by Renny Pritikin
Whether they employ fabric, paint or appropriated magazine images, Leigh Wells’ collages revolve around shields. In heraldry, the shield is the symbol of family identity, built of mottoes, crests and other embellishments. Wells removes all that stuff and places simple, enigmatic shapes at the center of her mostly monochromatic works. Tensile Strength, an exhibition of 20 current collages, combines a variety of surfaces: wrinkled unstretched fabric, a suede-like material, painted fabric, material stretched taut and much else.
For reference, think of Leonie Guyer, a San Francisco artist whose work has, for many years, exhibited many of the same traits: small, mysterious (if more organic) silhouetted doodads on plain monochromatic fields. It matters that Guyer is a painter and that Wells is a collagist; however, both artists share a similar compositional approach. Building and Specter, two of the larger works, consist of mottled grey fields of cloth with black shapes sewn on. The latter’s central shape resembles a bit of lettering, maybe an F with the top bar worn backward like a baseball cap. Building — I am influenced by the title — suggests a doorway nestled in a bit of brutalist architecture, but it could also be an upside-down “u”. Eclipse, the largest work on view at 52 ½ x 46 inches, has a painted blue circle filling most of an unpainted, unstretched piece of canvas. Where the disc of paint has been snapped in half like a wafer, top to bottom, a black strip of paint placed at the seam between two pieces of fabric adds depth, creating the optical illusion that it is attached to the left half of the circle. A tinge of yellow around the circumference implies an eclipse. There’s a lot going on in this ostensibly unassuming work, things possible only in the world of two-dimensional art.
Works smaller than 12 x 12 inches make up the balance of the show and fall into two groups: those on vintage paper or fabric. Both incorporate found images, paint and other media. Standouts on paper (all untitled) include one in which a moonlike object buds off a black circle and another in which a belt or suspender-like object appears to be lying on the floor, folded twice to reveal a pink back and grey ends. A canvas-based work (also untitled) uses painted green shapes to suggest gothic windows or perhaps a Greek helmet, while a second canvas piece sports a dense black circle a third of the way from the top, with another unpainted circle at its center, beaming as if seen from the bottom of a well.
Wells’ attention to detail and the crispness of much of her execution reflect her years working in illustration. While the show could have benefited from some editing, it demonstrates, as the title implies, the notion of pushing a given material to the point at which it reveals its hidden values.
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Leigh Wells: “Tensile Strength” @ The Fourth Wall through October 22, 2022.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.