A system is, at the very least, a set of disparate parts in dynamic relationship with one another, while the system as a whole illuminates the nature of those parts and their interconnections. Systems can be closed, as in Laplace’s deterministic interpretation of Newton’s mechanics, or they can be open and symbiotic, as is the case with biological systems. The systems proposed by Abby Leigh are decidedly of the later kind: Her drawings and paintings have the fussy, diagrammatic quality of old scientific illustrations but are also lyrical and sensuous. And they have a deft critical edge as well.
Systems is divided into two series of works, My Personal Atlas and Oyster, all from 2004. The pieces in My Personal Atlas are on large sheets of creamy, handmade cotton paper overlaid with watermarked abaca and ink. Displayed vertically, all have subtle, bowing grids, which suggest the curvature of the earth seen from a great distance. Overlaid are drawn wispy, coiling, trailing shapes in tightly hatched, undulating lines reminiscent of the contours in geological maps. Inside these shapes are rendered, in a coolly graphic style, a variety of medical, zoological, and botanical images culled from magazines. In one, for instance, near the upper edge of the drawing is a flagrant red lobster beside a drawing of a woman’s throat opened to expose her trachea, and far below are thick, muscular lengths of coiling snake. At the top of another drawing one finds a bird perched on a branch, below is a creepily prurient drawing of what looks like a pre-Raphaelite women undergoing a mastectomy, and at the bottom edge, a luxuriant pink rose.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the drawings in My Personal Atlas is the balance between the lyrically private and the analytic. The unfolding biomorphic flow of these drawings inevitably evokes the introspective surrealism of an artist like Arshile Gorky (think especially of the work in the landmark exhibition of his drawings at the Whitney Museum last year), but at the same time they chart a sinuous and idiosyncratic set of relationships between the grotesquely graphic aspects of life and the classically decorative: There are bones, fetuses, birds, and flowers. Leigh’s vision encompasses the coldly morbid and the shamelessly beautiful. Her systems are evolving and highly personal; they are atlases of an inner territory that is never fixed.
If the My Personal Atlas series is both refined and analytical, then the Oyster paintings offer a counterpart that is sumptuous and openly erotic: Oysters, or at least oysters on the half shell, inevitably evoke luxury and pleasure. In “Oyster (2),” for instance, the jagged edge of the shell is a mineral green above its pearly white interior, and the oyster itself is active, swirling, delicate, and muscular all at once—beige and brown tendons fold into one another, brushed over with a thin, glistening white. “Oyster (4)” is painted from the opposite perspective, the oyster’s center a folded tube with a creamy red interior, fine white sinews pulled to the breaking point streaking out. And in “Oyster (5),” the tube is pressed down, surrounded by bold, swarming strokes of white and framed by a watery mix of green and brown. The attentiveness and sensuality of Leigh’s painting reminds one of Chardin blown up large (think of the painter’s glistening slime on dead fish), but their expressiveness, and the dynamic interplay of line and form, makes them akin to abstract expressionism—without the enframing shell, these paintings would read as abstractions.
Leigh does not, however, leave things at that. She complicates matters further by surrounding each oyster, as a background and frame, extracts from the Oxford English Dictionary’s monumental definition of the word oyster. As Kathryn A. Tuma points out in her beautiful essay for the catalogue accompanying the show, these linguistic fragments allude to science’s attempt at a totalizing knowledge of the natural world, which is at odds with the irreducibly visual character of the paintings, and of experience itself. They also create a kind of found poetry: “morsel of dark meat,” one reads, “tongue of the sweet morsel.” As Leigh obviously knows, there is no ultimate system for pleasure.