Leigh Behnke

Fischbach Gallery

In the oils and watercolors featured in this show, New York artist Leigh Behnke offers provocative investigations of the relationship of seeing and knowing. Employing multiple formats that recall the structure of Renaissance predella panels, she launches a sophisticated assault on the conventions of seeing underlying the pictorial illusionism. Behnke invites us to consider the notion of three dimensionality, supported by the familiar system of fixed perspective and cast light and shadow, as the veritable cornerstone of the Western representational tradition. Her paintings of interiors, suburban houses, and city buildings plunge the viewer into the perceptual firmament of the world of appearance that complicates the observation of objective reality and, at the same time, removes us from it through the constructive artifice of artmaking.

In Morning Light: 2nd Version, 1989, the upper panel consists of a sun-drenched scene of a portion of a room at the top of a staircase, while different parts of the interior, some visible in the main upper panel and others not, are depicted from various angles in a trio of small panels that make up the lower section of the painting. The stress on value contrasts make the edges of such forms as bannisters, windows, and walls extremely prominent, and the smooth surface of the paintings endows the work with a mirrorlike believability. Behnke’s technique of applying thin glazes to produce a lustrous surface finish infuses the image with enough coloristic vitality for it to demand that we experience it not so much as a single coherent space but as one characterized by discontinuities subject to the vagaries of time.

In Wallace’s Heresy, 1990, one of the most striking cityscapes, the oil surface tingles with visual tension. The view of a stretch of skyscrapers that Behnke photographed from the World Trade Center is augmented by close-up details of canyons of Wall Street buildings in three small auxiliary panels. From the stepped-back facades typical of the classic Art Deco-period skyscrapers to the boxlike structures with their flat facades punctuated by rows of pigeonhole windows that are hallmarks of office towers of more recent vintage, the composition affords an eyewitness view of monuments of living history. We are reminded that the buildings and the streets of downtown New York, with their distinctive density, harmonious order, and even beauty brought out in Behnke’s impressive rendering, are the products of a particular historical moment. The ideational undercurrents coursing through this painting are reinforced by the title, which makes reference to Alfred Russel Wallace, a colleague of Charles Darwin’s and a major contributor to the theory of natural selection. Here, if the buildings are taken as symbolic of the masses of humanity toiling in them, survival is a matter of land and air rights, and the product of abstract principles codified in municipal law. In other words, survival, like architecture and art, is locally determined.

Ronny Cohen