David Saffer meets a sharp artist who creates nudes from nails
NAIL sculptor Marcus Levene is hammering his way into the psyche of art critics.
Meticulously placing up to 50,000 nails at differing heights and distances to create unique "nail" sculptures, Marcus' abstract and figurative work encapsulates the human body in an extraordinarily distinct way.
And he has received praise for contemporary abstract acrylics and gilding.
Born and bred in Leeds, during Marcus' teen years the world of art was always his destiny.
"My absent-minded doodles were rockets and patterns," he said. "The repetitious patterns would start out with a single diamond or sphere shape and continue moving out.
"People who analyse drawings of something upwards in direction say it means you are looking to achieve."
Doodling throughout his teens, Marcus eventually won over his father, Eugene, to follow his dream of becoming an artist by taking an art foundation course at Jacob Kramer Art College.
And it was here that Marcus studied alongside future acclaimed artist Damien Hirst.
"We were not drinking buddies, but chatted regularly," he said.
"We were both interested in photography, but Damien was always taking macabre photos of things. I'd lean over to see what he was developing and my eyes would raise but that's what turned him on."
Marcus added: "Damien's work is amazing. Maybe it's macabre, but you have to admire he had a vision for the shark in formaldehyde with no money or knowledge of what would happen to it."
Completing the course, Marcus then studied scientific and technical graphics at Cornwall College and Falmouth School of Art and Design.
"It covered the bases as you were taught about television, photography and medical illustration," he said. "You could liaise between scientists and artists, creating a visual link.
"It was a fantastic place and I was on campus with all the fine artists."
A placement at Harlequin Television (HTV) saw Marcus become an expert on a Quantel Paint Box, resulting in a TV graphic designer post that would last 18 months.
But while working in Bristol for HTV and contemplating job offers in London to operate a Quantel, Marcus returned to his home city when his father asked him to join the family business, selling printing machines.
"I've always been family orientated and knew the business was very successful," he said. "I quickly got into the swing of selling along with doing the advertising and marketing."
Art though was still his calling, but two decades away before he'd followed his chosen path.
"I set up a studio and my salary allowed me to paint," he recalled.
"I figured that by 30 I'd have enough to stop work and become an artist, but then you get a bigger mortgage, nicer car, married and kids come along."
Through work, Marcus met his Hungarian-born wife, Christina. And, investing in an apartment in Budapest in 2004, within a year he began his first figurative "nail" sculpture. "The original idea came when I was 20 to express abstract art," he explained.
"I'd been through the phase of an art student wanting to do crazy things, then painted things people thought acceptable.
"Then I thought, 'Why have I been procrastinating all these years?'. I worked out in my mind the creative and mechanical side and got Christina to pose.
"Creating a nude from nails, you conflict the sharpness of a nail and softness of the human form."
Marcus rejected his initial attempt, then locked himself in the studio until a second attempt was completed.
"Christina did not recognise herself, but then my nudes are characterless and faceless," he said. "Once you put a face to a picture you give it personality and a character I did not want.
"I'm more interested in shape and pose as you are looking to describe the human physique."
But Marcus decided to show his daughters and explain that his work was "sensible and normal".
And the reaction pleased the dad-of-two. "My daughter Lea-Nicolle said, 'That's mummy', which was great for me and I wanted to refine it," he recalled.
Marcus unveiled a range of figurative nail sculptures at The Light in Leeds three years ago, which coincided with Leeds Light Night.
It was well-received and coincided with a period of crossover as his brother, Daniel, moved to China. By 2009, Marcus had also departed the family business. And his art is evolving all the time.
Earlier this year, Marcus debuted at Gallery 27 in London with Hammered on Cork Street and followed up with Hammered Home, also in London, and Hammered Again in Leeds last month.
Works now adorn walls of private collectors as far afield as Beirut, China, Greece, Hungary and Singapore.
"When I paint or do the nail sculptures it's wonderfully calming," he said. "I enter a zone, time goes by and I'm totally absorbed.
"The ability to 'zone out' is good for the brain and I think that is why artists live to a ripe old age. You go into not quite a trance, but you are so focused on what you are doing."
An area Marcus has perfected is "morphine" nudes.
"Some images/poses of models don't make it to nail sculptures so I take those and would describe them almost lava-lamp style," he said.
"You start off with a figurative image, which you heat up and it begins to melt and move up. Those images I then create in a series of copper leaf, 18 carrot gold leaf and silver leaf."
And Marcus finds time for figurative paintings of flowers.
"They are still life pictures of flowers on aluminum panels," he said. "I drizzle an oiled-based gloss paint on to a panel to capture colours without overly working them.
"I have to work very fast from first thing in the morning to late at night until it's done."
But that is not the end of Marcus' talents - he also creates "splash" paintings.
"They are as abstract as I can get them," he said. "A lot of my work reacts to light so as you walk past it can go from dark magenta to gold."
Other works include The Ships Nail, inspired by daughter Lea-Nicolle when she found an eight-inch rusty nail on Scarborough beach in 2006, and Unexpected, which revolves around a 45-year-old axe given to Marcus by his father.
Marcus chopped his right first finger from the last joint down through the nail to the tip of the finger.
And a unique sculpture from his personal collection, titled Whiskey & Matchboxes, has proved a lasting memory to a cousin, Richard Austin - known affectionately as RJ.
"I've always relaxed with a glass of whisky so it started off as a single whisky can, which I drizzled paint over," he said.
"For months I didn't know where to take it but eventually gathered whisky containers around the house and added a Hamlet cigar box.
"The box belonged to RJ who was a great friend and confidant, but he passed away aged just 42.
"A week before, RJ had stayed over and left a cigar box, having smoked just one. I have one on the anniversary of his death.
"I then added matchboxes collected from business trips. The glass looks like it is physically melting. I'll auction it at some stage for charity."
Marcus plans 10 versions of his unique Whisky Bottles series.
The career change for Marcus has had ups and downs, but looking ahead he has no regrets.
"Ideas are in my head, I'm completely reinvigorated and procrastination was good for me," he said. "I would not be the person I am today without that process.
"For Sculpture in the Park in Bradford next year I'm putting a proposal together for the sighted and visually impaired.
"With a clout nail sculpture you can run your hands over it. It's very sensory and Blind Art have supported me, which is great.
"I'd also love to do an exhibition in New York one day and Leeds Art Gallery . . . but that is for the future."