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Melbourne Now countdown – day 11

born Australia 1973

Sam Leach has been exhibiting his meticulously detailed oil paintings since 2003. He discusses his painting, Sebeok on safari (2013), which will be on display in Melbourne Now.

Sebeok on safari is a polyptych of 24 panels, each 50cm by 50cm. The painting is in the form of a grid and finished with thick epoxy resin, so the emphasis moves between a triad of the surface, the structure and the image. The image is a constructed, imaginary landscape, referring to the fantasy Italianate landscapes of 17th century painters such as Adam Pynacker and Jan Both. The title refers to Thomas Sebeok one of the founders of contemporary biosemiotics; the study of the way that animals and plants communicate with each other, describing a biological world made of signs, objects and interpretants.

In the landscape are a few human figures based on archival images of NASA scientists and engineers, dressed in cleansuits which protect them from the world they inhabit and vice versa. I like to think of them as quite romantic figures and I have been struck by the way that, in the NASA archives, the scientists often seem to unconsciously strike poses that might have come straight from Caspar David Friedrich.

The work deals with some themes that are at the centre of my practice: the parallels between representation in art and in science, and the history and meaning of modernism between the 17th century and the 20th century. Barbara Maria Stafford compared the reductive techniques and motifs of late 20th century formalism with earlier, romantic conceptions of formalism which drew on the idea that the human ‘mind was formed in primordial fear and response’.  She argues that late 20th century formalism is preoccupied with negation and loss, compared with the richer possibilities of romantic and pre-modern formalism. I think this is partly true.

But the aesthetic research of 20th century formalism yielded valuable results. In art, as in science, progress on a problem is often made by intensive experimental design – minimizing variables. In art, mid to late 20th century formalism expressed a utopian ideal: works were made to uncover aesthetic truth, and end painting – to be the last painting.

A paradox of reductive research is that losing, deleting or ignoring information helps us to make progress. In science, the process of representation generates an aesthetic distancing: the reader/viewer is moved away from the object being represented by layers of interpretation and metaphor.

No matter how much detail is used in representation, the result is still loss and an aesthetic distancing. This is also true for figurative paintings which rely on the imperfect perceptual apparatus of the human brain to be effective – the mind will fill gaps and make connections based on vague suggestions. The process of observation involves choices about what to focus on and what to ignore and this is true in art as it is in science.