The philosopher Spinoza said that if a midair stone were conscious, it would think it was freely falling to the ground. Schopenhauer said he agreed with Spinoza, and he would only add that the stone would be right to think it were free to fall – because there is no divine order behind gravity. Because of this, Schopenhauer’s concept of “Will” meant freedom is the condition of reality. It’s some fascinating wordplay from these two men, and “posturing” in the worst sense.
Leah Yerpe’s “Soliloquies,” smashes all of that gravity. Yerpe’s oeuvre is large-scale finished charcoal composite portraiture on exhibit now until October 6, 2018 at the Anna Zorina gallery in Chelsea, at 533 West 23rd Street. Yerpe has perfected mastery of charcoal: the portraits are photo-realistic, technically exact. Though Yerpe’s portraits elicit emotion, the overarching themes in this collection are freedom, love, and possibilities.
Patricia Flowers is a friend of the artist and was one of the models for this exhibit. She recalled the joy and dance going into modelling for her portrait, saying, “It was winter in February. I contemplated honestly what to wear. And I decided to wear something that I’m comfortable in, one I love to wear. This is one of my favorite dresses. It’s polyester, from the flea market in Paris called Petites Frites. I was on the floor. I’m listening to music, I’m in conversation, I’m talking while we’re doing it. We’re catching up, we’re comfortable. It was very natural. I’m not a very photogenic person, generally. But this felt natural. She has enormous talent for capturing skin tones, the shade, the light, the darkness in people’s skin, hair texture.” In Yerpe’s composite portrait of Flowers, titled, “Cradle,” the artist captured Flowers tenderly cradling her ribcage and smiling. This drawing reflects a time, perhaps just a mere moment, when Flowers unconditionally loves herself and her body. It is beautiful, peaceful, and joyful.
Part of Yerpe’s talent for texture has kinship with symbolism in fine art. First, most introductory art classes take time to discuss the basics of tone and texture. What one discovers from these exercises is fabric textures are not easily rendered: drawing fabrics takes time and patience, and a painstaking attention to detail. Old Masters often competed to see who had the best talent for painting the most complex and intricate materials. Vermeer is famous for this, as are the painters Piero di Cosimo and Caravaggio. Second, painters have used fabrics to communicate narratives and lessons. Nelson Shanks painted “Hiroshima,” in 1989. The vast explosion of purple silk depicts hundreds of thousands of deaths and the incomprehensible sense of loss and sadness -- the painting is devastating. When a competitor to Caravaggio, Valentin di Boulogne, painted his version of the Return of the Prodigal Son, he painted a bully holding a blood red cape indicating that if this teenager wasn’t accepted again by his father on his “return,” the bullies were going to kill him. Cosimo often used fabrics to communicate passion and sexuality. With an expertise in rendering fabric texture and flow, Yerpe’s charcoal drawings have foundational conceptuality.
In “Heliotrope II,” Yerpe positioned the portraits in a circle. The composition of the swirling woman makes the piece look complex and simple at the same time, like a Georgia O’Keefe flower. Yerpe uses repetitive body poses to imbue it with a calm, almost reverential, spirit -- the model’s eyes appear closed in repose as well. Yet the model is forever entwined and relentlessly spinning through space. "Heliotrope II" is also an example of Yerpe's swashbuckling manner, in which she uses horizons and vanishing points: the lines of the piece whirl and vex. The fabric and flesh and hair of the models seem chiseled.
Yerpe’s draughts have kinship with a motif that appears in artist Robert Longo’s works (born 1953), specifically his 1981 “Men in Cities,” series of charcoal portraits. These captured men and women contorting and writhing in black and white. The portraits appear intentionally drawn to challenge the viewer whether there is chaos or control, grief or freedom. Yerpe's paintings transcend Longo's by adding possibilities. Her works explode Longo’s forced-choice dualities in so many ways, showing mid-tones where Longo used stark black and white; showing models in reverie and willful grace; showing poses loving and graceful where Longo never expressed such nuance or insight in his works.
After pessimism in Schopenhauer, the philosopher Nietzsche wrote about optimism. He said, “We love life not because we know so many lives, but because we know so many loves.” Leah Yerpe’s composite portraits show so many possibilities of flying and falling, dancing and lying down, conscious thinking and subconscious thinking. The versatility of these works each show one life with these many loves.