Hammering out the Details of Abby Leigh’s New Painting Show

Jarrett Earnest

Sea Surface Full of Clouds,Sea Surface Full of Clouds, paint, pigment, oil and wax on dibond that has been scraped, sanded, pierced and sledgehammered, 50 by 75 inches, 2018
Abby Leigh's Sea Surface Full of Clouds, 2018.

The first shot of Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) is a closeup textured surface. The camera pulls back to reveal a web of scratches, crude drawings and the shadow of a man. A passionate voiceover begins: “Listen, the earth could not bury me. The sea could not smother me, rage and storm though she might…” which continues with images of the protagonist, Encolpio, framed by the carvings. The set was made by artist Antonio Scordia, who said, “When Fellini asked me to paint the wall, I painted it as a place where every Roman had left a sign of his passage.”

This scene came to mind while looking at Abby Leigh’s new paintings—works like Sea Life, Nervous Condition, and Competitive Skies, all from this year. Leigh’s process begins by beating Dibond aluminum panels with a sledgehammer, covering them with dents and dings. From there she layers oil paint, pigment and wax in a range of near monochromes—pinks, blues, and blacks. Leigh then turns her attention to nascent shapes on the battered surface—scratching lines out of the undulating plane, following its topography, in a technique that harkens to automatism. Sometimes she paints over and into these forms. Other colors are revealed as she cuts into the glittering metal, which is left exposed. It all adds up. The resulting paintings have an all-over composition, like bacteria floating in swamp water, or an elegantly graffitied wall. They beg for free association.

On that note, Freud’s little essay on “The Mystic Writing Pad” from 1925 also comes to mind. In it he describes a toy made of a slab of dark wax covered by two sheets—one of translucent wax paper and the other of clear celluloid. The celluloid protects the wax paper when pressed with a stylus, which leaves mark at the point of contact with the dark layer below that can be erased by lifting the sheets. He sees this as a structural metaphor for consciousness because the continual new impressions are also secretly stored in the layer of wax below, “legible in suitable lights,” he writes. “Thus the Pad provides not only a receptive surface that can be used over and over again, like a slate, but also permanent traces of what has been written, like an ordinary paper pad.” Leigh’s new paintings have something of that quality—an accretion of actions that is only ever partly accessible, while remaining palpably present. They are arenas for thinking without thoughts.’

“Abby Leigh: Sledgehammer Paintings” opens September 20th at Johannes Vogt. 

Craving more culture? Sign up to receive the Cultured newsletter, a biweekly guide to what’s new and what’s next in art, architecture, design and more