Roping in the New and Old at the YCBA

"Like Leonard’s career, this series is a mélange of interpretation and innovation."
"Like Leonard’s career, this series is a mélange of interpretation and innovation." // Henry Ehrenberg

It’s an open secret that the Yale Center for British Art doesn’t get as much love or publicity as its better-known sibling, the Yale University Art Gallery. While YUAG draws many with its famous Van Goghs and Louis Kahn’s spare architecture, the YCBA sometimes stands across the street, lonely and half-deserted. The grand reopening of YUAG certainly hasn’t remedied this inequitable state of affairs. But the scruffy, scraggly little brother of the YUAG still has plenty of gems for the museum junkie who goes looking for them. Among these is the YCBA’s most recent exhibit, “Reflections on Constable’s Cloud Studies: Paintings by Mark Leonard.” This exhibition juxtaposes paintings by the revered English landscapist with modern, geometrical interpretations by the living curator, restorer and artist Mark Leonard, who painted this series just last year.

John Constable’s charm is very much like the YCBA’s. He is a painter of warmth and finesse whose understated artwork does not cry out for attention but nevertheless merits it. Although the exhibition focuses largely on Constable’s near-abstract cloud studies, the artist is largely known as a painter of pastoral scenes set in an idyllic English countryside. Landscapes such as “Stratford Mill,” on display in the exhibit, attest to Constable’s love of pastoral scenes, depicting a picturesque rural life. Yet the exhibit highlights Constable’s preoccupation not just with shepherds and scythes, but also with gray, ominous skies. “Extensive Landscape with Grey Clouds,” a canvas which might be better called a cloudscape, features a meager green strip of land overwhelmed by cloudy Suffolk skies and bears the stamp of Constable’s holistic vision of landscape painting.

Enter Mark Leonard, who has the unique opportunity to paint a series of “reflections” on Constable’s work. Unlike Constable’s paintings, these are clearly of an abstract nature, relying heavily on basic geometric shapes. These paintings create an intriguing conversation between a more traditional artist of the past and modern abstract artist. Leonard strikes a tenuous balance between interpretation and independent painting in these works. This balance seems to align perfectly with his career, which consists of curating, restoring artworks and painting, though not necessarily in that order.

Like Leonard’s career, his series is a mélange of interpretation and innovation. On first glance, Leonard’s paintings, such as “Constable Study VII,” seem a far cry from John Constable’s own paintings. Where is the puffiness, the airiness and gloominess of Constable’s clouds? Instead of providing us with reiterations of Constable’s paintings, Leonard tries to extract the marrow — color, shape and composition. Throughout Leonard’s paintings loom lunar circles of gray, pink and yellow. The other unifying feature of his work is a rope of color that runs through each of his paintings. The ropes are a clever invention — the viewer runs his eye along them, and the result is a hypnotizing effect of images that are both shallow and deep. This effect is taken to an even greater extreme in “Constable Study IX,” in which a black and a white circle interlock to create a strange combination of flatness and fullness. It is through this method that Leonard seeks to replicate the infinite complexity of Constable’s finely wrought clouds. Rather than quoting directly from Constable’s profusion of feathery clouds, he reproduces Constable’s depth and near-abstraction through the use of geometrical trompes-d’oeil. Constable’s grayish-pinkish plumes of paint are reduced to the geometrical motifs of circles and ropes. If you squint a little bit at the Constable originals, it seems like there does exist a geometric essence that Leonard has successfully extracted.

This exhibition sheds light on two aspects of Constable’s painting that are often overlooked — their careful composition and shape. Upon seeing these paintings, it’s easy to take the pieces for nothing other than pretty swirls of color. Leonard corrects this misconception by both distilling the essence of Constable’s painting and adding his own voice to the dialogue. Though its sibling across the street has the perks of a makeover, the YCBA has still got it. Through the juxtaposition of the modern and tradition in exhibitions like this one, the YCBA brings its collection to life.

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