Leigh Olmsted ’99 explores sense of self with ‘Re Turns’

Leigh Olmsted’s show “Re Turns” is a beautiful collection of drawings and books currently on display in the Wilde Gallery at Spencer Art Studio. Outside the galley is an old drawing table, used and marked with age. It is a perfect welcome to a show that is less concerned with final products than with the exploration of process itself. The collection ranges from 1996 to the present and explores physical themes of line and surface and ones such as identity. The show juxtaposes pieces created at different times in ways that allow the viewer to understand the process and continuity in the work and to appreciate the progression and sophistication that it has followed. Two collaged images from spring of 1996 are made with charcoal drawings and oil stick drawings, cut out and overlapped in a way that alters one’s sense of space and time by creating movement and depth. They have a playful quality that suggests the creative space in science fiction movies, but does so with brilliantly simple tools.

Olmsted’s portraits share this strong use of line and direction while adding a feeling of internal probing and searching. These pieces, too, are not without a sense of humor. The gestures of their figures are slightly exaggerated and contorted but not cartoonish. There is one self portrait in which Olmsted wears a shower cap that seems to challenge the viewer, “can you still take me seriously in this?” The honesty and the quiet rich tones of the black and gray charcoal, however, demand that we do. These pieces are about being looked at, but also a careful and personal self-scrutiny.

The “Continuous Line” set from 1998 is a pair of books that plays with the flatness of the line and drawing in three dimensional space. The books are comprised of four different family snapshots over which thin gestural drawings are placed in clever ways: spilling from the table, for example. These function also as self-portraits, exploring the relationship of the artist and her work to her family and the distance that grows between where you came from and who you are. This is done in a lighthearted way that makes the work truly entertaining on one level and seriously thougt-provoking on another.

Two pieces of work on old, paint-chipped, wooden window frames depart a bit from this humorous approach to looking and memory, and focus more on the ambiguity and distortion of the past. The windows are paned and the panes become compartments filled with drawings, paintings and glazed or partially glazed snap shots. These are the only pieces in the show that include color, although they are toned down and murky. They seem personally iconographic: images are repeated in different media, such as outstretched-cupped hands drawn on paper and then painted directly on the glass. There is again a feeling of psychological introspection, but here a new element of violation or voyeurism is introduced. Although they are three dimensional, these pieces still emphasize surface and feel more closely related to drawing than sculpture.

The show feels more like one collective piece than a group of many works. The gallery is a sort of personal space, quiet and contemplative. Olmsted has included on the wall a quote, “You realize you can never escape yourself,” and the show reflects this continuous search of the self in a very satisfying way. The show allows a window inside a way of thinking but also a way of creating. It is a constant examination that allows the viewer to appreciate both more abstract questions of identity and self and the beauty of the physical mark with all its power and nuance.