PHILADELPHIA — I first learned of Leigh Werrell’s work from her 2018 solo show at Gross McCleaf Gallery. I was struck by her nighttime bodegas, lamp-lit row-homes, steamy saunas, and hypnagogic self-portraits, which felt like snapshots from a dream.
Werrell’s latest body of work, Between You and Me, also at Gross McCleaf, is both a continuation of the artist’s earlier themes and an exploration of more inward territory: the enthralling experience of solitude and estrangement in the city. Many of the show’s paintings and three-dimensional works (sculptures and reliefs) are indirect responses to the pandemic: meditations on social distancing, isolation, and the absence of touch in this antiseptic era.
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The large, indoor gatherings in the artist’s older works are gone. With one exception, Werrell depicts spaces that are empty or occupied by a solitary figure. The viewer stands on the threshold between the interior and the exterior world, looking either out or in through windows, suspended in a state of disconnection. The views are partly or fully obstructed by panes of glass, garage doors, tent flaps, or the translucence of water; what lies beyond is always out of reach, half visible, enigmatic. Windows beckon with their luminous, streaming glow in contrast with indigo skies and darkened cityscapes. Bеyond are faint outlines of interiors: a woman’s silhouette framed within a rectangle of electric light; chairs and tables laid out inside a large farmhouse; hints of the wares inside a store.
“Dépanneur” (2022) depicts a Montreal storefront at night from the top of the stairs outside. The yellow light from within shimmers through the window and onto the dark concrete and metal banisters. A suffused glow permeates the shop, illuminating layers of shapes.
For Werrell, moments of disconnection and isolation in the city become opportunities to find enchantment in the act of looking. The views present first-person perspectives seen through the eyes of an invisible onlooker. “Lake Shadow” (2022) depicts the artist’s shadow cast on the wooden pier and the luminous green of the water. But her presence is discernible in every work; even when the observer is not visible, her gaze is felt. Off-kilter, low-angle, and high-angle views, a sense of an unbridgeable chasm between the observer and her subject — all of these make the absent gaze palpable.
In “Window in Window” (2022), for instance, the viewer looks out from a domestic interior onto a neighboring house. Layers of sanded paint give the window pane a frosted look, while the wintry light reveals the translucence of a potted plant’s leaves. The sense that someone is looking in, hidden from sight, renders the ordinary domestic scene uncanny. The view and the invisible viewer become inseparable in these paintings, infusing the compositions with a sense of longing and absence.
The few three-dimensional works in the show — a blue Postal Service mailbox and a wooden outdoor restaurant tent without any doors — reinforce the themes of inaccessibility and concealment. The only exception is the pre-pandemic relief “Loveseat” (2018), a hot pink papier mâché of two lovers locked in a kiss.
While the three-dimensional objects present the possibility of finding connection through the materiality of sculpture, this possibility is implicit in the entire show as the artist’s delicately executed spaces slowly reveal their intricacies until we find ourselves inhabiting them.
Leigh Werrell: Between You and Me continues at Gross McCleaf Gallery (127 South 16th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through October 29. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.