New York

June Leaf

Edward Thorp Gallery

If a style can be detected in the half century’s worth of drawings and paintings by June Leaf that were gathered here recently, it might be called abstract surrealism. Lines hastily thrown together with a sort of jittery, automatist flair form more or less absurd “configurations”: sketchy figures, both elegantly drafted and shapeless, in fantastical scenarios. In Pencil Legs, 1980, a woman with pencils for legs is poised awkwardly “en pointe,” as it were. The writing utensils form a wobbly support structure that, together with the tentative lines of the rest of the drawing, suggests a precarious sense of self.

This hesitant line, in tandem with a strange sense of nervous energy, characterizes many of the drawings. In Study for Woman Monument #3, 1976, a figure stands tall, the raised arms resembling a candelabra, but her frail body tapers to one leg. In Top Lady, 1952, a woman is made up of a bizarre accumulation of bulging circles, and in Letter to Donald Lippincott, 1979, a sketchy human figure seems to be propelled by gears inside and out. Umbrella Woman, 1951, disappears under her outsize raingear, her head and shoulders resembling bat wings. In this work, the repeated strokes of the pen make the shapes more menacing; careful modeling creates a sense of brooding as it conjures the animate from the inanimate. Are we in the nightmarish realm of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters? The uncanny hybridity of many of Leaf’s figures confirms their irrationality.

Though Leaf’s drawings, like many works in the modern tradition, seem to be influenced by the art of children and the insane, works like Artist Couple, 1978, and Man on a Hoop, 2000, speak openly to adult concerns. Leaf is married to the photographer Robert Frank, whose work is much better known than hers. Does the earlier drawing, which depicts a woman with a huge bow and arrow pointed at the back of a crouching man, tell us something about her attitude toward him? In the later work, an inky circle has been marked out on the page; at its lowest point, a male figure sits precariously, as though he might slide off into nothingness. With their incisive ease—a few brisk, colorless lines turn flat paper into an infinitely open space—the economical ink drawings demonstrate Leaf’s continued development. They’re less labored than the paintings, and all the more powerful and memorable for it. Technically precise and emotionally pointed, they are tours de force of aesthetic condensation, and the range of her line—sometimes full of verve, sometimes meticulously mannered—is breathtaking. They are proof that quick studies can be major art.

Donald Kuspit