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Transition
New Paintings by Mary St. Leger

Mary St. Leger’s recent paintings appear retablo in execution. That, is the paintings solicit devotional contemplation through the framing of suspended time in which isolated figures offer a purity of gesture. But the works also suggest oblique allegories, or are deceptively complex. The women who variously pose and perform prompt recognition and consideration of what it means to be and to relate, seemingly oscillating between a sense of the sincere and the absurd.
Retablo is a common Spanish term for framed objects behind a Christian altar and also artistic gifts to Saints by those who have suffered and been saved by their devotional beliefs. Deeply-felt belief – indeed, sincerity – doesn’t necessitate realism: in St. Leger’s painterly world, the tiny hands, provisional backgrounds and an unanchored and eerie quality to the figures bespeak the workings of a mind not an eye. Like the dramatic scenarios of retablo histories, St. Leger distills her emotive imaginings to extraordinary expressive effect. This is heightened when sometimes witchery or sorcery is hinted at, with demonic hues and a perception of conjuring among her figures.
Transition is a contemplation of ritual itself; the paintings are not, like the religious precedents, a means to some “greater” and given “truth.” The peculiar mix of clothing and costume - uniforms, jester and other outsized hats, and acrobatic garb – condense different times, reminding us that ritual is about belonging simultaneously to different worlds: our own and some transcendent other. The titles of many of the works highlight those other worlds (Call to Silence, Prayer to the Ground) but while the women of St. Leger’s imagination perform their gestures, they hold us in the moment. This moment reveals the forces that so often try to shape us to be what we are not – and don’t want to be.

Brian Curtin
Brian Curtin is an Irish-born art writer in Bangkok. He publishes in Flash Art, Frieze, Art Review Asia and many other publications.