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A chartreuse-hued ceramic bust by Simone Leigh immediately reels in the eye from across the room. Balancing on a cylindrical pedestal at David Kordansky Gallery, Figure (135Y-2) (all works 2020) depicts the bosom, neck, and face of an unidentified woman. A smooth arc of hair forms a crown (or deific aura) above her head. Her defined nose and lips rest below a vacant slope of skin where her eyes should be. The figure’s slender arms abruptly end above the elbows, with one side more truncated than the other—a fissure that suggests a temporal break, as if she were an archaeological vestige from another epoch. Leigh’s fragmented sculptures of anonymous Black female figures (which she has referred to as both reflecting and directly speaking to Black women), impart a multitude of references, from functional architecture and vernacular ceramics (specifically face jug pottery, a tradition associated with enslaved African Americans in the 19th century), to 20th century minimalism and contemporary abstraction. By also subtly invoking classical statuary—the false paragon of a white-centric art history—alongside these many historical framing devices, Leigh fosters a critical art practice that melds diverse cultural references while privileging the representation of Black women. In this context, her humanesque figures function as sacred, living vessels: active sites of agency and resistance that retool vulnerability as a form of power.
Figure (135Y-2) directly faces another female figure, this one headless, situated on the opposite side of the gallery. Titled Martinique, this figure comprises a similarly sculpted bust, with two abbreviated arms and a nude torso, the surface of which drips with a thick, milky-white glaze. In place of a pedestal, the lower half of Martinique’s body swoops outward at the hips to form a bulbous bell, which also recalls a jug or a hoop skirt—voluminous shapes that dually point to the body as a container and as an object contained. In the tradition of 19th century face jug pottery, hand-hewn vessels functioned as critical sites of authorship, with an object’s formal surface becoming a malleable receptacle for gesture, language, and mark making—acts of creative ingenuity that doubled as modes of resistance. (Notable here is the artist and poet David Drake, who, while enslaved in South Carolina, crafted thickly glazed cisterns inscribed with poetry and signed, “Dave”—the first enslaved potter known to utilize such markings.) Sculpturally, Martinique’s alabaster surface echoes the indexical, almost sacred nature of these vessels, reflecting Leigh’s extensive research into their histories. Martinique’s craftsmanship—with luscious pools of glaze and visible fingerprints —reveals a haptic matrix of hand and tool markings related to her construction. Like both ceramic forms and a real mortal body, she functions as a vessel for the physical history inscribed on her surface, conjuring bodily agency and vulnerability through the tangible language of her making.
Face jugs have enigmatic spiritual undertones, and Martinique can also be interpreted as such a reliquary. Her headless ivory torso boasts a proud posture suggestive of an ancient goddess—pointing to the presence of a worshipful ideal—while her broken limbs imply the immobile fragility of a relic. Her chimerical lower half both furthers and complicates these dichotomies. While her stoneware skirt functions as a protective, fortress-like barrier designed to maintain the sanctity of her body, it also paradoxically acts as an imposing, bell-shaped corset that constricts her anatomical form. The work’s title, Martinique, conceptually buttresses this dialectic of containment: the titular Caribbean island of Martinique was thrust into the Transatlantic slave trade by French colonizers, who pillaged its resources and forced it into economic dependence—the island remains a French territory today. (Martinique was also home to poet Aimé Césaire, a founder of the intellectual, anticolonial Negritude movement that embraced Black identity as an antidote to colonialism’s penchant for cultural erasure.) As a work then, the figure of Martinique might function as a monument for the innumerous Black individuals impacted by the violence of colonialism, while also offering a symbolic physical enclosure that blocks forms of violent encroachment.
The remaining sculptural figures in the first gallery, which includes two vessel-like ceramic heads with elongated, supine necks (Stretch [GREEN] and Stretch [BLACK]) and a towering, totemic bronze figure that drifts into the waters of futuristic abstraction (Sentinel IV), reiterate this notion of the body as a site of vulnerability, agency, and resistance. In tandem, the sculptures comprise bodies without heads and heads without bodies and bodies without parts—each is a panoply of forms that nonetheless feels sacred, dignified, and cleanly minimalist. Installed sparsely but arranged in such a way as to form an open, unoccupied space in the middle of the gallery, the objects mostly point inward—a configuration that feeds the sense that, amongst these works, an unseen, collective act of communion silently unfolds. While these sculptures confidently hold space, their magnetic draw ultimately (and paradoxically) lies in the parts withheld.
Leigh’s gesture of sculpting faces with empty swaths of skin where eye sockets should be (qualities shared by many of the works on view) functions as the most potent example of this motif. While on one hand, an eyeless face may be immediately associated with repression—the omission of eyes representing a form of exclusion from the visual world—it also represents a reclamation of one’s own perceptual autonomy. Evoking both the power of foresight and the act of bearing witness, Leigh’s withholding of sight can also be read as a form of protection from external harm or traumatic stimuli, much like Martinique’s skirt-like fortification. If the eye is an orifice to the mind, these parts withheld also act to elevate the sovereignty of Black intellectual achievement, a gesture of reclamation via omission. Here, the power of sight, pointing inwards as a generative mode of creativity and resistance, is as sacred as the body itself.
At the back of the main gallery, a massive mound of woven raffia emerges from the wall, a construction that references vernacular dwellings of Sub-Saharan Africa. A sliver of vacant space where the structure and wall meet suggests the presence of an inner sanctum unreachable to the viewer, the revelation of which conceptually reorients the sculptures surrounding it. This cryptic enclosure reasserts the gallery itself as an active, interconnected site—a venerable vessel of architecture designed to hold, and withhold, bodies in both space and time. A doorway adjacent to the raffia structure leads to a smaller gallery occupied solely by Cupboard XI (Titi), an iridescent greenish-black ceramic bust, nude and de-limbed, with a sweeping raffia skirt and a regal crown of hair. Perfectly sculpted and bathed in a halo of natural light (via a skylight above), Cupboard XI is a modern-day vision of Black divinity. She is a counterpart to Martinique—her head reclaimed, her posture more resolute—that conceptually anchors the exhibition. Unlike the stoneware bell, raffia—a material ode to pre-colonial craft—bends and breaks like the body, aligning with the figure’s mortal vulnerabilities. While several of Leigh’s material modalities reference objects of the past, Cupboard XI suggests the artistic, philosophical, and spiritual potentialities of a radically inclusive present and future. Here, this worshipful figure acts as a god or matron saint, vacillating between being mortally human and esoterically divine.
Jessica Simmons is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. Her work and writing navigate the haptic, oblique space that exists between the language of abstraction and the abstraction of language.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 21.