February 2009, Adela Leibowitz @ Holster Projects
In This World
January through February 2009
81 Westbourne Park Road, London, UK
To get to 'Holster Projects' Gallery I took the tube to Royal Oak. Station. As you emerge from the station into Porchester Road, turn left and then first right into Westbourne Park Road which is lined with traditional terraced houses. The Gallery is at no. 81, and you have to walk past St Stephen's Church to one of the shop fronts on the left hand side.
On approaching the 'Holster Projects' Gallery I was immediately struck by three large oil paintings which I could see through the generous front windows. They immediately draw one into their highly believable dream-spaces which are infused with breathtaking luminosity. These paintings are all by New York based artist Adela Leibowitz, who is showing in London for the first time. The overall title of the exhibition is an interesting one 'In This World' which features Artists whose work questions the psychology behind everyday objects, events, and relationships. I will limit my discussion to the paintings by Adela Leibowitz although there are works by three other artists on display. I have corresponded with her so will quote her from time to time.
Each of her painting represents a world pregnant with hidden meaning and implication, rendered with the utmost sensitivity and assured restraint. Within an atmospheric tonality which ranges from greenish-blue to arctic-blue they are relieved with the merest hints of warmth. They have tremendous presence and yet are restrained and subtle at the same time.
The light quality that this artist achieves is truly awesome and carries with it a feeling of preternatural stillness. There is a primordial bifurcation of cold blue and incandescent warmth which reminds one of Goethe's observations of the primary separation of light into tones of coldness and warmth. This separation of light can also be observed in works of visionary painters from Rembrandt, to Bosch to Turner to name a few of the great Masters.
Leibowitz is also creating her own unique visionary light quality. It seems to take place in an eternal pre-dawn when dream and nightmare retain a hold on the physical world. She described how she experiences this otherworldly light: "Sometimes in dreams and sometimes nightmares, the light is always preternaturally beautiful and striking no matter what is taking place."
The artist also explained how memories of powerful emotions are associated with this light quality and a particular childhood memory: "This may have its original source in a memory from childhood years. The way memory works is that when an intensely strong emotion occurs, it literally seals the incident to my memory. The stronger the emotion, the more accessible and strong the recollection. I suppose the memory of this white light that bleached everything in its path one Specific morning is something I do access, even sub-consciously, in my paintings. I remember this very specific light, nothing else existed in that room; it washed everything else out in my mind's eye."
How does the artist achieve this light quality technically? Generally she uses greys tinted with various tones of blue and green. These are softened with a warm spectrum from cream to rose. But it is the greys which underlay everything and lend an unearthly chill which so suits the content of these works. But technique alone could never produce such quality which comes from the vision of the artist herself.
The title The Green Manor (44" x 46", oil on linen) comes from the book The House of Dr. Edwardes by Frances Beeding in which many references are made to the Green Manor Mental Asylum. This reference however is merely a point of departure, and Leibowitz would also see it as a haunted house. She has based the building on a particular Swedish building - Skokloster Castle. She chose it "because it corresponded exactly with a mental image I had of a structure that was clearly historical, but not too laden down with extraneous details. It just resonated with me."
She finds references in the external world which correspond to her inner vision and makes them her own. The building has a hint of sinister severity and coldness which sets the mood for the painting. It is admirably rendered in atmospheric tones of greeny-blue-grey which fixes it within the all pervasive light-quality of the work. The old slate roof is beautifully painted. Twin psychiatric nurses stand in enigmatic grimness before the building. They are dressed in impeccable uniforms of a bygone era which may hint at some of the more barbaric psychiatric practices of those times. They are watchful Guardians of the Institution and at the same time seem to be waiting to receive a new inmate and they are staring straight at you the observer! How chilling is that! Twins play an important part in the work of this artist. The doppelganger or double archetype is laden with psychic implications and supernatural references, not least in relation to the idea of double lives in parallel universes.
In the foreground stands a little girl with a very interesting expression. Leibowitz is a consummate master of female facial expressions, and we know that these communicate so much more than their male counterparts. It would take a separate study to do justice to all that is going on here suffice to say the little girl is extremely knowing we sense that she is in possession of intriguing secrets of a dark and chilling nature, which belie her age and apparent innocent.
Leibowitz usually dresses her little girls and women generally - in the formal clothing of bygone times. In fact she creates a whole world of structures, clothing, or places that fit into a pre-conceived collective unconscious idea of another time, without being too specific as to when this time actually was...This prim respectability of dress together with youthful beauty lends an aura of innocence, which contrasts poignantly with the dark secrets hidden in facial expressions. Nothing is stated directly only hints are given and this is much more effective.
These and other paintings by this artist seem to deal with the emergence of repressed entities - sometimes among people in period costume. One feels that these formal individuals would prefer to repress horrifying, disturbing or diabolical entities but the more they try to repress them the more they insist on emerging. It may be a symbol of our society which has tried to create an ordered and rational world which denies the existence of primal spiritual forces which however emerge everywhere.
In another painting Blackwell (40"x 42", oil on linen) we are presented with an Alice in Wonderland-type girl in a short skirt. She is being lowered down a well by a fixedly staring rabbit in a black gown. A goat in similar garb looks on prayerfully. The well could be a giant Mad Hatter hat turner upside down. The girl looks like Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks and David Lynch is one of this artist's acknowledged influences. Again the otherworldly light washes this dreamscape. A barrow full of skulls stands in the background. There is more than a hint of dark humour here.
The last painting is Christmas Rose (40"x 42", oil on linen.) Two little girls are standing to attention and face us with respectful seriousness. They are typically well-dressed and hold books. These books suggest that they are students of some secret cult possibly associated with death. The pre-dawn light permeates everything to the extent that the girls seem to have been painted with the morning dew which surrounds them. They create a very powerful and memorable image.
Leibowitz's works are a masterly combination of light-quality and imagery and she arrives at both through inspiration: "A flash will go off of a still image, usually very quickly in my head. I see a very strong image, and it can happen anywhere. It usually does not work for me to begin a painting if that did not happen." The archetypal images and symbols which form the subject matter of these paintings must surely originate within the personal unconscious of the artist and in her perceptions into the collective unconscious of humanity. Her work represents a very significant and welcome addition to contemporary painting.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief