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Simone Leigh

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Around the corner from the imposing, white-columnedBeaux-Arts building that is theBrooklyn Museumthe centerpiece in anelegant complex including a 19th-century-erapark and botanical garden—is theCrown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.Check-cashing stores, crammed bodegas,and abandoned lots share space with narrow,vividly painted Jamaican restaurants, indicativeof the area’s predominantly Caribbeanpopulation. On one of its quiet side streets,situated between the dappled green luxuryof Prospect Park and Crown Heights’sunburned boulevards, is the studio of artistSimone Leigh. The sculptures that fill theairy room actively embrace the jarringdisparities of the world outside. Enormousterra-cotta vessels with pendulous appendagesbrushed in bulletlike glazes sit on thefloor; above them stretches a glass-frontedvitrine filled with hundreds of delicateporcelain casts of plantains, which beckonthe viewer like outstretched fingers. A restfulclay sculpture calls to mind BrancusisHead outfitted with a spiky white afro andthe tread of a Timberland boot; next to it,a series of mica-encrusted toilet plungersallude to the infamous police brutality visitedon local resident Abner Louima in the late’90s, an event that sparked marches andriots. Such works synthesize “primitivist”African pottery techniques, the modernistartmaking strategies that took so much fromthem, and the pan-Africanist politics thatcritique that very lineage. As Leigh, whoturned 40 this year, explains, “My work isoften about this idea of a corrupt education.I learned how to make an ‘African pot’ using19th-century colonial texts. Which is kindof cool. What am I making anyway?”

It’s a good question. Coming acrossLeigh’s commanding ceramic sculptures intwo Chelsea group shows this past summer,I was struck by their effortless embodimentof opposing narratives. Their curvaceousforms and glittery glazes were both fertileand militaristic, organic and industrial,utterly contemporary and mysteriouslyartifactlike. Queen Bee (2007), a chandelierof voluptuous, grenade-shaped forms sproutingTV antennae, conjured the bulbous,feminine contours favored by Eva Hesse andLouise Bourgeois as well as Lee Bontecousfuturistic, sinister sculptures. A wall piece ofcast plantains in a zippered plastic vitrine (a dry-cleaning bag fancifullyreimagined) recalled Marcel Broodthaerss ineffable pairingof institutional critique and poetic vernacular products in works likePanneau de moules. Leigh, Chicago-born and of Jamaican parentage,has been making these ceramic works for the past 10 years. Theyevoke both the black female body and the multifarious cultural andpolitical histories that have laid claim to it. They also variously callon African pottery, performance art, feminism, modernist abstraction,and postminimalist sculpture. But it is the artist’s cribbingfrom colonial-era anthropology and contemporary pan-Africanismthat is her most notable conflation. “I feel as inspired by the attemptto be scientific, that anthropological approach to objects,” sheconcedes, “as I am by the materials, the surfaces, and the gestures ofthe objects themselves.”

It was during an internship at the Smithsonians NationalMuseum of African Art in Washington, DC, that Leigh becameentranced by African ceramics, the 19th-century texts that attemptedto explain them, and museological strategies. “These objects havethis long narrative, and then they arrive with a complete lack ofauthorship. Yet they’re supposed to have this incredible importancefor modernism,” she explains, nodding to the fact that she learnedabout “primitive” objects via their relation to the Western canon. “Itwas so impossible to figure out what my inheritance was.” Smiling,she adds, “It’s just a great narrative for me to think about.” Behindthis cultural transposition, however, are the objects themselves.“African pots are often explained as primitive objects made by primitivepeople who don’t have the ability to thinkconceptually,” she says, “but it took me along time to acquire the skills to create whatI wanted to make.” While in school, Leightaught herself to make African pots byreading books like Nigerian Pottery. Shebegan to see a performative aspect to themaking of her round-bottomed terra-cottavessels, which are each built up—as pinchpots—laboriously by hand.

In addition to her pots, Leigh makesceramic wall, floor, and hanging pieces castfrom organic objects like watermelons andplantains. Yet her references are not theexpected ones. The watermelon’s formattracted her because of its femininity: thestretch marks, the fullness. She is less interestedin the racist depictions of African-Americans with which it can be associated.Likewise, the plantain, often viewed asphallic, conjures for Leigh place rather thanbody. For her, it’s an iconography that bringsup the Caribbean and its products: “it’s mypostcolonial reference.” She reflects: “They’respecifically about Jamaica for me because,since I grew up in Chicago, they’re thisstrange fruit.” Regardless of their geographicalbasis, the cast plantains’ lithe forms canrecall so many bodies, and the lyrics about lynching that BillieHoliday made famous—“Strange trees bear strange fruit // Blood onthe leaves and blood at the root”—are eerily called up by Leigh’slanguage.

In fact it is the body, often the black female body, and its manymanipulations and subversions—whether beautifying or scarring orcleansing—that is the root of Leigh’s practice. Her very materialsenforce this theme, as with the porcelain she uses to cast her plantains,a type used primarily for making dolls. “The porcelain isprecolored for making different skin tones,” Leigh explains, “sothey have these great names like Oriental and Natural. They’re funmaterials that deal with ideas of empire and chinoiserie.” She enjoysthe hyperreal appearance they take on in the kilns, toeing the linebetween the natural and the artificial. Such ideas converge inFrench Manicure, a cluster of brown forms that Leigh tipped withpink and white glazes. “I love the idea that you could make yourbody pure again by painting it white and pink. So that it becomesbetter than natural.” Whether it’s a boot mark, manicures, or tribalscarification, the act of marking the body captures the artist’sattention. She cites as inspiration both Hannah Wilkes ’70s-erascarification series and Ana Mendietas blood-strewn performancesabout sexual violence. She also looks to Nkisi power objects, whichgain strength as nails are driven into them. “There’s a tension insuch gestures between whether they’re decorative or they’re abject,”she remarks. “It’s as if there’s some innate need to adorn with scars.But I like to remind viewers what a scar really is—to take theromanticization out of the idea.”

Leigh’s exploration of the trials to which we submit our bodiescan perhaps be traced back to the severity of her upbringing. Herfather, a fundamentalist Nazarene minister, and the strict Christianenvironment in which she grew up, has left a lasting effect. As achild, she felt “scarred” by the idea that the body must be purified.“It’s influenced my work in that it’s created my awareness of thepossibility of transgression in almost any thought or act.” This interestin transgression might also be applied to Leigh’s embrace ofceramics, which has long been viewed by the contemporary artworldas craft or, worse, women’s work. Although it has lately seen aresurgence, it remains an eccentric track to pursue. “I got a lot ofresistance,” as Leigh puts it.

Nevertheless, the medium of ceramics—with its formal tactilityand conceptual heft—continues to inspire Leigh. She recounts ascene in Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man, in which the hero finds workat a paint factory renowned for its “pure” white paint, created bymixing in 10 drops of black paint. Her white teeth (for Ota Benga)(2004) was inspired by that scene. It made her think about howmany different colors of glazes she could get into the white porcelainpiece. As she relates this story, I flip through a bound book of photocopiedtexts and images that she uses as references. I stop at asoft-focus snapshot of a female pit bull, sitting on its haunches on theasphalt. Around its neck is a dangerous looking silver-spiked collar;along its stomach are two rows of swollen teats tipped with pink andwhite nipples. It’s immediately obvious why Leigh took the photo—the dog eerily resembles her work. Her themes are all there:the fertility, the menace, the ur-urban street aesthetic. Leigh says theimage is blurred because her hand was shaking: “It was like one ofmy sculptures was walking down the street towards me.”

"Introducing Simone Leigh" originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' November 2008 Table of Contents.