Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

Closely Watched Frames

The elegant melancholy of Leanne Shapton's art

Elizabeth Gumport


"In my doctor's office I hold up a worksheet and ask him how many I have to fill out before I feel better," the author and artist Leanne Shapton writes in her 2012 memoir, Swimming Studies, recalling a visit to her therapist. A former competitive swimmer who twice made Olympic trials, Shapton feels adrift after quitting the sport—no longer the athlete she was and not yet the artist she will soon become. Her therapist tells her: a hundred. "I get it, like laps," Shapton writes. "I settle in, blinker myself, count the laps. Six months and a hundred and fifty worksheets later I feel better." Eventually, she finishes some drawings. She publishes them as a book; she moves to New York. She becomes, in other words, the Leanne Shapton she's recognized as now—an artist, author, and designer as skillful with words and images as she was in the pool. Shapton's athletic training has taught her that the body "bestows specialness in prowess and illness" both. She knows all about the first kind of specialness: "doing a series of very unspecial things, very well, over and over, a million times over, so that one special thing might happen, maybe, much later. . . . Specialness is sanctioned, rigorous unspecialness."

It's this process that interests her. How do you get from not being something to being it? How long do you have to work, and how does it feel when you arrive? "Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred." In Swimming Studies, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, Shapton emphasized the correspondence between the two practices by presenting a selection of the images thematically, rather than inserting them individually throughout the text. One chapter consists solely of inky depictions of seventy-one different swimming pools, each blue-green shape rendered with dollhouse precision. In this memoir of a solitary coming of age, the watercolors and photographs are not there to defer to or serve the writing, or to disrupt or challenge it. Rather than being illustrations or examples of what she's said, they're another way of saying it.

What was Shapton to do with swimming? With all that time spent in the water, the hours in the pool that added up to her childhood, but also with that sense of avocation, of having the kind of body whose lead one follows? Seeing her work, the answer is clear: this. She learned a certain kind of bravery from swimming, the courage to do something you can't do until you can. And with this courage comes an acute sensitivity to time, to its uses and its passing.

Click to enlarge

Leanne Shapton, L'avventura, 2008.

Shapton's new book of paintings, Sunday Night Movies, takes up this project, serving in part as a record of that passage,and as a possible answer to the question: What are we doing when we say we are living? As its title suggests, Sunday Night Movies is a collection of stills from black-and-white films remembered and recaptured in an arresting series of watercolors. The book itself is structured like a movie, its pages like frames on a celluloid reel. It begins, appropriately, with illustrations of studio logos (Paramount's stars, Fox's searchlights) and opening credits, and closes with the end title from Michelangelo Antonioni's mournful 1961 drama, La notte. Some of the artworks in between are immediately recognizable, whether they depict specific icons—Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, regal in a bathing cap, or Monica Vitti's face, set against the black rocks and blank sky of the Aeolian Islands, from L'avventura—or evoke romantic ideas about "the movies" in general, as in the case of the 20th Century Fox logo. Others take a moment to place, or merely feel familiar, like a lie you tell so many times it feels basically like the truth, or the way you might have remembered that movie, if only you'd seen it. Nearly all of the paintings are suffused with a kind of rosy light: bright whites, celluloid blackness, a celestial gray haze, like the long, dusty beam of the projector, or the glow of the Empire State Building on a foggy night. It is a soft light, the kind you shine on something you love.

This is an effect of Shapton's technique: the washes of grays, soft and smoky, that often serve as backgrounds; the thick, velvety depths of her black, and the frequency with which it appears; the way she handles details, forgoing the meticulous precision of drybrush for loose, easy strokes. She does not copy down all the information the camera took in, or see with its uniform clarity, because these are not paintings of the movies. Shapton paints from the movies, the way one would paint from memory. And the mind's eye is always just a little blurry. When you look, you can see the water in her paintings, the way certain drops feathered or one stroke was brushed over another. You can also see that, on closer inspection, a woman's profile is actually three quick strokes: lip, nostril, brow. Her chin and cheek are just negative space, part of the page that has been left lighter than its background. And yet her expression is unmistakable, even if you've never seen it before—as if a memory of something were not a diminished version of the original, but a new thing entirely.

Many paintings in Sunday Night Movies came out of a monthly New York Times Web feature that appeared in 2011. Conceived of as a "series about life's minor notes and quotidian details," it ran for eight installments, which included Monday Shower Songs and Sunday Walks. The latter installment comprises twenty-eight illustrations, nearly all of which feature the same place in upstate New York: Titicus Reservoir gray in October, beyond yellow grass; Titicus Reservoir aflame on a late afternoon in December, a thin crust of snow on its banks; Titicus Reservoir as pink as a flamingo in June. The paintings—loose, blurry watercolors—aren't precise or finely detailed, but they are exact. That is New York in winter, bright and bitter; that is a New York June, pink beyond reason. This is the kind of wisdom that comes from experience, from actions repeated and habitual—from walking around a reservoir, Sunday after Sunday, from putting one's body through the same motions every week of one's life.

Sunday Walks brings to mind Shapton's 2010 book The Native Trees of Canada, nearly one hundred paintings of leaves, nuts, and seeds inspired by The Native Trees of Canada, No. Bulletin 61, Fifth Edition, originally published in 1917. (Shapton found a copy at a used-book store in Toronto.) Rather than copy the manual's austere black-and-white photographs, Shapton works impressionistically, letting personal associations and childhood memories guide her depictions of various leaves. This method extends to her choice of materials, as she used basic house paint as well as vivid, highly concentrated ink to produce almost abstract, brilliantly—and unnaturally—colorful compositions. Her Pacific-crab-apple leaf is a wash of bright marine blue; black ash an orange outline on a field of black. "I think of the Manitoba Maple leaves as being a dark red," Shapton said in an interview, "when I don't think it's actually true at all." Reading Native Trees does feel like reading a field guide—not to the wilderness envisioned by the Forestry Branch, but to those other natural environments, the world as seen through our inescapable selves: misunderstood and half-remembered, colored by circumstance and chance.

Like Native Trees, Shapton's other works also have certain field guide­–like properties: Was She Pretty? (2006) is a sort of folk taxonomy of former lovers, and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (2009) is an exhaustive visual aid for the end of a relationship. In Important Artifacts, which documents one couple's love affair in the form of an auction catalogue, the shape of Doolan and Morris's relationship emerges from the lot descriptions and photographs of the objects for sale: a cocktail napkin ("some wear and creasing") that bears Lenore's e-mail address; some lingerie and an engraved key chain; a crumpled scrap of paper, with another person's e-mail address on it. Paging through the book, the tidily assembled objects—the intimate materials of ordinary life—start to look a little like evidence, like photographs from a police investigation. Who else would be interested in someone's old receipts besides investigators or ex-lovers? To be domestic—to establish a private life, and furnish it—is to produce clues in advance of the crime. Like a detective, or an ex, Shapton attends to the ordinary, to the usually unremarkable scraps and stuff that add up to something like a life. Nothing is too small or too common to be significant: People can make anything mean something. But Shapton reminds us we can't always choose what the significant thing is. The objects that seem like they'd be important (an expensive gift, a fancy swimsuit) fail to move us; instead, we daydream about goggles and mourn lost ticket stubs. The world is full of things that seize the heart, and most of them are unspecial.

Beneath the bright colors and refined sensibilities of Shapton's work, this melancholic note persists. Autumn leaves, ex-lovers, old movies, and ends of weekends: Her favored subjects are the things we have lost, and the experience of losing them. If this low chord is sometimes difficult to hear, we might blame Shapton's talent for, and belief in, design—in the making beautiful of everyday things, so as to make the everyday itself more beautiful. Or we might fault a critic's faithlessness, an ear that always hears harmony when it expects to: in illustrations of flowers—or illustrations of any kind, really—in records of women's clothing, and in every sort of women's work.

Elizabeth Gumport is an editor of n+1.

driedchar

September 19, 2013
8:47 pm

This is an excellent piece on a significant artist and writer. I enjoyed it immensely.

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