walls. The whole idea was to start to create paintings for that space. I was my own client. There was no one there to say you can’t do that or you can’t do this. And it was then that I finally decided to somehow figure out a way to make these nail sculptures work. I asked my wife to model for me and the first one took about three months to complete.”

The nail sculptures are now bringing him to prominence. Levine drives the nails – 20mm cabinet nails for any carpenters reading - into boards at different heights and distances apart, to create same effect of light and shade as another artist would do with a pencil. However the 3D effect and the texture the nails create is something quite unique.

“It’s about breaking out of this mould, these clothes that you’ve been forced to wear – shirt, tie and suit.”

“I thought that nails would be nice to work with,” he said. “I first thought of using the heads of nails and gluing them onto a sculpture, and then it occurred to me just as I got the apartment that the idea that a sharp little nail could be used to create something as soft as the human torso and capture the shape.

“With the hair, I undulate the height to get the texture of the hair, and I rotate the heads round if I’m doing a line or an eye or an eyelash. The higher the nail is the more of a shadow it casts.”

It’s a very laborious process, not least because Levine has to keep stepping back to see how the picture is forming.

“I’m working very close up, so I can only see a very small section of what I’m working on so I have to go and stand back to see.”

Not to mention the staggering number of nails he uses in creating his work, with sculptures containing upwards of 40,000 nails.

“I was trying to add up the number of nails I used last year running up to the exhibition, and it was over 200,000. In about a year-and-a-half. That’s a lot of nails!”

Levine also cites another Jacob Kramer old-boy as an influence, the Bradford born David Hockney.

“I adore David Hockney. If you look at his work, he’s deeply routed in painting but he’d go on holiday and take photos and create the most amazing collages. That’s been used in infinitum since, and now you see it on car adverts! He was the first person to do that.”

Like Hockney, Levine isn’t dictated to when it comes to style or subject matter.

“I do what I feel I want to see, that’s where I get my inspiration from. There’s some stuff you just want to do. I suppose I spend quite a bit of my time worrying about what other people think when I do this. It is a leap of faith to just say ‘bollocks to it’ I don’t care what anybody else says anymore, I’m going to bloody do it and just get on with it because this is what I want to do.

“It’s more about the form of the pose that’s important to me, pursuing more great poses, striking poses. Really, it’s about the abstract. I’ve finished my first abstract now, which allows me to push the concept on. There’s a more organic nature to my nail sculptures now, it’s a starting point which I’ll let take on its own form.”

The prospect of an exhibition of these nail sculptures in London is an exciting one, and one he feels he is ready for after successfully exhibiting his work at the Finite Showroom in Leeds.

“I was looking for a space in London to show my work and the gallery in Cork Street (Gallery 27) is superb. I’m hoping for great things when I get down thereI don’t necessarily want to be a great name in art, there’s many great names that have never been recognised by the art establishment, so I’m not looking for recognition, but I would love to create some big public pieces of art, sculptures, at some point. Right now the emphasis is on my nail sculptures but I’ll see where it takes me.”