Sunday, 2 August 2009

On Sam Leach @ Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art

I have a weakness for the work of Sam Leach. His exquisitely crafted paintings are small chamber pieces of skill and concep. Their technical accomplishment and almost anachronistic naturalism lifts their conceptual questions to something far more poetic than most glib post-modern juxtapositions. His current show "The Next Billion Years" at Sullivan + Strumpf in Paddington blurs the line between machine and organism, whilst being perfectly clear in every other sense. Again and again nature sits, almost existentially, on the edge of an infinite silky blackness and its gaze back at us forms a series of questions.

When Leach is described as creating a pastiche of classic Dutch still life painting he is being damned by faint praise. What he actually does is approach the exquisite craft of that style of painting, which is more than the simple borrowing of tropes and reference. The technical virtuosity of this work is key to its success. Leach is able to create odd contradictions between surface and form precisely because he paints so well. To see the stealth fighter surfaces rendered in a feather light texture, that sensory disorientation, is exactly why these works are so powerful at a physical as well as conceptual level. These are much more than visual tricks, there are layers of ambiguity here, mirrors, shadows and echoes, that are realised through acute but restrained illusionistic detail, as a result they seduce and hint rather than harangue and smirk.

It is entirely right that Leach should choose Dutch still life as model to explore contradiction. The tension between the cornucopia of gold plate and hanging game is set at a counterpoint against human skulls in the classic 'vanitas', a mortal reminder. It's worth remembering that the original genre thrived just as the Dutch, with their East India Company, were at the crest of the first great wave of mercantile globalization and asking familiar questions about material success and spiritual sacrifice.

Leach's pictures demand to be seen in the flesh. His technique involves finishing each with a thick layer of perfectly clear gloss varnish. This has the effect of capturing light, each shines like a dark pool in moonligh. More disconcerting is the mirror like effect that this achieves, in the darker paintings one sees oneself. This is most evident in the, largely, monochrome paintings of scenes from an observatory or laborator. These might be frames from 1950s corporate documentaries, the scientists and technicians look just like scientists and technicians ought to. We see 'Something Very Important' happening, although we don't know what. At the same time we see ourselves reflected and that is an unsettling experience, we might be observing the observers as they plot a course for our future, but they're sealed securely on the other side of the resin and will never know.

Detail is supposed to be the home to both genius and the devil. Leach might render each hair and feather with prefect precision but he also allows darker more unsettling hints to intrude. This is nowhere more apparent than in 'Bigger Incision' where a pair of playtpus appear, at first sight, to be laughing almost anthropomorphically, one telling a joke, the other rolling on the floor. But the prone platypus has a slash cut through the pelt on it's belly, in the blackness a smear of red might be blood is the word 'animus', hinting at the malice in the garden or Jung's notion of the inner spirit that complements our persona and sits at the heart of creativity. The scene is all the more sinister for a hint of red dot in the eye of the standing platypus, a 'Terminator' marsupial.

In 'Butterfly Viewer' and 'Simulator' butterflies seem to provide the perfect symbol for something as light and unruly as magic or the human spirit. The specks of coloured pigment don't belong, they are like ghosts that crept into the machine before it was hermetically sealed, they might move beneath the glaze. That element of the random and wild looks very much like a sign of hope.

I was reminded very much of the myth of Icarus throughout this exhibition. Just as each morphing bird is reminiscent of the hanging bounty of Dutch game it is also, wings folded, plummeting to the earth. Icarus is the mythological predecessor to all of our scientists and inventors, his tale is one of hubris, it reminds us that we ought to keep sight of the earth even as we soar to the skies. The best known artistic rendition of Icarus is that of Pieter Bruegel, in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, there we think of man and the futility of the Greek's endeavour, now we feel that it is just as likely to end in collateral damage as an unheard splash.

There is a crystalline logic to Sam Leach's jewel like paintings, even occasionally to the point off feeling cold and forensic, that feels like intellectual enquiry in paint. Given his sheer level of technical ability these are remarkably restrained pieces, their modesty giving them gravity, but they are multi facetted and should be treasured as they reward viewing and contemplation in manifold ways.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing - am now desperate to see some of these works for myself!