It's hard to get the scale and overall texture of any piece of visual art by looking at images online or in a magazine or newspaper. It simply doesn’t have the same impact as looking at something in person. Often there are subtle lines and visual cues in a drawing or painting that are easily missed by not seeing the original work in the way the artist intended.

"Alfred Leslie: One Hundred Characters In Search of a Reader," at the Butler Institute of American Art Trumbull Branch, appears to challenge this idea of “needing” to see something in person, because when you read up about the show, you quickly learn that each piece has been created in Photoshop.

The works are made by employing a system of layering images that have been drawn with a stylus. So the idea that you must see the original initially feels dated, because the work is made on a screen that is quite small by its very nature.

However, Leslie’s works are printed large, 60 by 80 inches and larger. The pieces are so large that it's impossible to understand the artist's intentions without seeing them in person. Further, the works in this series are all dye sublimation on aluminum, a process in which an image is first printed onto a transfer paper and then adhered to pretreated aluminum. This process creates a richly colored image with a glass-like surface. The quality of the color makes the paintings more transportive.

Leslie has a lifelong love of reading and literature. The portraits in this exhibit are imagined likenesses of characters from well known and more obscure literary works that have inspired the artist over his 91-year lifetime.

The style in which the portraits are done reflects the artist's process. Each piece, while detailed, has something just a little bit out of focus, as if you were going through a process of trying to remember a face or an image and then putting it down on paper. Indeed, the details of the worlds the subjects inhabit are often more complete than the characters' faces.

"Rosasharn Joad, 2016-2018, from John Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath,' " is a portrait of a character who goes through growth and hardship through her family’s attempt to travel to California to find a better life. Ultimately, she realizes miraculous courage, maturity and kindness in one famous gesture that symbolizes much of what "The Grapes of Wrath" is about. The details in this work help tell the subject's story, but they also highlight what's most intriguing about the artist's process.

Leslie does not shy away from the computer-generated nature of the medium. Rather, these pieces appear to embrace and exploit it in a way that adds depth and even humor that traditional painting techniques might not. Things like the way human hair, clothing and even buttons are depicted in "Rosasharn Joad" have an illustrative quality that is ethereal and in some ways haunting and disturbing.

"Hans and Frieda, from 'Freaks,' by Tod Robbins," shows two main characters from the book and subsequent movie seated in front of a backdrop with Hans holding a poster for their circus. On the poster, other characters from the story are referenced. The couple has a serious, almost earnest look, and the way the composition uses light and other visual cues highlights many parts of this story.

Like the rest of the works on display, "Hans and Frieda" has an odd texture that, while rich in color and symbolism, retains a sense of otherness that is clearly the artist's chosen style. The subjects look out at you, and the way in which they are painted reflects how the artist sees their unique personalities.

When an artist of this caliber chooses a new medium, it's always interesting to see what he will do with it. Leslie has taken something he has created on a smaller scale and transformed it so that it is best seen on a large scale. This is not easily done, and so well. His understanding of how to print the pieces also highlights a deep understanding of his chosen medium, and point to his inherent talent. This exhibit is worth visiting, with the bonus of giving you ideas for books you might want to read.

 

Contact Anderson Turner at haturner3@gmail.com.