Alex Leav: A Slippage in Meaning

Essay / February 2023

Alex Leav: A Slippage in Meaning
By Jacob Barnes

It’s been just over a year since I met Alex Leav in New York. We met on a cold Saturday morning down on the Lower East Side, having been connected by a mutual friend; at a time when we come to know people first through our screens, I think both of us were surprised by the serendipity of a personal introduction. As I approached our meeting spot, a puffer-ed arm rose out from one of the sidewalk’s huddled occupants: I had reached my destination.

Walking inside, we exchanged pleasantries. We’re both roughly the same age and had both grown up in New York — Leav in Long Island, I between Chelsea and Dublin, Ireland — and by extension shared common reference points; even friends. I learned about her background in photography, having studied at Michigan, before coming back to New York to pursue a master’s degree at SVA. We circled around the works, Alex putting words to what the pieces themselves conveyed in full: a fascination with the dissemination of images and the nexus of that information-flow with the female body. Across canvases, printed pictures would repeat, both within singular works and across the series, creating a cosmology of images all loosely in conversation. Recurrent motifs appeared, such as celebrity photos or popular memes, albeit with their articulations a little unsure. Hints towards abstraction ran throughout, usually with the application of brushstrokes over and around the collaged images — quick swoops of energy linking the composition, asking questions of pictures otherwise thoughtlessly consumed. The key ideas and tensions were clear but had yet to find their most effective expression.

This, even then, felt like a necessary step: Leav’s own background with photography makes the medium a logical place to start when exploring signifiers. In turn, these works were beginning to pull at the thread of slipped meaning: repetition and decontextualization to the point of incoherence, the equivalent of saying a word until it’s reduced to a sound. Through the addition of paint, Leav was trying to pick up the pieces — to pull them together and make sense of the husks of our universal symbols, their symbolic value revealed as artifice. Leav was gesturing towards meaning which the photograph struggles to contain (and perhaps all-too-readily promises), while using paint and other mediums to mark a kind of symbolic remainder. That the works had yet to find their final form was less a source of disappointment and more a reason for excitement: the artist’s mind was at work, and more was yet to come.

Over the next few months, Alex and I stayed in touch. Art is an industry well-suited to gaps of time and distance; the monthly turnover in shows and constant interaction on social media provide regular reminders of people’s goings on. Slowly, I began to see her new style developing: one that harnesses the power of her previous work, while finding more solid footing in the freedom that paint allows as a medium. While her images still bare a set of recognizable objects — limbs, toothpaste tubes, sneakers — communicated with an attractiveness reminiscent of mass media, Leav’s increased control over her own images make the final product that much more incisive. In her previous pieces, Leav pointed to an inexpressible semiotic excess that was created through the mass distribution of images using primarily these foundational, ubiquitous images themselves. They could prove ungainly for dissection, in part because they were necessarily the bearers of almost universally defined and understood meaning. Images of Kim Kardashian or common memes struggle to be rearticulated largely because they resist alternative meaning. Now, Leav was able to capture the ubiquity of a given object without the burden of semiotic specificity threatening its reworking. One does not need to see Crest or Colgate to know what a toothpaste tube looks like, and the lack of such identification allows for us to understand the object as a symbol, and not product placement.

Using paint as a primary medium, opposed to collaged photographs or prints, Alex was able to make the tangle of imagery and the eventual slippage of symbolic meaning feel more natural. This, even on a practical level, makes sense – brushstrokes can define and then exceed depicted objects; they can help us understand and blur that understanding all at once. Her movement towards greater abstraction in her work helps to achieve the effect: objects can appear and disappear within her frenetic compositions. Importantly, the viewer becomes more inclined to understand the symbolism that painting can achieve; the articulation of an idea is threatened when a recognizable image can bring a host of extant associations to the work.

Let us consider Round in All the Right Places (2023). Loose, bulbous, black forms dominate the top part of the canvas, highlighted by thick white and beige brushstrokes. These shapes evade description; while valuable to the image’s composition, they don’t appear to be specific things, as such. Yet, to the bottom of one, three pearly orbs form, as if in a bracelet, out from which a burning cigarette extends. Once this association has been made, the rest of the painting begins to unfurl: a toned leg flexes to the right of the canvas, a pair of lips upturned on the left. These references feel dualized: equal parts a product of the intended image and of the paint itself. Leav is in control, but lets the paint guide her work.

So, over a year and several international exhibitions since I first met Alex Leav, it’s safe to say that the artist has found her voice. Not only that, but her voice rings rather uniquely: the bulbous, often neutral-toned forms on her canvas can almost immediately be recognized as hers, often drawing the viewer (in this case, me) from my image-saturated doom scrolling. I, and increasingly greater numbers, know an Alex Leav work when I see one. But that is not to say that Leav’s process of discovery has now finished, or that there is not ample room for experimentation: her insistence on digging further, always pushing her imagery to the boundaries of legibility, demands further development. But of course, it was that willingness to experiment that got Leav here; a need to articulate that which is (almost) ineffable.

This essay was written for the occasion of Alex Leav’s presentation, Luck Be a Lady, at GROVE East, 2023.

Image Credits:

1-3: Courtesy of Alex Leav.