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Give me a darkened space and I will paint with light.


Essay by  Dr Carole Shepheard

Professor of Fine Arts, University of Auckland.



It is not difficult to describe a painting studio: the smell of fresh paint, the squelching, swishing or stroking sounds that fill the air when paint is being applied or the voyeuristic attraction to the environment itself. For some, these sensations alone are magnetic enough. However, for others painting is about evocative metaphors and lyrical impulses, story telling and social comment or a means to delve into the psyche - that overly romanticised place of creativity and vision. When looking at the work of artist Wendy Leach however, I want to discuss aspects of capturing time and, importantly, I want to discuss those things that are transient and mercurial. How can materiality, corporeality and temporality come together as something intuitively understood by the artist but still open to negotiation by the spectator?


There has always been fascination with 'how' art is made and both mainstream movies and documentaries emphasise this aspect of the process by using close ups of paint dripping, by emphasising the roar of a furnace or by heightening the colour field to create filmic tension and drama. By emphasising the medium and the 'act' of making itself, viewers are absorbed and intrigued, even if only for a short while. Painting has built its reputation not only on what is says but also 'how' it says it. Contemporary artists have been quick to embrace the relationships between making art, expression, subjectivity and materiality. What then if someone chooses to 'paint' with a completely new material, say for example electromagnetic radiation, and what might the process be called or how might it be described? If one decides that her tools should be torches, flashlights, spotlights, coloured gels or even a stick dipped in tar and wrapped with a combustible material, what is she saying about painting and where does such a direction take her and her new audience?


Art history tells us that discovery of new materials for art activities was a result of a need for practical solutions to practical problems. It makes sense therefore that an artist such as Leach needed to devise a way of 'capturing' her ideas in a form that allowed the elusive and spontaneous to be retained. Perhaps for this artist a tool is much more than an instrument, and the darkened room a withdrawal from the conventional studio environment. In order to prepare for a radical change I imagine the brush would be one of the first 'tools' to be abandoned along with the stretched canvas or other substrate. Not only because of the overt symbolic referencing but also because of their familiarity. To step outside tradition, and to create a condition that would result in evocative gesture, has led to a body of work that is not only about drawing in space but about lightness, light and the arresting of transparent colour itself. The veils of saturated colour, the mirror effects in which to entrap time and the distorted effects of movement are all strategies employed to lead the viewer to question the reality of the images produced and the validity of one's own perception.


Wendy Leach has investigated 'painting with light' through an interrogative performative process that involves solitude, isolation, experimentation and deliberation. During the construction of her images she takes a position as puppet / puppeteer and directs her energy and understandings to the recording camera. When she floats colour through space using elements of light her painting becomes far more aligned to expressionism than to the more expected field of narrative. Stabs of black, sweeps of intense green, arcs of parallel lines, tints and blushes and hues of liquid light along with a ghostly whisper of a bodily presence. While some works are languid and slow, others unfurl from the darkness as ribbons of playfulness. These are enigmatic works that activate memory and nostalgia. I am reminded of tracing words in the darkness with spluttering sparklers, and waving torches across the black sky, both childhood activities that seem to have a useful connection to the way these works make me feel.


To contextualise Leach's works further, they are highly reminiscent of early experimental filmmakers such as Len Lye and painters such as Morris Louis as well as contemporary artists such as Katarina Grosse (Germany) and Judy Millar (New Zealand). However, despite referencing of 'action art', different conclusions have been reached by all three. Grosse I would argue is more interested in public spectacle and sets challenges of scale and space for herself while Millar is deeply reliant on the way her body 'works' the canvas. For her the physical act of painting is given primacy and the result is feeling of corporeality, of frenzied energy, and of intense focus. Painting and performance have been linked for decades so it is not unusual for an artist to use this knowledge and invest heavily in it when the time is right.


Leach uses 'light' as expression rather than an attempt to construct meaning from the process she uses. By delving into her new territory she has discovered that through a complex sequence of actions; a range of prescribed and accidental gestures; using a range of equipment and technology and by using 'pace' as a strategy, she will accumulate material for what she describes as 'light paintings'. Not only is she aware that new devices and techniques are required to make the work she wants, but also the need to investigate questions of perception, ways of seeing and neurological responses to these works. The way images enter the eye in the form of light rays and how these far exceed the brain's capacity to absorb them all is well understood by Leach. She asks her audience to accept the 'slices' she has selected from her process (not performances in the theatrical sense) and to regard them in a discerning independent manner, removed I imagine from the 'what' and the 'how'. To do this she must carefully review the material she has gathered, then select and process the images. She does this without intervention or manipulation of the images as one might anticipate. There is no removal of visual elements, no accentuating of light or dark, no influencing of colour fields or saturation and none of digital tricks we have come to expect from working with such user friendly technology. Experienced artists know that most of the methods of digital production still rely heavily on analogue procedures - e.g. drawing, painting, writing - and that the body will continue to play a major part in all art making.


The challenges Wendy Leach has set herself in her new 'light' paintings are aided by her extensive knowledge of painting. However, by using pixel as paint, and by combining the analogue with the digital, she has set herself the challenge to extend the limits of both mediums and continue to shift her personal practice.


Dr Carole Shepheard,

November, 2007