New York

June Leaf, Untitled (Theater), 2010–11, mixed media, 53 x 23 1/4 x 36".

June Leaf, Untitled (Theater), 2010–11, mixed media, 53 x 23 1/4 x 36".

June Leaf

June Leaf, Untitled (Theater), 2010–11, mixed media, 53 x 23 1/4 x 36".

It’s usual, and not without good reason, to praise a contemporary artist’s work, or even that of a historical figure, for its currency—for the way it seems to put its viewer in touch with the now. But while I mean to praise the “Recent Works” June Leaf has just exhibited, I can’t do so on those grounds. Although all but one of the paintings, sculptures, and things-in-between in the exhibition were made in the last two years, they feel distinctly untimely, like scattered finds from an archaeological dig into the strata of a human psyche, where past, present, and eternity mingle playfully yet with unease, always tending toward simultaneity. “The first sculpture I made,” Leaf once remarked, “was because I was bringing Vermeer up to date.” Born in Chicago in 1929, Leaf is part of a circle of artists from that city who moved on from there early in their careers, and who seem to share this ability to plumb existential issues in mythic time; it would be interesting to see an exhibition that would place Leaf in the company of the slightly elder Leon Golub and Nancy Spero and the slightly younger Irving Petlin. All four exceed the narrow category of Chicago Imagism through an intransigent individuality and cultural affinities of astonishing breadth. Leaf’s work might put you in mind of a self-taught “primitive” one minute, a backyard tinkerer the next, and a Baroque master dabbling in oil sketches after that—actually, she uses acrylic, not oils, but you see what I mean. Yet somehow the naïf, the bricoleuse, and the virtuoso of the brush are always clearly a single protean artist.

There’s a strange sense of passage back and forth between exteriority and interiority in these works—between the tips of the artist’s fingers and the back of the mind. And her imagery, likewise, passes with ease between two and three dimensions and back again. Thus the largest of the assemblage sculptures here, Untitled (Theater) (all works cited, 2010–11), becomes the subject of an untitled painting of the same year, and might in turn have been inspired by another painting (with relief elements), Figure with Angel, which is also related to another assemblage, Untitled (Figure Cranking). In Untitled (Theater), a sewing-machine treadle that might represent the infernal machinery of the underworld is connected to an upside-down eggbeater set up above a horizontal plane like a totem for some unknown civilization; the eggbeater towers over the tiny metal figure sitting near it, suggesting humanity’s smallness and impotence in the face of the mechanical structure of destiny.

In a sense, the pessimistic worldview that emerges from the imagery that Leaf returns to over and over again is at odds with the fluidity and freedom with which she handles that imagery and her materials. Also recurrent are ladders and spiral staircases, which never lead to escape or transcendence. In the painting Figures on a Spiral Staircase, the vague little people who are mostly near the foot of the staircase seem too weighed down by themselves to ever make much of an ascent. Of course the beauty of the rough, almost careless, yet sensual brushstrokes that conjure their visionary habitat must be invisible to them. We viewers can imagine ourselves luckier.

Barry Schwabsky