From the catalog on the occasion of the exhibition
“Leslie Wayne: recent work” at Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art”
Charleston, SC, January – March, 2010
by Ron Platt, Hugh Kaul Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama
The exhibition demonstrates a singular achievement of painterly language; it distills oil paint’s physical properties into evocations of natural forms and forces and emotional journeys. Wayne’s work intermingles often contradictory elements and impulses: abstraction and representation, painting and sculpture, subject matter and form. They embody personal history, the earth’s history, and the history of art. Their overt physicality identifies the artist’s deep identification with the landscape, and affords the viewer an opportunity for contemplation.
Leslie Wayne was twenty-nine and a painter of unpopulated plein air landscapes when she arrived in New York and entered the fine arts program at Parsons. Her practice of painting outdoors developed out of a deep appreciation and identification with the natural world. Growing up in California, she became familiar with some of the country’s most dramatic and diverse landscapes, from Monterey’s rugged coastline and the Yosemite Valley to Joshua Tree, Big Bear, and Catalina Island.
In New York, many of Wayne’s important influences—Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Lynda Benglis—were working abstractly but upending prescribed aesthetic genres, and personalizing forms and processes based on their extra-aesthetic interests and basic natures. For the most part, they were sculptors, determining their forms through procedures. She also was inspired by David Smith’s example of “constructing a dimensional image, whether 2-D or 3-D, as opposed to creating an illusion of space.”
Wanting to participate in the ongoing dialogue that pit process against abstraction, yet unable to leap directly from observational to abstract painting, Wayne gravitated to abstraction through sculpture. She began to internalize ideas about form and space, the crux of a highly personal language that retains an ambiguity between two- and three-dimensionality.
As Wayne segued from sculpture into geometric abstract paintings, she soon became disenchanted working so formally, “knowing what I was making in advance and what the process would be like.” She was establishing herself as an abstract painter at a time when many artists who chose to paint abstractly were doing so as a challenge to the medium’s relevance. Like many of them, she sought a natural bridge between modernism’s formal fixations and a more intuitive, psychological, and open-ended approach.
Working small, mostly to get the most out of her time and materials, she began creating paintings on panel in a range of strong and earthy colors (her color range, too, is drawn from nature through personal experience). In them, she was working through the fundamental formal issues of modern painting— flatness, figure/ground, illusionism—while developing an expressive personal language; the Expressionists’ drips, sprays, and splatters fused with those forces. And, not incidentally, the small format drew viewers in close, bringing attention to the works’ tactile manipulations and challenging the relevance of the size of the gestural arena, as opposed to its scale.
Oil paint is, for Wayne, a material both historically rich yet infinitely malleable. In her hands, the color and form are one, a means and an end in itself. Her language of paint is as much sculptural as painterly. Shredded into ribbons, cross sections sliced into delicate, lacelike forms, large mounds of pigment drooping under their own weight, her figuration is physically manifested, not rendered. She seems particularly aware that its components, pigment and binder, are themselves of the earth: dense in color saturation and innately varied in physical qualities. Ochres and siennas are gritty and matte, while cadmiums and cobalts have the luminosity of their mineral origins.
Wayne’s return to painting is evidenced in mass and volume as well as pictorial space. She had arrived at a way to make work that evoked a personal, emotional response to place while also avoiding illusion. She had returned to the heightened sensitivity of the direct physical experience she had found in her plein air practice.
By this time, Wayne had developed a way to start paintings by building up layers of paint upon a flat support. Once a certain three-dimensionality is established—and the top layer of paint has dried, but those beneath are still wet and malleable—she proceeds to pry, slice, fold, or otherwise manipulate the paint. These initial manipulations set the course for the piece, and from there each action feeds the next. These improvisational procedures transcend painting’s fundamentals—the mark, the surface, the support, as well as the painter’s gesture—into sculptural activity. The plane/surface became the foundation rather than the ground, and the painting, while it still operates as a wall-bound, abstract painting, has a physicality that asserts itself in the viewer’s space.
Leslie Wayne’s paint may suggest matter’s various states—from snow to lava to stratified earth. Although the paintings evoke these natural forms and phenomena, they do not adhere to its logic or principles. Clumps of paint may appear to follow gravity’s downward path, but whatever movement is suggested is then suspended; these are, after all, static artworks.
Only in the nineteenth century had geologists “expanded the age of the earth from six thousand years to tens of millions of years and began slowly to re-create its ancient history.” While Wayne’s relationship to landscape is emotional and based in the specific locales of her youth, she also fully comprehends what we now know about the geological forces that created California’s diverse and dramatic topography of towering, jagged mountains, vividly colored and exotically shaped rock formations, and dramatic sea cliffs.
Wayne’s paintscapes and the activities she deploys to produce them have analogies beyond the geological; perhaps the most cogent is to the human body’s organs and orifices, and the body’s secretions, evacuations, and other involuntary functions. Her act of literally pulling her paintings inside out is analogous to autopsy as well as to geological phenomena or archaeological excavation. In this mode, the work embodies a visceral psychosocial dimension.
Just as the paintings lead us to think of geological time and history, they converse with the history of painting itself. Wayne uses a lot of paint—twelve to fifteen full tubes in one painting is not unusual—and many of the paintings comprise paint recycled from her earlier, abandoned works. One can imagine them accruing the scrapings from studio floors and palates and canvases that reach back through painting’s thousand-year history. Wayne has found a way to reference this history without being encumbered to represent it through imagery. Borrowing from her forebears, she reconstitutes elements from artists as diverse as Ken Price, Charles Burchfield, and Mary Heilman to expand her language both physically and conceptually.
Around 2005, Wayne dramatically increased the scale of the paintings. She began literally to push things out of shape; the supports seemed to both bow to and represent some kind of external pressure, or slide together like tectonic plates, or crack into sections. In these large works, she sought to make equivalents to the expansiveness and irregularity of the land, and to explore big motions and gestures as opposed to denser, tighter, more contained movements of the wrist. In this increased scale, the gesture became, significantly, the motion of her arm instead of her hand.
Wayne’s travels often take her to areas of the world, like California, where dynamic geological activities produced unique and distinctive formations and terrain. Some larger works in the exhibition were created with specific locales and phenomena in mind. Lulworth (2009), for instance, bears the name of a cove on England’s prehistoric coast that bears evidence of three geological periods. The graphic mapping of the cove’s formation provided Wayne with an ideal visual source and a clear articulation of her intentions without the restrictions of illustrative narrative. Here, she is playing at the intersection of shapes and image, where the expansive reach also suggests the enormous stretch of time, and where dramatic swinging arcs echo the movement of glaciers.
Kind of Blue (for EM) is indebted to Elizabeth Murray’s vigorous, shaped abstractions; her gutsy and brash multipartite works inspired Wayne to work on a larger scale. The use of multiple panels allows for “a kind of constant re-configuration in a way that a single panel doesn’t—you can add, subtract, and move around the elements indefinitely.”
Two long, slender works—Marianas and Marianas II (both 2009)—are titled for the Marianas Trench, the lowest elevation on the Earth’s surface, almost seven miles at its deepest below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The paintings’ oddly human scale and dimensions correspond to the trench’s relative depth and narrowness; in them, Wayne wished to “express the many different kinds of layers from molten earth to frigid waters, to ocean currents and sea life.” 4 Marianas II’s densely impacted top layers in cold blues and whites expand and intensify in color as they descend the composition; its bottom layers balloon out and threaten to flow like molten lava off the painting and down the wall. Concurrently, Wayne was exploiting the work’s dimensional relationship to Barnett Newman’s “zips,” and his drive to invest abstraction with profound meaning.
Seeking a reprieve from the physical demands, time requirements, and specific intentions of the large paintings, Wayne returned to a small format in 2007. The ongoing One Big Love paintings follow a set of prescribed conditions: to work on shaped panels with overall dimensions no more than ten by thirteen inches; and to listen to music, aimed at “bypassing intellectualization” and triggering intuition and impulse.
The series bristles with energy and frisky humor, and its palette—perhaps in response to the overt topographies of the large work—is synthetic and invented. Both feminine and tough, One Big Love #52 takes a stab at fulfilling Wayne’s desire to “make a painting that has the seduction of a pink angora sweater and the resolute force of a Barnett Newman.” 5 #46’s packed folds read like pleated fabric, or like layers of stratified rock that heaved up and folded over at the meeting of two continental plates. Another reference is Hannah Wilke’s insouciant chewing gum sculptures, reminiscent of labial clefts. #43 conjures rushing river rapids against a mustard ground. The skeins of blue paint at its top left recall a loosening grid, or, in tandem with its sturdy polygonal dimensions, a wire-armatured Martin Puryear sculpture.
“One Big Love” is the title of a song that Wayne heard while making these paintings, and I suspect she chose it for the series because it describes her feelings about painting. She paints because she finds the process thrillingly alive, and as mysterious as the natural forces of the earth. Viewers encounter a charged physicality in the work that is analogous to the visceral drama of the creation of the physical world. It expands our understanding of what abstract paintings can be.
5 Leslie Wayne, electronic correspondence with the author, December 8, 2010.
From the catalog on the occasion of the exhibition
“Leslie Wayne: One Big Love” at Jack Shainman Gallery
New York City, May – July 2010
“I keep trying to improve my control over language, so that I won’t have to tell lies.”
“We should just let things happen that want to happen. . . .”
“It’s not about making something happen but about allowing something to take place.”
Amy Smith-Stewart: Let’s jump right in. Start with your process.
Leslie Wayne: Well, all artists, I think, deal with that tension between controlling their material and letting go. But my process relies particularly on that delicate balance between anticipation, control, and giving it over.
An intuitive play with materials. A reference to Richard Tuttle?
Yes, particularly in the “One Big Love” series I was thinking about his envelope paintings.
Or even his early skin works. Like the “droopy” paintings (OBL 4, OBL 19, OBL 25, 2010) where chunky strips of bunched-up paint hang loose like wrinkled or stretched skin.
Yes, I often treat the paint as if I were folding back skin, which gives it a bodily reference.
Abstraction is a language historically dominated by men. There appears to be in your work a deliberate attempt to take a female perspective.
I’ve been working for more than 20 years with this method of abstraction and I became very aware early on that I was competing within a male-dominated art form. I thought that by compressing the heroic gesture of Abstract Expressionism into a tiny format, I was making a feminist statement about the nature of intimacy and the language of abstraction.
What is your relationship with feminism?
I am one of three girls so you could say that I am invested in feminism, but I am also aware of and in opposition with certain stereotypes.
Can you elaborate more on your process? How do you begin?
Contrary to what many people think, the works are not sculpted first and then painted. People have often mistaken the paint for other materials like fabric, leather, and ceramic. But the paint is the color and the color is the form. I generally begin by laying down multiple layers of color across the surface of the support. Once the top layer is dry but the layers beneath are still wet, I can manipulate the paint in various ways, by cutting, pushing, scraping, etc. Depending on the outcome of that first manipulation, the painting will head in one particular direction or another.
How do you adhere the bits and scraps of paint: the ribbons, bows, and decorative curlicues? And how does the paint retain its shape?
It is usually adhered by paint alone, but sometimes if the paint is very old, I use bookbinding glue. To give the material tensile strength, I mix marble dust into the paint, which allows it to hold its shape.
Are the surfaces of your work fragile? They don’t appear to be, but the very nature of their materiality offers up such an assumption.
They are not as fragile as they look. But they do collect dust because they are objects and people are sometimes reluctant to dust them off!
I see boxes and boxes of paint remnants, which I imagine some day will make it into new paintings. Is there a sense of organization? A mindful recycling?
Yes, I recycle and reuse the residue of pieces of paintings that didn’t work or that I’ve I scraped off of older paintings. One day I would like to organize all my bits and blobs according to color in nice neat drawers, but I don’t have room for that now. I use lots and lots of paint. And when I mix my colors I deposit the leftover paint onto a pile on my palette. There was once a pile nearly 4 feet high and I recently made some huge watercolors based on these piles. It’s another way of giving life to something that seemed long dead!
When did you develop this process of working sculpturally with paint?
In 1982, I came to NYC to finish school. Abstraction was having its moment and I wanted to engage in the dialogue. But I was paralyzed, having been a plein-air landscape painter from California. So I majored in sculpture, which allowed me to make the break from representational painting to abstraction. The notion of “building” a painting came from my experiences making sculpture.
Why always stay within the language of painting? Why not work with clay, or experiment with other materials?
In the beginning, I threw everything in for texture: metal, dryer lint, dry lumps of paint. Eventually I realized I didn’t need the objects and so they quickly disappeared. The result you see now is two decades of developing a vocabulary based on a process, but I can’t say I have a formula. That would be anathema.
In “One Big Love”, what came first: the form or the color?
The shape comes first. I draw a series of shapes in my notebook and then decide which ones offer the most potential. The shape then determines the content. Since I can’t completely anticipate the behavior of the paint, there’s always an element of chance.
How many pieces are in the series?
So far, 42.
They have a playful, fresh quality. There is a visual punch and also a push and pull. There are lots of verbs at play in your work.
Yes, they can take up a lot of oxygen in the room. Richard Serra’s famous “Verb List” comes to mind. I have pushed, pulled, scraped, torn, dragged, scored, punched holes in, scooped out, curled over, cut through, and piled on, my paint, to name just a few verbs. But oddly enough I never consider the process my subject matter. It’s just another way of getting to an end, and that process just happens to be more athletic than usual.
So you can look all the way around your work. It is not the traditional way of looking at a painting. And in some, the support is really concealed. It is only revealed if you look underneath or on all sides. There is a suspension until there’s an understanding of how the material is supported.
This is what gives them their object-like quality.
In a previous series, “Under My Skin”, the works appear as if they are coming out of the wall.
Yes, but that’s an illusion, a trope.
They have more of a theatrical quality. You eliminated the box or visible support that contained the slashes, holes, and wounds of the “Breaking and Entering” series” and went into the wall instead of the body of the paintings. The power of the wound or the slash made famous by Lucio Fontana consumes the entire surface of the “Under My Skin” paintings.
I had an instinct to go in. For so long, the “skins” of the paintings were being peeled off the surface. I wanted to literally dig in to the body of the painting in a very corporeal way and now, in “One Big Love,” I feel like I’ve come back full circle. But after those two bodies of work, “Breaking and Entering” and “Under My Skin,” and also post-9/11, I wanted to move away from that kind of theatricality.
I was looking for a new challenge so I decided to try painting significantly bigger. Up until 2002, the average scale of my paintings was 10 by 15 inches. By 2007 I was increasing the scale by working on multiple panels. This work also stemmed from a desire to return to my interest in landscape but place it within the trajectory of abstraction.
And now you’ve gone back again to a smaller, more intimate scale.
Yes. One of my desires when I began the “One Big Love” series was to return to an intimate format. I had been working on a 14-foot-long painting that engaged the viewer on a grander scale, and I was missing the seduction of a small painting. Perhaps it was instinctive that I chose this size, but I was definitely looking to draw the viewer in, as if in a conversation. So I created an exercise to channel a new wave of creativity and did this by imposing a set of strict limitations: all organically shaped panels, no larger than 10 by 13 inches, and all made while listening to music.
There’s a cliché around abstract painting and music. It unleashes the mind? The beast within?
That’s funny. But I was actually inspired by a story in the New Yorker (“The Eureka Hunt”, July 28, 2008) about insight. It included an account of a firefighter and his troop trying to out-run a fire. In a flash of insight, the firefighter instinctively crouched down and doused himself and the earth around him in water. He allowed the fire to jump over him and that split second decision made him the only survivor. That flash of insight is what artists are always striving for in the studio—to let go of control and allow the magic to happen. Music takes you out of your thinking head.
How do you keep it fresh?
The unexpected nature of the material keeps it fresh. I never know exactly how it’s going to behave. Manipulating the works two weeks earlier or two weeks later can have a huge impact on the way the paint will respond, and therefore how the picture will ultimately look. The first moment of manipulation sets the stage for how the rest of the painting will be resolved.
Since these are constructed or assembled, do you miss the act of making a mark?
Yes, sometimes. But I can also pick up a brush and paint a passage, which I do every now and then. When I lift the skin of the paint, I see something else, the whole color history of its making up to that point, and that leads to a series of new choices and then the resolution. There are many surprises in the making of each work.
I see you are fond of the work of Ken Price (a postcard of a recent Price sculpture is taped to the studio wall).
Yes, I am attracted to his use of color and also the notion of painting in the round. He’s also a fellow Californian. Like Mary Heilmann whom I have also admired for a long time.
There is that bridge in your work—a fusion of sculpture and painting.
Yes, I’m conflating form and surface.
How do you make the paint evocative of patterning?
One process involves laying down several layers of color and, while they are wet, dragging them with a wide trowel, much the same way Gerhard Richter does. Another process uses collage, where I apply bits and pieces of paint scraped off of other paintings, and this creates another kind of pattern.
Each work has a distinctive personality. And although they belong to the language of abstraction they feel like a series of portraits; a cast of characters we encounter face to face. They’re slightly larger than a human head, hung so we meet them eye-to-eye. A face-off.
Yes, they do seem like portraits. I didn’t set out, however, with portraiture in mind. I embarked on this series with some very specific ideas about music and the nature of insight, and proceeded with a set of limitations, which I hoped would open up new avenues of creativity. Joseph Brodsky said something similar about setting limitations on writing poetry, that strict form is a “device to organize those things which are not supposed to be organized”. . . . “modern contemporary content in strict form is like a car which is going in the wrong lane on a highway.” So I believed I was looking for this tension between form and content (the car and the highway) in a very generalized way, by setting up a series of rules for myself. But like always, with painting as in life, the unpredictable reared its lovely head and now we are talking about portraiture! That’s the beauty of abstraction.
Is the artist showing her many personalities? Or is it a series about a long love affair with painting? There’s a wide range of gestural associations: droopy, dynamic, and comedic. Some are a single abstract gesture.
Each painting does have a distinctive personality. My work has always had that aspect to it, largely because of the nature of my process, which depends on a high level of unpredictability. Each one is like a conversation I’m having, not just with the material, process and vocabulary, but with all the many artists I’ve looked at and admired over the years. I’m often drawn to artists who have a different sensibility than mine, like Iza Genzken or Tom Nozkowski, because they stretch me to think about other ways of looking at the world and other ways of making art. But I also try to work out very specific ideas about composition, color, and form, by borrowing from other artists I admire—for example the shaped panels of Elizabeth Murray and Mary Heilmann, or the quality of apparent insouciance in Richard Tuttle’s work, or Martin Puryear’s elegance of form. But my goal, of course, is always to make a painting that is right and true to itself. Van Gogh is my beacon for that. So you can ask my friends how many different personalities I have, but I’m more inclined to say that it’s a long love affair with painting!
The paintings really range. Like guests at a dinner party. All dressed up and you’re the guest of honor.
That’s a hilarious image—I should create a picture of that on the computer! Yes, some of them do look like they’re all dressed up, with bits of fur and swatches of sequins. I was having a lot of fun with those pieces. In others the ribbing and rippling of the paint creates patterns that look like fabric or drapery.
Some have real male and female attributes. Like the bowing of the paint, giving the work its representational reference. Like OBL 14, 2010, looks like a heart tipped on its side with a ruffling at the top.
I think of that one as my portrait of Elvis Presley because the ruffled top looks like a pompadour! But then on a purely formal level, the ribbons you’re referring to reveal all the different layers of color on its edges, though it’s not apparent at first.
Others have a Japanese sensibility, specifically, OBL 12, 2010?
Yes, I was thinking about ukiyo-e prints. The flatness of representation.
Going back to the process, the intentional opposition in the work. What are you trying to say or not say?
There is a constant interplay between revelation and concealment going on inside that allows me the freedom to change and express myself in different ways while still maintaining my voice. I think this has a very psychological aspect to it and I’m interested in the ways in which formal decisions reflect the whole person.
Is OBL 29, 2010, a self-portrait?
It’s a self-portrait for me and for the viewer! This piece was inspired by a French New Wave cinema poster I saw that depicted a man on a motorcycle with an elaborate construction of rear-view mirrors.
People seem to have an uncomfortable relationship with works that contain mirrors or have a reflective surface. It somehow imprisons the viewer. Turning the viewer into the object. You become hyper-aware of yourself and your position in the room. But it also transports you inward.This work, because of its fleshy pink surface and the many mirrors protruding from its sides feels like a fractious self-portrait of you or perhaps of us (the viewers). There are multiple readings at play. Is it a reflection of our many projected selves? Or does it represent the multiple personalities alive in the entire “One Big Love” series?
In the last Gerhard Richter show at Marian Goodman there was an installation downstairs. On one wall, a 5-by-5-foot-square mirror hung opposite a tall French window that overlooked a turn-of-the-century French building across the street. An abstract painting hung on the wall beside the window. When I stood in front of the mirror, I saw a figure (myself) in a room overlooking this beautiful architecture. The reflection of the abstract painting on the wall was in the same palette as the architecture the mirror reflected. The feeling was evocative of a Vermeer painting and reality was completely suspended. Who could ask more of a work of art?