Hector Leonardi

Essay by Jonathan Goodman

Hector Leonardi's works are filled with a passionate love of painting. His unusual skill as an abstract painter owes its evocative force to his command of color.

His palette can range from pastels to the somber; no matter what the hue is, however, he communicates a joy in the act of painting. In this sense he is close to the tradition of the New York School, both the color field artists and the gestural abstractionists. Color is a primary element in Leonardi's art—who would have thought that it might be used as a structural device, its application alone the basis of the artist's strong efforts? In the case of Leonardi, we see an artist in love with the application of paint, specifically acrylic paint, as an act of belief and beauty. The student of theorist and painter Joseph Albers at Yale, Leonardi comes across as a brilliant employer of color, in both its physical and metaphysical properties. He expresses his primarily abstract themes with a distinct methodology, applying acrylic on glass and then cutting It into strips or small rectangles or triangles of pure paint, collaging them onto the surface of the canvas; the artist's use of close-to-pure abstraction enables him to treat color as a dedicated exploration—it's what gives his art the energy it has.

While the pleasure of color can be described as Leonardi's grand subject, more recently his work has been involved with what might be called a position of nostalgia or yearning. His recent efforts have been more contained in their effects; gray tones are at times predominant, so that the composition seems to echo a personal regret on the artist's part. This melancholy does not in any way diminish Leonardi's focus, which is essentially process oriented. His implications engross the audience, for the bits and pieces of Leonardi's collages of pure paint result in an exterior skin that, even from a short distance, seems to meld with the surface of the painting. The collaged elements are repeated with regularity across the canvas, giving the viewer the feeling that there is an all-over intelligence at work, as often happens in the major artists of the New York School, particularly in the canvases of Jackson Pollock. Earlier, Leonardi's canvases were saturated in pastel colors, but now they seem darker in both color and theme. Even in the more muted paintings, however, the viewer senses a commitment to painting as a vehicle for gestural energies.

In a wonderful work, entitled Treviso, one can see how the small circles and rectangles of paint create a dazzling surface of white points and splotches against a black ground. Strips of pure paint, placed vertically on the canvas, lend a structure to the forms, which crowd into each other in their ubiquity. From a distance this purely abstract painting can take on realist associations; one is reminded of a winter storm, the white mosaic becoming a great flurry of snow. This is perhaps a bit too imaginative, however, for what Leonardi really cares about is the relation of stasis and movement in a composition. In Belluno, the white strips look like so much bark, the edges of the strips becoming black lines that create a considerable rhythm within the painting. One sees in both works Leonardi's willingness to complicate the surface not so much with form as with paint alone. It should be said that the nature of the darker works does not detract from Leonardi's affection for color; instead, it widens his emotional grasp, giving him a depth of purpose that might not have been achieved with his colorful style alone.

There is a beautiful painting, named Agrigento, in which narrow strips of green and tan color, create strong verticals that overlay a green and black square centered In the middle and upper part of the composition. These poles, separated from each by small distances, interrupt the flow of the surface but do not overwhelm It, acting as punctuation marks—interpolations, really—that provide the pall1tlng with both structure and movement. The complicated, multifaceted surface envelops his viewers, pulling them into a contemplation of the niceties of form. While the strips are differentiated from the ground on top of which they lie, there is the marvelous effect that they seem to have been painted directly on the surface instead of being attached to it. This illusion reinforces one's sense that Leonardi's skill is virtuosic in its treatment of the surface, whose intricacy is pleasurable to experience. In Modena, he presents a highly varied, pointillist surface that is filled with dots of color, light and dark greens and blues predominating There are vertical swaths of orange acrylic, over which the the small dots are placed, resulting In what might best be described as a riot of paint. One experiences exuberance and joy In most of Leonardi's paintings, and as this work shows, he remains an artist deeply connected to expressionist vitality and belief in painting for its own sake.

Even when Leonardi is restrained, his love of the physical properties of paint comes through. His affiliation with the New York School proves that the presentation of emotion can still look overwhelmingly contemporary. Above and beyond the transparent enjoyment of execution is the rendering of feeling in the artist's work. Colors embrace their opposite; forms suggest not boundaries so much as they imply freedom Leonardi continues to find new ways of saying things to us in a language that is both historically nuanced and highly contemporary. He traffics in paradox: There is the intentional density of his surface coupled with a relatively simple overall gestalt; and despite their recent darker mood, Leonardi's paintings are finally optimistic in that they radiate the artist's belief in the function of art as celebratory. The design of Leonardi's imagination gives back Immensely to his audience, which sees the work as an invitation to contemplate an untrammeled Imaginative process. By concentrating on the physical properties of paint, as well as on the construction of a surface apparently seamless but actually collaged, the artist works a bit of magic with his viewer The sheer pleasure of painting carries with it a sense of design rendered with so much vigor it becomes a subject in its own right, so that we can take it upon ourselves to return to looking at his work as both meditation and ritual right.

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