ESSENTIAL FORM | HYEWON YI

Harry Leigh (b. 1931), an artist who has been creating open form sculptures since the mid-1960s. Essential Form offers fifteen major wood sculptures, some of which will be exhibited for the first time.

 

Many of the works on exhibit were either conceived or executed during Leigh’s residencies at Yaddo (1972~2014) and MacDowell (1968~1986), artist colonies set in natural environments where the meditative quality of his work emerged. Leigh handcrafted his sculptures by individually bending strips of wood to construct simple geometric shapes in an array of modified rectangles, trapezoids, circles, ovals, and triangles. Leigh’s efforts are uniquely defined by the flowing curves and recognizable shapes that manifest characteristics of Minimalism, which was at its height when Leigh began experimenting with large constructed works half a century ago. A painter-turned-sculptor, Leigh made free-standing works in the 1960s that utilized bricks as counterbalances; these early efforts evolved into his wall works. The full-fledged open form sculptures of bent wood, hanging pieces, and embedded panels began around 1970.

 

Leigh challenges the spectator’s experience of art in much the same way that Minimalist objects were viewed by subjects. Placement of the sculptures demands the immediacy of our bodily experience: some of the works hang from the gallery walls, while also leaning against them or touch the gallery floor; others are placed in gallery corners. Scale and proportion are also important concerns for the artist: the length of his works—from five to eleven feet—relates to the human reach, sometimes matching human scale, and other times overpowering it; proportion allows the addition of details and bends that reveals the artist’s investigation into visual construction and our bodily response to it. In the end, we are confronted with the material itself, generally devoid of immediate references. The open spaces of his shaped structures are, according to the artist, “a celebration of infinite distances, silences, and peace.”

 

The categorical ambiguity of Leigh’s work is noteworthy: his wall pieces demand that we look through blank spaces in, around, and outside “skeletons.” Reduced to bare bones based on the shapes of canvases, screens, and picture and window frames, these works supplant the meaning of “a window on the world,” turning them instead into ‘Specific Objects.’ The gently curving elements of some works create illusions of volume, while the shadows produced by light striking these objects influence the viewing experience of the subject. In contrast to the industrial materials used by major Minimal sculptors, Leigh’s sculptures, despite their large scale, are characterized by their lightness and attention to detail that responds to the nature of his chosen material. Leigh’s masterly use of wood evidences his decades-long relationship with the material’s flexibility and strength. Brick, nails, and wood chips accent the principal material, adding texture to surfaces.

 

Unlike the many soulless, industrially produced Minimalist sculptures by major artists, Leigh’s works have lyrical, even romantic qualities acquired through his keen observation of nature and distant memories, particularly his early encounters with the Niagara River environs. His eleven-foot tall Untitled work, nicknamed “Cascade”, suggests a flowing waterfall with its hundreds of gently bent and straight strips of wood of varying lengths. This distilled abstract work achieves a beauty and elegance through its steady rhythm of shape, scale, and proportion. Absent deliberate narrative, the interrelatedness of its intervals of shaped and open spaces reverberates to its own music of pure abstractions dynamically balanced by forces of nature.