New York

Simone Leigh, Cupboard VIII, 2018, stoneware, steel, raffia, Albany slip, 10' 4 3⁄4" × 10' × 10'.

Simone Leigh, Cupboard VIII, 2018, stoneware, steel, raffia, Albany slip, 10' 4 3⁄4" × 10' × 10'.

Simone Leigh

A ceramic female head crowned by a hollow receptacle met the viewer as she entered Simone Leigh’s exhibition. This hybrid object, 102 (Face Jug Series) (all works cited, 2018), conflates portraiture with functional pottery, playing on essentialist notions of the female body as a reproductive vessel and symbolic container. Themes of anthropomorphism and embodiment were amplified in Cupboard VIII, the largest of this exhibition’s three sculptures. More than ten feet tall, bare-breasted, and arrayed in a capacious, multitiered raffia skirt, the figure quotes the architecture of Mammy’s Cupboard, a roadside Mississippi pancake house built in the shape of the eponymous Reconstruction-era stereotype. Her bell-shaped volume was echoed in a group of black-and-white stoneware floor sculptures from the “Village Series,” 2018–, whose domed forms evoke another of Leigh’s recurring tropes: the traditional mud house, constructed by Musgum communities in Chad and Cameroon. Installed on a pedestal in the following room was The Village Series #4, a white stoneware portrait bust, a spatial and formal outlier in the otherwise abstract group. Capped by elegant plaiting that adorns other works in the “Village” series, its elusive facial features—save for the eyes, which are consistently indexed as absences in Leigh’s figures—emerge from the abraded, coral-like surface.

While this exhibition staged Leigh’s virtuosity in ceramics, her principal medium, the artist is equally acclaimed for her socially engaged projects and programs that center on women of color. “Waiting Room”—a series of healing- and wellness-oriented workshops and treatment sessions that took place at New York’s New Museum in 2016—was a lodestar exhibition, marking a discursive turn toward the labor of care and a renascent identity politics. In the most important essay on Leigh’s work published to date, Helen Molesworth, writing in the March 2018 issue of Artforum, discussed the decentering effect of Leigh’s sculptural and social practice on her as a white viewer. Leigh’s figures, she wrote, “are not giving up their secrets. . . . They cannot be occupied, colonized, co-opted, or subjugated. . . . For to be secret, to be underground, is one strategy against the constant colonialist imperative to name.”

Leigh can hardly be called an underground artist now. The appeal of her work—with its graceful balance of economy and ornament, its sublimation of affirmative and problematic artifacts, and its unapologetic beauty in the commercial gallery space—demands interpretive frameworks other than those of opacity, stealth, and irrecuperable difference. That Leigh’s work specifically addresses the black female experience is beyond dispute, and to acknowledge the limits of one’s positioning is necessary. Yet, viewing this show, I—like Molesworth, a white woman—was struck less by the reticence of Leigh’s sculptures than by their generosity; not so much decentered by an unassailable otherness as drawn in by an abundance of syncretic forms, with their transformative recombinations of mythic and foundational iconography. Is it overreaching to imagine a reading of these monumental goddesses and gynomorphic objects as actually conjuring a world where blackness and universalism—to use two terms that are contested, the latter perhaps irredeemably so—are coextensive rather than counterposed? To do so isn’t to forget that black femininity is the structuring subject of Leigh’s work (and black feminism its structuring politics), but rather to reverse bankrupt assumptions about the color and gender of universality, about who can seize and inhabit its imaginary space.

Chloe Wyma