Sofia Leiby‘s first solo exhibition in Chicago, titled The Drama of Leisure, consists of fourteen paintings and three runs of screen prints. Now on view at Devening Projects + Editions, Leiby’s paintings and drawings are clearly influenced by her experience as a printmaker. In most works, the artist paints as if the brush were a thick, wet crayon, and she sketches and fills with rapid marks more casual than expressive, each mark nearly uniform in width. Like her screen prints, the paintings (both those on canvas and paper) are built in colliding layers of shapes that often echo the painting’s edge, dodging it around the gutters, and which respond to earlier shapes below. There are differences and exceptions in the artist’s process—one painting, The Steps (2013), is far more painterly, while another, Untitled (2013), incorporates paper cutting and collage—but these basic formal traits unite the close-hung work. Closer examination reveals Leiby’s repetition of shapes across works, a recurrence that seeds a visual history through the show and gives a glimpse into the order of the works’ making.
This emphasis on process causes Leiby’s paintings to vibrate between the highly subjective territory normally associated with abstract painting and its near antithesis: the more distant and mechanical product of a conceptual system, with works bearing significance according to their point or path of origin. Taken individually, the presence of the artist’s hand, the suggestibility of her shapes, and the restraint with which they are worked suggest the former; taken together, they lean hard toward the latter, and are tipped further by the show’s title and accompanying statement.
The statement describes Leiby painting in her off hours and at home, her studio being at the moment a partition of her own bedroom. This is both an early-career necessity, limiting the size and kinds of materials available to her, and a location of her practice in both the time and space of leisure. She works on nights and weekends, as an unwinding ritual after long days and train rides, and as a form of recreation in its strictest definition. According to Leiby, this is more than a desire for creative diversity of labor or an escape from the grind of a day job. Her studio represents a longing for a different experience of time, one unstructured and associative, lacking purpose or effect. Her paintings, she suggests, are only the results of this ritual, the passive accumulation of her emphatic leisure.
Here Leiby’s impulses, if not her paintings themselves, enter into the active discourse on postindustrial labor as experienced in today’s network economy. Creative professionals are particularly tasked with the deeply alienating and bizarre responsibility for oneself as a brand, a personality, or otherwise marketable chunk of human capital. As more of our social and entertainment activity is mobilized for either our own or others’ interests (for example, when networking invades personal relationships, or when our hobbies or diversions are capitalized to generate valuable online content), one can find it a complex challenge just to trace the blurring line between productive labor and unproductive leisure. With so much else in an artist’s life productively structured, purposefully performed, and in general feeling like work, what could be more radical than insisting that the center of an artist’s practice—the work itself—is something else entirely?
It may be surprising that Leiby, a studio artist, can be comfortable with the marginal status of her studio output, or comfortable enough to incorporate this status as the concept of her work. However, the artist’s ambitions excel elsewhere: She is a writer, a curator, and perhaps most significantly co-founder (with Jason Lazarus) of Chicago Artist Writers, a platform for horizontal criticism between artists. She is certainly hard at work, wherever she locates her painting and drawing. Like the patterned studies of Michelle Grabner, arguably the quintessential many-hats Chicago artist, Leiby’s paintings seem also to occupy a quiet corner of a distributed practice, more inward-facing, and favoring the meditative space within recursive systems.
The Drama of Leisure is on view at Devening Projects + Editions through January 18, 2014.