Leah Guadagnoli’s Joyous Kitsch

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As people on the streets watched sculptural paintings being brought into the gallery for the exhibition Love Lies Bleeding, they asked, “Is that Leah Guadagnoli’s work?,” said the effusive director of contemporary art at Hollis Taggart, Paul Efstathiou. This may be apocrypha, but the 10 pieces on display prove that Guadagnoli has created a sensibility she can call her own. 

Guadagnoli’s multi-part 3-D canvases — made of polyurethane foam and insulation board on LusterBoard, painted in acrylic, shaded to pop like a wad of phosphorescent bubble gum — are neither strictly painting nor sculpture. “Painting sculpture” is the artist’s term for her bas-reliefs. Where Guadagnoli’s earlier works reflected styles from the Italian designers of the Memphis Group and integrated Kandinsky-like triangles and circles to deliberately kitschy effect, the works in Love Lies Bleeding no longer paying homage to anything or anyone apart from her own vision.

Leah Guardagnoli, “Love Lies Bleeding” (2021)

The exhibition, Guadagnoli’s first solo show with Hollis Taggart, is a maturation from the sharp, geometric shapes that previously dominated her aesthetic. Instead she focuses on softer, natural contours in nine wall-mounted works, as well as and a tenth piece, a bench composed of swirling baby blues, violets, and creams, aptly titled “Resting Place” (all works 2021). 

The 10 pieces (playfully titled “The Night is Neutral” and “Fireworks Are Wasted in the Day,” for example), were “made in the process of loss, heartache, and recovery,” as the press release emphasizes. Nowhere is there a dour note, however. The sleek surfaces and flowing, petal-like shapes, shaded in warm colors, triumph over any sense of sadness. My favorite piece, “Glow (In the Dark),” is an oblong shape split into eight sections, each painted a shade of green or purple. The center-left column is painted a fuchsia that would make even a flat surface seem like it was attempting to transcend its two dimensions. The parts that comprise the whole artworks don’t fit together perfectly, but this is precisely what makes them feel organic. Viewers can almost picture Guadagnoli working on the assemblage in the Hudson Valley church where she works and lives. 

Works by Leah Guadagnoli, (left) “The Night Is Neutral” (2021) and (right) “Floral Futurism/Fortune Teller” (2021), installed at Hollis Taggart gallery

Stripped of the ironic ’80s flair that characterized her previous work, what remains is something wholly human and fun. Consider “Floral Futurism / Fortune Teller,” with its variegated oranges and yellows, resembling a cartoon banana that’s ready to send you flying across the kitchen floor. As well, the titular “Love Lies Bleeding” features a monochromatic palette of pink teardrops coiled together, each section hugging tightly, inviting the eye to luxuriate in the colors, which stem from the flowering plant from which the piece takes its name. 

The press release describes Guadagnoli’s sensibility as kitsch. Czech novelist Milan Kundera said, “Kitsch … must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories.” With these new painting sculptures, the artist, no longer reliant on the nostalgia of kitsch, doesn’t look to the past, but instead moves forward — if not into the future, then at least the present. 

Leah Guadagnoli: Love Lies Bleeding continues at Hollis Taggart Gallery (521 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 13.

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