Art + Design

The Thoughts in My Head: Inside the Bizarre and Brilliant World of Lisa Levy

By Diego A. Barnes

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“The Thoughts in my Head,” #43 (2011) by Lisa Levy

This past summer I met my art-making-muse. If you ever perused the Bushwick Daily’s Advice Column or scoped out the performance offerings at BAM you might have run into her. To me, she is Brooklyn’s queen of quirk and charisma. Her name is Lisa Levy, or “Dr. Lisa S.P.” according to her photoshopped college diploma.

Lisa self-identifies in a bunch of different ways. On the project website for “Psychotherapy LIVE!” Lisa’s career is described as involving, “…almost every medium from advertising, visual arts, conceptual party planner, clothing and jewelry design, and performance.” AKA, she more or less does it all.

When she showed up to NYC in the late ’70s, Lisa inched her way into the art scene. Her first conceptual performance work I’ve come across (which only exists as a tiny ephemeral detail in a couple of her short online biographies) involved hawking t-shirts printed with “Studio 54 – Reject” to the “rejects” moping around the nightclub’s entrance. This simple performance-intervention really gets at what I think Lisa’s art is all about; imperfection, inadequacy, celebrity status, self-consciousness, and empowerment.

Like any well-trained millennial, Lisa actively manages various social media accounts; Firstly there’s her Facebook (She has over 4,000 friends?!). Her current cover photo shows two Lisas, one performing psychotherapy on the other. It’s a small glimpse at the humor Lisa taps into when she performs as a “self-proclaimed psychotherapist” (the “S.P.” in Dr. Lisa, S.P.)… it’s a shameless reference to her own sanity, or lack thereof. This silly photo sits as the altarpiece atop Lisa’s supposedly personal Facebook profile, blurring any hard line between her real life and performance personae; a social media concept I know I can resonate with.

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“The Thoughts in my Head,” #30 (2011) by Lisa Levy

And yet, Lisa’s conceptual backbone is hardly something that could be captured in 140 characters. For example, over the past few years she’s been working on a series of text paintings called, “The Thoughts in my Head,” though, she modestly told me “I can’t actually paint,” after I told her how much I liked them. You really must check out the paintings though – I’m telling you, they’re hilarious and make for totally affordable and giggle-worthy gifts for the [wannabe] art collector in your life. In her Psychotherapy LIVE performances Dr. Lisa, S.P. writes “prescriptions” for all the people she psychoanalyzes and posts videos of many of these “sessions” on YouTube. Her work constantly rides the line of tangible/intangible.

Her twitter, (@DrLisaLevySP) ranges from unnecessary factoids and snippets of advice to self-promotion of her many projects to brutally honest commentary on the art world, New York City culture, and sexual politics. For the past three years “Dr. Lisa, S.P.” has aptly been the advice columnist for The Bushwick Daily. There she’s published articles like, “10 Phone Call Worthy Situations: Stop Emailing Right Now!” and “Best Vacation Tip EVER: Go Alone!”

Even her email address, iamahomemaker@yahoo.com, I would consider a performance in-and-of itself. Let me explain; on paper, Lisa might appear to be a “homemaker, ” she is, (I guess) by definition a “stay-at-home wife” (her converted warehouse studio apartment serves as her studio, personal office, and ongoing retrospective gallery space). However, she has a truly wacky personality and is constantly questioning notions of beauty, aging, drug use, sanity, art, and love among other touchy topics. Finally, her self-titled YouTube channel serves as her living archive and virtual performance space… hardly the hobby of any “homemaker” I ever heard of. And believe you me, there’s a lot of content to dig through; for instance, this favorite of mine:

Lisa’s performances are not easily divorced from her life, lending to an uncanny authenticity in them. She effortlessly glides between different public personae as herself and slightly off versions of herself. For instance, check out her video “Lisa Levy Exhibitionist,” I think you’ll see what I mean—it’s all her, and yet it’s pretty impossible to believe that the person you’re watching is completely real. Much like celebrities whose public and private lives are presented holistically via mass-media, Lisa lets her life and identity be a meta-performance that in theory will continue to live on even after her physical passing, through its documentation.

So, as I sort of mentioned earlier, I actually met her last summer, and helped her out with some studio tasks in her Bushwick loft. Then, the other weekend I decided to check out Bushwick Open Studios on a whim. Once there, I realized she was doing some sort of performance and knew I had to go see what my girl Lisa was up to this time… The last time I saw her she wore daisy dukes, a skimpy tank and flip flops. Only a year had passed since then, but damn she looked different. While wandering down Bogart Street I saw her, like a vision—her cheeks rosy with pink blush, her iconic orange mane tucked into a curly grey wig, wearing an apple-ridden mu-mu, with diabetes socks and flesh tone walking shoes. She dragged an oriental rug and a rocking chair down the side walk. “Hi Lisa!” I called to her as she charged past me; her head darted toward me and her eyes lit-up, “Oh!! Honey! I’m late getting ready, but come find me around the corner in a little bit!!”

Fast forward 30 minutes and I was sitting in “grandma” Lisa’s lap, where she rocked me and told me I was a good boy and “It’s okay, Grandma knows you smoke, it’s like candy…” then in all genuineness she leaned in closer and asked how my life was and what I’m doing now that I graduated college. I spoke for a moment, she asked me to come over sometime to talk more and then before I finished agreeing, snapped her neck toward the audience of iPhone paparazzi and loudly offered, “Who’s next? Who needs some sugar from Grandma?

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Grandma Lisa rocking me tenderly at BOS… I have quit smoking since the taking of this photo, 2015

It was in that moment that I saw all the many facets of Lisa flash before my eyes as she so genuinely welcomed me in, let me vent for a second, and yet never stopped performing for the world. I can’t help but see Lisa’s life and work as a shameless meta-commentary on the self-involved, materialistic, fast-paced, world we millennials are so willing to accept at face-value. I think we all have something to learn from Dr. Lisa— I know when I think about her, all I can do is think even harder about myself.

Diego A. Barnes is a conceptual artist in his own right. After recently graduating from Bard College, Barnes now travels with his bachelor’s degree between New Haven, Brooklyn, and the Hudson Valley listening to inspirational podcasts about the Law of Attraction. He can be found at www.diegoabarnes.biz or on Twitter and Instagram [ @diegerbomb ].