Berlin Wine Diary: Day 3 – Anna Leonhardt and Her Ironically Cryptic Paintings

Wine takes me to all kinds of places and introduces me to all kinds of people, and one of the most interesting recent introductions was to the German painter Anna Leonhardt who’s first NYC show opens at 6pm tonight (Sunday, April 10th at Marc Straus Gallery, 299 Grand Street in Chinatown). In the photograph above she is pictured in her grungy NYC studio – it’s cold even on a warm day, and at one point when she was working several bucket loads of water suddenly dropped in through the ceiling – just a few doors down the street from the gallery where where she did most of the paintings that go on show tonight, a process I was able to follow. If you can’t get to the gallery before the show closes on May 15th, then you can get a get a good idea of how it looks by clicking on the following link.

I won’t get to see the show until after I return to NYC May 3rd, so what I see when I think of Anna’s work looks more like the photograph below that was taken in her studio the last time we met. It shows the largest of her recent paintings, and although it may not look it, this thing is 3.5 meters long and barely fitted in through the studio front door!

All of Anna’s paintings function in the same basic way, having a landscape-like background – that is one element covering the entire surface of the painting that we read as being a landscape type space – and a number of strokes in the foreground – that is a number of elements superimposed on that background that we read as being like figures standing closer to us than what we read as being behind them. This clumsy piece of description is necessary to point out that the way Anna’s paintings function is all about how we interpret them, a process I’ve only described the most banal aspect of. However, it is the basis upon which all the other interpretations we make are based, as it were the foundations upon which many floors can be built.

It’s a long time since abstract paintings fascinated me as much as Anna’s do, and they do so because they are ironically cryptic. That means, when I look at them my mind jumps to the conclusion there is a puzzle to solve, but I also see my mind doing that and observe the way it jumps to that conclusion. And what a (non-)puzzle it is! New pieces of (non-)it drop into my mind each time I look at one of Anna’s paintings, yet my head doesn’t just fill up with a growing pile of mental debris, rather space for further interpretations always remains available. That’s the reason that they are ironically open-ended, because I also observe the way they always remain open-ended, and any conclusions I come to are delightfully inconclusive. That might read like some kind of complicated word game, but really it’s not like that at all. Anna’s paintings communicate a special kind of freedom and it’s something I could never have thought up before I hadn’t encountered them.

I like this small painting a lot – Anna’s work on a small scale is every bit as strong as her larger paintings – and the way it looks in this deliberately awkward photograph. I took a number like this, because they seemed to capture the very particular atmosphere in her anarchic studio best. Anarchic? What I don’t mean is that this place and what she did there were chaotic in any sense at all, rather she gave the place a spirit that refuses to adhere to any rules, but then pragmatically goes through the motions of playing by the rules in order to get somewhere and take us there with her.

Now I’ve said too much already, or possibly nothing useful at all, but you read this far and some of you will go and see the paintings, which is the most important thing. On the side, being introduced to Anna Leonhardt by wine one evening in a Japanese restaurant (1 or 8 on South 2nd Street), then getting to know her work pushed me to reconnect with the painterly creative process and write something about it. That’s something I haven’t done for many years. No doubt the lack of practice shows!


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