Slice of life: Leonard sets the table

Davette Leonard, "Tangerine."

Most people maintain romantic notions about the lives of artists and writers. But the truth is we all have to make a living. That guy and gal who sell you cabernet and beer at the Market Street Wineshop? He's an accomplished poet, and she's a brilliant actor. The woman who manages the dairy case at C'ville Market? She paints jaw-dropping still lifes in the manner of Renaissance artists.

In the case of the latter, Davette Leonard may keep you in yogurt and cheese by day, but her true passion lies in using oils and glazes on masonite to realistically depict small tabletop scenes, often involving fruit. Twelve of Leonard's paintings, plus a portrait and a still life in egg tempera, are currently on view at the McGuffey Art Center.

Although her compositions involve fewer elements than those of the 16th century Dutch masters who inspire her work, Leonard uses a similarly rich palette with careful attention paid to light. She arranges her objects on a simple cream-colored tablecloth–- sometimes creased, sometimes folded–- against monochromatic backgrounds.

Leonard replicates the Renaissance tradition of "vanitas" paintings, which visually lecture against worldly desire by alluding to the impermanence of life and material wealth. But rather than paint a skull amid wilting flowers and accoutrements spilling off a table, as earlier painters were wont to do, Leonard takes a subtler approach. Her sliced fruits are alluringly juicy but also show the first signs of decay in the darkened edges of their peels and slight browning of their flesh. Leonard often includes desiccated leaves, shells, and twigs to punctuate these tableaux.

Using colors that are true-to-life and luscious, Leonard keeps evidence of her brushwork to a minimum. Her objects' edges, though not diffuse, have a softness that seductively pulls viewers into each painting, where meticulously observed details create small dramatic moments.

In "Clementine," a dried-out leaf curls in front of an unpeeled fruit, the arc of the leaf's central vein echoing the pulpy lines on the backs of nearby citrus slices. Elsewhere, Leonard's interpretation of vanitas turns toward sensual aspects of desire. In "Tangerine," the interior of a cut-open, tempting fruit whisperingly recalls female genitalia. The suggestion is quiet, yet a central crease in the tablecloth leads the viewer's eye to it.

Luminous and exquisite, each precisely observed painting invites contemplation. If only Leonard could quit her day job, but, alas, still life isn't real life.

Davette Leonard's exhibition is on view through February 28 in the downstairs hall gallery of the McGuffey Art Center. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.

1 comment

Thanks for the shout out Laura. Great review, lovely painting.
Sam Witt