The pictorial alphabet of James English Leary is comprised of recurring forms enacted as monochromes of various sizes and colors. Constructed as shaped canvases, the works loosely trace the outlines of truncated four-fingered hands, which in their profusion constitute a vocabulary of gestures giving each work (along with the color) its title: Red Middle Finger, Grey Sign of the Horns, Green Pointer, Lemon Yellow Double Middle Finger, etc.
The pieces are often placed on the floor leaning against the wall and are sometimes installed upside-down or at 45 degrees as if they were turning in on themselves. The arrangement of these works does not have a predefined meaning; rather they play off of themselves, pointing and gesturing to rearrange the spaces they inhabit. Similarly, various canvases are stacked by size forming random compositions of color. These configurations are not fixed and can be changed depending on the circumstances.
It is an open language, akin to a game of signs offering a multitude of possibilities without true restrictions. Their soft appearance (there are no hard-right angles) invites an experience of semi- figuration which depending on their orientation and relations can invoke a torso, a face, breasts, or a penis and balls. Occasionally other body parts are added to the hand: a pair of lips or a nose that seem to want to escape the frame.
The palette used by Leary begins with the primary – red, yellow, blue – which, once mixed, produce ranges of violet, green and orange. The juxtaposition of colored masses and the volume of painted objects that vibrate and burst are not unrelated to the Pop Art of the design firm MEMPHIS. Leary’s forms seem equally indebted to American comic artists, like Robert Crumb, as to 3D forms conceived in a craftsman style. But it is undoubtedly in Philip Guston that we find the strongest influence. The diptych Totalitarian Bebop (2015), which depicts five hands with smoking cigarettes, is a direct reference to the master’s themes. Further influence can be seen in the use of red and pink found in Cameo (2014) and in the few works of unambiguous figuration Emo Figure (Orange and Brown heads) (2017), Emo Figure (Love Streams) (2017), and Emo Figure w/Groove (2017). The painting Emo Figure (Orange and Brown Heads), which is missing a corner and a part of the head, is not a portrait of a particular person, but a mood piece which thwarts the plan of the rest of the paintings. This figure both observes the rest of the exhibition and is woven into it.
In this puzzle of abstract figures, there is a semantic where the signified – the hand – points to what the artist creates but also to what he wishes to express beyond form:
The hand is an instrument of invention, self-expression, agency and destructive will. The hands point, signal, gesture, reach out. There are little stories you can start to project onto them (especially when they are in groups with each other) – affection, submission, protection, communication, protest. And I like that when they are piled up they become a ‘crowd’ all clamoring for attention.
One can therefore understand the title of the exhibition, Barn Burner, which refers to a radical political group of the 19th century New York Democratic Party.
Text by Nicolas Trembley