Sam Leach: The Primacy of Progress - Art Collector

Issue 48, April - June 2009

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Beneath the polished surfaces of Sam Leach’s work hides a deep concern for the price we are paying for our material, technological and scientific progress. Both beautiful and unsettling, these images reflect the residual belief in the supremacy of humans over nature writes Carrie Miller.

Read anything about Sam Leach’s work and inevitably references will be made to the paintings of the 17th century Dutch renaissance. Superficially this comparison is self-evident, from the scale, technique and subject matter of much of the artist’s practice.

But the parallels with Dutch renaissance painting are far from superficial. Certainly, Leach has skilfully mastered the trompe l’oeil technique made possible by Jan van Eyck’s rediscovering the potential of pigments ground in drying oils and the methods developed to exploit oil paint’s unique qualities. Like the Dutch masters however, there is a conceptual depth to Leach’s allegorical works only alluded to on their surface.

The artist is not only interested in the technical innovations of 17th century painting but also the profound developments in Dutch society at that time. The Netherlands was emerging as an entirely new kind of political, economic and cultural entity: the modern capitalist state.

As Leach puts it: “Using the history of architecture and still life painting, with particular reference to Dutch painting of the 17th century, I examine how the construction of atmosphere through light, space and surface has been used to respond to an ambiguous attitude towards the creation and accumulation of wealth.”

The artist achieves this through the placement of exquisitely rendered, lifeless animals in eerily empty, dark and airless corporate interiors – in Leach’s terms, the “spiritual vacuums” of capitalist culture. These memento moris drawn from nature are juxtaposed with signifiers of commercial culture to form a meditation on what is both gained and lost in the insatiable desire for progress – material, technological, scientific – which characterises contemporary capitalist society.

These images, at once beautiful and unsettling, are at their core a reflection on the residual belief in the centrality and superiority of man, which was at the conceptual centre of 17th century enlightenment thinking and which helped guarantee the individualist impulses of capitalism and the primacy of the scientific worldview.

Leach explains: “Human/nature dualism is a cultural formation in the West that goes back thousands of years. I am most interested in the period from the enlightenment onwards. At that time the unique position of humans was consolidated by a form of reductionist materialism to achieve what Descartes described as the ‘empire of man over mere things’. The idea of the superiority of man helped European traders to view the world as a store of resources to be understood and, with luck, commodified. So both wealth creation (especially commercial corporate wealth) and modern science were fostered by this idea.”

But while there is an undeniable conceptual force at work, it would be wrong to think of Leach’s paintings as simply reducible to a set of ideas. He claims that while his practice trades in philosophical concerns, it is also crucial to him that this is balanced with artistic endeavour as an end in itself. “I think there has, at least to some extent, been a demise in the interest in postmodernist concerns and critical theory,” Leach has said. “I think people are going back to asking whether there is a metaphysical truth that can be grasped in art.”

New work by Sam Leach will be on show at Peter Walker Fine Art in Adelaide until 4 April, Nellie Castan Gallery in Melbourne from 4 to 27 June, and next quarter with Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art in Sydney in late July.

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