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A Conversation with Alfred Leslie on "The Lives of Some Women"

"I enter everything through process. Process unlocks what I know and what I don't know,” Alfred Leslie tells me, in his wise fashion. As we sat in comfortable chairs in a cool corner of Janet Borden's airy sixth floor Soho gallery on a recent hot day, the artist shared his thoughts on his new work. Off in the galleries near us, eleven large group portraits of women, all depicting brothel workers by the look of their various stages of dress and undress, hung on the walls. While startling at first sight, much like the startled look on many of the subjects’ faces, these portraits soon give way to many curiosities about how the artist made them. Renaissance portraiture collides with collage, and an illusion of realism is immediately undermined by the modes of digital production. Works painted on computer and then printed as photographs, they are marvels of the digital frontier. Leave it to Leslie, now 85, to once again raise the bar on a new hybrid artistic medium.

Over a long career, much longer now than many of his departed peers from the art world of postwar New York, Alfred Leslie has created a challenging and bold body of artwork. His accomplishments would surely challenge any compiler of his catalogue raisonné. Such a compilation would have to include a sweep of masterful paintings in abstract expressionism, a stellar example of which we saw at MoMA's Abstract Expressionism exhibit last year, the cinematic landmark of Pull My Daisy and other films, and his monumental figurative work, including the Grisailles. A devastating fire in October of 1966 destroyed a lot of important work. Reclaiming those works, whether through films, archive rebuilding, or recreating the images themselves, is equally an important part of his story.

Alfred Leslie's novel approach and versatility, especially his command of multiple media, has tended to baffle many established art critics and art historians, bent on facile characterizations. Yet Leslie has time and again relied on a process that pleases himself as an artist. "I do the best to satisfy myself and then let go," he said. Beyond the important content at the moment and the process, a look at his new works displays several continuities that tie together much of his work. While the body of work on display at Janet Borden advances his expanded inquiry into form and content with a hybrid form of computer painting rather than with a physical paintbrush on an oversized stretched canvas, these figures are unmistakably "paintings" by Alfred Leslie. Furthermore, the works embody references to his series of the twenty-five paintings of women he made from 1968 to 1986, also titled "The Lives of Some Women." 

After the fertile period of the late 1950s to early 1960s, a time when "I broke through some self-imposed restrictions,” Leslie reflected, he began pursuing an interest in unconventional approaches to figure painting. We talked about "The Killing Cycle," a series of narrative paintings he made in the late 1960s and 1970s. Based on the almost incomprehensible accident that killed his friend Frank O’Hara on a beach at Fire Island, the paintings dramatize, in a way reminiscent of Caravaggio's pictorial Baroque dramas, the specific episodes of the tragic events. Yet, Leslie purposefully upended the realism of the pictures in favor of what he describes as "a naturalist realist picture but totally unnatural." He created the unnatural aspects by deliberately contradicting a realistic illustration of muscle tensions in the figures, among other techniques. He explained,  "The unnatural quality served to distance the viewer from any candy-box sentimentality about what was happening, about death. And the beach, the horizon, the ocean stands for us as a great place of mystery." Made at the time of the Vietnam War, Leslie reflected on the context of this work. "All image making is essentially bearing witness," he said.

The Lives of Some Women (Two)

© Alfred Leslie 
60 x 50 inches C Print 
The digital works currently on exhibition have a fairly recent genesis. Leslie first drew one of the faces in what would become a multiple figure composition of fifteen women. He said, "Something struck in terms of content." He printed it out and pinned it on the wall. He said that friends who saw the small image said that it reminded them of a Renaissance painting. He said he thought at the time, "I don't know what I've done." The images of women in "The Lives of Some Women" similarly reflect this unnatural realism, pictures where light sources are unjustified. Beyond this approach, the images reflect on the layering, semi-erasures and collage-making properties of digital image making. He compared his practice of using multiple parts of an image to the sculptor Rodin's practice of reconfiguring his inventory of body parts. "Once I created an eye I liked, a small alteration was all that was needed to use it again. Memory is basic to the reality of digital files  - alter it and reuse it - musical notation through pixels. Pixel scores are what I think these pictures are and what I call them.”

Never intending to make photographic works, Leslie pondered the question, "Where does it go from the screen? I had to show pixel depth. How do you create color depth?" He had devised a layering of color, much in the manner of Peter Paul Rubens. "Those elements exist in the pixel elements on screen," he said. The only way that the images could properly be realized were by professional printers, and so Leslie turned to Griffin Editions, specialists in fine art photographic printing.

The ultimate unifying factor with these works is the demonstrable proof of years of experience and skill in the craft in painting. Few people other than Leslie would have the understanding of painting to pull off the tones of washes, layering, and undertones that uncannily present themselves in this novel medium. "I reach for content but it's only as I apply the formal structure, that everything falls into place...every time."

The exhibition "The Lives of Some Women" by Alfred Leslie at Janet Borden, Inc., 560 Broadway, has been extended through July 27, 2012. See gallery website for more information. 

Website for Alfred Leslie: www.alfredleslie.com.

Personal note: I have known Alfred Leslie for over ten years, and he has been a constant source of inspiration in my life and work. Ten years ago, I conducted a full-length interview with him for Art Papers magazine. See "Multiplying Perspectives: Alfred Leslie and The Cedar Bar " (July/August 2002). Five years ago this summer, he encouraged me to start putting my journal of walking notes and pictures on the Internet.









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