Reprising Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in a series of reliefs cut from sheets of tin, along with studies on canvas and on paper, June Leaf undertakes a gutsy, idiosyncratic venture into well-trodden territory. Leaf adopts a fairly intractable material to engage physically with the iconic image. Her approach does not involve either outright appropriation (as with Warhol’s grandiose Last Supper transcriptions) or the switching of the figures’ identities to highlight a present-day issue (as with Mary Beth Edelson’s or Renée Greene’s feminist recastings). Nor is she interested in parody. Leaf’s series constitutes a highly personal meditation. You can see her ideas developing among the works, as one figure or another receives particular attention, and others are introduced or (in the paintings or sketches) wiped out. Leaf gives the figures personalities or roles that play against the “readymade” aspect of the super-famous original.
Leaf’s largest sculptural version is 59 inches wide. The cutout figural components are crisp and delicate; the piece fluctuates between flatness and relief. Acrylic brushwork on the metal surfaces supplies facial features and other details, along with a stormy, atmospheric background. Leaf can be irreverent—one small study is perched on an old cast-iron Singer sewing machine base—and she takes liberties. Most conspicuously in the big piece, she replaces Leonardo’s Christ with an oddly cheerful-looking skeleton. She does not re-create the full cast of 13 figures; nor is Leonardo’s more bountiful dinner shown, except for an overturned glass of red wine and its bloodlike stain. A curiously girlish figure stands to the right of the skeleton; pink cheeks and abundant yellow hair differentiate this personage from the others, who are grayish, baldish and elderly. In Three Figures from Last Supper, a study on paper, this young person seems clearly female, seated at the table smiling dreamily, eyelids lowered, breasts exposed. In recent years there has been speculation, both scholarly and popular, that one of Leonardo’s figures could be Mary Magdalene. Perhaps Leaf incorporated that conjecture here.
The exhibition comprised eight sculptures and 14 two-dimensional works, dating from 2008 through 2010 and varying greatly in scale. Some of the works are not directly related to the Last Supper. The skeleton makes solo appearances in several paintings: First Skeleton sprawls invitingly in a squarish green-gray canvas; Second Skeleton lounges in a chair on a tan field. In Figures on a Raft, a skeleton and a nude woman recline side by side, adrift in a flood. The image suggests an aquatic Death and the Maiden, except that the skeleton shares the woman’s plight, and she turns toward him rather companionably.
Given the exhibition’s generally muted hues, a single all-red painting drew the eye. Figure Swallowing a Room shows a skewed perspectival rendering of a squarish room with a door in one corner; at lower right, a dark, half-length figure raises its arms as if to tilt the entire structure toward its mouth. The thought of devouring indoor space in a great gulp is memorably strange, as is the absurdist image, perhaps emblematic of the insatiable hunger of the Renaissance artist for pictorial space—or that of today’s artist covertly longing to reestablish it.
Photo: June Leaf: Last Supper (Finished Phase), 2009-10, mixed mediums on tin, 24 by 59 by 2½ inches; at Edward Thorp.