June Leaf

Young Hoffman Gallery

June Leaf’s newest and most ambitious work is a three-foot high mechanical portrait-bust of a woman. Cast in aluminum and mounted on an armature, the painted Head is operated by a crank at its side. Inside the head is a simple transmission, visible through perforations (“holes in the head”), which drives a whirligig on which are mounted steel cones, irises that flicker as they spin past the blank openings of the eyes. When you turn the crank, the bellows at the neck force air through the mouth and the tongue wags up and down in the frozen half-smile. Like a colossal toy, The Head breathes and wheezes, the tongue clicks and the eyes flash.

Always an artistic loner, geographically and stylistically removed from the mainstream, Leaf has consistently used women as her primary subject matter. The metaphor of theater—the stage as setting for the action of her characters—has been replaced in more recent works by the head or brain as the site of mental mechanisms, which have become her subject matter. In the ’70s she made many drawings of the insides of her head filled with linear networks of threads, cat’s cradles and gear mechanisms. If, as has been suggested, Leaf before cast herself as puppeteer and storyteller, a dea ex machina pulling the strings and spinning the plot, she now has built the dea ex machina as a self-portrait of the “headstrong” woman artist.

The metaphoric power of machines—their form, function and force—has been a component in artistic expression since ancient times. Perhaps the closest association evoked by Leaf’s Head is to Raoul Hausmann’s Mechanical Head, 1919, a portrait of a victim ofmechanization whose individuality has been sacrificed to the hegemony of technology. Leaf, instead, wants to control and give form to her own frantic mental inventions and at the same time prove that a woman can make a powerful, potentially dangerous machine. A related drawing includes the following inscription:

She has a mind
like a speedometer
gone insane-loco
loco motive
loco might
loco motive

Leaf’s work constantly evokes art historical comparisons. Her early drawings suggest archetypal female deities, but the exaggerated contours of The Head recall the attenuated heads of the Egyptian queens of Amarna, Piero della Francesca’s Madonnas and Pisanello’s courtly ladies. But Leaf slices apart the “beautiful” female head so that it can be serviced like an automobile. Both meta-force and metafarce, the Head is a bomb and a pregnant abdomen. It is at once a machine (sense) and a giant mechanical fantasy (nonsense), a machine without product that works only to imitate and even mock the creator who manipulates it in repeated attempts to know her own mind. Leaf has built a larger-than-life monument that subverts the very traditions it suggests. In this imposing realization of woman as thinking machine, combining both subject and object, Leaf has constructed a reliquary for the inner workings of her imagination.

Judith Russi Kirshner