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Branching out: Ruth Leonard’s Young Pine.

Cultivating Appreciation
By David Brickman

Ruth Leonard: Paintings and Drawings
Albany Center Galleries, through Aug. 29

The summer season of longer-term exhibitions is upon us, and Ruth Leonard’s just-opened collection of paintings and drawings at Albany Center Galleries will do the space proud for its three-month run. Sadly, it will also mark the end of gallery director Pam Barrett-Fender’s too-short time at the helm of this struggling but crucial area venue.

The Leonard show exemplifies what ACG’s 25-year mission has mostly been and what Barrett-Fender succeeded in revivifying for the gallery over the last two years: a concentration on larger selections by working artists, usually in solo exhibitions, to provide an opportunity for the public to really delve into and understand the artist’s process and purpose. Opportunities for such comprehensive displays at the professional level by regional artists are somewhat rare; I, for one, hope that Barrett-Fender’s replacement will understand the importance of retaining that emphasis.

As a case in point, Leonard’s show accomplishes the tricky task of communicating her message to one who’s never seen her work (i.e., me), which the usual four or five pieces in a group show couldn’t have done. Leonard is a mature and complicated artist; she paints and draws with great facility, often mixing the two methods, and she approaches a variety of subjects with an equal variety of styles.

But there is a cohesion to the work, a point of view that is uniquely Leonard’s and is well expressed in the majority of the pieces on display. If there were a theme to the show, it would be gardens. In some cases, they are literally gardens full of domesticated plants, in others nature’s own garden is the subject, and in still others the garden depicted is a product of a more personalized process of collection and cultivation. Altogether, what unifies the work in this show is Leonard’s way of taking off from direct observation into the area of direct creation—plein air painting meets easel painting.

Of the 16 works on view in the gallery (several others are visible in display cases elsewhere in the library that houses the gallery), 11 are oils; the rest are mixed media on paper. In size, they range from 12 inches by 16 inches to just under 4 feet by 5 feet; most are nearer the larger end of the scale, and all but two are horizontal. This matters, because there is a sweep to Leonard’s compositional sense: She uses the length of the canvas to delineate separate pockets of space within the overall space presented, something like a stage with multiple scenes visible simultaneously.

One such canvas is titled White Tulips. In it, the titular flowers are in the lead role, enveloped in an otherworldly yellow glow, and accompanied by a supporting cast of other garden specimens, each lovingly observed, each given its own little space. Within those separate spaces, the plants are drawn and painted in separate ways: some using outlining, others skumbled, one with thickly built-up paint, another brought out with an eye to the negative space around it. In spots around the painting there are shadowy mists obscuring the clarity of the subject, or nearly abstract paint marks rendering it nevertheless visible. In the midst of all that, the tulips gracefully tilt and nod in their regal self-absorption, analogous perhaps to the artist/stagemaster behind the creation.

A number of other paintings in the show flirt with abstraction and/or impressionism, in-cluding a 2003 water- color titled Melting Pond, which is ap-propriately watery-looking but has a great degree of attention paid to the surface—of the pond and of the painting. Also from 2003 are Nature Study, in which attention is again paid more to the way things feel than to the way they look (and which has a glow of its own); Young Pine, where gesture and surface texture compete for supremacy; and the less successful Woods and Stream, in which Leonard may have taken on one more plane than she could handle.

Among the earlier works in the show are pieces that remain more in the realm of description, such as 1999’s Vegetable Garden; Rock and Foliage of 1996; and the 2000 painting Wild Columbine, where the aforementioned glow begins to make itself apparent. But it comes fully alive in a small piece titled Pussy Toes and in the larger Tulips painting, both of which are dated 2002.

Figure in Garden is another 2002 painting that introduces a distinct difference: the figure. Though unclear whether she is a person or a statue, this character has a similar central role as the white tulips; it is as if the rest of the shapes in the composition—flowers, an empty walkway, a coiled hose—exist merely to welcome this mysterious figure or to herald her arrival.

Yet another concept is represented by a group of still lifes, two of which have the same title and subject: Notions. Again dated 2002, this duo describes a collection of sewing notions—buttons, thread, thimbles and the like—along with flowers, a fragment of broken ceramic and a tiara, all arrayed on a large, flat plate. The plate is festooned with a rope design around its border and is presented tilted up in an unnatural perspective. One painting is a watercolor with a lot of charcoal drawing in it and is relatively realistic while still being sketchy and expressive, and the other is very polished and colorful, yet out of scale, with a distinct folk-art look to it. The first painting could be taken as a study for the other, but they are more like variations on a theme: peculiarly similar and dissimilar, but each fascinating in its own way.

And that goes for the show as a whole—each piece holds its own but, like the characters in a well-written play, they also relate to each other in interesting, revealing ways. Kudos to Leonard the creator—and to Barrett-Fender, the director.

A public reception for Ruth Leonard: Paintings and Drawings will be held tonight (Thursday) from 5:30 to 8 PM at Albany Center Galleries; a public interview with the artist by Times Union art critic Timothy Cahill will begin at 7 PM on Tuesday, June 17.


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