Quiet is usually a form of faint praise when used as an adjective in the arts. Desk Collection is a survey of 17 years of Saskia Leek’s practice and, yes, it is a quiet exhibition, but there within, of course, lies its peculiar strength.
Aspiration and intention isn’t operating on a grand scale. Most works were made at a desk. The paintings on display are at once charming and retiring, arranged chronologically in a sequence of interlinked galleries at the Dowse. Each room is named after a painting – Bella Vista, Best Wishes – and displays the accompanying work of that era.
Leek is known for taking op-shop pictures and faded prints as a starting point. Is this a form of professional camouflage or subterfuge? The naivety of her art at times parallels the scope and scale of the Sunday painter. Leek’s subject matter is often the shy and the sentimental: horses and house pets; sunsets and sunrises; the suburban home and the storybook cottage, chuffs of smoke blowing from its tiny chimney. She frequently replicates the line work of the amateur artist; as a consequence, her paintings are sometimes painfully unconvincing. Sick Rose (2004) is just that, a rose stretched across a mellow yellow sunset, disrupting any illusion of depth within the picture plane.
Who will ride Leek’s white horses? The horses in this exhibition appear as phantoms, ghosts of the paintings they might have once been. Class is uncomfortably evoked: the working-class home, the faded glory of the print, the ideal landscape that has now become as hackneyed as a box of Roses chocolates. For this reason, the unsympathetic viewer can breeze past the pathos in this work. Leek’s engagement with such clichéd subject matter risks being mistaken for irony, but she has always drawn energy from the low-brow, beginning with the youthful zeal of The Gum Fights (1995).
This series brought her recognition in the touring group show Hangover. The exuberance of The Gum Fights is still audible; as Gen X as Reality Bites, these paintings are marked by the scratched record of popular culture. Against flat backgrounds, Leek’s cartoon figures almost look like drawings done by children. The lives of her characters are at once dwarfed and enlarged by backdrops of a mainstream media fun fair. Leek’s gift for narrative is immediately apparent.
To gaze at Egg-Egg-Eggman (2000) is to wonder at the lost potential of Leek the children’s book illustrator. The cute and the twee remain the egg and spoon balancing act of her career. The life-size cardboard caravan in this exhibition is a child-pleaser, but this sculpture is an anomaly, it isn’t central to Leek’s practice. The outside of the caravan is decorated with images of budgies. The budgie is a recurring motif in this survey, a pet often synonymous with pensioners. Looking at Leek’s paintings of blanched houses in Bella Vista (2005), I’m not sure if I am standing on the street watching the sun going down or inside looking through net curtains at a cul-de-sac, an old soul retreating from the world.
Leek was nominated for the Walters Prize in 2009 for her series Yellow Is the Putty of the World. In her recent works, paint is treated as matter, not just a clear pane of glass through which to view the world, although Leek has never been interested in creating easy illusions. Her content becomes a smokescreen; light and colour are central. The audacity of these later images is in their embrace of common subject matter – grapes and autumn leaves recur – alongside jangling juxtapositions of colour. Purple. Orange. Egg-shell blue. These paintings break free of the frame, displaying a boldness not previously apparent. The pathway of Leek’s quiet career – from representation, through Cubism and into abstraction – is also the trajectory of 20th century art.
SASKIA LEEK: DESK COLLECTION, Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, until April 14.