The materiality of memory in the paintings of Eugène Leroy

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There is a kind of decomposition which is accomplished not by subtraction, but rather by accumulation. In the late work of the French painter Eugène Leroy, we can see this form of decay shaped and, in its application to the human subject, endowed with an incredible pathos. Leroy’s work is currently exhibited in Eugene Leroy: About Marina at the Michael Werner Gallery. The exhibition features a series of portraits the artist painted of his lover, Marina Bourdoncle, with whom he had a relationship from 1986 until her death in 2000. Although the paintings are all nudes, they are difficult to be identified as such — Leroy’s canvases are almost geologically thick with layers of paint, the figure obscured by the work’s immense materiality.

The nude was a recurring motif for Leroy throughout his career, but while the nude is, in lesser hands, an often tired theme, Leroy’s work has been praised for the originality of his work. In Leroy’s nudes, a gestural and physical density of paint around the central figure serves as its outline, but this outline is often almost imperceptible, and the topographical and expressionistic variation that both creates and obscures the sketched body produces a homogeneity and a continuity between ground and figure, as if the ground were made of flesh and vice versa. However, the elegiac quality of the work is absent from most discussions of Leroy’s nudes. The works in About Marina were all made towards the end of his life, between 1994 and 1997, well before his 80th decade. Seen through this lens, the canvases seem to speak of age and decay – of the process and limits of memory made manifest. The layers of paint suggest in turn the accumulation, over so many years, of memories, burying the original moment.

Installation view of Eugene Leroy: About Marina at the Michael Werner Gallery in New York. Left: “L.aime” (1997), oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 39 1/4 inches; right: “Untitled” (1994), oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches (image with l courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London)

In a striking piece, “LM en plein air” (1997), two curls of white paint rise above the lower layers and appear, depending on their position in relation to the central figure, like outstretched hands across darkness. Stare at it for a moment and the silhouette is gone, replaced by the textured stripes of paint, the white curls becoming a thick mold-like encroachment.

In “Spring” (1997), on the other hand, there are two places, at the top right and center left of the canvas, where layers of paint give way to patches of white. The lightest paint on display in terms of hue and paint application, the white beneath the surface evokes the crisp air of the titular spring as well as a void that is both serene in its stillness and terrifying in its evocation of a time before, or after, the memory of Marina.

And yet, despite the void that promises to be in “Spring”, despite the almost impenetrable layers of the three “Untitled” paintings of 1994, there is always, at the center of the work, the figure of Marina and the exhortation to look for her. Each work is touched by this expression of loving influence almost buried by time, but still there.

Installation view of Eugene Leroy: About Marina at the Michael Werner Gallery in New York. Photo: “LM Night Falls” (1997), oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 39 1/4 inches (image courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London)

Eugene Leroy: About Marina continues at the Michael Werner Gallery (4 East 77th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until February 5.

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