Bold Shapes, Confrontational Colors, and Odd Spaces:
Paintings by Leah Guadagnoli
My eyes dance across the computer screen at severely flattened shapes of green, yellow, pink, purple, blue. The colors are unnaturally saturated, phosphorescent, and confrontational in their boldness. The stunningly colorful shapes fit tentatively together, creating odd puzzles devoid of depth and space. I stare at the computer screen at the pixilated images of Leah Guadagnoli’s recent paintings, which she will exhibit at the 2012 B.F.A. Exhibition at the University of Illinois. As I examine the oil and acrylic paintings displayed on Leah’s website, my mind races. Perplexed by the paintings’ digital appearance, I wonder, “How can these pieces exist in tangible space?”
Last weekend Leah invited me to her studio to discuss her paintings. She met me in the hall on the second floor of Flagg Hall and ushered me past several cubicle-sized studios. Large, expressionistic nudes sheathed in somber colors watched us from their canvas surfaces as we moved towards Leah’s partitioned workspace. I recognized a vividly colored painting from her website, entitled “It’s Alive!,” which hung above a neat stack of art history books. A freshly primed canvas was drying on a table. Leah sat at her desk, as I took an armchair by the window. Her laptop was open to Photoshop; a pile of brightly colored paper and a small contour drawing lay to her right.
Leah described her recent paintings from fall 2011, which explored her fascination with the complex relationship between virtual reality and the tangible world. The bright colors, the smooth surface of the canvases, and the odd, seemingly depthless space within her paintings suggest that they are computer-generated. Yet, the evocation of virtual reality is complicated by her process of physically applying and manipulating paint on canvas. While the paintings appear to be digitally produced, they are manually created with paint and a paintbrush. I was initially uneasy upon viewing Leah’s paintings, as it was unclear what they are and how they were made.
Leah paints these odd spaces with that goal in mind. She explains, “I want my work to be difficult–not exhausting, but invigorating.” She fosters this complicated art and the viewers’ unease by developing her works in many steps, utilizing diverse methods and materials. She often begins her paintings with a color palette in mind. Piles of colored paper, like the one on her desk, act as inspiration for the colors she later creates. Next, Leah draws a scaled contour drawing and uploads the image into Photoshop. Using the scraps of paper as a reference, she experiments with the original colors, fine-tuning them to create computer-generated hues. She then uses the colors she manipulated in Photoshop to fill in the contour drawing. When satisfied, Leah manually transfers the digital image on to a canvas, recreating the pixilated colors from the computer screen with oil or acrylic paint. As a result of this multi-media process, the barrier between the tangible and virtual worlds is corroded. Viewers experience prolonged uncertainty, as they are unable to identify the source of these images.
Despite the tension and unease her work provokes, Leah maintains a sense of stability through recurring visual elements and minimalist forms, which she calls her “vocabulary of visual patterns.” Leah intentionally reuses shapes, causing viewers to recognize patterns and to feel a sense of permanence from the repetition. She also contrasts bold pigments, creating color vibrations in many of her works. Leah often creates circular paths for the eye to enter into and travel through her paintings, encouraging audiences to repeat this visual path upon viewing the next piece. Working as a unified whole, these patterns stabilize her paintings and create cohesion, despite the unease the individual elements produce.
Leah contrasts these paintings to those made during her first three years in college, attributing her recent creativity to her study abroad in Italy during spring 2011.While studying with the contemporary artist Ridley Howard, Leah was told that her work was outdated and unoriginal. Leah reconsidered the purpose of her art and her longstanding fascination with the grotesque and the beautiful, conceding that she needed a fresh vision. She reconfigured her art, reveling in minimal forms, pure and flattened color, and odd spaces.
But the new paintings were not immediately successful. As she showed me an early painting from Italy, Leah laughed and said, “This is bad now that I look at it. But, that’s okay because this is a clear transition from gross flesh to shapes and colors. It is terrible, but necessary.” With the “terrible, but necessary” pieces, Leah developed and refined her visual vocabulary–the shapes, colors, rhythms–as well as her process of making tangible paintings appear computer-generated.
Leah still experiments with and transforms her art. While the paintings from fall 2011 subtly suggest the dismemberment and reconfiguration of the human form, Leah now strives to create a more explicit representation of the body, while still incorporating her flat colors and a sense of virtual space. In order to explain her new vision, Leah revealed a large canvas that was propped against the wall. She sees it as a failed attempt to paint the complete human form; however, the failed piece is significant, for it is another transitional work that will inform and improve the paintings to come. By the end of our meeting, it was clear that Leah was excited to return to the small drawing on her desk. I left in a state of curiosity, anticipating where this new piece will guide Leah’s future art.