Alfred Leslie: The World is Charged with the Grandeur of God @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 large scale photographs, unmatted and framed in black, and displayed on two facing white walls and the partition behind the gallery’s front desk. All of the works are dye sublimation prints. Each is sized 7×5 feet (six vertical and one horizontal) and is unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Alfred Leslie first gained recognition in New York in the 1950s for paintings that spoke the language of abstract expressionism with their own brash and supple accent. As he found himself more sympathetic with the ideas of Pop and New Realism in the ’60s and began to apply his formidable skills as a draftsman to portraits of himself and others, he seemed to develop his own version of Hans Hoffman’s famous “push-pull.” This dynamic, rather than one of sliding planes that receded and protruded via color relationships, was based on deliberate provocation, unglamorized human figures drawn or painted with such detail and scale that would repel and attract the viewer at the same time.

Leslie’s larger-than-life-size photo-paintings of louche or outlaw characters from American literature and movies operate on the same principles as those portraits. Presented full-frontal and with deadpan expressions, a stance that seems both confrontational and a bid for our sympathy, his adult men and women are costumed to have a theatrical air. Are they runway models for a vanguard fashion magazine or perps rounded up for a police line-up after a Halloween party got out of hand?

Most of them seem to be living self-consciously, even defiantly, beyond society’s norms. Without the checklist, which details their origins for Leslie’s purposes, we might assume they were contemporary rebels who had been studying photographs of the Weimar period in order to historicize their personal grooming  on characters from Christopher Isherwood’s stories or Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or the paintings of Christian Schad.

Instead, they are based on a set of characters from American or European novels that Leslie has read, or from pre-code movies he has seen. Their standing as “real” people is as firm and substantial as an artist’s imagination, which is to say not very.

For instance, he has chosen to depict Roger Schumann, the daredevil pilot in William Faulkner’s Pylon, as an unshaven, long-haired biker dude in a vest and white t-shirt. This doesn’t match Faulkner’s description of him; nor does Leslie’s high-flier look anything like Robert Stack, the suave and tightly wound actor who played Schumann in Douglas Sirk’s black-and-white wide-screen version of the novel, The Tarnished Angels (1957).

The character Owen Brown, oldest surviving son of abolitionist John Brown and the narrator of Russell Banks’ novel Cloudsplitter, is portrayed by Leslie as a born-again butcher with a dandyish sense of style. The front of his white apron is stained with blood and he wears a pair of holstered, bone-handled pistols at his waist. He is more like one of those many weird, lunk-headed killers found on the TV series Fargo than the Bible-quoting dutiful son in the Banks’ book, self-described (with deceptive modesty) as a “hulking, crippled, red-headed country boy…a shy, inarticulate bumpkin.” Staring dully ahead and holding his ropy veined arms out like an ape, Leslie’s pre-Civil War revolutionary doesn’t seem capable of writing an American epic on the exalted order of Cloudsplitter.

I can’t approve of what Leslie does to Amélia Caminha, one of the two main characters in The Crime of Father Amaro by the 19th century Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queiros. A novel about a priest who has an affair and a child with the daughter of his landlady in a small village, it’s a tragic story about the hypocrisy of the Catholic church and the gross imbalance of power between men over women. (In the end, Amélia goes mad after her baby son is murdered by her wet nurse, while Father Amaro gets away without a reprimand to Lisbon.) Leslie’s caption calls her “an unfortunate character” and his portrayal further demeans her. She is the only nude in the show and her defining features are a pair of sagging breasts and huge nipples along with resplendently bushy eyebrows and pubic hair.

Of course, Leslie has a right to imagine them however he likes. Amélia Caminha doesn’t exist, and so can’t object that he chose to portray her post-partum (or is she still pregnant?) She was imagined as a seductive young girl by director Carlos Carrera when he cast the Mexican actress Ana Claudio Talancón in his 2002 version of the novel. Leslie chose to make Caminha appear less innocent but to keep her unclothed, forcing us to be more undecided about her as an object of desire. The same could be said for the roster of naked female characters in The Lives of Some Women, shown at Borden in 2012. (To be fair, not many of his men are sexy specimens either.)

Leslie seems more grounded, oddly, when drawing characters directly from the movies, as he does here using the 1929 silent picture Picadilly as source material. His portrait of the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, who played the dancer Sho Sho in the English murder melodrama, and of Jameson Wilmot, her lover and nightclub partner, are highlights of the show. They may exist now primarily as celluloid photographs but behind those images were flesh-and-blood human beings. Leslie dotes on the soft facial qualities of Wong, as well as the furry collar of her coat and the propeller-like wings of her hat, and renders her in glowing blacks and whites, a stylized bravura worthy of  Aubrey Beardsley. The mustachioed Wilmot, in tuxedo and white tie, recalls Whistler’s portrait of Robert de Montesquiou, the basis for the Baron de Charlus in Proust.

As with Leslie’s portraits of himself and others, we are meant to notice the accessories that adorn the body—the watches, earrings, pomaded hair, dangling cigarettes, the starch in the clothes (or lack of it), the flesh tones and tattoos—as much as the bodies themselves.

I’m not sure how to square Leslie’s cast of 50 fictional low-lifes, of which this is only a tiny sample, with the title of the show. It refers to the first line of the Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet. The poem is a rhapsodic testament by a devout if tormented Catholic to the boundless goodness of God, a faith based on his observations of animals and cycles in nature;  it is also a jeremiad against the mass of humanity for not being more grateful to God for his abundant love and the intricacy of his harmonious designs. Leslie’s offhand invocation of the Pirandello play in the subtitle further muddles what literary ambitions he might be harboring for a series about fiction, sex, and criminality.

What’s most remarkable about the portraits is the process he has devised to make them. He draws directly on a computer screen with a dactyl and then completes the pictures with a dye sublimation printer. Popular in the signage and knick-knack business, the technology allows the bonding of information in a digital file to almost any surface (in this case, metal) using pressure and heat. Like a painting, each can be a unique object. It can also have the sheen of a glossy photograph, as here. Leslie calls his merging of the hand-drawn image with computer graphics “pixel scores.”

As examples of what is now possible in making images with a digital palette, I prefer these applications to, say, David Hockney’s iPad paintings. Leslie’s portraits have the stark realism of photographs and the depth, shading, and soft contours of something brushed.

Dye sublimation is a favorite option of advertisers when they want to enhance the shiny allure of a product. Leslie is not afraid to do the opposite. I doubt many viewers will be neutral when standing in front of these scoundrels. He can happily live with an adverse reaction; he can even be said to court it. The history of artists who identify with society’s outcasts and scalawags goes back to the Beat era (and before that to Francois Villon.) Why this Bronx-born painter, as vigorous in his 80s as in his 20s, hasn’t been more lionized by the art world for his restless innovations is mystifying, and should be remedied.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $75000 each. Leslie’s photographic works have not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Alfred Leslie, Janet Borden Inc.

2 comments

  1. Pete /

    Interesting. At first I thought they were in the same vein as Katy Grannan’s ‘Boulevard’ portrait series, which hit you with full-on, in your face hyper objectivity. But these are in fact computer paintings drawing on a photo aesthetic? If so I’m wondering if this is perhaps the first review on collectordaily of, technically, purely 100% non-photograph sourced images? (Excellent.) Loring has covered a fair bit of post-photography digital art but there’s usually something baked in somewhere in the production process.

    I’ve been re-visiting Richard Estes of late, another ancient painter. While his OCD photo-realist canvases totally lack the art-world cool of his contemporary Chuck Close, his super-snapshot seventies photographic sensibility makes him one of my favourite photographers.

  2. Richard B. Woodward /

    Thanks for your response, Pete, although I am not the first to have written about Leslie’s hybrid photo-paintings for CD. I was remiss in not mentioning Loring’s previous reviews of Leslie’s “pixel scores” shows at Janet Borden, which can be found in the website’s archive.

    I share your fascination with Richard Estes but among the photo-realists of the ’60-’70s I don’t think Robert Bechtle can be beat.

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