O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—W. B. Yeats, “Among School Children”
There are many ways to enter June Leaf’s multifaceted domain: through her mythic story telling, her often idiosyncratic procedures with diverse mediums and materials, or through representations of herself making her art. A typical image shows the drama of the artist delving with drawing or paint into her realm, even as she manifests it. The work is not simply presented; its actual creation is integral to her mythology. Once entangled in Leaf’s world, the viewer may find it difficult to disengage, so enveloping, seductive, and powerful is its spell.
On ViewSteven Harvey
April 1 – May 10, 2015
On ViewEdward Thorp
April 23 – June 13, 2015
The paintings on canvas, tin, or paper have roughly worked acrylic surfaces and the look of being still in process, pulled from the studio rather than refined for exhibition. They seem not really meant to be separated from the rest of the drawings, castings, hammered tin, and mechanical constructions—all dealing with the same themes. Shown at Harvey, “Mabou Studio” from the ’90s is concocted from a Polaroid photo, acrylic, graphite, and paper collaged on a sheet torn from a spiral-bound pad with the remaining scalloped edge still showing. The walls and floor of the depicted studio are painted; the ceiling is drawn in rough perspective. Across the rest of the page random marks somehow establish a credible environment for the off-center studio in which a naked woman, back to us, paints a figure. Remarkably, it all coheres.
“Woman Drawing Man” (2014) in one of its versions shown at Thorp consists of the woman on her knees with one arm for support stretching forward to draw a painted standing male figure who is shown looking down, as though at her mark-making close to his penis. He is flesh-toned, painted on a curved sheet of tin, scumbled with black to make a rough atmospheric perspective. Kneeling on the ground, her ample behind, legs, and upper body are formed with a cut tin sheet. It’s a surprise to discover that the sensuous, volumetric body is made with only a flat metal sheet and a bit of paint. Above, scratched into the curved backdrop, are the words “DRAWING THE MAN.” The image of the artist at work virtually does away with the distinctions between artist and her subject, two and three dimensions, seeing and touching, and even between art making and sexual intimacy. The same image appears elsewhere in mixed media on paper, and again, on canvas. Among her other themes seen in these shows are centaurs (male and female), babies, Robert Frank (Leaf’s husband), and theatrical performances. The various versions on view here—surely only a few of a larger number—do not seem so much like studies leading to a final work as products of a theater of imagination and personal mythology, never entirely encapsulated, as it were, onstage.
Several works begin with the base of old treadle sewing machines which, when worked, produce movement of wire or painted tin sculptures above them. Rather than being mere expedients, the machines themselves are the subjects of some paintings, emblems perhaps of women’s skilled work. One exquisite, delicate piece, “Making #2,” (2014 – 15) includes the sewing machine base. It is entirely fabricated and features a dancing figure, delicately rendered as a wire line drawing within a circular arc that vibrates when the treadle is worked or the wheel connected to it is turned. Leaf has made many ingenious devices with triggers or other parts that activate little figures. These beg to be manipulated, evoking the delight of those 19th-century hands-on mechanical animations that seem so magical. (Leaf has also made large heads with working parts in collaboration with Lippincott fabricators that are not included in either gallery.) There is a continuum between quick sketches that may be parts of letters, drawings, and mixed media works on paper, paintings, and sculptures. All are instances of exploring, pondering, and following often risky notions that are also details of the epic unfolding drama of making art. We are both inside and outside, absorbed by and witnessing the work’s creation.
There are allusions to other artists. The frequent mechanization of the body and a 1978 drawing, “Young Woman Going Up and Down the Stairs,” suggest Duchamp, although Leaf’s art remains more visceral than conceptual. Allusions to Egyptian figuration and multiple repetitions of a figure recall Spero, whose work also grows out of a Chicago background. But these and other parallels are incidental, not signs of indebtedness. Yeats’s famous query aptly applies to Leaf, the artist, to her personified self as portrayed, and to the wholly personal stories and imagery throughout her oeuvre. Once her work takes hold, and it does so immediately, we are enveloped.
ROBERT BERLIND is a painter and writer who lives in New York and upstate in Sullivan County. He has received the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Painting, the B. Altman Award in Painting at the National Academy, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and an Artwriters’ Grant from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.
He writes regularly for the Brooklyn Rail and has written for Art in America since the late ’70s as well as writing many catalog essays for various museums. He is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY.