Wandering around Chelsea yesterday, I stopped in to see Abby Leigh’s seductive paintings at Betty Cunningham. According to Leigh, the twelve 50 x 50″ paintings reference Cezanne’s description of what the experience of looking at a painting should be: “Shut your eyes, wait, think of nothing. Now, open them…one sees nothing but a great colored undulation. What then? An irradiation and glory of color. This is what a picture should give us…an abyss in which the eye is lost, a secret germination, a colored state of grace. Lose consciousness.”
In the October issue of The Brooklyn Rail, Thomas Micchelli talks to Leigh about her images, influences, and process.
Thomas Micchelli (Rail): How long were you legally blind?
Abby Leigh: Actually, I didn’t know I was legally blind, which was quite fortuitous. My eyes were healthy, but I was profoundly myopic, to the point where I was classified legally blind until I had my Lasik surgery eight years ago. I think that my spatial orientation was formed early on when I was making close-ups of fruits and vegetables in my early watercolors—I had the orientation of a profoundly myopic person. I used to say that I worked with fruits and vegetables because the models didn’t talk, but it was that I was immersed in looking at their skins, textures, the way they decayed, what the source of their decay was, and the bruising on them. It was very interesting to me.
Rail: So you would stand inches away from your subject?
Leigh: Yes. It took me a long time to do these watercolors so, by the time I finished a painting of a bunch of radishes, I would have cycled through many bunches—the radish greens would wilt within a few hours, so that they had to be replaced constantly. This made me less slavish to the actual models, and I began to understand how radish greens react to placement, how they fall—the Platonic sense of radish greens. Looking back at those paintings, I see that I’d found a very simple solution to my problem, because I could see the vegetable models before me in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to see, say, a landscape. And having painted with watercolors affects my work still—to this day I’m interested in transparency and in the application of colors in terms of layers. Not only transparency that is physical, but philosophical transparency….
Rail: When did you develop your attraction to circular forms?
Leigh: I think it evolved gradually. First by inserting the reindeer horn slices, which were irregular circular forms. From there I began to make a series of works using Oxford English Dictionary definitions: “walnut” was the first time, and “oyster” came later.
Rail: You take a typographical element, the text from the dictionary, which traces the evolution of a word through various linguistic influences, and you superimpose an image of that particular thing over it. Are you making a metaphysical or philosophical comment on the constancy of the image and the shifting of language?
Leigh: Yes, definitely, but it also all goes back to vision. If you can’t see something, you don’t know exactly where it starts, where it ends, or where it is in space, so you feel a need to try to pin things down. And I think that it was more of a comment on that. The OED always struck me as very funny. Ultimately, what emerges from reading definitions is not a cohesive image of, say, an oyster, but a fragmented kaleidoscope of meaning. An oyster, for example, can be a bivalve, a morsel of dark meat of fowl, a pressure mine from WWII and a laconic person. And the quotes are great too. My favorites: “she gave him oyster kisses” and “a certain oysterishness of eye and flabbiness of complexion.”
“Abby Leigh: The Sleeper’s Eye,” Betty Cunningham Gallery, New York, NY. Through November 14, 2009.