Carnivals and Crucifixions

For 70 years, June Leaf has been creating mixed-media paintings, drawings and sculptures that are philosophically charged, spellbindingly detailed and preternaturally moving.


| Winter 2016



Thought Art

As in the art of 17th-century Dutch masters, acts of looking—optics, mirroring and reflection—are central to Leaf’s portraits.

Photo by Thought Is Infinitie/Steidl

Writing in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1893), the British critic Walter Pater proposes that art can rescue us from routinized life. Gazing at Italian masters, Pater speculates that art liberates us from time by concentrating our energies and making us “burn always with [a] hard gem-like flame.” Unwittingly Pater set in motion the Modernist quest for the Holy Grail, a new art that could provide refuge from what Irish novelist James Joyce termed “the nightmare” of history.  Today as we move through the dread-filled history in our no-longer-new millennium, is Pater’s faith in art as a source of sustained ecstasy still plausible, or an outdated post-Romantic delusion?

Time, and therefore history, seems more constricting than in Pater’s era. We are hemmed in by gadget-driven moment-by-moment quantities of information and misinformation. As a result, our digitized economy supervises and consumes our months, weeks, hours and minutes. Then there are other cultural limitations imposed on us by time and history, many enforced by contemporary artists. So-called “artists’ statements,” alongside libraries of obtuse critical theory, dictate social and political agendas for creative artworks before the general public can digest them. And if time, which is to say, history, is money, so too is art. Ask “what is art?” and the quickest answer is, “a $63.8 billion dollar a year global commodity market.”

But in pockets of this country, if you look long and hard enough, you will find galleries and studios where prodigious artists whose names you have never seen are keeping alive the Modernist belief that the ecstasies of art can surpass the conventional frames of historicized knowledge.

A case in point is the American artist—and visionary—June Leaf. For 70 years, Leaf has been creating mixed-media paintings, drawings and sculptures that are philosophically charged, spellbindingly detailed and preternaturally moving. Acutely expressive and warmly intimate, Leaf’s imaginative semi-abstract portraiture relocates art-making into the private, deadline-free zone of private experimentation, exploration and transmutation.

Stylistically speaking, Leaf is neither a realist, copying nature, nor a Surrealist mining the subconscious. And critical comparisons of Leaf’s art to contemporaneous styles of postwar American art fall short, too. The most effective comparisons are to rare iconoclasts who thoroughly absorbed the innovations of talented teachers and peers and then quickly surpassed them. Such artists, like Leaf, established, quite early on in their careers, a penetrating vision that unveils transformative processes even within identities that seem stationary or settled. Leaf’s art resembles the fantastical creatures of Hieronymus Bosch’s free-ranging topographies, the audaciously inventive Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and the sinuous, carnal portraiture of Rembrandt van Rijin and Alberto Giacometti. But such comparisons only go so far. Lately, the general public is getting a chance to encounter her art firsthand.

From late April through mid-July of last year, Leaf enjoyed a high profile spotlight in the exhibition Thought is Infinite, a solo show featuring about 100 mixed media drawings and paintings alongside selected sculptures in the ground-floor gallery of the revitalized Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. That retrospective has been reproduced in an accompanying exhibition monograph featuring critical essays and recent studio photos of Leaf, who, at age 87, is still at her creative peak.