Mary Hull Webster on Leigh Hyams

Leigh Hyams at Meridian Gallery
by Mary Hull Webster

an excerpt from Artweek, February 2004, Vol. 35 Issue 1, p19,

     To get hold of the invisible you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible.
    --Max Beckmann

     In paintings, drawings and artist's books, Leigh Hyams has, for several decades, pursued the complementarity of surface and depth. Known particularly for her edgy line quality, instinctive color and loose execution marked by carefully rendered details, Hyams's work ranges between externally observed nature and pure abstraction. While expressionism is probably her primary influence, materials and gestures were closely filtered into strains particular to the content of each piece in these renderings of architectural sites, animals and plants. Having followed Hyams for about ten years, I saw something new in the recent work. Her hand displayed a more active quality; there was less water and darkness, more form and animation. Mostly from 2003, the greater aliveness of the show, dedicated to the memory of her son Jan, who died a year ago after a long illness, seemed to be a direct response to the clarity of death.

     Seeing the work, a viewer might imagine a petal glinting briefly in the sunlight under the watchful eye of the artist who causes the moment to reappear in red pastel turnings of a newly opening rose, as in Green Stems on Yellow Ground. In work that bears witness to brief openings in time, the artist's hand bridles against the magic object seen in her Mexican garden. In the scraping rhythm a heightened sense of listening charges the juxtapositions of color and hesitant line, which seems more received than made.

     Hyams's edgy attention catches things that move--insects, flowers, an alligator, a volcano and many birds. Six examples from the Gorilla Portrait series (charcoal on paper) display the movement of inner feeling in the startling expressions on the faces of gorillas--thoughtful, angry, remorseful, worried faces that carry an anthropological quality. With stick-like birds recalling a description of the Buddha as the one who just left, Slate Book with Birds is a standout among the artist's books. My Garden, mixed media on paper, is a masterful display of almost smokey ground overlaid by notational shapes and movements, each turned in on itself as though referencing the softly undulating vastness. Black Stems on Yellow Ground sets slender red flowers against the heat of a yellow day that pulses behind the forward movement of the plants.

     Hyams's work has long relied on blacks that recall Albert Pinkham Ryder or Odile Redon, as though her visions are to be found in dark places--midnight skies, the hidden things on the bottom of a pond, historical treasures lost and then brought to light like archaeological finds long silted over in the collective mind. A small canvas, El Maiz, pictures an ear of corn that brings with it an entire culture. Mayan Temple, a midsized canvas, displays an edifice of mottled bright light rising out of a dark jungle beneath a thinly painted, purple sky. What mystery created the building that inspired the painting? The doors are too high for entrance, the lower story lost in brambles and forbidding defenses. Mayan Temple is a signature painting for Hyams, displaying nature/structure, darkness/light--all carried by the sensitivity of her painted, and, especially, charcoal lines.

     Nacimiento, (mixed media on canvas) was reserved for a single day's showing because Hyams says it's from a different voice, one based in the folk traditions of her adopted country, Mexico. But like so much of her work, Nacimiento, translated as "crèche," cannot be confined to a particular culture. It looks like a Tibetan thankga with all the images pulled up to the front surface of the canvas. People, madonnas, animals, dwellings, churches, a waterfall, trees and unidentified colored lights jostle occasional angels, babies and stars set beneath the curving horizon of a mountain range. Hyams seems to want viewers to see that all are present and of equal merit. Recalling Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom (ca. 1848), Nacimiento gently portrays the interdependence of living and imagined beings, a shimmering realization in beautiful color that makes this one of the most unselfconsciously joyful paintings in recent memory.

     Leigh Hyams: New Works on Paper and Canvas closed in December at Meridian Gallery, San Francisco.

Source: Artweek, February 2004, Vol. 35 Issue 1, p19, 1p

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