Simone Leigh has been exhibiting steadily since the early 2000s, yet she has spent much of her career pretty far from the limelight. This is hardly surprising, and not only because Leigh (who was born in Chicago to Jamaican parents) is female and black, I mean given art world and art market biases.
While her innovative work spans sculpture, installations, video, performance, and social practice projects whose content is often geared specifically toward black women, it is ceramics — a medium often blithely relegated to “crafts” — that has been fundamental to her practice since her undergraduate days at Earlham College. Leigh’s chief subject is, in her own terms, “black female subjectivity,” hardly a predominant theme in a US art world that has skewed way white and male since its inception.
Working with such a theme in an out-of-favor medium has almost guaranteed that Leigh would be under the radar for quite some time, but that’s sure changing now, and quickly. She is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, the first artist, by my calculations, working largely in ceramics to be nominated for this prestigious award since its inception in 1996. She’s had a spate of acclaimed museum exhibitions (New Museum, New York; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; The Studio Museum in Harlem at Marcus Garvey Park, New York; Tate Exchange at the Tate Modern, London) and in 2017 was awarded the Studio Museum in Harlem’s $50,000 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize.
Leigh’s 16-foot high bronze bust of a black woman with a fascinating, inscrutable face, prominent braids, and a jug- or vessel-shaped torso that also conflates diverse architectural forms, including a special, rather alarming building in Mississippi (more on this later) and different types of West African dwellings (likewise), has been selected to inaugurate the High Line’s new High Line Plinth section devoted solely to art, at 30th Street and 10th Avenue.
“Brick House,” which may recall for many the famous Commodores’ song (“Ow, she’s a brick house/She’s mighty-mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out”), although according to Leigh this was not the source. will be unveiled in April 2019 and remain on view through September 2020. It will loom over, gaze at, and stare down Chelsea, Manhattan, and, perhaps, all of the US, a powerful incarnation of black female consciousness, history, presence, and determination in this Trump/Pence/McConnell/Ryan/Hatch/Grassley/Kavanaugh (I could go on) time of resurgent racism and misogyny, and of fierce resistance to both. It’s a safe bet that Leigh’s sculpture will quickly become the most visible, visited, discussed, and Instagrammed public artwork in all of New York. To top her list of accomplishments off, Leigh is now represented by Luhring Augustine, obviously a major New York gallery.
Leigh’s debut exhibition of ceramic sculptures (all from 2018) at Luhring Augustine is, for me, one of the most riveting shows of the new art season, and it really should not be missed. There are 10 modestly scaled sculptures (eight ceramic and two bronze) atop pedestals or resting on the floor, and they all emanate a quiet, potent power. These are exquisitely made works (Leigh has major chops) as well as palpable forces. Among them is the salt-fired stoneware “100 (Face Jug Series)” — a brown female bust with an inverted, jug-shaped torso. It is one of many instances where Leigh’s brand-new sculptures court seeming old, as in artifact old, great-great grandmother’s things old, African ceremonial objects from several centuries ago old.
On this female’s face you see only a chin, lips and nose. She’s hairless and earless and the space where her eyes would normally be is only a sloping, slight indentation. Although without eyes, this figure does not seem sightless, erased, or denied. Instead she suggests rich, interior vision, deep wisdom and knowledge that one can guess at and sense but not access or define. Calling this sculpture brown — which it is — also doesn’t come close to its understated visual dynamism. It’s made of many browns, some light, others dark, and all shades in between, in speckles, trickles, broader washes, and copious irregular areas — it positively revels in its brownness.
Nearby is another salt-fired stoneware piece, a black one in which a long neck (that may well also be an inverted jug) leads to a smooth female head, again with only a chin, mouth, and nose; protruding from the top of the head is another open-topped jug: “101 (Face Jug Series).” I stood for about 15 minutes in front of this work, completely enthralled, trying to shut down my rational mind, eliminate words, and instead become all eyes and feeling.
It was time very well spent. Throughout the exhibition, Leigh’s sculptures fuse and conflate black female bodies with architecture, pottery, and sometimes clothing, all seeded with African and African diasporic references spanning centuries and far-flung locales. African-American face jugs, made and used by slaves, are an important reference point.
In the gallery’s main space, towering over everything at 10 1/2 feet tall and 10 feet wide is the spectacular “Cupboard VIII.” High overhead, a small, brown, commanding, and wonderfully eccentric female figure, naked from the waist up and with a jar — it could be from centuries ago — for a head is “wearing” a dramatic and voluminous raffia skirt.
The figure is made of stoneware and Albany slip, and I confess I did not know what Albany slip is. It’s a special glaze made from glaciated clay found outside Albany, New York, that yields a deep brown color and an impermeable glassy coating. Once common in the 19th century, it is rare now; Leigh often employs old techniques for new purposes, often reaching back centuries to various kinds of African art.
One source for this amazing skirt (and indeed the whole sculpture) is that alarming building in Mississippi, Mammy’s Cupboard, a white-owned Southern restaurant just outside Natchez. Famous for its blueberry lemonade and down-home fare, this restaurant, serving only lunch (it first opened in 1940) is in the shape of a smiling, eager-to-please Aunt Jemima-esque “mammy” wearing a really big skirt in the shape of a dome; customers dine — astonishingly — under the skirt of this degrading stereotype.
Other sources are Batammaliba architectural structures in Togo and Benin, which are made of clay with wood supports and refer to human anatomy, and the dome-shaped teleuk dwellings (made of found materials including grass, soil, and animal dung) of the Mousgoum people in Cameroon and Chad — moveable and sustainable architectural marvels in use for for centuries. Referencing and subverting an egregious building in the American South while evoking architecture with deep cultural and historical roots in West Africa, Leigh has devised sculptural clothing for the ages. This raffia skirt is totally — and I mean totally — stunning.
This black female figure, with outstretched arms and upturned hands (her hands and part of her forearms are a slightly darker brown, as if they had been dipped in some special oil or unguent), is at once ebullient and regal, thoughtful and magical, a female deity not from eons ago but from right now, and she is about as far from the mammy stereotype as could be.
Two other sculptures, also featuring black females in raffia clothing, one naked from the waist up and wearing a skirt, the other fully clothed in a neck-to-floor dress, are related, yet very different. In “ No Face (Pannier),” in the front room, the half-naked female figure, with gray-black, graphite tinted skin, stands with her fists clenched on either side of her waist; her hollow face — and the hollowness by no means communicates emptiness, anonymity, or facelessness — is encircled by a rosette featuring dozens of tiny, pastel-colored ceramic flowers.
She’s casually defiant, more than a bit exasperated, and “”mighty-mighty” (as the Commodores sing). In “Figure with Skirt (Face Jug Series),” in the back room, the clothed female figure, seated, with a rosette for hair and a black jug rising from her head, is downright queenly. She has a magnetic pull from afar (perfectly framed by the entranceway, you can see her from the front room) and she’s enthralling from up close. I had a hard time tearing myself away.
Leigh is a keen and expansive thinker, bringing deep research culled from many sources, including ethnography, African and African diasporic history, architectural history, and feminist theory (no doubt among others), to bear on her sculptures. She is also a hands-on maker par excellence, one who understands and clearly loves clay, and who delights in the various forms of earthy alchemy through which it can be transformed into enthralling objects that really, really matter.
While Leigh’s sculptures have a big impact, often it is small things that make them so compelling: the slight, tiny-bit-precarious tilt of the black jar atop the raffia-robed figure’s rosette-covered head in “Figure with Skirt”; the way the surface of a single sculpture can shift subtly from sleek to gritty; the barely visible impressions of Leigh’s fingertips in the wet clay; the very precise and deliberate tilt of a chin. In the salt-fired porcelain “Head with Cobalt,” a black female bust is also a dual sided pitcher with a handle. The left side of the figure’s head is a deep blue speckled with hundreds, maybe thousands, of minuscule white dots. It’s as if the woman has absorbed a galaxy thick with stars, just on this one part of her body. Every now and then I visit an exhibition two, three, or four times, write about it, and then make a beeline back. This will be one of those times.
Simone Leigh continues at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 20.