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Terrence Heath

June Leaf: Skeletal Beginnings (2002)
Wynick Tuck Gallery, Toronto, January 12 - February 2, 2002

BorderCrossings #82, May 2002.
[ 838 words ]


Both of us were taken aback. June Leaf, because she had never before asked a future reviewer at an opening what he or she thought of her work. I, because I had never been asked by an artist at the opening of his or her exhibition what I thought of the work.

'So, what do you think of my work?' I believe she asked.

I retreated into silence. I had been looking at it, going through all the usual stages of trying to see what was actually in front of me, trying to get that personal access, trying to get the art historical access, moving from one to the other, comparing the images and imaginings. Until, finally, I just relaxed and let myself take in the work as it presented itself and in its own time.

'Slow,' I finally said.

We were both taken aback by the answer as well.

'What do you mean, slow?'

What did I mean? In trying to answer her, I stumbled and muttered, about what? I don't even remember. But now, a week later, I know what I mean by 'slow'. Leaf's work — no, once you meet her you can't call her Leaf — June's work is slow in many ways. Unless you are prepared to spend a lot of time with it, you may as well not bother. This is not the confrontational, get their attention, smack them art that gets so much easy press coverage. In fact, it would be easy to walk by it with only a glance. It is when you stop and begin really to look at it that it slowly yields its extraordinary self. And it is only after dismantling all your art historical categories and references that you begin slowly to see. In fact, the work challenges you to see as much as you are capable of seeing. Take a work such as Figures Being Hoisted (1999-2000), which has two abstract areas, the bottom half in darkened colours moving into black, the top half in lighter tones moving in and out of a slightly clouded blue. On the upper half are two skeletons being lifted up on what look like swings. These are almost vestigial figures, seemingly sketched in quickly with a brush of white paint on top of the abstract ground. Skeletons carry such a load of allusions and predetermined meaning; it is difficult to look at them without an already formed opinion. On closer examination, these skeletons are in no way macabre or even portentous. Their vivid whiteness and delicacy suggest a buoyancy, almost as if they were a sign of birth and hope. This much the viewer can take in quickly. But just as there is this quick look, there is also a much slower looking. Each of the abstract, non-referential strokes seems a gesture, which, on closer contemplation, begins to assert a slowness, as if the hand that painted the apparently quick gesture had pulled it from the brush and over the canvas with a careful deliberateness. The skeletons, too, reveal themselves, for all their fragility, to be extremely exact and carefully drawn. The bones, the joints, the placement of limbs, feet, hands and heads are, well, slow. Slowly made; slowly seen. It is sobering to realize that this is not a work to look at casually, but a creation fraught with experiences, thought and regard.

Once one work reveals some of its full presence, the others begin to yield theirs. The two iron sculptures, Figure on a Hoist (1999-2000), and Step Dancer (1999-2000), have been very carefully assembled. They too, are skeletal and look like the work of a tinkerer. Again, on closer and longer looking, the attention the artist has given to each part is in itself an exploration of the very basis of the human figure — no, the human being. Each join is crafted both as human and as mechanical, so that the pieces never lose their relationship to iron and forge, even while bringing forward the basic structure. In Step Dancer, which is not quite a foot high, the wires that identify the figure and chair are interwoven, so that the legs of the figure are the front legs of the chair. In the larger figure, Figure on a Hoist, the backbone, the rib cage, the head, each shows a certain labouring on the part of the artist to make them exactly what they should be. The fingers and toes, for example (this is a bit hard to explain), are individual, and each seems to have a life history of its own. They are slow pieces boldly and deliberately set out in the fast, razzle-dazzle art world almost as a challenge to the viewers to see again, to remember that it takes a lot of looking to really see.

So, yes, 'slow' is the answer I would still give June to her question. I liked it that she asked. I realized I had had to see again, a slow process in a world awash with images.

BorderCrossings #82, May 2002.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.


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