Bodies in Space: Leah Yerpe's Very Large Drawings

I'd like to talk with you about Leah Yerpe's drawings. I've been a fan of Yerpe's extremely cool -- one might say icily cool -- work since I first saw it in 2009. She's got a solo show, Infinitum, at Dacia Gallery right now. Yes, that Dacia Gallery. I followed her there. She's why I'm at Dacia.

Leah Yerpe, Aquila, charcoal on paper, 90''x72'', 2012

For me, a lot of what makes art good is the degree of interesting thinking I have in response to viewing it. Here's what I think about when I look at Yerpe's work:

For the sake of argument, let's say that a certain idiom of convincing pictorial clarity first reached its zenith under David and Ingres.

left to right:
Jacques-Louis David, Young, Slim Elvis, 1800
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Old, Fat Elvis, 1806

The various academic painters of the later 19th century -- your Bouguereaus, your Leightons, your Alma-Tademas -- expand the territory this idiom covers, but they do not fundamentally change the idiom itself. Moreover, the charisma of the idiom obliterates the various compromises between painterliness and clarity which led up to it. After Ingres, if you wanted to paint what something really looked like, you had to paint a lot like Ingres.

The ideological weakness of that earlier painterliness, with its visible brushstrokes and awkward marks -- was that it was generally understood as a compromise between the proposed perfection of image, and the technical capabilities of the painter at hand.

Once those technical capabilities shot into the stratosphere, a generation of artists who would never, no matter what they did, paint that well, found themselves out in the cold. They refused to resign themselves to becoming second-rate academics. Instead, they returned to painterliness, to the brushstroke and the mark, and retrieved it not as an accident of incapability, but as an aesthetic value. They innovated several ideologies of painterliness. One was that it represented the optical phenomenon more accurately than did the academic idiom. For me, the more compelling argument was that it expressed emotion more powerfully. These painters were, of course, the impressionists and post-impressionists.

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872, oil on canvas, 19"x25"

This is art history with a broad and ill-aimed brush, but I think there is enough to it to set up the issue I want to discuss here. The issue is this: that as the first generation of modern painters to willfully, even intellectually, emphasize the brushstroke as a faithful record of a physical and emotional state, the impressionists kind of wrecked the emotional validity of the academic idiom. They turned the volume knob up to 11 -- they addicted our brains to forceful reward. After impressionism, all tightly-rendered, ultra-skilled representational art has a real problem: justifying its native whisper to viewers accustomed to a roar.

In the representationalist community, a huge variety of solutions has been proposed for this problem. Most of them involve partial retreats from both the academic and the impressionist positions, yielding high-rendered work with a brushy flare. I think of these artists as the inheritors of John Singer Sargent. This description should not be read as a knock on the brilliant Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, oil on canvas, 49"x39"

In the vanishing minority are those painters who insist on the same kind of "perfect" rendering which characterizes David and Ingres: clean outlines, lucid forms, a kind of classical stillness. This faction confronts the dilemma head-on: how do you take up the thread of early 19th-century perfectionist image-making in the context, not only of late-19th century anti-academicism, but the entire frayed rope of 20th century art?

In this vanishing minority, most practitioners solve the problem the weak way, by pretending that art more or less stopped evolving in 1850. A few practitioners, however, recognize both their native impulse to paint like an academic, and the fact that some accommodation must be made with the past 160 years. Leah Yerpe is an artist of this extraordinarily rare type.

Leah Yerpe, Phoenix, charcoal on paper, 93"x36", 2012

So, what do we learn from looking at her work? We see posited the limpid stasis of the classical model. And we see a counter-impulse to amplify its emotional content -- that is, its visual-cognitive grabbiness -- into the post-impressionist region recognizable to the modern eye. There are two methods the modern academic can use to try achieve this effect:

1. Depiction of a scene of heightened emotional content.

2. Arbitrary modification of the pictorial paradigm to produce bizarre visual effects.

The first one is a false option; it can produce strong emotions, but only at the level of apprehension of narrative, not at the raw cognitive level appealed to by the impressionists. That really leaves the single option of arbitrary modification of the pictorial paradigm. And that one, my friends, is hard as hell to do. Why? Because it tends to come off looking so goddamn fakey. You can just tell that somebody, sitting in some studio somewhere, decided, "Here is a weird visual trope I will use because it adds interest." It doesn't mean anything, it's just there to make you look.

Getting through this final challenge, this narrowest of needle-eyes, involves returning to the very fundamental value which all art demands of its practitioner: the artist must believe it. The trope cannot be arbitrary, or it will show. The only way this class of visual oddity will work is if it's some sincere mode of image-making presented with utter sincerity. And that's what I think Leah Yerpe has done.

Leah Yerpe, Pavo, graphite on paper, 50"x18", 2012

The mechanism of her image-making sensibility dates to 1845, but the images she sees are up to the minute. She arranges multiple figures in large scenes, as in a history painting, but she has a distinctly post-modernist distrust of the validity of narrative. So she deconstructs the machinery of the narrative image, breaking it into its atoms -- the individual figures -- and building them up not along the lines of story, but along the formal lines of non-periodic repetitions. The entire thing struggles toward meaning, but never quite reaches it. Her people are half-filled signifiers, her compositions as half-meaningful, as fearfully expansible, as raves or acid trips or Penrose tiles.

Penrose tiles

Yerpe's compositions are ultracrisp, high contrast, supercool. Her work has been compared, reasonably enough, with Longo's. I see in it an iteration of Longo's set of tools, to express a sense of anxiety different from his. I think the anxiety in Yerpe's work reflects the clash between a desire for people to be available, accessible, companionable - and a stomach-clenching belief that they are not: that at best, they cannot take enough time away from marching to their own drummers to enter into conversation, and at worst, that they are absolutely alien.


Leah Yerpe, Columba, charcoal on paper, 102"x72", 2012

In other words, I think her strangely doubled visual paradigm -- Enlightenment at one level, postmodern at another -- repeats in the theme of her work. She has an Enlightenment faith in the validity of eyesight and the knowability of human beings. And she has a postmodern sense of overstimulation, dissolution, and alienation.

That's what I think of when I look at her gorgeous, enormous drawings.


September 5-October 13, 2012
Dacia Gallery, 53 Stanton St., New York, NY, 10002

Leah Yerpe paintings courtesy Dacia Gallery:

Leah Yerpe online:

All other images via Wikipedia