Making a Bird Sing Again

Saskia installation shot by Mark Tantrum
Saskia Leek Desk Painting, 2008. Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, Gift of the Friends of The Dowse
Saskia Leek Untitled, 2004 Courtesy of Ivan Anthony Gallery
Installation shot by Mark Tantrum
Mark Amery on the quiet unsettlement of the paintings of Saskia Leek.


Reviewed by Mark Amery

Sometimes it takes a big public solo exhibition to make sense of an artist. Seeing the odd work or series when they don’t match your particular sensibilities can lead you to pass them by. In a big public solo gallery show, however, you can admire their singular journey – one perhaps like a mountain climber undertaken with stamina and creativity. Their world becomes the world you live and find your place in.

Indeed, there’s something glorious about public space being devoted, room after room to one individual’s small quiet offerings. Such care for one person’s practise needn’t be bombastic ego. Rather it can be a way of honouring the preciousness of human interpretation. Like the protagonist in a novel, we attach ourselves to that person’s visual story.

At least that’s how I felt after seeing the survey of painter Saskia Leek’s work at the Dowse. Regular and attentive readers might recall I felt the opposite about the recent Ben Cauchi survey at City Gallery. Perhaps its because Leek has gone on a longer and more changeable journey. We all like a good story. 

Scale is an interesting thing with these paintings. They are small quiet things and Leek has increasingly dealt in the subtleties of shifting planes and colours. Leek apparently paints them up close, so they are each her whole world. Yet we get to contend with nearly 60 of them on white walls and concrete floors. They have to soak up an undomestic setting. They are anchored by a cardboard caravan which is by far Leek’s worst work and suffers the tweeness most of her work successfully just skirts.

Yes, there are arguably too many works here – to many repetitions and variations on the same theme - which I find myself scanning over. And yet this very device leads me to pluck out my favourites and savour them like favourite chocolates from the box in a way I never have before.  I appreciate how each work and new series pushes a palette of previously oversweet colours and forms, and over-familiar modernist ideas into new configurations. That’s Leek our quietest rebel. The painter who portrays a Chrysanthemum flower off centre in a glass that is too small in magisterial blues and pinks. Or a dolphin whistling in the snow.

In a 1997 painting, which is part piss-take of Colin McCahon, she tells the childhood story of a friend whose family had a candle factory and how she got to choose for her birthday a bomb-shaped candle one year, an orange rabbit the next. That sweet yet dark sense of incongruity is still what makes her paintings sing; the wonder of the ordinary rather than, like McCahon, some other spirituality beyond. Jesus is made just one of the girls by pink lipstick.

Leek’s typical subjects are the familiar visual cliches of domestic spaces that we seek comfort from – flowers, grapes, white horses, and budgies. Likewise her palette returns us to the fruity and pastel domestic. Leek’s trick is not to rely on the nostalgia of this but to hook us in with these motifs.

It’s been said that Leek’s are paintings about painting. This may be true but for me all paintings are also about something, however abstract it may be. With Leek she is turning the universal into something intimate and personal – making a bird sing again. Again, her world becomes our world.  When she paints a church, an oil rig or a rose I reconsider them.  A pre-earthquake painting of Christchurch with its cathedral’s steeple intact eerily has the ground comprised of a collapsing pile of shards.

  • Desk Collection, Saskia Leek, Dowse Art Museum, until 14 April


Peter Decker’s Far Sight is a survey in a cabinet of 20 years of his ever-inventive jewellery surrounded by an outstanding collection of work by some of the many artists he has inspired.

Retospect, Dowse Art Museum, until 26 May.

Written by

Mark Amery

13 Feb 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media. He is co-curator of public art programme Letting Space.

Installation view of Art of the Pacific at NGV International. Photo / Brooke Holm
Story / Visual Arts
Visiting Melbourne, Mark Amery finds that when it comes to the art of the Pacific things are as different as they are the same.
Still from Jordana Bragg's 'How to water the roses (3'), 2015, Digital Video, Sound, Mason's Lane, Wellington
Story / Screen & Sound, Visual Arts
Mark Amery surveys the inventive approaches to moving image that a fresh array of artists are bringing.
The Presidents - a touring exhibition by David Burnett at Expressions, Upper Hutt
Story / Visual Arts
Mark Amery considers the political sensitivities of gallery programming on a visit to Expressions Gallery in Upper Hutt.
Shopping and Other Rituals - Jade Townsend, Pataka. Photo / Mark Amery
Story / Culture & Heritage, Visual Arts
Mark Amery writes on artists tackling town identity in Hamilton, Porirua and the Hutt.