Each of the paintings in Anne Leone’s CENOTE SERIES shows the water’s surface, always from below. The world of air is invisible to us, off limits, mysterious. This membrane between worlds appears closed but is easily pierced by the swimmers, resealing itself each time they rise and plunge.
Anne Leone: Paintings. At the Dedee Shattuck Gallery, 1 Partners Lane, Westport, MA, through September 25, 2011.
The Dedee Shattuck Gallery opened this summer in Westport, Massachusetts.
From the outside, it looks like a cross between a Quaker meeting house and a lookout tower—a lighthouse, perhaps, or the house of a local sea captain. Once inside, you get that vast, Quaker light. A central staircase leads to the turreted loft above, forming unexpected angles and crannies. No matter where you stand, the staircase blocks some of the exhibition wall, and you must walk around or under it to discover what was blocked from view. The corners, though, are the most astonishing. Corners generally trap your gaze a bit, making you trace the angles of the shadowy seams—but here each corner is a tall window bringing in the lambent sea-light and the Westport countryside.
Along with art exhibits from now until December, Dedee Shattuck has scheduled readings, lectures, and concerts. This is a welcoming space, one that invites all kinds of contemplation and celebration, mystery, and delight.
Like the gallery that houses them, the paintings of the Cenote Series by Anne Leone are thought-provoking and full of wonderful reversals.
Entering the exhibition, surrounded by large canvasses of swimmers seen from underwater, my first reaction is Help, I need the surface! I won’t be able to breathe. Get me out of here! Let me at least look away.
But these views are too fascinating to look away for long. There is a certain silence here, reflected by the muted palette with its gem-like hues, emerald and sapphire along with opals of the darker sort, the turquoise Colorado opal, the black opal. The only yellows here are ochres; the reds have mostly been filtered by the cool, watery light to copper or wine. These paintings are all acrylic on canvas, with what appear to be multiple layers of clear glaze. This technique leaves the surface of the painting glowing and almost reflective, as though echoing that other surface, the membrane between air and water, that is one of the major subjects of each of the canvasses.
This is a show that provokes thoughts and questions, many of the canvasses acting as springboards into other realms of thought. Of course, as with any deep art, no matter how much I try to give you a sense of how I read the paintings, what will come out is how they read me.
In each of these works, as in the corner structures of the Dedee Shattuck Gallery, there are astonishing reversals: what we usually see—things in the world of air above—is suddenly hidden. What is usually kept from us by the surface reflections, or by murky obscurity, is here revealed.
The title of this group of paintings by Anne Leone is Cenote Series. A cenote is a natural, limestone pool often with a fairly small surface opening that can be a portal to an immense, aquatic cave system. Cenotes tend to be unusually clear, as the rainwater that fills them has been filtered through the bedrock. Most often found in Central America and Mexico, the cenotes in these paintings are in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Leone has been studying these cenotes since 1993. The exceptional clarity of the water shows in these paintings in the crystalline quality of the light, sometimes pierced by shafts of sun or perhaps by falling water.
Each of the paintings shows the water’s surface, always from below. The world of air is invisible to us, off limits, mysterious. This membrane between worlds appears closed but is easily pierced by the swimmers, resealing itself each time they rise and plunge. The ripples and reflections that usually obscure our view from above are now doing the same to us below.
Except for one or two, most of these swimmers look adolescent to me, and I read these paintings as echoing the strange oscillations of the adolescent between the world of the child and the world of the adult. Their heads are most often in a different space from their bodies.
The most striking and thought-provoking painting of this collection is called Torso. The red-haired girl who appears in many of the other paintings floats in the clear, green water of the cenote with her back toward the viewer. Above delicately shaded hips and waist, her scapulae, shoulder blades, and ribs, suggest the structure of wings.
This figure is ghostly as well as beautiful, for her head and arms are above the water’s surface, thus invisible to us, and she appears as a torso.
She brings to mind all those classical statues that are now only torsos. Where is the head of the Archaic Torso of Apollo? Where are all the missing heads, all those arms? Marble lasts forever; it doesn’t just disappear. Did the farmers whose plows knocked against those heroic statues keep an unearthed part or two? Would we find a marble head if we searched enough barns or outbuildings in rural areas of Greece or Sicily or Turkey? Of course, the pieces of statues may simply get separated in the heat of archeology, so that they now find themselves in distant museums. Perhaps most of them are known and catalogued, but the curators are unwilling to give up any single part to make a foreign statue more complete.
Or do broken limbs of ancient statues congregate in hidden passageways of Pinakothek or Louvre just as every house has a secret room in the attic where all the screwdrivers and scissors end up.
Perhaps, as in Torso by Leone, all the missing parts are simply in a different medium, a different phase, into which we cannot see.
One of the questions that arises on viewing these paintings is why are they not more erotic? For even though we have all these bodies, nude except for bathing suits and bikinis, eros is largely missing. It’s true that often there is a cool tinge to the skin tones, due to the aquatic light of the cenotes. But that’s not all. Perhaps you need gravity. That is, perhaps the body has to be encountering or denying gravity. Could spacemen floating free of earth’s pull ever be sexy—even if they weren’t wearing those absurd costumes? Are angels erotic? The only erotic angels I can think of are those who have been grounded: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning.” Lucifer is always erotic, but he has plummeted. So, too, the angel on the cover of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s Selected Poems—if it is an angel. It may just be grounded wings mysterious and interacting with a human form. Or the angel Daniel who comes to earth in the movie Wings of Desire—he has to lose his angelic qualities in order to experience eros. He thump-crashes onto the ground as gravity takes hold of him.
Dance is so often erotic, especially when it seems to defy gravity. But that seeming is important to us; we know it is only appearance, and I think we are constantly and perhaps unconsciously measuring the dancer’s art against our own groundedness. Once someone really defies gravity, we lose interest.
Or is it due to the missing gaze? We see almost none of the faces of our swimmers here, and when we do see them, they are ignoring us. Nor do they seem to be looking at each other. There is a lack of encounter. They may be conversing with each other above the surface, but we are not privy to that, and even their bodies, suspended in the silence of the water, do not seem conscious of each other. Perhaps because they are not posed, there is a randomness to their arrangement, and sometimes the slightly gawky limbs remind us of a bug or insect, not completely at home in the aquatic environment.
I think interaction, or possibility of interaction, with us, or others, or earth’s own electro-magnetic force, just might be necessary.
In any case, if there is an interaction here, it is between the bodies of the young swimmers and the medium in which they are suspended. We can only look on as they explore the humor of buoyancy and the marvel of hinging between worlds.