Those who value the beauty of empty, open spaces on a canvas will find a warm welcome in the paintings of Leslie Duke, now on display at Salt Lake City’s 15th Street Gallery. Mainly still lifes of flowers and citrus, her works are vibrant and lively while also having the ability to lull the viewer into a state of peace and calm.
Duke began her career as an illustrator in 2010, but driven by an “enthusiasm for finding the intrinsic beauty in everyday subjects” (as she says in her artist statement), she quit her day job to paint full-time. Her “everyday” subjects often appear unaccompanied on the canvas. Unattached from earth, table, or solid ground, her nature is free, floating, and stripped of its surroundings in a way that allows the viewer to focus their attention solely on the beauty of Duke’s painted anemones, peonies, lilies, pears, or citrus.
The space Duke gives nature plays a vital role in the mood these paintings create. There is no clutter, and her focus on just flowers and fruit, adorned with simple greenery, creates a peace that is easy to focus on. Her compositional approach and application of paint is minimal to the point that in a few of her works the base layer of a penciled grid is visible through the paint. Duke uses space to urge her viewers to see the color and beauty of her subjects without distraction. She even leaves an openness in her signature, where she spaces out each letter of her name: D U K E.
While these plants and fruit are seemingly unattached from what gives them life, they are anything but lifeless. Duke’s use of color enhances the lively, open state of her works. Her color palette tends to focus on light, bright colors, but even the two canvases that utilize a darker palette (“The Madonna Lilly,” and “Early Blooms”) have a sense of peace and serenity imbued in them. Duke’s paint is vibrant and her intentional streaks or smudges strategically placed around the flowers and fruits give the paintings movement. Take Dukes’s “The Pear Tree.” Most of the tree itself is left off the canvas to allow a hyper-focus on just a few branches that hang down from the top of the canvas. The leaves fall down the painting and light green streaks extend the reach of the leaves down the canvas. The leaves are not contained in bold lines but are allowed to sway as if a slight breeze is rustling through the branches.
Hung in the minimal white-on-white setting of the gallery, Duke’s paintings move and breathe on the canvas in a way that enhances their subjects’ beauty and calm demeanor. Giving her representations of everyday, natural wonders the space they deserve, Duke promotes in the viewer a place of calm thoughtfulness.
Leslie Duke, showing with Justin Wheatley and Camille Wheatley, 15th Street Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 30.