Leonard Sexton Exhibition runs until 31st March’18
A TRAIL OF PEOPLE ON THE MARCH
A first impression on walking into Leonard’s studio where I saw these paintings first was of Cezanne’s ‘Bathers’. But while there is an affinity in the sense of a group of naked shapes against a watery backdrop, and in the loose painterly surface over a definite compositional structure, there the affinity ends.
For these are not figures in stasis, bathers about to enjoy the plein air, no, these are figures in flux. In fact, flux doesn’t quite describe the balled energy of the groupings of distorted and twisted figures, some of whom are earthed, and some of whom seem as if they are floating mounted creatures, half human, have horse, tortured centaurs of the modern age. And in this regard they remind me of great battle scenes of Renaissance painting, such as the “Battle of Anghiari” by Leonardo da Vinci, and this lost work was filled by two mounted soldiers in a fierce twisted snarl, a scenario that was much copied. The title of the exhibition reads “Sketches from the Divine Comedy. Inferno.” And these main paintings are numbered Canto 1 to Canto 7, alluding to the verse structure of Dante’s great poem.
These are sketches, for that is their painterly style, but they are only sketches – which suggests something unfinished - in that they suggest the provisional state that the figures in the paintings reside in. The figures seem to once have been real, they will have a real basis in reality, memory, photographs, but these people have left their moorings, they are no longer fully corporeal, they have become paint, but paint that has absorbed their structure, their emotion – and have embarked on a journey, a journey both real and in the painterly sense, towards abstraction. These paintings are in structural flux, and figuratively they are on the move. Leonard said to me, on looking at the sequence of paintings, Cantos 1 to 7, that it is a “trail of people on the march”, and so it is important to look at the paintings as a sequence as well as individually. Clearly, given the reference to Dante’s “Inferno”, this trail of people on the march must be en route to hell.
These marchers seem to be passing water, crossing a ford, somewhere between river or sea and land. They are uprooted, homeless figures embarked on a journey, who suffer and struggle as they march on to their destiny. We can only guess what they have experienced, they are in the main faceless, rough daubs of paint, and we must fear for them, as their fate seems uncertain, and if the exhibition title is a hint, the outcome of their march will only lead them to perdition.
But they are not cowed or spineless, not afraid of their possible destiny, for their tortured struggle commands our attention, our respect, our awe. They are titans in their colourful land- and seascapes, and are a joy to behold, their battle a proud one, an inspiring one, for their energy and their inner force that bend and twist the paint, the lines, the space about them, are invigorating and uplifting. These warriors will fight to the very end, dissolving and forming before our very eyes as the force of their will commands our attention, bids us bear witness to their struggle, figures hell-bent, arrested momentarily on their march. Leonard’s work is figurative, drawing and composition are key elements, these are paintings on the road to abstraction, but they want to tell a story, they want to maintain the human form at the heart of the painterly experience, there is a semblance of narrative. But the work is very painterly, the use and manipulation of paint is an obvious key feature. This use of paint has a certain affinity with some of the work of Jack B. Yeats. But this never happens at the cost to structure and form.
And in this regard the influence of Renaissance painting is key. As I already mentioned, battle scenes such as Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari” have certainly had a significant influence, in the draughtsmanship, in the composition – whether Leonard knows this lost work or not, but its influence is significant in the history of painting after Leonardo. At times one can also see hints of “The Surrender of Breda” by Velazquez in the crowded compositional structure, or of the work of Goya such as “The Third of May” or his black paintings with his teetering loose groupings of figures, and impressionist painters such as Cezanne with his clean and ordered structure. Leonard does try to place himself within these traditions, not necessarily in a conscious way, but he has absorbed many such influences, and these most certainly come out in his work. Leonard has made his mark with these seven glorious works, and like any serious painter, he has come from somewhere, and is on the march somewhere else, just like the tortured figures in his paintings.
Let us commend the frightful journey!