In 1864, in the thick of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed a bill to preserve and protect Yosemite Valley. The act, during a time of national strife, declared profoundly the value of nature as an affirming refuge. Wendell Berry's poem, "The Peace of Wild Things," asserts, on a personal scale, the very same truth. "When despair for the world grows in me," he writes, nature--still water, birds, stars latent in the daytime sky--has the capacity to restore a sense of wholeness. "I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."
The poem is a touchstone for Jackie Leishman, as is Yosemite. A trip there in the spring of 2017 launched a series of drawings and collages that honor the dramatic landscape through intimate, improvisational encounters with materials. Leishman's work stems from sensory memory of the place, rather than photographs or sketches. The series is an ongoing register of internal response more than a descriptive record of external phenomena. Through the evocation of the force of water falling and the weight of stones enduring, Leishman navigates the daunting complexities of our polarized, politicized moment. She negotiates the simultaneity of chaos and calm.
She starts by laying paper atop an acrylic panel coated in black, oil-based printmaking ink, and exerting pressure upon it: drawing with the edge of a scissor blade, an inkless pen, her fingers or palms. Her gestures leave their mark--burred lines and grainy patches--on the flipside of the paper. The process of composing in reverse is familiar from Leishman's earlier work using a large-format camera, where the image appears inverted on the ground glass.
The lines laid down in this first phase articulate the curves of boulders and hint at the waterfalls' rush. They transform magnificent vistas into buoyant, suggestive tracery. For her collages, Leishman builds upon these bones, layering fragments of paper torn and cut from previous pieces, further organizing and integrating the multivalent plane with charcoal, paint and pastel. Scraps of old photographs liven the mix, as do snippets of text from letters and newspapers. Passages of line stitched by machine introduce their own rhythm of dots and dashes. The pieces rumble, they sound. Leishman typically contains, even if loosely, intense color (jade, teal, sapphire, turquoise and more) within the black inked lines, evoking stained glass, with its luminous tints bounded by lead.
Raw, unsettled surfaces emerge out of the raw material of other work, bins full of nascent ideas. Instead of a traditional sense of finish, the seamlessness of completion, Leishman opts for the energy of the provisional, the friction of disjunction. She traffics in tenuous harmonies and abrupt adjacencies. Enjambment prevails. Expanses are compressed, by hand, into flux-filled planes no larger than a picture window. Textures and tenors converge and hold for the moment, delicate neighboring rough, spidery lightness abutting the dense and dark. A single line might display multiple personalities, the voices of an entire chorus, as it curves to describe a mass, transforming from drawn to imprinted to implied by vacant space to defined by the ragged edge of an applied scrap to sewn in threaded dashes.
What more, you might ask, is there for an artist to say or show of Yosemite, after Carleton Watkins, Albert Bierstadt, Ansel Adams and the iconic work of countless others? But Yosemite is inexhaustible, because vision and making are inexhaustible. Each artist addressing the valley has reckoned with its power and monumental beauty through a distinctive set of eyes and tools, particular lenses shaped by particular place and time. Leishman's take on Yosemite, also and of course, is imbued with flavors of her here and now. She approaches the magnificent landscape equipped with a sensibility steeped in self-reflexivity, subjectivity and multiplicity. Her collage practice is a product of collage mindset--rejection of the unitary and definitive in favor of the inclusive and indeterminate. What better analogy to the constructed nature of perception than an image constructed of fragments, fragments of one's own prior construction, no less? Her collages express a sort of truth to experience, a truth to memory. A truth abundant in both noise and music, continuities and clashes. A truth rife with seams, rich with seams, a truth reveling in the very nature and inevitability of seams.
20 May 2019