Sixty of Saskia Leek's paintings, done over two decades, have been gathered for a show at The Dowse Art Museum. Show is hardly the word, since there's nothing showy about them. They're not big and only the later ones are tentatively bright.
Leek, 42, prefers a small format, something she can take in at a glance as she works on them at a desk.
Sometimes she puts a work-in-progress on a little easel on the desk. So the show is called Desk Collection.
''I've got into the habit of working close-up and seeing the whole picture at once,'' she says.
Seeing the whole collection at once - begged and borrowed for the show from institutional and private owners, spread out over several gallery spaces - was almost as unnerving as the idea of big, showy paintings. ''It's a bit like seeing an old boyfriend. Quite awkward.''
Leek's reputation was established in 1995 when, as a new-ish graduate from the Canterbury School of Fine Arts, she and other up-and-coming young artists explored popular culture in the touring exhibition Hangover. In 2010, she was a finalist in the Walters Art Award. In between she has shown increasingly abstracted paintings in many solo and group exhibitions.
A lot of anxiety goes into the making of her paintings, she says, so it's hard to look at them in the way most viewers do. ''I become very inward-focused in myself and looking into the painting. It's a process of decision-making. Lots of anxiety goes into the process of making that the audience doesn't think about much, but it becomes an important part of the process. Doubt is quite a key theme. I've never been able to dash them off.
''Every show I make starts with a period of blankness, having to pull something from the air. It's still very mysterious to me where it comes from. One day I think I'm a genius and the next think I'm terrible. It's probably my personality type but it's quite common to a lot of makers.''
At the most basic level her work regularly refers to amateur artworks or faded old fine art prints discarded from people's lives into op shops.
''I'm quite a rummager. It's a process of saving and reconfiguring these things, a starting point. I work on them over a period of time and they become something quite different.''
The op shop pictures she dusts off and gives serious artistic presence through her own work are far from what she knew growing up in Christchurch. Her mother was a craft artist and her parents favoured contemporary New Zealand art.
''I grew up with art around me and in galleries. Growing up around fine art made me interested in other kinds of pictures.
''Some of the material I've used is mass-produced and sentimental, different to what I saw. I wonder why I've been driven by inclination to these sorts of painting.''
Leek lives in Dunedin with her daughter, Agatha, and her husband Nick Austin, who worked there last year on a Frances Hodgkins fellowship.
Though small is Leek's preferred format, it's ironically one of her only sizeable works that often gets the most attention: a cardboard caravan.
Inspired by a trip to Invercargill and the shell of an old beach house with walls covered in cut-out pictures, it was made for a Palmerston North exhibition in 1998 and recreated for the Auckland Triennial exhibition in 2001. It is cute, if seriously intentioned, and photogenic.
''I was asked by Te Manawa Gallery to make an installation and that's what happened,'' she says.
She went on to experiment with cardboard but the caravan, her ''least favourite thing in the show'' remains a ''strange anomaly - it's always the biggest work in the show and gets the most attention''.
Saskia Leek: Desk Collection is on at the Dowse Art Museum until April 14.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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