Saskia Leek

Marcel Duchamp’s Pharmacie, 1914, Asger Jorn’s détournements, and Jim Shaw’s “Thrift Store Paintings” form just one quick route through an age in which artists have taken up Sunday still lifes and commercial prints to all manner of ends; to interrogate the status of art, they have mechanically reproduced the mechanically reproduced, prodded cultural hierarchies of taste, and adopted stock subjects to challenge the logic of the new. Quotation, appropriation, and overpainting have expressed everything from scorn to irony to nostalgia for generic popular painting.

Rendered with compelling sincerity and generalized to the point of something more like distraction than abstraction, Saskia Leek’s paintings in “Pictures of the Lumpen Sun” (all works 2006) depict quietly intense derivations from some twentieth-century Western framed picture’s greatest hits: snowy peaks (Crooner, Rim Rider), a pony (Blot or Guide), a rose (Pinned Shoots), a skull (Spheres), a sunset (Eyehole), and a Good News Bible–style blue-eyed Jesus (Trance); dully familiar in a different way are a couple of suburban landscapes, out-the-window views of what might be warehouses or school buildings (Borderland, Back Brainer).

Chalky yellows, powder-puff pinks, and soft blues locate Leek’s paintings in the tonal register of the sun-bleached flea-market find. In the system of Paint By Numbers—to whose coloring-in impressionism she sometimes alludes—this is also the palette of ice and snow. Faded or frozen, her subjects are middle-distance objects of longing, forever at the near remove of representation. A mountain looks like a tooth; the skull might be a monkey’s. It’s hard to be sure. Leek subtly underscores the failures and ambiguities of naturalistic illusion. Her technique shares its lack of guile with the naive, hobbyist, and commercial artists she borrows from. Repeating rather than merely quoting the representational idea that tempts and fails every amateur, in Eyehole a finger of light is painted as a translucent block of color, making the sun appear as a ghostly fingernail.

Leek’s secondhand subjects are made subtly odd and particular, their treatment implying the possibility of idiosyncratic attachment. Acknowledged in all its fragility is the way that something banal, unoriginal—the Jesus of mass religion, a corny corsage, or even the view out a studio window onto light industrial buildings—can be as meaningful to someone as anything can be. Leek’s special success has been to manage, without irony, the fine balance between nurturing the private, subjective importance of such images while making the investment in them visible.

These paintings, then, mark the cusp between the ordinary and the fantastic, divining a deep mixture of both in the very act and phenomenon of painting. We are reminded that the wonder of the mythic and magical to be found in the ordinary has as its corollary the bathos of the mundane location of the mythic and the magical. For Leek, the world is tragic and enchantingly brilliant in its familiarity.

Jon Bywater