Review: The Spoils
The Spoils, Sam Leach at Nellie Castan Gallery until June 24
In the beginning, the thing you will notice about Sam Leach’s paintings is that they are very seductive objects. Let’s get this out of the way. Did I say objects? Yes I did. But these are paintings? Oil paintings. Old school oil paintings. That is to say, satisfyingly rendered, deftly drawn, painted with love, steeped in tradition, serious, sombre, executed with aplomb, paintings. Of dead birds mainly. Dead birds and animals and skulls on ledges and shelves surrounded by darkness. We don’t usually think of realist paintings as objects because looking at them thusly would detract from the carefully crafted illusion. By drawing attention to the physicality of the painting, the suggested space of the image should be negated. Killed. Unless, that physicality is smooth, and slick. Here Mr Leach has double dipped. Far from detracting, the resin enhances the trick so that these birds, bones and beasts become real living dead things. Embalmed. Plastinated. The darkness becomes deeper, the mortal subject is magnified by the glossy meniscus. Each painting, framed as they are, becomes a little trophy cabinet. (Hang on. Trophies? Spoils? Hmmmm.)
These works are reminiscent of the Golden Age of Dutch still life painting, that cannot be denied. But one can’t claim understanding simply by identifying resemblances. This historical step must be surmounted before crossing the threshold, parting the veil and seeing these paintings as modern art which so obviously could not have come from any time other than now. They are simply too minimal, too existential, too aware of mortality from an individual perspective. There are no moral finger wagging reminders of the fecundity of decay that was daily life in 17th century Holland. These paintings are from a world without visible death. Where meat does not slowly rot on kitchen benches. Where the spoils of our conquests are numbers on screens. A world that is clean, and smooth, and sleek. Like a corporate foyer.
Locus Solus written in the eyes of a dead white duck lying lifeless on a cold slab. A finch stuffed and mounted on a swipe card reading device. A taxidermied stoat under a down pointing delta of LED lights within which reads a latin dictum, Usum non tollit abusum. “Wrong use does not preclude proper use.” A furthur mockery of this once living dead body. A magnificently hirsute crab who informs us in LED latin, that rumour doesn’t always err. Another duck splayed across an amplifier. A narcissistic skull whose hollow sockets gaze at it’s own reflection in polished granite.
What is all this death doing in our world Mr Leach? How did these beasts die? Did you kill them and leave them in these lifeless spaces to mock our complacency? What are those little red lights with their secreted maxims in Latin and Greek? Who speaks dead languages I rhetorically ask you? And why is this wunderkabinet of death so delightfully amusing? It does cleverly play with the history of art. There is the absurd contrast between a meagre creature’s corpse, and the vast stone and steel mausoleums that proclaim the immortality of the corporations. But one can’t escape the fact that it is so thrilling to see a good painting show. In the Salon exhibitions of the 19th century, artists would be allowed in the day before the exhibition opened so that they could varnish their paintings. The application of a shiny coat adds depth to darkness and brings a radiance to the colours of paint. It became quite popular for certain members of the public to come in on Varnishing Day and watch this magical process (which later became institutionalised as the Vernissage). Mr Leach’s use of resin has something of that magic about. It seduces the viewer, draws you in and as you gaze upon the mortal remains depicted, you gaze into your own reflection. Caught betwixt vanitas and vanity, still life and real life, what else can you be but delightfully amused.