I first saw these surreal and impeccably detailed drawings by Leah Yerpe this March at the second annual NY Art on Paper fair. Like the fair, Yerpe is young—having graduated from Pratt University in 2009— but her great feats of naturalism and expressive drama suggest that she has perfected her technique over decades. In her figurative drawings and paintings, her work has a highly contemporary spirit; simultaneously the many concentric and kaleidoscopic views of the figure reveal a deep understanding of human anatomy, while dramatic, photographic under-lighting convey an academic study of chiaroscuro—and possibly many hours admiring the powerful dioramic sets of Caravaggio.
Very unlike the 16th Century innovator, however, human emotions and facial expressions are often obscured in Yerpe’s work. There is little to understand about the personality of these individuals as they twist, turn, and float in suspended space. Their shoulders are hunched, and a crossed arm shields their eyes from the light. Their eyes are closed, as they seem to fall into their dreams, to us unknown.
What Leah told me about her process surprised me. Read the interview below, and be sure to see LEAH YERPE: LEVITATION at Anna Zorina Gallery in Chelsea before it closes next Friday, July 9th.
First, tell me your preferred medium.
I like working on paper with simple materials. I think that’s why I’m attracted to drawing. Charcoal is my favorite means to draw… I like working really big, in works my own size. I like the very velvety blacks that you can get with charcoal. It’s very messy, but once you learn how to control it… you can’t get any simpler of a medium.
Because it’s less about the materials than what you want to convey. Did you study anatomy to achieve naturalism?
Yes, but mostly on my own. I took human biology courses in undergrad—just for fun. I took the basic life drawing classes in college. A lot of art schools don’t focus as much on drawing the figure as they did years ago. So it was a lot of study on my own. I did take some basic life-drawing classes in college, but I didn’t go to an ‘academy’ that had a lot of focus on figurative drawing, and I did that on purpose.
I’m surprised, based on your work. Can you say why?
I didn’t want to feel restrained. A lot of the art that I like looking at is not figurative. My favorite art tends to be very painterly—very abstract. In a lot of traditional academies, there’s a more conservative attitude. There’s an insistence that you don’t work from photographs, that you have to work from live models. There’s a very strong focus on doing realistic drawings, which is fine. Obviously, I don’t have a problem with very realistic drawings, but I wanted to be surrounded by people… who do a diversity of things, and study different kinds of art.
So what were the more traditional courses like for you?
I took a lot of criticism for my work not being ‘technically pure,’ in a sense that they would point out all the errors in my work: ‘Oh the foreshortening is off,’ ‘You’re working from photographs. You shouldn’t do that. You should only work from live models.’ They’re trying to preserve the techniques of the Renaissance, the Old Masters techniques. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what interests me.
When I looked at your work I was immediately reminded of the Old Masters—the isolated drama and the lighting reminded me of Caravaggio. What inspiration do you take from contemporary and abstract art?
I want my work to feel contemporary and relevant, and not to romanticize the past and Old Masters’ techniques. I think if there’s other technology to make someone’s life easier, that’s great. The poses in my work are a little extreme, so I’m not going to ask models to ‘hold it’ while I draw them for hours and hours. *Laughing* I make digital collages of photographs in the computer.
So does the computer actually help you find these motion sequences that appear in your drawings?
Yes. It’s enormously helpful. I put my reference photos in Photoshop, and I’ll make dozens and dozens of collages. It makes it easy to dance around, and I don’t have to actually cut out of paper and make the collages. I like my background very clean, and so the sketches [from the computer] have to be precise. I just think of my laptop as my sketchbook. I have files and files of sketches. The ones that I think are good become drawings. If I was hand-drawings the sketches, I wouldn’t be able to have the same precision.
Are you getting these lighting effects in Photoshop, or are you setting these up in the studio?
The lighting is from when I take the photograph. I’ll have the models come into my studio, I set up supplemental light to one wall with great windows. I want to make sure there’s strong, directional light, and I’ll have the models improvise their own poses. Each individual figure has their own strong, single light source, and then maybe a secondary light source. But because the model is moving around, you end up with no one light source in the composition as a whole…
To Caravaggio and a lot of Renaissance painters, it was important to them that they created an actual physical space, and they were very successful at it. There’s gravity pulling all the figures in one direction, there’s one light source that is affecting everybody in the same space. In my work, that all kind of falls apart, and I like doing that in there. I like that they’re in this ambiguous space, where light isn’t behaving according to the laws of physics, and neither is gravity. Even though it looks like each individual is in the same space—on the same piece of paper—light is not behaving normally. It’s coming from different places on the individual figures. You can’t tell if they’re falling together, or rising—it’s all very ambiguous.
I feel like that ambiguity is part of the psychology of your portraiture itself. It’s hard to know the personality of the figures. Is that intentional?
Yes. [Laughs.] Yeah. The drawings themselves are very precise, so it’s important that I do leave some ambiguity in there and um I think that kind of the story that you the viwer will make up in your own mind is probably more interesting than whatever I would tell you. Because these drawings take me so long to make, I like that depending on my mood the day I go into work, it will read a bit differently, and I think that helps me hold my own attention.
Who were your first modernist or contemporary inspirations? Do you feel they had a strong influence on your own work?
The artists who first come to my mind are Cy Twombly, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and DeKooning. I’m sure they had a big influence on me, though my work doesn’t look like theirs. I love the lyrical compositions of Twombly, and the sense of movement he achieves. Same with DeKooning, though his has a very different energy. Smith and Bourgeois play a lot with the human body in interesting ways. Kiki Smith in particular is a master storyteller. Sometimes her work feels very ancient. All the artists I admire have a playful streak in their work.
This is your last week to see these recent works by Leah Yerpe at Anna Zorina Gallery before her show closes on July 9th! You can also follow her work on Instagram (@leahyerpe).