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Chris Leach, ‘On the Threshold of Recognition’, Visual Artists’ News Sheet, Sept/Oct 2012

August 31, 2012

Ballina Arts Centre

July 5 – July 29 2012

When asked to review this exhibition I thought it necessary to come prepared, so within my notebook I concealed a magnifying glass. I knew little about the history of miniature painting, other than vague correlations with Persian and Ottoman empires, and wasn’t overly enthused about learning more. I certainly couldn’t envisage what contemporary drawing of this genre could offer me, other than a serious case of eye-strain. However, since viewing the exhibition and attending the artist’s public talk, I have thought about this work quite a lot, ruminating on the dense relationship between visuality and meaning, wrapped up in my own experience of ‘close-looking’.

Although photographic in their initial appearance, Leach’s series of monochromatic miniature drawings retain a humanly-crafted appeal. The body of work took three years to complete, testifying to the labour-intensity of this detailed process. Time was invested by the viewer too, attracted ever inward by the disruption of scale, for a more intimate reading. While moving through the space, I kept referring to the titles list to illuminate the content. I became conscious of triggered ripples of associated meanings, my own ‘threshold of recognition’. This established a slow pace for looking (using my surreptitious magnifying glass) and perpetuated a degree of submersion.

The exhibition conveyed a strong sense of narrative, executed in a linear configuration across the four walls of the gallery space. I first encountered a drawing depicting a panoramic view from the summit of the World Trade Centre. This frozen moment – a monumental ‘presence’ re-enacted – is loaded with meaning from the contemporary vantage point. Inscriptions of lapsed time, monuments, war and the slippages of binary terms and their prescribed meanings – good / evil, ally / enemy, local / global, past / present – slowly infiltrated my reading of the exhibition as the sequential narrative panned from the general to the particular with the upmost dexterity.

Cartography and geographical division was the focus of 15 drawings on primed wood, entitled ‘Meridian Series’ and ‘Equatorial Series’. These tiny yet surprisingly expansive cityscapes depicted the capital cities of countries which span the Greenwich Meridian from North to South Pole and the Equator respectively, with geographical co-ordinates constituting each title. Mounted separately on small blocks, each drawing protruded slightly from the wall: a sculptural gesture that was further evident in the thick layer of gesso which enveloped the edges of the supports so seductively.

The fact that the artist has never visited most of these cities reveals the conceptual premise of the work. Pre-conceptions of place through media construct, photographic imagery as digitised meta-data and distribution via satellite and internet technology (eg Google Earth), create an ambiguous and perplexing present-day scenario which simultaneously allows the world to be ‘superficially small and known’[i], while remaining fundamentally unknown.

From this global perspective, the narrative then moved towards the local, a trajectory which became increasingly nostalgic. A series of framed drawings depicted scenes of habitation and construction in various locations from Bolivia to Iran. Some sites were perceived as politically charged, while others denoted the seemingly everyday. The artist seemed to be querying how these systems of association – between visual information, place and meaning – evolve. While I enjoyed the overall curation, glass became an obstacle when looking closely at the framed works, though it was easier in the only piece mounted on black.

My reading of The Lovel Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank – a drawing of satellite dish situated on a hill in Cheshire – became animated when the artist spoke about his childhood, and his memory of cycling around it on his BMX. For a child of the ‘ET generation’, extra-terrestrial imagination knows no bounds. Caravan sites, dart players and ventriloquists also featured, encapsulating a Butlin-esque era that engaged me on an emotional level.

Having reviewed a number of drawing exhibitions lately, it has occurred to me that this renewed curatorial interest in drawing may constitute a desire to reconnect with the mind of the creative individual, a figure who has been momentarily relinquished in the contemporary discourse surrounding revivals of collectivity within multi-media environments. Drawing as a direct mode of ordering thought can reveal unique, flawed and fragile things which evoke empathy within the viewer.

The artist spoke philosophically about his unresolved thinking regarding ‘meaning’ in his work, and also about the role of the artist as observer or narrator. From my perspective, the artist, engaged in the act of perpetual looking,  can draw the audience in, as Leach does, magnifying those complex realities that remain unchallenged, highlighting unchartered  thresholds between the established and the yet to be discovered.

[i] D.H Lawrence, ‘New Mexico’, 1928, in The Spell of New Mexico, Tony Hillerman (Ed.), (University of New Mexico Press, 1984) p 29 30.

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