New York

Alun Leach-Jones

Luise Ross Gallery

The Australian artist Alun Leach-Jones puts cut-out shapes into an intricate relationship, all within a flattened if not quite leveled space. He has two-dimensionalized three-dimensional elements to make a constructivist point rather than a constructivist object. The point is oddly personal, as the title On the Beach at Night Alone (After Whitman), 1988, suggests. (Australia may be one of the last places where it is possible to have a Whitmanesque experience—where isolation in nature can be used to ecstatic purpose, that is, to reinforce a sense of absolute selfhood.) The work is divided into two sections: the dark, small, lower area is implicitly land; the bright, large, upper one—full of cosmic excitement, jumble—implicitly sky. The piece is a landscape, yet its constructed character does not signal nature in an ironic way. Leach-Jones is attempting something seemingly preposterous: the use of an idiomatic Cubist style to articulate a mystical sense of the vitality of nature, and of union with it. It is a strange project, a little naive and unaware of its own paradoxical character, but worth noting as unexpectedly post-Modernist. The works’ discontinuity accounts for much of their meaning.

The paintings are essentially variations on the same point. What finally makes them seriously engaging is the blackness that makes itself felt, despite the prevalence of primary colors. This blackness makes the works less of an idiosyncratic illustration of an idiosyncratic idea. Above all, it throws the commotion of the picture—the dramatic, colorful construction—into hallucinatory relief. The hallucinatory has become the saving grace for tired abstraction. If the abstract can be made to generate a hallucinatory effect, it is redeemed for expressivity. In fact, hallucinatory abstraction can easily become expressive overstatement (especially when it is unself-conscious), which is what I think happens in Leach-Jones’ paintings. There is too much deliberate urgency in these pictures, yet they are interesting, ingenious inventions. What counts is their eccentric totality, not the all-too-familiar character of their constitutive elements. They are oddball constructions, uncanny and irksome despite their innocent use of a conventional style. They suggest a separate line of national artistic development that looks unwittingly post-Modernist; that is, a sum of quotations that imply a strange whole.

I think these works are celebratory of the mystique of nature, in defiance of the total war the world seems to be waging against it. But it is doubtful that their artistic means are equal to those of that war, carried out with indifferent violence. We need more rage, not another innocent reflection of the dynamics of nature. And yet Leach-Jones’ blackness shows that the artistic mirror in which this reflection appears is already mostly opaque. His work is, after all, finally more full of despair than joy.

Donald Kuspit