In Progress: Simone Leigh assesses her towering “Brick House” sculpture.

 

A STUNNING CLAY SCULPTURE by Simone Leigh rises 16-feet high in a Philadelphia foundry. Leigh’s monumental vision of a black woman is titled “Brick House” after the 1977 song by the Commodores. Blending architectural forms from West Africa and the American South with the human body, the sculpture takes shape as a bust whose patterned torso resembles a skirt or domed hut-style house.

Destined for Manhattan, “Brick House” will be cast in bronze and installed on the High Line in April 2019. Leigh’s work is the first commission for the High Line Plinth. Sited in the newest section of the elevated park atop West 30th Street and 10th Avenue, the female form will stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding greenscape, adjacent glass high rises, and incessant traffic below. Part of her ongoing series “Anatomy of Architecture,” the towering sculpture is her first public art work.

Fifty artists competed to win the High Line commission. In early 2017, the 12 who made the shortlist presented maquettes of their proposals in an exhibition for public review. Leigh was among the select group. At the time, I wrote that her busts symbolizing the black body are a sight to see: “Imagine a monumental version of one of her sculptures installed on the High Line, rising so high it is visible from the street below. It’s a possibility that might materialize next year.” And so it has, and the final vision is even better than what she pitched.

Leigh’s busts are abstracted representations of black women and “Brick House” follows suit. The figure has no eyes, but is beautiful nonetheless, with a nose and lips that are sculptural and fulsome.

Her hair is her crowning glory. The details are meticulously carved. The textured surface of her tightly packed afro is encircled at the hairline by a single cornrow. Four braids hang from the cornrow, each punctuated wth a cowrie shell on the end. Exhibiting strength, rhythm, and the stature of royalty, the embellished braided frame resembles chain-link jewelry.

The artful hairstyle was inspired by Thelma Evans, the sister character on “Good Times.” Leigh told the New York Times that the 1970s television show is “extremely problematic,” but the depiction is one of the earliest representations of black women that she recalls.

She said she viewed “Brick House” as a great opportunity to insert black beauty into the public space, which also accounts for the song-inspired name.

Indeed, as the lyrics co-written by Lionel Richie state, “She’s a brick house. She’s might mighty… And like lady’s stacked, that’s a fact…”

“[The Commodores song] was a celebration of black womanhood that we hadn’t really heard,” Leigh said. “That was what was resonant about it—not necessarily a male gaze but that beauty was associated with mightiness and strength, as opposed to fragility. Being solid.”

“[The Commodores song] was a celebration of black womanhood that we hadn’t really heard. That was what was resonant about it—not necessarily a male gaze but that beauty was associated with mightiness and strength, as opposed to fragility. Being solid.” — Simone Leigh

THE HIGH LINE COMMISSION is the latest milestone in Leigh’s career. She has experienced greater recognition and more prominent opportunities in the past couple of years. In early 2016, she joined Luhring Augustine gallery, which also represents Glenn Ligon and Jason Moran. That summer, the New Museum in New York hosted her residency and solo exhibition, “Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room.” A West Coast show followed in September. “Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh,” at the Hammer Museum, was the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in Los Angeles.

Last year, the accolades continued. Leigh made the High Line Plinth shortlist in January. The Studio Museum in Harlem awarded her the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize in October 2017. And then in December, she was among six artists shortlisted for the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize 2018. The winner will be announced this fall.

Leigh’s first solo exhibition with Luhring Augustine opens Sept. 8. She is presenting a new body of sculptural works that the gallery describes as both a departure and a continuation of the themes explored in her Anatomy of Architecture series, which includes “Brick House”:

    “In these [new] works she draws upon disparate, seemingly anachronistic histories of ancient Roman-Egyptian and more recent American vernacular art and architecture, with a focus on the anthropomorphic features of objects and their relationship to specific functions. From a 200 BC bronze ‘Vase and lid in the form of a Nubian boy,’ to face jugs produced by enslaved African American potters in South Carolina, and to Mammy’s Cupboard – a Mississippi café housed in the figure of a woman’s skirt, Leigh’s new ceramic sculptures parse how these objects emblematize and problematize space in regard to the body, fusing and implicating the human form with architecture.”

The exhibition also includes a new video work that reconsiders an episode of the television show M*A*S*H. A collaboration with cinematographer Bradford Young and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, who wrote the screenplay, the video features an all-black female cast.

Next spring, “Brick House” debuts on the High Line and will be on view through September 2020.

“The sculpture’s majestic poise will cast a sense of calm determination over the plaza and buzzing streets below,” Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art, said in a statement. “Leigh’s practice conveys a reckoning with contemporary and historical relationships between the body, architecture, and society, as well as with questions as to whose visages and experiences we monumentalize in our public squares.” CT

 

READ MORE about Simone Leigh and her practice on her website

 

TOP IMAGES: Simone Leigh in front of her in progress “Brick House” sculpture (2018). A High Line Plinth. | Photo by Timothy Schenck, Courtesy Friends of the High Line; At left, Simone Leigh. | Photo by Paul Mpagi Sepuya

 

BOOKSHELF
Simone Leigh contributed to “Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz,” which was published earlier this year. Cafritz, the late Washington, D.C., collector, was an early supporter of Leigh and her work.

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Brick House,” 2018 (in progress). A High Line Plinth. | Photo by Timothy Schenck, Courtesy Friends of the High Line

 


A view from 10th Ave of Simone Leigh’s “Brick House.” | Rendering by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Courtesy the City of New York

 


A southeast view of Simone Leigh’s “Brick House.” | Rendering by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Courtesy the City of New York

 

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