Devin Leonardi refashioned scenes and figures from the scrap heap of the past. History was his muse, yet he was not its slave; he was, above all, an interpreter of our time.
June 25 October 4, 2015
Figure at Dusk is the first solo museum exhibition of the late Devin Leonardi (1981-2014, born Evanston, IL). This retrospective survey gathers a selection of the artist's watercolor and oil paintings, spanning 2005 to 2014, when he completed his last works.
Devin Leonardi's imagery richly depicts the twilight of the American landscape, the mythology of westward expansion, and the dialectic between modern and contemporary image, as seen in his paintings' adaptations of photographic source material. Gleaning from historical photographs and found imagery, Leonardi investigated the continuum between painting and photography, troubling the truth claims of the photographic image while softening and re-constructing historical and distinctly American scenes, not unlike the working methods of Norman Rockwell. Adapting a Romanticist sensibility to our time, Leonardi's work gives expression to an idealized America of the past as a foil for our fast-changing contemporary culture. His work is skeptical of the fantasy of progress.
Leonardi's earliest cycle of watercolor paintings harkens back to an earlier period of American history and follows its folkways to explore the nation's changing identity. His imagery captures the period from the 1850s to 1880s, where the rise of modernity coincided with the invention of photography, specifically by drawing on vintage photographs from this period as source material. His subjects include westward expansion and the notion of Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, America's early period of industrialization. The figures of his America are cities in formation, vistas of the South and West, of the mountains and plains, and the settlers, journeymen, and anonymous faces of these changing landscapes that look back at us from the past. Elaborating on these images as paintings, he depicts historical subjects as parables of contemporary life.
Leonardi's later works move steadily towards allegory, tempering the realism and ethical appeals of photography with the storytelling power of painting, and reinforcing painting's primacy. In particular, the dusky hues and moonlit nightscapes of his later paintings transcend the limits of historical photographs. The allegorical dimension of his paintings also emerges with a growing interest in the classical image and the female nude in later works such as 1889 (2011), Emerine (2012),1917 (2013) and Youth of Modernity (2014).
Devin Leonardi rescued and reconstituted scenes and figures from the scrap heap of the past. History was his muse, yet he was not its slave; he was, above all, an interpreter of our time.
Curated by Cora Fisher, SECCA Curator of Contemporary Art.