National Museum of Women in the Arts

National Museum of Women in the Arts

by Caroline Weaver Spring 2006

Kristin Leachman’s House Spirits

Southern California
by Caroline Weaver 

On the desk in Kristin Leachman’s Pasadena, California, studio lies a slip of paper containing a paraphrased quotation from Edith Wharton’s The Fullness of Life: “I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms;’ the female protagonist declares,”… whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead…. ”
Leachman  jotted down a version of this quotation seventeen years ago, and the metaphor has intrigued her ever since. It touches on the intertwined themes of secrecy, intimacy, and privacy that resonate in her recent work House Spirits, which she exhibited at Los Angeles’ Newspace gallery in the spring of 2005. “There is so much  hidden information, things you’re not being told;’ the artist says. “That’s what really interests me: what’s kept secret-what’s concealed, and also what’s revealed.”

Viewers may never discover precisely what it is that Leachman conceals, or reveals, within House Spirits’ serpentine brushstrokes and rich palette, but the work undoubtedly tempts  them to investigate. As a basis for the work, Leachman selected portions of existing images of woven items. Using the photographs as a model, she began painting layer after layer with several tiny brushes, “until  I can hear and feel it;’ she says. Her technique results in a tactile work that appeals strongly to the senses. At roughly six feet in height and just over a foot wide, each birch panel depicts what appear to be different braids of yarn and bits of woven rug. Leachman  magnifies tight, yarn-like knots and flexible, fibrous loops to an extraordinary scale, resulting  in an unusual  work that creates a concourse for abstraction and trompe l’oeil realism.
Each panel has a distinct  visual rhythm.  From left to right, Teeter Totter is rendered  in a modified  black-and­ white palette. Its pattern  is bold and graphic, its virtual “weave” tighter and tidier than that depicted  in the remaining panels. By contrast, blue and ochre coils intermingle with rose and burgundy bunches of yarn in Footprints. Next to Footprints, Flock depicts luminous white skeins dotted among  salmon  pink and blue, and Entanglement, the final panel, brings to mind  undulating waves of dusky-hued fibers in single strands and bunches, coiled and braided or unraveling.

Part of Leachman’s interest in creating works like House Spirits is testing the boundaries between fine art and craft.  “I do love the idea that you can take this kind of craft, the folky handiwork visual, and create another world,” says Leachman, an alumna  of the Rhode Island School of Design and Los Angeles’ American  Film Institute. Each tall, narrow  panel functions individually as a kind of conceptual gateway, drawing in viewers. House Spirits beckons us to approach its labyrinthine coils, which evoke both the crafty visual Leachman cites and the empty hallways and private interior rooms that might figure into an emotional landscape. Instead of bidding viewers to peep through a tiny opening-a keyhole, for example, or a sliver between drawn curtains-the work is an invitation to explore the hidden on a scale larger than life.
The hidden, the private, the intimate: Leachman interprets these themes as more than conceptual inspiration for work such as House Spirits-they also provide a framework for the viewer’s experience. “I do think there’s an intimacy with painting. It’s meditative;’ she says. “There’s something nice about the fact that the painting can stay with you, and inside you . . . hopefully each person has their own private moment with it.”

Writer Caroline Weaver lives and works in Washington, D.C.  

From the Committees, a loan program established in 1997, enables NMWA state and international committees to bring one artist from their region to greater public attention. Kristin Leachman’s House Spirits, selected by the Southern California State Committee, is on view through May 31, 2006.