[“Changing Room III” (2008), alkyd-oil on Masonite. “Crouching Man” (2007), alkyd-oil on Masonite. “Torso” (2008), alkyd-oil on Masonite.]
It has been 10 years since London-based artist Michael Leonard (b. 1933) has had an exhibition in New York. The exquisitely rendered figurative drawings and oil portraits (on display at Forum gallery until June 12, 2009) offer the viewer an amazing opportunity to follow Leonard’s process as his visual ideas evolve from inception to completion. Intensive and provocative, Leonard’s meditative process on human figures culminate in their palpable movement from clothed to nude. Viscerally, the viewer will feel this illumination and movement emanating from each and every canvas. Sharp “edges” envelope each image, contrasting with the “softness” of juxtaposed subject bodies.
Repetition of subjects in several of Leonard’s compositions—that appear more than once—offer the viewer a rarely seen insight into the way the artist works with his models. In her essay for the exhibition, art historian and museologist (and former director of the Graduate School of Figurative Art in New York) Barbara S. Krulik wrote: “The most important, captivating thing about these paintings and drawings is the content. Leonard reveres Degas, who held a discreet distance from his young ballerinas and bathers. Leonard replaces the dance studio or brothel with the changing room and keeps no distance from his subjects. … The male nudes are particularly powerful. They twist and turn in their cramped space so we almost feel the sinew in the tautness of the musculature. Dressing or disrobing, the models are caught in a personal activity that is rarely shared with strangers.”
Undoubtedly, there is an element of affinity with Edgar Degas (1834-1917). This is especially true with regard to inference of movement, realism, and the primacy of the figure. Leonard “betrays” this in his earlier mentioned subject repetition. Also a deliberative artist, he repeats his subjects a number of times—each time with a variance in composition, treatment, or media. In addition to Degas, Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894) must be considered a stylistic forbear of Leonard’s. Caillebotte, a realistic painter who unwillingly found himself cast as an impressionist, presciently embraced the potential of photography as an art form. Indeed, Leonard works from photographs in a deliberation on scale, composition, and image as his works proceed with pencil or oil paint.
After years of success in the world of illustration and advertising, Leonard—with his academic background in graphic design—managed to pursue art full-time in his forties. His timing was auspicious as, by then, abstractionism’s hegemony had subsided and been replaced by a more pluralist situation. In that relatively relaxed environment—in which realist and photorealist styles came to the fore in the late 1960s and early 1970s—there was a context within contemporary art for the work of an artist like Leonard, who’s materials, style, and subjects fall along more “traditional” lines. Additionally, the ascendance of social movements at that time (particularly within the realm of “identity politics”) allowed a more hospitable reception for Leonard’s “ripped” nudes that exude primal male sexuality.
What carries forth most powerfully in Leonard’s haunting and poetic work at Forum Gallery is the tension between perimeters. Whether in “Bather Stooping Low” (2005), “Climbing Out” (2008), or “Bather With Intent” (2008) there are uncertain boundaries between dressed and undressed, prone vs. supine, and exposure vs. deception that come through as sheer movement. In the latter work, the virile, robust, monobrowed, big-gunned man drying off with a towel betrays conflict between pride and self-loathing. His vulnerability is palpable. Furthermore, the dance between light and shadows in Leonard’s work alludes to virility’s eventual demise and death’s approach.
Michael Leonard has been the subject of a solo exhibition at Yale University (New Haven) and a retrospective at the Gemeentemuseum (Arnhem, The Netherlands). His paintings and drawings are featured in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery (London), New Orleans Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Museum Boymans-van Beuningen (Rotterdam), National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh), Arnot Art Museum (Elmira), and Seven Bridges Foundation (Greenwich, Conn.). Among his most celebrated portraits is one of Queen Elizabeth. Yet another of his portraits, “Torso Bridge,” served as a book cover for the Larry Kramer novel “Faggots.”
New Paintings & Drawings: Michael Leonard
@ Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue (@ 57th Street), NYC 10151
Through June 12, 2009www.forumgallery.com