In I come out of surgery looking golden, artist Virginia Leonard responds to Gretchen Albrecht's painting with a series of new works in clay, lustre, resin and ink. Here Leonard examines and explores the artists' shared visual language of biomorphic abstraction: gestural and painterly, and in a vivid, gutsy palette.
In this context of artistic conversations across different practices and materials, the colour of Albrecht's paintings Belladonna (2013) and Deep and Dark Blue Ocean (2011) could also be seen to evoke the kiln and the physical and chemical reactions it sustains. Here the application of ceramic glazes echo Albrecht's layered stains of pigment.
Leonard's ceramic work has been principally oriented around her experience of chronic pain, the result of a severe motorcycle accident when the artist was living in London in her early twenties. She spent two years in hospital recovering. The physical effects of the accident remain an ongoing part of her daily life and inform her practice.
Leonard's sculptures are cracked and broken - an analogy for her body. They are self-portraits of sorts, giving form to trauma and the body in pain. She often deliberately breaks her constructions before they are fired; they are already barely holding together, warped and swollen, with thick layers of glaze oozing down and on to their unique bases beneath. Their titles also reinforce this bodily connection in a playfully critical way, such as My skin colouring suits the hospital gowns, and Anaesthetics make me feel fantastic.
Beyond their autobiographical register, Leonard's works may also evoke a multitude of other associations. They could be interpreted as strange, alien beings - equal parts animal, vegetable and mineral. Many remark that they resemble epic desserts, perhaps made by a child pouring an excess of ice cream and toppings. One coated in gold lustre is reminiscent of ornate jewellery, while another looks like an accident in a paint shop. This unique aesthetic pushes and pulls the viewer from abjection to seduction and back again.
Formally trained as a painter, Leonard shifted to ceramics in 2013. She pushes clay around in a similar manner to her early gestural paintings. Her self-taught ceramic practice is haptic and process-driven, moulding clay in a manner that carefully balances chance and control. Anna Briers, Senior Curator of the Shepparton Art Museum in Melbourne, notes:
In Leonard's work, chance and accident are embraced as methodologies. A certain violence is enacted on the raku clay body, which is pummelled and punctured with the artist's hand, slammed into the kiln and severed with sharp tools. Tendrils snap off, breakages occur and their remnants are worked into the overall scheme.
Leonard's approach willfully breaks with studio ceramic traditions. In tension with this strategy, she often flirts with traditional studio ceramics' emphasis on functionalism by placing a handle on the side of an object or an opening at the top: indicating a kind of vessel while the shape of object thwarts this very purpose.
The unique bases upon which these forms are poised are often integral to their operation, and part of the sculpture. There are no white plinths to see here. For this exhibition, Leonard utilises an array of display mechanisms including metal tripods and tables, brass clad shelves, and hand-made clay bases inked by the artist.
Virginia Leonard graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design in 2001. She has won or been a finalist in numerous national art awards, including winning the Molly Morpeth Canady Art Award (2012), finalist in the National Contemporary Art Award (2015, 2014), finalist in the Wallace Art Awards (2013-18) and the New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award (2013, 2012). Leonard was also awarded the first runner-up prize in the Portage Ceramic Awards (2015).
Her recent projects include a new long-term installation, All I Want is a Face Lift, at Objectspace, Auckland (2018); Artgèneve, with Taste Contemporary, Geneva (2018); participation in Installation Contemporary, Carriageworks, as part of Sydney Contemporary (2017); The Effects of Crack, Objectspace (2014); and Foursome, The Vivian, Matakana (2014).
Leonard has an extensive international exhibition history. Her forthcoming exhibition, It Only Hurts When I Bend Over will open at Mindy Solomon Gallery, Miami, later this year. In 2019, Leonard has numerous engagements, including participating in Tresor Contemporary, Basel, and Artgèneve, Geneva, Switzerland, both with Taste Contemporary Gallery. She will also exhibit and participate in the world's largest ceramic conference, The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, Minnesotta, United States.
Leonard was invited to the prestigious artist residency at Guldagergaard: The Internal Ceramic Research Centre, Denmark, in 2017. She has also been selected for a residency at Glasshouse/Stonehouse, Chenaud, France in 2019.
Leonard participated in the Two Rooms' group exhibition HANDBUILT: Made in Clay, curated by Denis O'Connor for the 2016 Auckland Festival of Ceramics. Two Rooms has invited Leonard to exhibit her work again as part of this year's Festival.
Press release courtesy Two Rooms.