New York

June Leaf

In 1978, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago mounted a retrospective of June Leaf’s art, which included works in various mediums (painting, gouache on paper, assemblages, and sculpture) that she had made since her teens. Now almost 60, Leaf seems to have been either overlooked or marginalized by the forces who author “official history.” In many ways, and for many of the same reasons, her position in the art world parallels that of Nancy Spero and, until recently, of Louise Bourgeois. Not only have all three made their womanhood an integral part of their art, but they have also chosen to work with images, materials, and methods the art world has responded to reticently. Yet with their work, they have evolved an oeuvre that posits a subversive relationship to the dominant culture.

This exhibition, Leaf’s first substantial show in New York in 12 years, consisted of 14 acrylic paintings. Except for Stan Gilula, 1987, and Lou, 1987, both imaginative portraits, the paintings are atmospheric, fantasy-filled landscapes which evoke affinities with the radiant worlds of Odilon Redon, J. M. W. Turner, and Louis Eilshemius. Leaf’s world, however, is colder and bleaker. While the pale blues swirling through these paintings reflect a barren physical landscape (Leaf spends part of each year in Nova Scotia), they also embody the metaphysical weather suffusing her interiorized world.

Leaf initiates a dialogue between the process and a flexible vocabulary of invented images; between the loosely painted surfaces and the light diffusing through the various layers and shifts of paint; and between painterly scrawls and accents, and the figures and shapes these marks may suggest. It is out of this dialogue (both the working up of a cool wet atmosphere and the working back into it) that Leaf is able to discover as well as define the parameters of her fantasy world.

The process is intuitive. The Pen on the Mountain, 1986, for example, shows a turbulent cloud, or seascape, in which a mountain peak is visible. Balanced precariously but proudly on the summit is an abstract shape, the pen. The painting depicts an imaginary situation without telling the viewer either what led up to this event or what will happen next. Like other works in the exhibition, the piece is emblematic. One of the recurring icons is that of an angel with long clumsy wings. The combination of grace and awkwardness, spiritual yearning and inescapable frustration, recalls Baudelaire’s image of a poet in “Albatross.” Like Baudelaire’s doomed sea bird, Leaf’s angels are alienated from both the earthly and spiritual realms. Vulnerable, isolated, and proud, these figures are survivors; they can be read as signs of a woman making her own way in an inhospitable world. One of the strengths of this work is that it doesn’t ask for the viewer’s sympathy. Like her angels, Leaf is too proud and self-contained to appeal to the viewer.

John Yau