An exhibition retracing the life and times of the once-precocious fashion designer, former curator extraordinaire, now filmmaker, writer and editor CS Leigh runs the risk of being an exercise in futility. Few figures have left behind a record so riddled with holes. As a teenager in the early 1980s, Kristian Leigh is thought to have designed dresses for the likes of Meryl Streep. After his fashion house allegedly succumbed to debt, and following what would be the first in a series of disappearances, Leigh, this time with the first name Christian, re-entered the New York scene around 1985 as a critic, curator and broker. His exhibitions were effective promotional vehicles for such artists as Ashley Bickerton, Christian Eckart and Peter Halley, and for then up-and-coming gallery owners like Thaddaeus Ropac, whose reputation was sealed by ‘The Silent Baroque’, a monumental group show Leigh curated at Ropac’s Salzburg gallery in 1989 and which is remembered today mostly for the lavishness of its catalogue and opening reception. Another disappearance act ensued, this time after ‘I Love You More Than My Own Death’ – Leigh’s Pedro Almodóvar-inspired group exhibition at the 1993 Venice Biennale – once again became mired in debt. Four years later, Leigh, now prefaced by the monogram ‘CS’, re-emerged in Paris as a filmmaker. According to various reports, he is the director and screenwriter of a number of feature-length films, among them Far From China (2001), Nude Descending (2002) and Process (2003), as well as numerous short films. Yet besides Process, many of Leigh’s films seem to be as elusive as their maker, occasionally showing up at festivals and special screenings but otherwise hard to catch. On the other hand, Leigh’s recent London-based book and music publishing arm, Syntax, undoubtedly exists (a copy of one of the publications was on view at castillo/corrales), but so far its distribution similarly shuns wide exposure.
Like the 2010 exhibition ‘Breaking Point:Kathryn Bigelow’s Life in Art’ at castillo/corrales, which retraced Bigelow’s transformation from active participant in 1970s conceptual art circles to A-list Hollywood filmmaker, ‘Notorious (Christian Leigh)’ developed a research-based monographic exhibition model that says as much about its stated subject as about the art worlds each impacts through his or her category-defying career. For castillo/corrales, a non-profit space run by a team of writers and curators, exhibitions devoted to such exceptional biographies as Bigelow’s and Leigh’s represent opportunities to think about the gallery’s own position as both participant and observer in Paris and international art scenes. Yet if the two exhibitions considered the nexus of art, celebrity, gender and power, they differed in at least one respect: whereas Bigelow may not have been aware of her exhibition at castillo/corrales, Leigh soon got wind of the imminent opening of his, and offered to add to the material collected by the curators. This review is based on an early visit to the exhibition, which at the time was composed, among other items, of a CD of John Cale’s soundtrack for Process, a poster for Leigh’s performance/film Cannes 6808 (2008), press clippings and magazine articles (including the key 2003 Artforum profile by Alexi Worth), a selection of publications from Leigh’s exhibitions and a slideshow retracing Leigh’s professional life to date.
But even without the later additions, the exhibition managed to break through Leigh’s self-mythologizing, allowing another, altogether more interesting figure to appear – call it ‘Spellbound’ rather than ‘Notorious’: that of a brazen impresario who dared to collapse art into spectacle. The catalogue for Leigh’s 1993 group show ‘I Am The Enunciator’ should be mandatory reading for every curating student. As he writes in the introduction: ‘Individual works of art must not simply coexist on white walls and polished wooden floors within my exhibitions. They must commingle and converse (loudly). They must argue and commiserate and incite us to yell back at them, even rudely.’ True to his word, the black and white installation shots in the booklet give glimpses of what must have been a ravishing spatial experience, where the discreet and the flamboyant engage in a shouting match. The castillo/corrales display I saw was sober by comparison, and may presage a new phase in Leigh’s ceaselessly creative trajectory, far from the rude yelling of his past and more inclined to if not fill, then at least ponder the tantalizing holes in its wake.
Antony Hudek is a curator based in Antwerp, Belgium, where he works at the Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA). He also runs the curatorial studies programme at KASK School of Arts, Ghent.
First published in Issue 146