out: Ruth Leonard’s Young Pine.
By David Brickman
Leonard: Paintings and Drawings
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
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.
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
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.