New York

June Leaf

What constitutes June Leaf’s genius also makes her something of a throwback or an anomaly, an artist whose work looks back, through that of Giacometti and Picasso, to the primitive impulse to make images. Known primarily as a painter, which is also how she sees herself, Leaf surrounded the paintings exhibited in her most recent show with a broad selection of sculpture from the mid ’70s to the present. Although Leaf’s sculpture began in the ’60s with Joseph Cornell–like boxes—concretizations of ideas whose origins are painterly“ (as Dennis Adrian wrote at the time of Leaf’s 1978 retrospective)—it is now the sculpture that feels like the source for Leaf’s painting rather than vice versa. For Leaf, sculpture is not primarily an examination of the properties of three-dimensional form, but, rather, an investigation of the deep-seated desire to shape ductile matter. ”What I really want to do,“ she has said, ”is make people, from the inside out." In this sense her objects are something like household idols, but this is also why they are so often essentially toys, with moving parts that can be activated by the viewer: in our culture the fee ling for the animate object has been pretty much pressed back into the realm of childhood. For Leaf, mechanism seems not to operate in contradistinction to spirit, but simply to represent its knowable aspect.

It would be easy to mistake Leaf’s modestly scaled objects for whimsies. In fact, the unconventionality of her work is actually born from an intense engagement with tradition that manifests itself as informality, as a certain distance from the dogmas, programs, and protocols of contemporary artmaking. Her works, with their mercurial, intimate bearing, make no claim to public significance, yet even in the smallest, most fragile constructions there is a hint of archetypal gravity, a touch of mythic grandeur. This aspect of Leaf’s work is most evident in Iron Woman, 1994, a full-size seated figure (an image that dates from her mid-’50s work) which though monumental is never static, never becomes a solid mass but remains a continuous metamorphosis of surfaces.

Whereas Leaf’s sculpture is basically figural, her new paintings are not as concerned with the figure as they used to be, turning instead toward landscape, that is, the place where things are located rather than the things themselves. At times the preoccupation with siting the objects is made explicit, as when one of Leaf’s sculptural forms is taken up into a painting or vice versa. The Instrument, 1993, a sculpture that is at once a boat and a sort of lute, washes up in Embarking, 1994. Sometimes the painting comes first: The Wave, 1995, another boat sculpture, originates in Black Angel, 1994. Leaf’s practice of constructing a painting from several pieces of canvas—sewing them together, cutting down and enlarging the work as she goes—makes it clear that for her a painting is less an image than a material entity to be worked by hand (like sculpture) until it has come to life.

Barry Schwabsky