2 LEAFS: Painting of Bill and Gwaylon Leaf
2 LEAFS is a show of paintings by a Chinese immigrant and his son. The title of the show refers to the last names of the two Las Vegas artists, Bill and Gwaylon Leaf. Bill is a retired professor of art still teaching part-time at the University of Las Vegas; his son, Gwaylon, is researching graduate schools having completed a Bachelor of Fine Art in Painting.
A westerner might call their work abstract, but they did not simplify or distill the essence of some subject matter. Or they might label these pieces as nonobjective because there seems to be no apparent object of derivation. These are western, formalistic ways of describing art, which fall short in helping us understand the 2 LEAF exhibition.
In an excellent paper titled “Traditions and Contemporary Abstract Art In China,” on the PearlLam Gallery’s blog, Gao Minglu, a distinguished scholar in contemporary art, offers insights that take us deeper into understanding this work and the traditions that ground it, although the artists live and paint in one of the more notable American cities:
“…contemporary Chinese abstract art is a mixture of an abstract language, traditional Chinese art language, and even Chan or Buddhist practice or idea. The act of painting is a search through the surroundings, searching for something infinite, which is not presented solely by the form itself, but also by your personality, by the act of making art.”
In the West, we put emphasis on establishing whether art is abstract or representational or breaking through formal barriers. While the West asserts itself by breaking tradition, Minglu suggests that Chinese artists tend to build on tradition. Philosophically they might create using Taoist concepts of Yin-Yang. They might follow a Chan (Japanese Zen) approach of emptying the mind in search of an intuitive essence, not the visual representation of many Western painters. They might use Buddhist paths for enlightenment. In each case, they seek to express the unknowable, the infinite.
Minglu’s paper also addresses the marginalized place that abstract art has had in China, especially during the Cultural Revolution. The state forbade all traditional forms of art since the goal was to realign society against tradition and culture. Art could only glorify the state and its leaders. Religious, personal and philosophical explorations in art were punishable by imprisonment and sometimes death. Certain forms of art, especially those which are critical to the state, continue to have such consequences.
This context provides new insight into the art shown in 2 LEAFS. While both artists are full-fledged United States citizens and have been influenced by visual ideas from Western art forms, the underpinnings of their work remain connected to Chinese tradition. Bill Leaf’s continued interest in Chinese culture is understandable. His father had been working as a cook in a restaurant of a casino in Northern California throughout the 1940s. In 1948, he brought eight-and-a-half-year-old Bill to the US with him leaving his mother behind in China so that the child would get the advantage of an American education. About eighteen months after they arrived, Bill’s father died, and Bill ended up in foster care. During the McCarthy era (1949 – the mid-1950s, the effects lasting much longer), Bill was forced to go into hiding. Friends sent him to New York to avoid immigration officials because the prevailing assumption was that anyone Chinese was either “red or a little pink.”
Eventually, Bill followed through with his father’s wishes and obtained a Master of Fine Arts Degree and finally met his mother again when he was 24 years old. He became a college professor. I met him at annual meetings of the National Association for the Schools of Art and Design, which I attended beginning in the early 1990s through nearly 20 years until I retired from teaching. Given the intense experiences of Bill’s youth–coming to America, leaving his mother at home, losing his father shortly after immigrating, dealing with the McCarthy era witch-hunters and reuniting with his mother at 24–it is easy to imagine the cultural identity he brought with him as being especially significant.
Bill’s painting and the work of his son, Gwaylon, reflect an awareness of both American and Chinese art, but Bill is keen to say that a study of “ancient art from all over the world seems to have the common denominator of questioning the existence of humanity, the cosmos, the unknown. It’s universal.” Bill paints on linen cloth with oil, a common medium in the West. The linen is unstretched and hangs on a wooden bar that runs through the top seam. A second bar runs through the bottom seam to keep the fabric stretched and weighted. These recall the silk and paper scrolls of ancient Chinese painters.Bill lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where desert experiences and lore mix with big-time commercial Americana. Gold leaf bands, modulated at times with color, both disrupt and integrate with the color fields that suggest light and sky. They suggest the richness found in an Egyptian coffin, or in a Late Medieval Florentine painting by Duccio or a Las Vegas casino. Depending on how the image is lit and by what angle it is seen the relationship of the colors and the gold bands change, sometimes dramatically. Floating in the spaces created are one or more dominant shapes and various calligraphic marks that very loosely represent a cursive script. At once there is something very close to us and something very distant, which makes me recall Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cow Skull: Red, White, and Blue in which a cow skull floats over diminishing dark space of blue. I am also reminded of the ambiguous landscapes in the work of surrealist painter René Magritte. The vast emptiness harks back perhaps to that ancient Taoist or Buddhist concern for the infinite. Finally, there is a sense of poetry in the titles, which often refer to the quality of light and color. Some examples are Orange Eclipse, Journey in Blue, Twilight, Violet Veil. They speak of living in the desert, where sunsets can be dramatic and brilliant, but also evoke Chinese art and poetry and their preoccupation with the essence of nature so evident in Bill’s American surname, Leaf. Bill signs his work with the Chinese name, “Yehp, Yeuon Gayh.”
Gwaylon Leaf’s work is more obviously connected with tradition as he creates fields of overlapping calligraphic marks that seem very related to actual Chinese writing. As Westerners, we can appreciate these mark makings for their gestural vibrancy, their variations in density and color, and the spaces they create. The work reminds me of a first generation Abstract Expressionist, Mark Tobey, who worked in a similar way, deliberately imitating writing on Chinese scrolls. Gwaylon’s father, I learned, recommended to him the study of Mark Tobey and Cy Twombly, as examples of artists who used Chinese-like marks. These artists, though, demonstrate how Americans are more concerned with using form itself, rather than the meaning of the form, to break with or transform American tradition. Gwaylon organizes his compositions with loosely structured grid patterns of cursive symbols that crowd and overlap each other, creating layers of text that become atmospheric.
Gwaylon’s works are paintings on paper. A metallic film seems to coat the surface. He uses self-formulated dichromatic paints like those used on hot rods to create intense colors and illusions of 3-D space. The colors shift in spectral hues as one passes by them. Color choices add to the sense of atmosphere and light. While many people are familiar with traditional Chinese landscape painting as done on a scroll or screen, this group of works pushes Chinese tradition toward a modernist direction. Gwaylon signs his name Gwaylon Yehp.
Art Space Vincennes will present the show in three segments throughout the spring months March 3 – May 13: The first segment will be half the work sent to us; the second the other half. The third show will include the works most enjoyed by the public as determined by a People’s Choice voting process conducted during the first two receptions. Each segment will open on each month’s first Friday (3/3. 4/7. and 5/5 between 5 pm to 8 pm each evening.). Visitors are welcome to see the work during our regular business hours as well: T – F 12:00 – 5 PM; Sat 11 am- 2 pm.