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Shape Shift: MacLeish Turns Experience Into Gesture

It's not a translation of form that MacLeish seeks—rather, an expression of energy. Many of her pieces have verbs for names—wobble, shrug, somersault.

  • Shrug

    Image 1 of 4

    Photo: Kevin Mooney

    Martha MacLeish, Shrug, 2009; 33”H x 68”W x 17”D; laminated polyvinyl chloride and acrylic plastic

  • Switchback

    Image 2 of 4

    Photo: Kevin Montague and Michael Cavanagh

    Martha MacLeish, Switchback, 2005; 23”H x 33”W x 10”D; polyvinyl chloride plastic sheet constructions and latex and acrylic paint.

  • Things seen are things as seen

    Image 3 of 4

    Photo: Kevin Mooney

    Martha MacLeish, Things seen are things as seen, 2011; 21”H x 70”W x 70”D; laminated polyvinyl chloride plastic

  • Martha MacLeish

    Image 4 of 4

    Photo: Kevin Mooney

    Martha MacLeish, Somersault, 2009; 66”H x 57”W x 27”D; laminated polyvinyl chloride plastic.

Event Information

Shape Shift

An exhibition of large sculptural forms by IU Assistant Professor of Fine Arts Martha MacLeish.

Manifest Gallery, 2727 Woodburn Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio 45206

April 15 - May 13, 2011; Tuesday through Friday 2 – 7:00 p.m., Sat. 12 – 5 p.m., or by appointment


Shape Shift is an exhibition of work by Martha MacLeish, assistant professor and head of the Fundamentals Studio at the Hope School of Fine Arts at IU. But the artist who’s showing her new works at Cincinnati’s Manifest Gallery is a bit of a shape-shifter herself.

Question The Question

If you were to ask MacLeish how to describe her current work in terms of medium, or genre, or style, you’d have to be prepared for her to dodge the question — and then to show you, in the nicest way possible, how your question was rather stodgy in the first place.

I guess it’s hard to put categories on things, and I understand why we do, because we need to give things a name. But my feeling is that it’s the way we’re thinking about things that’s important, and then we try to find the form at that time that’s going to work best.

The form that works best to represent MacLeish’s ideas lately is large-scale, sculptural polyvinyl chloride plastic. The material, which is most commonly used by the signage industry, comes in sheets, which MacLeish cuts with a computer numerical control (CNC) router, and laminates together, creating three-dimensional free-standing and wall-mounted shapes.

Off The Wall, Into Real Space

Lately, MacLeish’s shapes are often parabolic, with striped patterns on their surfaces that are created by layering various colors of plastic. The work has a clean, modernist aesthetic, and shares something with op art, minimalism, and post-painterly abstraction. It’s a long way from the expressionist paintings MacLeish used to make at Yale, where she completed her MFA.

“I was doing a lot of abstract painting,” she explains, “and was having a hard time making a firm decision. I would go in and paint, the next day I’d go in and sand off what I’d painted the day before. I didn’t feel like I was working towards something more particular; everything felt too arbitrary. When I hit a wall with that, I started to make some simple three-dimensional forms that I could paint on. That gave me something I couldn’t change when I went into the studio.”

But there was another reason for MacLeish’s foray into three-dimensional space: She was finding phenomena in two dimensions that she wanted to explore in three. These visual events seemed to be cropping up in a broad and unpredictable array of sources, from the paintings of Jan Van Eyck to a Victorian daguerreotype. For example, MacLeish translated the energy she perceived in a flamboyant coiffure in an otherwise static, early photographic portrait into the sculpture Apollo’s Knot (2003), a three-dimensional wall relief made from painted canvas stretched over a shaped wood support. With Apollo’s Knot, she’s make spatial the extravagant curves of the Victorian sitter’s hairstyle.

When A Noun Is Really A Verb

But it’s not a translation of form that MacLeish seeks to reproduce in the sculptures, but rather an expression of spirit or movement. Many of her pieces have verbs for names: Wobble, Shrug, Somersault.

In drawing classes, students are often asked to make gesture drawings of the model, who will hold a pose for, say, sixty seconds. The purpose of the exercise is not to describe the contour of the figure, but to express the model’s gesture. Similarly, in her sculptures, MacLeish seeks “to turn experience into gesture.”

When I talk about gesture, I’m not trying to make something that’s thing-like as much as something that feels like it is transient, or that we’ve caught in a moment of existence. So even even though I’m making things, I’m trying to de-emphasize their thing-like quality and make you think instead of their condition.

About The Artist

Martha MacLeish is an assistant professor and head of the Fundamentals Studio at the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts at Indiana University, in Bloomington. She received her BFA in painting and her BA in art history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and her MFA in painting from the Yale School of Art. Prior to coming to IU, MacLeish taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and at Southern Utah University.

MacLeish has had solo exhibitions at the Prince Street Gallery in New York, The Artist Project in Chicago, Broad Street Gallery in Athens, Georgia, the Marsh Art Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, and at Artemisia Gallery, Chicago. Recently, MacLeish has been an artist in residence at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Park, Illinois, the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences in Rabun Gap, Georgia, and at the Toos Neger Foundation in Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

External Links

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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