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MICHAEL LEONARD: Charged Elements

by Barbara S. Krulik
Amsterdam, January 2009

I visited London to meet Michael Leonard, to meet him and confirm my thoughts about his work, to see the paintings and drawings and learn a bit more about the man. He is an artist unusually educated about his precedents, be they ancient or modern. Indeed, in the house and studio, I saw meticulously organized bookshelves filled with art books: monographs, biographies, surveys. The walls are covered with paintings, drawings and prints; tables hold sculptures, objects and still life elements. Everything tells a story about friends, family and the artist’s personal and professional history.

Michael Leonard is incredibly knowledgeable about American art and artists, and feels closer to them than the British. Among his artistic forebears, he says, are Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. Homer and Hopper began their careers in commercial art as did Michael Leonard. Commercial art gave Leonard direction and livelihood, and also a set of skills that would come back strongly in his drawings and paintings.

While in London, I had the opportunity to see the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Rothko: The Late Series. It may seem a bizarre comparison, but late Mark Rothko paintings and studies gave me a way to understand better how Leonard works. Like Rothko he works in series. He rotates the painting in the process of composition, he pays close attention to the treatment of contours and his paint surface stimulates the viewer to move close to the picture plane. In an interview with Edward Lucie-Smith, Leonard states that he is excited by

relating the arabesques of the figure to a rectangle. Sometimes just the rectangle of the picture itself… people generally concentrate on the content rather than how the picture is made up but I am just as excited by the abstract aspects of picture making.

Square and near square compositions are particularly appealing to Michael Leonard. His aversion to standing rectangles comes from his early years illustrating book jackets. His models are caught in transitory positions not easily registered by the naked eye and in order to achieve this he uses a camera for reference. In his drawings he works out the compositional schema in detail.

Leonard brings the picture edge in on the figures in his panels, sometimes cutting off more of the panel at a later time. Figures are so closely cropped as to appear confined. It is as if the bodies are ready to spring beyond the picture plane and some do. Thus, the context disappears; there are no furnishings, and no references except the human body. Clothing or towels provide opportunities for color but only titles tip us off as to context. Leonard says color and tone are the big battle areas. Indeed the linear compositions are worked out in the detailed drawings. Color and tonal elements are developed directly on the panel, and built up in layers and layers of paint. From close up, the paint surface reveals a subtle and varied palette in the flesh tones. Seen from the distance the paintings glow like Vermeer.

The most important, captivating thing about these paintings and drawings is the content. Leonard reveres Degas, who held a discreet distance from his young ballerinas and bathers. Leonard replaces the dance studio or brothel, with the changing room and keeps no distance from his subjects. For me, the male nudes are particularly powerful. They twist and turn in their cramped space, in doing so we almost feel the sinew, in the tautness of the musculature. Dressing or disrobing, the models are caught in a personal activity that is rarely shared with strangers. The female nudes are much more delicately painted – softer – with a pearly smoothness that references Ingres. They are also caught in the process of intimate action.

The compressed foreground puts us so close to the subject as to make us just a bit uncomfortable. We are confronted with our own passions, our voyeuristic impulses. In our silent communication with the subject, we are met with an unreadable expression that could even be the glimmer of a smile.

Location: New York 5th Floor

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