Nothing beyond reality. Within it
“If we ever wake at all” is the quintessential problem of our age. As we grow more confident in our knowledge of how the world works and our place in it, there always looms the possibility that we have overlooked the beauty, wonder, and perplexing nature of not only our existence, but of the existence of all things. Leishman’s nuanced and engaging work beckons her audience to “re-mystify” our ideas of creation, existence, and the meaning we ascribe to our experience. The work hearkens to all essential, primordial works of art that problematize our comfortable notions of truth and call for us to re-think what we thought we already knew. In the same way that a groundbreaking piece of music or an important book adds to our imaginative toolkit for understanding the world, this work adds to our imaginative vocabulary for understanding the beauty of the relationships between creation and destruction, life and death, and meaning and meaninglessness.
The way Leishman explores matter, light, water, plants, and human existence squarely places her work in experimental approaches that expand the traditional boundaries of art. However, in expanding the boundaries of art Leishman’s “If we ever wake at all” brings us squarely back to one of the questions that perpetually haunts humans—the question “why is there something rather than nothing.” This question seems to have lost its charge in contemporary culture as we often blithely ignore what it means to be in the world, in the universe. But if one steps back for a moment to ponder with wonder the fact that we live in a complex, intricate world in which humans have life, can experience joy, and can contemplate the nature of our existence, then one is filled with amazement. Perhaps the reason we have lost the flavor of the question as to why there is something rather than nothing is that we have become stultified in our easy-to-use narratives by which we hope to explain everything. Those of a scientific mindset or who believe they are reasonable people use the findings of science to understand how things work. Those with religious inclinations look to scripture to find the beginnings of the universe. The problem with such simple bifurcations in our narratives about the mysteries of creation is that they often exclude as much as they explain.
While many would place Leishman’s work in the category of abstract expressionism, there is something more primal and evocative in her work than that of an artist simply trying to adhere to fashionable art etiquette or styles. Her work evokes the efforts of our earliest ancestors in portraying their world through expressive depictions. Primitive art has the element of wonder about a world which probably seemed so grand and moving to those early artists. Though it is impossible for a contemporary audience to situate itself in the primitive landscape, to see the world through the eyes of those artists who left behind the earliest traces of how humans conceived of the world and their place in it, with imagination we can recognize the elemental attempts to understand the way the world unfolded to our earliest ancestors. This work invites us to rethink, or perhaps, better put since we seem to have lost our ability for thinking deeply and imaginatively about the world, to start thinking again about the processes on which our very existence depends. While this work finds a great deal of its roots in a reawakened primitive expressive depiction of creation processes, it does not offer simple answers or a prefabricated narrative to which one must adhere. Any serious viewer of Leishman’s work is one who has accepted her invitation to be a participant in attempting to understand the complex dialectical nature of destruction and creation, expansion and contraction, and, ultimately, of the ways in which life itself moves across the elements of the universe like wind across the waters of the ocean.
As humans we cannot help but strive to understand our condition. However, we are often self-assured regarding the answers that we believe we have found. The scientific narrative offers us a rich understanding of the processes by which things came to be as they are today. However, science cannot offer us the purpose of life and satisfy this need that so many people feel intuitively. Strict religious answers to the mysteries of the universe make of the awesome process by which the universe took shape and life came to be an oversimplification, one that seemingly ignores the mountain of evidence science gives to us. “If we ever wake at all” brings the creation narrative into the a dialectical process in which life and death, creation and destruction, meaning and meaninglessness are locked in a continual dance. Leishman’s work does not offer familiar solutions or easy narratives by which one can comfort oneself. Rather, it implores and compels the audience to participate actively in rethinking these important narratives. In short, it prods the audience to wonder what it will do “if we ever wake at all.”
It is in Leishman’s creative rendering of that which we often take for granted, such as matter, light, and water, that she urges us to wake and to reconsider the intricate mix of our existence. What Leishman seems to do with ease is to remind us that the universe is at the same time both simple and complex. Whatever the universe is, it demands that we think about it, the processes by which it came to be, how we come to interpret this coming-to-be, and what meaning it has for us. While much of the art one finds today sounds a tocsin against meaning and revels in purposelessness, Leishman boldly sings the clarion call that we are alive, the universe is here, and that part of the joy of being human is to imagine and reimagine the possibilities of our existence. She invites the audience to think hard and wonder about the implications of a creation that is always ongoing. Her work entices one to rethink one’s place in the universe.
Leishman’s work portrays a continual flux, the never-ending flow of energy and matter moving from one form to another as something that is both concrete—we can understand it through science—and ineffable—its majesty is beyond our grasp. Like the universe itself with no easy roadmap or guidebook to help us along, she challenges her audience to see the perpetual play between meaning and meaninglessness. The work challenges us to wake up, to live life awake.
There are several series in this body of work, each a taking different approach to this perpetual play. In the Moon series, one sees a rather simple coming together of disparate parts. From chaos and complexity comes a simple unified object in the moon. Leishman seems to be presenting to her audience a rather straight-forward rendering of the way most of us take creation to be. Typically, we see only think of coming-to-be as a straight-forward process of chaos coming together to make something unified and whole. Certainly, that is one part of the story, though only one part.
Reminders of the playfulness and complexity of creation are found everywhere throughout these series. In “Plants (God’s Sketchbook),” Leishman reminds us that the universe is not on a strictly deterministic path. Perhaps play in coming-to-be is something we should all consider more seriously. The luscious palette Leishman uses to illustrate the beginnings of plant life and the elements of chance in the coming-to-be of life show the audience that we can and probably should rethink our conceptions of how the world came to be: Whether one holds that there is a supreme being who organized it all or one holds that the universe is actually a multiverse, Leishman reminds us that the coming together of creation is as much a work of art as anything else.
Perhaps the most compelling piece of the series is “The Many Faces of an Eve.” Here the artist finally introduces humans into the mix. Whether one holds a strictly religious viewpoint or a scientific one, or something in between, it is the case that humans came after the rest of creation. However, given that we are each always fundamentally human, limited and yet endlessly ambitious, and that we are the purveyors and givers of meaning to our experiences around us, it is critical that we think deeply about how we help to construct creation. Interestingly, Leishman chose to portray this first human to make an appearance in this body of creation though a series of similar, yet dramatically different renderings. This series of an Eve seems to show that we are all infinite in our possibilities, in the ways in which we can come-to-be, and that there is no simple deterministic path which any of us takes. But, each Eve is also so obviously human as well.
“If we ever wake at all” invites our contemplation. It invites a wrestle. As human hubris often leads us astray in thinking that we know or can know everything, Leishman works to reign that impulse in so we can reconsider our place in the universe. We must wake again and again to understand that the universe is a place of infinite beauty and meanings, where all is always being created, destroyed, and recreated. Leishman reminds us, the meaning-giving and meaning-seeking creatures that we are, we must wake to see the beauty and the majesty of this eternal process.
-Wayne LeCheminant, PhD.