Leigh Wells

Artist, Berkeley // March 2013
I tend to be oddly and strongly inspired by titles of books ... a well written phrase, a randomly heard pair of words.

My attempt to write about our visit with Leigh started out rough. As I sat in front of my computer staring at the blank page on my screen, I tried to consider Leigh’s work freely and let all passing thoughts in. But there were no passing thoughts, there was just one frantic question that beat itself against the walls of my brain: What is the nature of knowledge; is anything actually knowable? This question moved wildly, like a trapped animal, throwing its body against the limits of my intellect, wanting an answer, wanting a way out. I didn’t want to write with this question in mind, because it felt too big, too fast-moving, and way too wild to wrestle with. But it just kept knocking about in my head.

Somehow Leigh has mustered up enough courage to make this question central to her art practice. I feel like I should have high-fived her, or given her the thumbs-up, or asked for a prolonged handshake because going toe-to-toe with epistemological concerns takes a substantial amount of mental fortitude. Leigh’s collage and sculptural works begin and end with her struggle to understand; her works decidedly offer no answers. Instead, they are only interested in revealing the tangled, intimate, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque act of grappling with what we can know and what we can’t. The muted tones, the familiar but indeterminate forms, and the illusion of movement in her pieces express a haunting ambiguity. When I look at Leigh’s collages, it’s as if I’m looking through a window, and all of a sudden everything I know goes fuzzy— the world I see is slippery, ephemeral, and pulsing with doubt. It’s a disorientating place. It’s a place where unreliability reigns; where systems of knowledge are put into question, and where intuition is bewildered like a deer caught in the headlights.

But Leigh’s work isn’t dark or pessimistic, in fact I think it’s hopeful. Though her visual language is fraught with the tension brought on by uncertainty, her work still allows for the possibility that there are real truths, and that whether they are knowable or not… they still exist.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Until a couple of years ago, I made work inspired by the mysterious boundary between the truth and the unknowable. The ways we use religion, science, history and other systems to grapple with these questions are still of interest.

Recently, events in my life moved the work from the area of thoughts and beliefs into more personal territory, dealing with human betrayal, dishonesty and then loss and grief. The thread of questioning continued, but moved into what we can know about others and what can be deliberately hidden from us.

Inspiration in theoretical physics, religious belief, evolution, and history gave way to researching relevant psychology topics: narcissistic personality disorder, relational trauma, sex addiction, alcoholism, etc.

What mediums do you work with?
I work primarily with drawing and collage. The sculptural constructions I make feel like they move the collage process into three dimensions, and before it occurred to me to try sculpture, the 2D works often felt like renderings of 3D objects.

You make collages, assemblages, and sculptural constructions that employ gathered materials, which means you must constantly be hunting down source material— what’s your criteria for this process?
I am not usually hunting for particular materials, but somehow happen upon things that either smoothly fit into my thoughts at the time, or inspire a detour to engage with new topics. The detours usually don’t make it out of the studio.

Aesthetically certain types of printing do appeal to me more, such as duotone and mezzotint, so I keep an eye out for books that reproduce images in this way. I’m careful what I take from my source material though, as it’s very important that the imagery and paper I utilize doesn’t “land” in a specific subject matter— I need to be able to keep things open, slightly ambiguous.

I frequently go to Book Bay Fort Mason to peruse all the used books for source material, and for my sculptural work I get a lot of my materials, particularly wood pieces, from SCRAP.

The clusters of shapes, the curved lines and angular geometries, the ghostly colors in your collage works hint at a need to make sense of your surroundings and the subtlest of human experiences— what captivates your imagination when you are working on these pieces? Where do the shapes and colors come from?
In the last two series of 2D work, “Deception” and “Remains”, the thoughts are of psychological and physical states.

The “Deception” pieces are portraits of an imagined interior life. They address hidden compulsion, a struggle with maladaptive urges, shame, narcissism and turning in on one’s self at the expense of everything else.

“Remains” is basically about the dark emotional and physical experience of grief and loss, and what comes after betrayal.

I don’t sketch out my collages or sculptures before beginning to work on them, but instead I jot words and images down in my notebooks that in some way have captivated my attention so that I will remember them— and of course these bits of text and imagery often inform my work, either subtly or more explicitly. And actually sometimes I do sketch out my sculptural forms, but they never turn out like the sketch. But drawing it out can be a helpful starting point.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all? Does personal history work its way into your practice?
The earlier work was autobiographical only in regards to how it reflected my interests and curiosity. An autobiography of my brain.

More recently, the work clearly has become incredibly personal, which was something I didn’t anticipate. But, working through a very difficult period, showing up at the studio and making that work kept me going.

Despite this shift into more personal subject matter, I’m not any more protective or connected to the work than usual. Though these pieces were born out of a time when I was grappling with a traumatic experience, I look at that work now and feel glad to have survived and to no longer be in that same place. I was so shattered and sad. It’s good to have begun to move on from all that.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I have worked for the last eighteen years as a commercial illustrator, creating images that are easily accessible and communicate specific ideas. That has probably kept me away from that approach in my art practice, and in the art that moves me, which is usually not strictly representational or narrative.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I tend to be oddly and strongly inspired by titles of books, poetry and artwork, a well written phrase, a randomly heard pair of words.

Reading the catalog from the recent Jay DeFeo show at SFMOMA, and trying to make it through my stack of ArtForums and New Yorkers.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
After working with intense focus on three sequential bodies of work, two of which were on tight exhibition deadlines when it seemed almost impossible to even get myself to the studio, I am working through some ideas in search of the new direction, re-engaging in my art practice. Not knowing what is next is exciting. I’m lifting off from the past and moving into much more positive territory and at this point I’m just playing around, trying things out, experimenting.

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
For me risk implies a choice in which there is always a price, an implied loss. For me making art has never been risky, it’s always been a pleasure, it’s always been a positive thing. It doesn’t take away from other things— I don’t have a partner, children, pets, or a mortgage so I’m not compromising other parts of my life for my art.

Of course, sometimes I still deal with the angst of getting myself into the studio, of being scared to disappoint myself and my ideas— afraid of making work that’s not good. But I try to remember that you just have to show up and slog through the rough patches and get through those long, disappointing hours to finally get at the “sweet spots.”

How do you navigate the art world?
I don’t think I do navigate the art world. I sometimes reach out to galleries and try to make contacts, but certainly I should be doing it a lot more. My background doing illustration has made me less shy about putting my work out there, given me the ability to accept critical feedback and let go of expectations that people will like my work. Not personalizing the experience has been a great asset to me.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
Not sure how the work relates to what else is being made right now.

I am, however, drawn to the work of Gabriel Orozco, Arturo Herrera, Francis Alÿs, Christian Marclay because of their engagement with collage or processes that, in my opinion, are collage-like in that they employ materials that have their own histories already. Orozco describes this engagement with an object when he says “by creating a new object from it, I bring about the possibility of communication, because it continues to have its own story, in addition to the story of the transformation which it has undergone.”

Maybe because I don’t do it, painting seems mysterious and alchemical to me, especially in the work of Amy Sillman, Nicole Eisenman, and Jay DeFeo.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I am excited to have had a solo show with Gregory Lind Gallery last spring and look forward to a future with him. My main focus right now is making new work, and bringing new content and optimism into my practice.I’m looking forward to being included in Range, a summer group show at PDX Contemporary Art in Portland, OR opening June 6, 2013.

Where can people see your work?
Gregory Lind Gallery
49 Geary Street, Fifth Floor
San Francisco CA 94108