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Mark Leonard
at Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood, California
Preview by Jeanne Willette

The modernist grid takes on the appearance of textiles in Mark Leonard’s painstaking pattern painting. Deceptive surface and unexpected hues abound.

Continuing through August 23, 2011

At first glance, Mark Leonard’s small paintings may seem to be pictures of strips of cloth or fibers coming together to form a pattern of pleasing colors. That would be a superficial reading of these deeply thoughtful works. The Modernist grid transmuted to fabric serves as a metaphor of the life cycle, and here is filled with nuances of love and loss. Leonard comes to painting with an encyclopedic knowledge of it as a form of craft and art making. Trained as a painter, Leonard has had a distinguished career as a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Getty Conservation Institute, where this artist came to know the Old Masters intimately. It was his natural instinct to approach painting via the rigorous academic method, carefully copying small sections of historical works of art. For years, Leonard had trained himself to disappear into the mind and hand of another artist. After his retirement, the need to speak in his own artistic voice asserted itself. Leonard returned to modern abstract painting, using a recognizable motif of weaving, setting up a duality that is at the heart of his work - abstraction and figuration, past and present, love and loss, depth and surface, art and craft.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Leonard’s paintings is the sheer old-fashioned respect for painterly technique. Leonard uses a light ground, not a flat white but rather a softly diffused atmosphere that seems to dissolve away beneath the overlaid pattern. The interwoven bands of color are more material than flat stripes of color, and, indeed, the word ‘strip’ of color would be preferable to convey the formal presence of the weave. So light and airy are the strips that the tangible colors seem to have been airbrushed. But the strokes are laid on one by one in small increments that can be seen close-up.  

Leonard’s admiration for the Italian Mannerists is on vivid display in “Weaving #13.” The striking acidic colors of Jacopo Pontormo streak diagonally across the small square. The vibrant Renaissance colors of “Weaving #1”wend their way through a subtle range of darkened grays, blues and taupes. Leonard’s color choices are both referential and invented. His triptychs play off gray toned side panels against an intensely orange central square in “Triptych III,” while “Triptych II”  gives itself totally over to a celebration of reds, oranges and yellows. Using the words “red” or “orange” or “gray” fails to do justice to the true nature of these surprising hues.

The accrued physicality of the woven warp and woof of the fabric is enhanced by the odd and unexpected colors used by the artist. He uses his own paint, a special formula he customized over a six-year period with the help of other scientists. The synthetic resin suggests but does not imitate the pigment texture and palettes used by artists centuries ago. Commercially available but difficult for the amateur to use, this paint allows for a careful layering that references the older process of varnishing and glazing. The result is bands of shimmering and vibrating ribbons of colors. Our eye dances across the canvas, which glows and shimmers as though the filaments are still in the process of drawing together to create that tightly knit fabric. It’s symbolic of life in progress. The colors themselves are odd and unexpected, soft and deep, subtle and resonant, all of which is crucial to elevating these works from mere polished formal exercises to serious aesthetic statements.

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