His recent show at Michael Werner in New York was small and probably not the best introduction to Leroy for those unfamiliar with his oeuvre. It included only eight oil paintings and none of his drawings. The figurative base to Leroy's work has always been most apparent in his charcoal studies of female nudes, face portraits and still-lifes of the human cranium, Even so, figuration has been present in the majority of the paintings as well, if partly obscured by his practice of intentionally transforming the subject by expressive alteration of natural form and by the incremental application, both deliberate and delirious, of layer upon layer of paint. The process sometimes requiring more than a year's labor for a single work, the artist's sense of his subject undergoing surprising metamorphoses as he adds to the canvas or scrapes it down again.
Among the paintings in the recent show, four were large verticals, each titled after one of the seasons, and four were smaller horizontals titled Season I through IV sequentially. Of the eight, only Season IV yields up much of the natural imagery on which they were all based: faintly visible in the right foreground of that painting is a landscape with blue tree trunks, while in the background a central pond and hills topped by clouds can be discerned. The vertical paintings, meanwhile, have reduced depiction of nature to a minimum, offering instead a meditation in color and texture on the idea of the seasons. Beginning with a visual referent from the natural world is philosophically essential to Leroy, but his central concern is to produce an artifact parallel to, not passively dependent on, that world. Leroy's work requires the viewer's participation in what is essentially a creative collaboration; close attention must be supplemented by imaginative leaps recapitulating those made, in the first instance, by the artist himself.
Leroy is obsessed with light, and he sees his paintings as an arena in which it may perform. He works best during fall and winter, favoring dim, neutral illumination and overcast skies. Such light, after all, fostered the early work of van Gogh. Leroy's generally dark tonalities set him apart from the sun-filled color of most of the Impressionists, with whom he otherwise shares important affinities -- in particular the technique of rendering an image by atomizing it into thousands of tiny flecks of paint in different hues. The result resembles mosaic or tapestry, an agglomeration of paint yielding a central image that comes into partial or sometimes blurred focus. This approach connects Leroy to Seurat's Pointillism as well. Although the two artists differ in their sense of color and value, both organize their designs around a balanced structure of dark masses, among which light seems to float rather than fall and strike. Leroy's paint application is also enormously more lavish and varied than Seurat's; in fact he approaches some sort of ne plus ultra in the conspicuous consumption of pigmented oils. Brushloads, direct squeezes from the tube, stuccoings, dollops, palette-knife spreads and pastry-cream curls of color interweave and overlap until a mille-feuille ground of paint is built up, some parts more than an inch thick, with, inevitably, many stalagmites and wisps of paint projecting beyond the edge of the canvas. As with de Kooning, Leroy's paintings reward close viewing, each canvas a compendium of paint's physical properties, not to mention the marble-paper variety of colors interwoven in startling combinations. Extending as they do into the third dimension, many of the works might qualify as low-relief polychrome sculpture in the medium of paint. Moreover, Leroy tends to make his surface concave, with the heaviest build-ups of paint toward the edges, so that the rectangular picture space gradually modulates inward toward a central hollowed-out ellipse, whether vertical, horizontal or diagonal.
Leroy's preoccupation with concavity is also evident elsewhere, beginning with his studio in Lille, a dark cavernous space with only one window, whose light comes at him full face rather than from the side, as painters almost always prefer. Here lies the source of the looming, backlit masses dominant in those pictures with identifiable figural subjects. The center of gravity in his drawings of the human skull is the cavelike eye socket, the locus of vision modified by death and decay into a black grotto. Meanwhile, his female nude subjects most often occupy the center of the picture space, with the figure's concave pelvic region just below the classical vanishing point. A visitor surveying Leroy's troglodytic studio, with dozens of earlier works hanging on or leaning against the gray stone walls and a complete skeleton dangling from the ceiling, might regard this artist as the latest in a lineage that goes back to the Cro-Magnon cave painters of Lascaux.
In the New York show, the large vertical paintings generally seemed more successful than the smaller horizontal ones. Leroy has acknowledged that he considers the vertical dimension to be a natural component of any emblem of upward aspiration. Nothing new in that, but it's interesting that the majority of Leroy's nudes are represented standing, so that he is able to render them as elongated, columnar volumes. Standing female nudes are the rule for sculpture, but not for painting, where the recumbent posture is more common. In his vertical works Leroy provides a series of upward-climbing footholds for light instead of projecting it evenly across strata that recede into an illusionistic background distance. These paintings bring to mind Clyfford Still's persistently vertical approach to abstraction, the difference being that Still's jagged shards of paint feel concrete; they read as a material slowly sinking downward, while Leroy's verticals of light float upward against gravity. This weightless, rising quality suggests some kind of resurrection, a counterforce to his abiding preoccupation with the dimness of the cave.
A further layer of romance is added to the Leroy myth when we learn that, at his advanced age, he has as his mistress a young woman named Marina (fully two generations younger, in fact), who nearly every day comes to his studio, whether to model for him or to read classic literary works aloud as he paints. It is an irresistible image: the beautiful young woman reading hour after hour to the laboring white-haired visionary who is her lover. A number of contemporary artists are known to work while listening to recorded music, but Leroy's preference -- a thoroughly French one at that -- for literature as accompaniment is in accord with the overall humanist, indeed fabular, aspects of his work. If she hasn't done so already, his Marina will probably at some point read to him Plato's myth of the cave dweller who sees the projection of distant images on the nearby wall as his only intimation of reality. Meanwhile, Leroy has expressed keen admiration for the poetry of Rimbaud, especially Les Illuminations, a hermetic investigation of consciousness's interior spaces, in which the prevailing gloom is shot through with streaks of visionary phosphorescence. To the author who told us that "love must be reinvented," Leroy might well reply, "Yes, and so must painting."