Classic clouds roll into contemporary sky at YCBA

"Constable Study VIII, 2012"; gouache and synthetic resin on panel; by Mark Leonard
"Constable Study VIII, 2012"; gouache and synthetic resin on panel; by Mark Leonard

Mark Leonard's head may have been in the clouds for two years while he brought his artistic process to an installation of contemporary paintings created in response to John Constable's cloud studies.

But the methodic execution of this project also displays the artist's prowess as one of the most respected painting restorers working today. Chief conservator at the Dallas Museum of Art, Leonard has studied and restored thousands of paintings, including works by Constable, as well as Reynolds, Renoir, Rembrandt and Velazquez.

The results of the project, "Reflections on Constables Cloud Studies: Paintings by Mark Leonard," is an installation of 11 works by Leonard, displayed side-by-side with Constable's paintings of sky and landscape in the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) permanent collections gallery.

Created in the 1820s in oil paint on paper, a number of Constable's cloud studies were framed after his death in 1837 and began to be viewed as dynamic independent works of art that represent the force and variability of nature. YCBA is home to seven of the studies.

In the artist's words

In a recent talk at YCBA, Leonard described his deconstruction of Constable's cloud studies and reinvention in his own uniquely evocative, tightly composed response to the classic works.

The painter spent a week at YCBA intently studying Constable's paintings and drawings.

"I meditated upon the cloud studies and thought, 'What would I do now?' I had no idea.

"When Constable was painting clouds, they were constantly changing and he had to fuse them into a whole, a format that felt naturally right and beautiful," Leonard explained. "I had to (determine) what I wanted to interject, what interested me."

After seeing a show at the National Gallery in London of contemporary works by Bridget Riley, paired with works of Old Masters, Leonard says, "Riley's gridwork resonated beautifully" with the older works and it was a confidence booster that he, too, would find a contemporary connection to Constable's cloud studies.

"As a painting restorer, I have to be able to match color," Leonard noted, so he broke down five of the studies into their respective palettes, creating a color-matching panel in which he blended modern pigments to replicate Constable's colors.

Next, he came up with a visual motif. He searched for underlying geometries-or the "natural framework"-in Constable's seemingly free brushwork.

"Constable talks about clouds as forming lanes-horizontal movement," Leonard said. "I liked that sense of tumbling movement, locomotion."

He depicts this with a rope as a single lane of clouds. The orb became a secondary motif, which he noted appeared in early 19th-century German landscape paintings-a mystical, spiritual, otherworldly element that he interspersed with the ropes and clouds. Leonard also conveys Constable's masterful ability to create contrasting areas of light and dark in these paintings.

When asked if he found this project to be constricting or liberating, Leonard responded, "It's really different working on someone else's paintings when my job is to disappear-and as an artist, to be sure your own soul is there. This project gave me a chance to do both."

Amy Meyers, YCBA director, commented that in this exhibition Leonard has successfully married his professional and artistic skills "to create a new creative vision and a new depth of understanding of (John Constable's) work."

She also noted that YCBA "hasn't had a tradition of inviting modern living artists into the permanent exhibition space" and hopes it will become a new tradition at the museum.

"Cloud Study, 1822"; oil on paper laid on panel; by John Constable

IF YOU GO

What: "Reflections on Constable's Cloud Studies"

Where: Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel Sreet, New Haven

When: Through March 10. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: www.yale.edu/ycba or call (203) 432-2853.

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