Landscape painting does not garner a lot of excitement these days, but the work of California-based Leslie Shows keeps viewers’ eyes and minds engaged. Her large-scale paintings—which also veer into sculptural forms—are meticulously and thoughtfully crafted, layering material and form into otherworldly interpretations of natural and synthetic landscapes.
A survey of Shows’ recent works is currently on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art—the artist’s first museum solo exhibition—and it provides a snapshot of Shows’ nascent oeuvre. A drawing titled Black Iceberg (2008) greets visitors with the representation of a rare dark-colored iceberg—a nod to the artist’s Alaskan roots and a childhood spent on the glacial tundra. The black iceberg rests somewhat uneasily on the top third of the white paper; the small triangular shape is reflected in water, all of which is rendered in warm, black ink. The color of the iceberg, along with the great expanse of empty space underneath it, creates a foreboding presence.
Following is an installation of the Pyrite series (2012), a more intimate study of geological materials. Complexity in Shows’ work becomes palpable as the viewer reads the list of materials: acrylic, mylar, plexiglass, crushed glass, and engraving on aluminum. The artist scanned small pieces of pyrite—also known as fool’s gold—and discovered unique interpretations of the mineral content. These imperceptible details were translated into life-size works that lean against the walls and hang low so one feels as if they are stepping into these undiscovered landscapes. Vibrant hues of blue, purple, and red pop out of dark and reflective backgrounds, creating supernatural vistas that encourage lengthy viewing.
The majority of the exhibition is devoted to new works that expand the artist’s interest in materiality and process. Incorporating forms of molds for casting—both for industrial and artistic production—and using natural and synthetic materials, the resulting works include both quiet studies and more bold compositions. Coupler (2014) belongs to the former category, with soft pink hues and a neutral palette carefully placed among the plexiglass, synthetic rubber, and wood on aluminum. The composition is reminiscent of an hourglass and held together by its formal qualities. Conversely, The Daybreak Star (2014) is a loud work by both scale and technique. The imagery consists of a galloping white horse and rider against, or amidst, heavy, dark brushstrokes that create an ethereal, cosmic sensibility. The 82-inch-high aluminum panel, on which the painting sits, is cut in two pieces and separated by a 5-inch gap. The negative space between the panels creates its own gestural mark, but a tension persists, as the two parts would not fit back together perfectly.
According to curator Emily Stamey, quoted in the exhibition catalog, the title of the installation, Surfacing, evokes various meanings. While the term can be found in physics, as in an object or element rising to the surface of a liquid, there is also a more metaphorical definition, as in something appearing out of obscurity. Certainly Shows’ work expresses both these definitions, with her intense curiosity toward natural and synthetic processes that manifest as material explorations. While the works are rooted in the realms of the geological, scientific, and natural, they also read as Surrealist interior landscapes that inspire reflection and contemplation, taking some time away from the banality of the everyday.
The works could be described as either painting or sculpture, yet few hang on the wall in the traditional rectangular form of painting; the laser-cut aluminum panels are connected like puzzle pieces, or as sheets of metal leaning against the walls. The collection reads more as an installation than as a survey. This ambiguity makes for a dynamic group of works that do more than just surface. They overflow with possibilities.
Leslie Shows: Surfacing is on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art through May 4, 2014.