Jim Leedy

Certain artistic works deserve to be called 'summative' in honor of their simultaneously summing an artist's themes and marking a summit of the artist's achievement. A summative work occurs at the peak of its creator's powers, its scope embraces his or her most robust ambitions, and its scale can contain the artist's central concerns. It constitutes, therefore, a culmination of the artist's career. By definition such works can occur only rarely, but they stand as landmarks in the histories of all the arts, rising from culture like mountains out of clouds. Examples of summative works in philosophy might include Plato's Republic, Augustine's City of God, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; in literature, Dante's Divine Comedy, Anna Akhmatova's Requiem; in music, Bach's B minor Mass, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme; in painting, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, Leonardo's The Last Supper; in sculpture, Phidias' Parthenon pediments, Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa; and so on.

War is a summative work, created at the peak of Jim Leedy's distinguished career, displaying the wisdom accumulated through a lifetime of sensitive observation and generous activity, and encapsulating the preoccupations of a body of work built on restless resistance to customary parameters for media.

Three major influences have guided Jim Leedy's artistic course: his experience as a photojournalist in the Korean War, the extracurricular education he received through association with the Abstract Expressionists during his college years, and his career-long artistic comradeship with Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio. The two latter influences have always been visible in Leedy's work, and all three are apparent in this exhibition. His kinship with Voulkos and Autio appears the way it often does, as edgy materiality, here in the use of mud and molded two-part polyurethane foam as the primary media. Clay, a material constant in Leedy's career, appears in its rawest possible state, as simple mud, explicitly drawing on the human connection to clay normally implicit in its use. From clay we came, and to clay we shall return. The Ab-Ex influence is evident in the mutuality of abstraction and representation, the insistence that art can depict both an object and a state of mind, as (to cite one of Leedy's celebrated mentors) a de Kooning painting both abstracts a woman and represents a man's fascination with her.

Leedy's Korean War experience has had its full effect only recently. A few of his earlier works foreshadow this one: his 1980 construction Remains uses materials, imagery, and palette similar to those in The Earth Lies Screaming; his 1975-80 History Totem anticipates Harsh Reality; and his 1992 ceramic Legacy Project uses the mural form in connection with the theme of memory. Only in the last few years has his war experience become an explicit subject, beginning in paintings like Killing Fields I (1996) and Holocaust Memories (1998), and culminating in this work, whose very conception derives from the killing fields of an Asia in conflict then and since. An experience of war demands transformation that can only come with time: it must pass through a process of reflection and distancing as water passes through an underground aquifer, rising purified five hundred miles from where it fell. The distancing means art that responds to war must have a double accent: it must convey some shadow of the initial shock, but balance it by a mediating intuition from the life's reflection.

Harsh Realityachieves its double accent by manipulating the viewer's position through the use of light. In this work an anodized aluminum enclosure (reminiscent of a coffin, a phone booth, or an elevator) holds a column of skeletons and mud that, when lit periodically by a strobe, holds that light for some time, slowly fading out. The gray solar-cooled glass panels of the enclosure simultaneously reveal the glowing bones and reflect the viewer's image. Thus the viewer sees his or her own image along with the image of the skeletal mound, with repeated variations in light emphasizing first one image and then the other. By enabling the viewer to see himself or herself first as the one looking at the bones from outside and then as the one looking back from within the heap, the sculpture serves as a visual correlative for the viewer's own state: simultaneously victor and vanquished, murderer and victim. It reminds us of two facts we insistently repress. One is that as citizens of a powerful nation we enjoy benefits derived from war and the threat of war. Like King Claudius in Hamlet, who knows he cannot be forgiven his murder "since I am still possessed of those effects for which I did the murder," we cannot shake our complicity without sacrificing its advantages. The other repressed fact is the even simpler verity that we human beings cannot escape the mortality common to all living things.

In scale, theme, and visual impact, The Earth Lies Screaming has an obvious predecessor in Picasso's Guernica. Both works attempt to register the grotesqueness, the futility, the senselessness, and the horror of war. Leedy's work, though, adds volume: like a frieze in classical architecture, it retains its link to a plane, but reaches out of that plane toward the viewer. Starting out in two dimensions, it ends in three.

The double accent in The Earth Lies Screaming comes not in the way it positions the viewer, but in what it presents to the viewer. On the one hand, it is a grim assemblage: fish and fetuses, helmets and the heads of deer, guns and grenades, human skeletons and the skulls of cows, shoes and snakes, everything covered in mud. And all the individuals recur, a feature that helps the piece convey scale. The same deer's head, for instance, appears over and over, because the point is to elicit the mass graves of the Holocaust, of Cambodia, Rwanda, Sarajevo, Tulsa. But repetition is also important to counter our tendency to sensationalize wars and mass murders. The narrator in Camus' The Plague reminds us that "nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous"; Leedy's work resists the temptation to make a circus show of death.

As its other accent, The Earth Lies Screaming holds out hope: horns in the upper left-hand corner of the piece rise as if a herd of wild oxen were climbing out of the pit, and in the upper right-hand corner a flock of geese begins its ascent. Life-forms rise out of the jumbled remains of the dead, and they do so insistently. Though it does not strike one at first glance, life rises from more than half of the piece: from the left quarter and the right third of the wall.

It is important to observe that the hope in this piece does not come from denial. The life rising out of death is not the lives of the dead themselves. Death retains its finality for each individual; the lives whose fragmented remains are scattered here can never return. No consolation can erase that brute fact, but it can be balanced by another fact, what Heraclitus formulates this way: "the death of fire is birth for air, and the death of air is birth for water." Each individual life will end, and many human lives have ended anonymously, too soon and too painfully, but life itself will not end. The Earth Lies Screaming depicts what Keats called "their sighing, wailing ere they go / Into oblivion," but it also realizes Keats' complementary affirmation that "fresh flowers will grow."

In Atomic Skull, as its title suggests, the double accent appears as a double gestalt: from one side, the eye sockets, nasal opening, and jaws identify the work as a skull; from the other side, its silhouette becomes the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb.

Though its base includes a variety of bones, the skull/cloud itself consists only of skulls and fetuses, symbols of past generations and of generations to come. The power of this piece comes from its treating two very different items as a single shape: the atomic bomb, agent and symbol of the mass destruction of human life, and the skull, component and symbol of the individual human life.

Iris Murdoch wrote that "Art is a human product and virtues as well as talents are required of the artist. The good artist, in relation to his art, is brave, truthful, patient, humble." The artist who does possess courage, truth, patience, and humility in relation to his art can endow it with those same virtues in relation to the world. Jim Leedy's The Earth Lies Screaming possesses precisely those virtues, and none more clearly than humility: the artist's own face, a death mask prepared in advance, joins the host of the dead.

War, that old lie, urges further lies, making the virtue of truthfulness difficult to maintain. "An honest memorial to war," William H. Gass says, "would not be a regimented stitch of clean white crosses in a military cemetery, nor more rows of names cut uniformly into marble, ... it would contain the muddy trench, the bloated corpse, the stallion lying by its bowels, blown-apart buildings, abandoned equipment, recordings of outcry." By that measure, Jim Leedy's War is an honest memorial, a visual testament to pain suffered and lives lost, tempered by the presence of hope, modest but vital and sure.

Harvey L. Hix
December 1999
Kansas City, MO

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