The Transcendental Work of Jeff Leonard: Painting on the Edge of Hardness

That the glass would melt in heat,That the water would freeze in cold,Shows that this object is merely a state,One of many, between two poles. So,In the metaphysical, there are these poles.

Wallace Stevens, from "The Glass of Water"

The current paintings of Jeff Leonard exist in a kindof suspension between states of being. They exhibitthe painterly concern for materiality that has becomeone of the hopeful survivors of post-90s artproduction, yet they manage to suggest experiencebeyond the tactile, or purely optical. Leonard'smedium in this work is pigment in resin on woodenpanels, bringing one of painting's oldest supports andan ultramodern industrial material together. Resin isa mercurial medium - the working surface hardensquickly, and color dropped or worked into it takes ondifferent shapes and qualities depending on itsviscosity at any given time. Time, then, becomes partof the process, and can be read in the surface of thework through the shape, depth and quality of the formsit holds. Time is also important to the viewing ofthis work; it requires a response beyond the immediacyof the pixilated moment to fully appreciate the layersand depths accumulated here.

In earlier paintings from 2001, like UNTITLED #010404,Leonard allows some referential material to remain. Vaguely architectural images are ghosted behind theresin and then overlaid with the abstract shapes andcolors that come to predominate in his current work. These earlier panels suggest some of the earlyphotocollages of Rauschenberg, from a distinctlypostmodern perspective. In the two years thatfollowed, Leonard's subliminally referential imageshave been replaced by purely abstract form. Theimperative that has driven this shift is that of themedium itself. The materiality of the resin surface,unique in its ability to capture light and hold it onmany levels, suggests the direction of the currentwork.

Because the shapes/forms are determined largely by themedium, the hand of the artist is not evident in thiswork. Instead, it is replaced by intellect-or byintent, a sense of essential control even within anatmosphere of happy chance. The dominant shapes inthe current work are imperfect circles which are madeby dropping color into the resin. Size and shape canbe manipulated through timing and additives-certainpigments and thinners or binders spread at differentrates and in various ways. Calculating the viscosityof the resin before going back into it with color canalter the outcome. There is a sense of immediacy inmany of the resulting forms that outdistancesbrushwork, as if it can't keep up with the ideas.

Resin has a liquid surface-not shiny, precisely, buthaving the quality of a clear pool of water withdepths of color and light beneath the surface. Thismight seem an obvious analogy for lighter hued workswith cooler colors, but it holds true even for thedarker paintings, or the ones with hotter hues. Eventhe dusky tones of UNTITLED #021009 with circlesoutlined in white floating in a dark ground, or UNTITLED #021006 with its clever palette of olives andgrays, seem to be lit from within. Light is imbeddedin these paintings suggesting a historicalrelationship with late Monet, or the AmericanLuminists, and just as it does in those works, formexists alongside the purity of light and paint withoutoverwhelming the overall effect. Sometimes form seemsto be created by the thickness of the resin, or bypulling it into pools of more geometric shape. In UNTITLED #020903, for example, faint patterns like calligraphy-one of the only examples of more linearand designed forms in the work from 2002-and thebright circles are alternately submerged under andoverlay darker shadow squares of green. The inabilityto assign distinct planes to the various shapescomplicates this work and gives it visual resonance.

Leonard often imposes some suggestion of the grid inthe composition of his paintings, compelling humanorder on a mercurial surface that tends toward thechaotic. He has written: "The grid.continues to holdmy attention as an expression of the rational asopposed to the chaos of the organic. I think a lotabout the tension between order and disorder." Thisis a contradictory medium, at once almost organic inits tendency to grow and spread while remaining, afterall, an industrial material. Without a firm hand ittends to follow its nature and harden into barcounters or flooring tiles. Occasionally, Leonardincludes another more linear form with the circularshapes. In UNTITLED #021008 this shape is pushed tothe edges creating a kind of frame effect. Itsuggests a more formal organization, although itremains translucent with the field of circles almostshowing through behind it. Closer inspection showsthat this "frame" is produced from striated strokesmoving on an angle, like sleet blown by the wind. Thesilvery quality of the pigment in this section allowsit to sit on the surface of the painting creatinganother depth or layer of light superimposed over thework as a whole. The works which include these morecontrolled shapes behind, or over, the more organiccircular shapes give us a more intimate, or closer,understanding of the artist's aesthetic purpose inthis body of work; it gives us another way into theless obviously planned paintings that might otherwiseescape us. In UNTITLED #021001 there is a kind ofhistory imbedded in the surface. Leonard begins bypainting directly on the wooden support, emphasizingor recreating the natural woodgrain; the pentimento ofthis process under the resin suggests an object with anatural history, just as other drips of paint on itssurface suggest foxing on old paper.

There is always in all of this the additional elementof chance. John Cage, the master manipulator ofchance operations, allowed silence-and the universalpropinquity's that fill it-to determine composition. There is a kind of transcendental quality to thesurfaces of Leonard's work as well. Each painting hasno particular beginning or end-each one is rather likea snapshot of an arbitrary area on the surface of apool; or like the field determined by the edges of aglass laboratory slide that holds a dazzlingabstraction of shapes which are, in fact, a metonymyfor larger universal wholes-blood, a body, a life.

These are wonderful pictures to look at-often lovely,always interesting surfaces. They are quite easy toenjoy, and reward a careful viewing with the pleasurethat really good work presents-the thing that makes itsignificant and compelling.

Muffet Jones

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Published on Feb 18, 2017