Thursday, July 22, 2021

Reality Redux: The Elegiac Paintings of Heather McLeod

“Painting is the representation of visible forms. The essence of realism is the negation of the ideal.”– Gustave Courbet, 1830.

Given the almost vertiginous diversity for self-expression available to contemporary visual artists in this day and age, I never tire of pointing out that far from being a million different subjects and themes for them to explore, or a million different formats for them to utilize in the execution of their works, there are in fact only four of each. Always have been, always will be. There’s something a little reassuring in this stylistic consistency and yet also a little daunting, given that every artist wakes up in the morning with art history breathing down their neck. So then, subjects and themes: self, society, nature, spirituality. Formats and delivery systems: portrait, still life, landscape, abstract. All the other aesthetic style vehicles can be distilled down to these two basic formal groupings, no matter how divergent or drastically experimental they might become. Also, whether the medium is painting or photography, cinema or video, installation or digital, is beside the point since these subjects and themes are embedded in the proportional harmony of our DNA via the golden section, and thus are impossible to evade, even if we wanted to do so. 

Equally pleasing, and also enjoyable for those of us who still treasure, cherish and enjoy great painting, is the fact that newly invented technologies for reproduction never endanger the tactile charms and haptic allure of painting. This is despite the fact that some painters around about 1840 declared that their craft was now dead (as the nervously academic artist Paul Delaroche declared too hastily upon seeing the first daguerreotype photo print), since the camera could do their job more efficiently and accurately. True enough, painting was thence liberated from the burden of meticulous representational agendas, and immediately plunged headlong into Impressionism, and soon afterwards into absolute abstraction. But the pressure of the shutter also bestowed a blessing: we could embrace a limitless array of alternative ways and means of making and seeing pictures. Not only did painting not shrivel up and go away, it was reborn anew, and equally surprising, perhaps, the realistic urge of pictorial accuracy continued on apace. It was merely “their job,” so to speak, which had undergone a revolution, and the real world still beckoned to be depicted by their hand.

As an art critic who is also a historian, I’ve always given a wide, wide latitude to the manner in which visual artists choose to share their optical unconscious with us, and I accept and revel in even the most drastic conceptual experiments using everyday objects or even no visual material at all. However, I also applaud and like to recognize the achievement of artists who remain in the orbit of the realist tradition, for whom a reality redux is at the heart of their aesthetic agenda. Heather McLeod is just such an artist, a young painter who has chosen not to pick up a video camera, assemble any debris into installation stage sets, or engage in any obscure performance-based gestures. Instead, she is technically adept enough and historically aware enough to fully embrace Courbet’s early modern admonition: to engage with visible forms and eschew the seduction of any idealized (and thus archaic) realms. Besides, one ear depicted realistically is enchantingly real, after all, while over fifty of them contemplated as an exotic floating dream constellation is already inherently surreal anyway. 

(left) Ear, oil on panel, 2 x 3 inches.; (right) Trust Fall, oil on panel, 24 x 30 inches.

In the past I have written extensively, often on Critics At Large, about the seduction of the senses per se and the representation of the real in the fine arts. Malcolm Rains, John Ballantyne, and Andrew Wyeth are among those who are exemplary at this skill, as are Jeanette Watkins and Lorena Kloosterboer. Though they all have distinct styles, what they have in common, and what they also share with McLeod, is a fascination with and an absorption in the ongoing mission to bring us back to our senses: they are redux artists par excellence. Redux: noun, Latin, redux (from the verb reducere, meaning "to lead back"), can mean "brought back" or "bringing back." The Romans used redux as an epithet for the Goddess Fortuna with its "bringing back" meaning; Fortuna Redux was "one who brings another safely home." But it was especially the "brought back" meaning that made its way into English. All of these painters, and perhaps especially a younger generational practitioner such as the perspicacious McLeod, bring back a recognizable and consensus reality into the often rarefied arena of aesthetic discourse. 

Andrew Wyeth, Arabella, 1969 (Met Museum); John Ballantyne, Door (Odon Wagner Gallery); Malcolm Rains, Kyramadi (Cowley Abbott Gallery).

McLeod’s perspective on her enigmatic ear works, for instance, is both engaging and elusive at the same time, in ways that further elucidate the important ongoing role of realism in the often perplexing life of art history: “There exists a space between our outward appearance and inner self. It is a space lined with objects that carry a record of our experiences and a glimpse into our past. My work explores this space. Through non-traditional-portraiture, I draw a line between physical appearance and identity. My art focuses on the gesture of the hand, on the vulnerable spot behind the ear and the less observed features that stand in for the whole. The elusiveness that results parallels the elusive nature of our own identity and ultimately, reality.” This insight, quite a subtle but deep one, it strikes me, corroborates my own sense that pictorial realism has never really been about the exactitude of replication at all, but rather is about the impossibility of certainty.

McLeod is an artist exploring identity and the psychology by which we perceive others. Born and raised in the greater New York area, she received her MFA from The New York Academy of Art in 2021 and her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 2016. In 2017 she was awarded a Fulbright Study/Research Award in Perugia, Italy where she lived and worked for a year, in addition to exhibiting there. She is a recent recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant and The Leslie T. and Francis Posey Scholarship. She has been featured in a number of exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad and has been the recipient of a number of art-related awards and most recently was an AXA Art Prize Finalist. She is currently based in Manhattan, where her most recent solo exhibition was presented by the Trotter & Sholer Gallery. 

Just Above the Fireplace, oil on canvas, 16 x 52 in. (Heather McLeod).

Elegaic paintings? The notion was an immediate one for me, though other viewers may just as viably bring a myriad of meanings and interpretations to her captivatingly mysterious works. In English literature, an elegy is a poem of serious reflection, usually a lament for the dead. However, as Karen Weisman points out in her Oxford Book of the Elegy, "for all of its pervasiveness . . . the 'elegy' remains remarkably ill defined: sometimes used as a catch-all to denominate texts of a somber or pessimistic tone, sometimes as a marker for textual monumentalizing, and sometimes strictly as a sign of a lament for the dead." The Greek term elegeia (ἐλεγεία; from ἔλεγος, elegos, "lament") originally referred to any verse written in elegiac couplets and covering a wide range of subject matter (death, love, war). The term also included epitaphs, sad and mournful songs, and commemorative verses, most often erotic or mythological in nature. Because of its structural potential for rhetorical effects, the elegiac couplet was also used by both Greek and Roman poets for witty, humorous, and satirical subject matter.

As the cheerful and often stoned poet Coleridge observed, “Elegy is a form of poetry natural to the reflective mind. It may treat of any subject, but it must treat of no subject for itself; but always and exclusively with reference to the poet. As he will feel regret for the past or desire for the future, so sorrow and love became the principal themes of the elegy. Elegy presents every thing as lost and gone or absent and future.” This observation about satirical and amusing subjects is a crucial one, since many of McLeod’s compelling works also have a tongue-in-cheek humour about them which reveals itself slowly over time. Most importantly for me, McLeod’s works offer an elegy to/for the history of painting itself, which continues to thrive, despite its onslaught under the age of mechanical reproduction, pace Walter Benjamin.

Wreath III, oil on canvas.

McLeod’s works often appear to be an expedition in search of the lost original aura of singular images themselves: they suggest an ongoing labour of love designed to approach that inexpressible aspect lurking just beneath the surfaces of people and things. As the painter expresses it quite well herself in imagistic words:

The ear wreaths developed as a continuation of the singular ear paintings. I was interested in expanding on the narrative of the portrait in a way that could be both aesthetically pleasing and reward further investigation by the curious viewer. I had been doing a lot of research surrounding the symbolism of plants in art and I started to think about wreaths as a way to not only depict this but also act as a framing device. I learned about the history of wreaths back in ancient Greece and Rome, where members of society would wear crowns of leaves and flowers on their heads to signify their occupations, rank and achievements. I learned about the different plants I could turn into wreaths, and what they might say about the ear nestled behind it.
Wreath V, oil on canvas.

Now, to return to the central conceptual crux: the issue of subjects and themes in art history and their collision with contemporary formats, delivery systems and visual menus. I admire the manner in which McLeod refers to her artistic agenda as “non-traditional portraiture,” especially the implicit irony of the fact that her approach to making portraits is still actually at the very heart of that tradition, namely the portrayal of persona. She just manages to achieve it in a manner that is impressive for two reasons, firstly because her portrayals appear to conceal as much as they reveal, and secondly because they are often simultaneously also still lifes. Or perhaps not-so-still lifes. Or perhaps distilled lifes. And she manages this thematic juggling match while also expressing the self as a primary vehicle, the social as an interactive means of community engagement, with organic nature, often botanical, as a material medium, and with the inherently spiritual aspects of the entire enterprise of reaching toward a kind of existential goal. She covers all the bases. 

Susan’s Not Mine, oil on board, 16 x 20 (Heather McLeod).

You First, oil on panel, 30 x 30 inches (Heather McLeod).

Among my favourites of her playfully anti-portrait portraits are Susan’s Not Mine and You First, both of which toy with the viewer by presenting a person and withdrawing their full presence at the same time. As McLeod expresses it, “I have always felt a need to hide a part of myself in any situation. Many of us have this tendency, whether consciously or unconsciously, and I enjoy navigating this territory. My work speaks to the individual struggles of fragility, femininity, and concealment while allowing the subject to remain hidden behind a light veil of humour. By concealing the face, one must find meaning in the symbolism of what we are permitted to see.

What we are permitted to see. The phrase almost perfectly sums up the powerful resonances evoked by her ethereal and elegiac portraits. It also privileges the potency of painting in this day and age: its power to seduce and compel us, while also being an ideal expression of our embodiment, yet without idealizing it in any way, shape or form.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.


1 comment:

  1. It's a wonderful read and I'm honored by your kind words. Thank you.