New York

June Leaf

Terry Dintenfass Gallery

Most of the pieces in June Leaf’s new show would look wild, gruesome, choppy and overloaded with blatant metaphor if seen by themselves, but the exhibition as a whole is intricate, demanding, and dense with ideas. Among its recurrent images are men on stilts with long, sinister spears; women with elongated, fused-together legs; mechanical diagrams of robot humans; brains swathed in burgeoning clouds of their own thought; real women brandishing magic wands that are formed like women; and fiery battle scenes. Leaf’s pieces occur in a plethora of media—many are small, wire-wound charmlike sculptures; others are savage oil paintings and haywire ink drawings. The pieces are clustered around, above and below each other in a huge profusion, and are often merely thumbtacked to the wall. The whole production is deliberately rough and would be chaotic but for the thematic continuity that winds without difficulty throughout the work.

Malevolence, insanity, terror and witchcraft constitute the frontier on which Leaf’s art edges. It is with a dreamer’s glee that an epicene creature makes a cat’s cradle of its own skull (Head, 1975). Leaf’s characters repeatedly indulge in such baroque weavings of their own thought and fantasy; in another picture, a naked, profiled man grins madly at the spinning wheel of numbers his upraised hand has become, while equations collect around his head. The pictures contrive a locale in which thought works with solipsistic energy, proceeding only to more and more extravagant complexity, and concluding in supernatural mystery. No matter how much Leaf’s clairvoyants and conjurers multiply their own thought, it does not end in confusion, but in a kind of glowing delight with the crazy network it has been able to weave.

Most of the pictures center, I think, around an idea of the decay and estrangement of sensuality. Thus we see diagrammatic drawings of a woman’s body, the chest opened up to reveal machinery, labeled “Computer Woman in Landscape—Woman as a fortress;” thus parts of a body separately arrayed on a single sheet of paper, interspersed with gasoline engines (in this particular drawing, an arrow leads from the note “torso” to a motor, not to an actual organ.) The notion that sensual, bodily life has become a lost and foreign experience also accounts for the naked man who is not aware of his exposure, but only of the numbers that proliferate around his head, and for the show’s numerous brains, immersed in their own fantastic reveries. Likewise the wand-women, who are flattened and featureless except for the hint of breasts and hips, whose legs are permanently closed and who cannot move of their own accord.

These immobilized women appear in several large pictures, where they are being prodded and goaded by men with spears. The men, tormentors, are on stilts, hence high in the air like the women, but the men have feet, thus somewhat more ability to move and act as they please. Leaf’s placing of everyone on extended legs suggests that the whole fiery battle takes place at some remove from the ground and body, in a rarefied, once more cerebral realm. This image of the war between men and women is grotesquely drawn and savagely colored in the paintings, which are hideous; but the image also appears, abstracted, in some small metal pieces, where it becomes an acute, generalized metaphor for hollow and mechanical male strength. One of these pieces is jointed so that it can be made to move like a puppet, to strut and wave its spear up and down.

Though it is much concerned with male-female antagonism, and with the evisceration of the sensuality of both sexes, Leaf’s work is not generically feminist. For the show commutes easily between images specifically concerned with the condition of women and an idea of a uniformly human state. Leaf’s recurrent argument that her characters’ brains have spun a haywire world that breeds madness, conflict and torture does not force the blame on anyone in particular. Rather, the tendency to wild mental extrapolation is intrinsic to almost all the figures in her pictures, hence to the artist’s contrived persona itself.

Leo Rubinfien