Home-decor magazines, with their adoption of the fruit still life as a staple of “kitchen art,” may have dulled our appreciation for the dynamic, emotional, and thrilling aspects of produce-based subjects, but Springville artist Leslie Duke, with her intricate mark-making and lively compositions, exemplifies the potential of fruit to become compelling works of art. Her still lifes are incredibly energetic with thick, powerful palette-knife strokes and interesting streak marks animating her canvases. Her paintings, which will be on display at Meyer Gallery along with Brian Astel Dec. 29- Jan. 11, are abstract but recognizable, reinventing familiar objects as poetic compositions filled with movement and light.
Duke studied illustration at Brigham Young University, where she initially planned on studying law. “Going into college, I was planning on becoming a lawyer,” she explains. “I thought ‘I’m a strong, independent woman who likes to argue!’ Studying illustration would just be something I did for fun in my undergraduate work, then I would go to law school.” But her attention was turned by the university’s illustration program, which she says “focuses on the basics of learning how to draw really well,” and after completing her BFA, Duke decided to strike out as an illustrator.
After working as a dry media illustrator for several years, Duke felt drawn to pursue her own projects. “I just got burnt out bringing other people’s’ visions alive,” she says. “Above all, I just missed painting. Painting’s what interests me.” She described the transition as a slow one, gradually replacing time spent on commissioned work with her own compositions. Though she was no longer working as an illustrator, her work never abandoned representation. Duke always uses real fruit in staging her compositions, relying on the pre-painting process to map out color, texture, and shape before placing any paint. “Most of my paintings are pretty well thought through by the time I start painting,” she says.
In a work like “Morning’s Table,” a recognizable grapefruit half, berries, and a green apple pop against a tangled mass of green foliage. The white, textured background distinguishes wall from tablecloth with delicate color differences, the tablecloth appearing to float with its abundance rather than sit solidly on a table. She dubs her paintings “deconstructed realism,” a term derived from Derrida’s semiotic theory, questioning our most basic understandings of thinghood — rather than having one commonly understood meaning, Derrida acknowledged that a single object could have many diverse meanings depending on context or personal experience. This is a principle Duke applies to her paintings, often having a specific feeling she hopes to communicate, without imposing that specific interpretation on the viewer. “I think it’s interesting when people try to assign specific meanings or psychoanalyze my work. It doesn’t annoy me, but often I honestly hadn’t really thought about what they suggest,” she says with a laugh.
Working with still lifes, Duke is especially aware of the deep symbolism often associated with the genre from a long tradition beginning in the Northern Renaissance. Often these works are interpreted as vanitas images, reminders of the fleeting nature of life and the inescapable blackness of death. Duke does not, however, intentionally insert symbolism as a main part of her artwork. “I do not really insert objects steeped in symbolism,” she explains. “Painting is a meditative process for me. It is extremely relaxing and rejuvenating. Even if I do not have direct symbolism in my work, I think the peace and hope I feel when I paint can be communicated by my composition and color choices.”
The most prevalent theme Duke considered while preparing for her current show at Meyer Gallery was new beginnings. Her first child was born earlier this year, causing her to reflect on birth. “I spent most of this year pregnant and then caring for my new baby,” she says. These thoughts are evident in the titles of her paintings, “First Fruits,” “Blossoming,” “Golden Hour,” “The Awakening,” and “Treasures.” “The best word to describe this collection of my work would be hopeful,” Duke says. “I feel like the bright color palettes really communicate that.”
Duke’s paintings are interesting explorations of texture, “thingness”, and reinventing the genre of still-life painting. Though not openly symbolic, her art certainly evokes emotions of hope, curiosity, and joyfulness in their bright colors and energetic mark-making. Like other deconstructivist artists before her, Duke is breaking boundaries between representation and reality, exploring the line between the creation of a new object or a documentation of a different object that exists in the three-dimensional world.
Leslie Duke & Brian Astle, Meyer Gallery, Park City, Dec. 29 – Jan. 11. Artist reception Dec. 29, 6-9 pm.
Hannah Sandorf Davis graduated with a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts from Brigham Young University.