Another Disappearance Act

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. [Anthony Hudek on Christian Leigh]

Five years later, in the summer of 1989, a mega-exhibition of American art opened in Salzburg. “The Silent Baroque” is remembered above all for its absurdly extravagant opening festivities. A multitude of New York artists and critics were flown to Austria, put up in deluxe hotels, and treated to banquets on the grounds of Schloss Schönbrunn, outside Vienna. Attendees remember it as a fever dream of opulence, with night after night of Fellini-esque parties catered by liveried footmen. For some, the junket represented the grand finale of ’80s excess, the last and most lavish party of the waning decade. But “The Silent Baroque” is remembered for other things as well. It put Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac on the map, brought the neo-geo artists to Europe, and highlighted the ascendancy of its young maximalist curator—the corpulent, brilliant Christian Leigh.
Nobody in the art world remembers exactly when they first began hearing about Leigh. He seems to have burst onto the scene during the 1985–86 season, charming dealers and artists alike with his smarts, conspiratorial humor, and intimations of financial largesse. Soon he was writing reviews for Artforum, organizing loquacious dinners at Barocco, and curating memorable shows. Stefan Stux remembers being dazzled, as were many other dealers. “He would come into your gallery and say, ‘I love this work. How much is this one? Ten thousand dollars? Why don’t you put a reserve down on this one. And by the way, I’m going to curate a show in Europe, and I’d like to include some of your artists.’ You felt like you’d reached God’s foot.”
Meanwhile, the grand “Silent Baroque” catalogue, with its mix of artists’ projects and interviews, not to mention its square format, came to resemble a giant hardcover issue of Artforum. Leigh’s own contribution to the book was odd: a long, earnest analysis of sexism in Hollywood. The other forty-two contributions were equally peculiar, and heterogeneous. Like the exhibition itself, the catalogue was essentially a grab bag of up-and-coming names, from Jeff KoonsPeter Halley, and Ashley Bickerton, to Hilton AlsJerry Saltz, and Herbert Muschamp. Any organizing principle was conspicuous mainly by its absence. [Alexi Worth on Christian Leigh]

Ashley Bickerton GOG 1985

Right at the beginning of the book this sets a political tone somewhat at odds with the book’s appearance as a glossy coffee-table item. Once one has started to read, this turns out to be mere surface. Leigh even seems to infer that superficiality in itself is baroque – a tragic misunderstanding. He claims not to be interested in the baroque as a historical phenomenon as such. If he had been interested we would probably have had quite a different book, certainly not this celebration of flimsiness, notwithstanding its physical weight. What he is aiming at remains unclear. Jeff Koons’ cover radiates precisely the same pretentious ambiguity. Picturing a black dog on a watermelon it might be intended as a critique of racism. If so, it is so disguised that it throws doubt on the sincerity of its designer. 
No limits were set on the participating artists and writers with regard to form and content of their contributions. The resulting book is a free-wheeling collection of individual projects and essays lacking any coherence whatsoever. So let us forget about the promising title and review the articles and projects for what they are.
In his essay, Donald Kuspit raises Leigh himself as curator to the rank of artist. A discussion of the current tendency among curators to transform their exhibitions into art works – frequendy to the detriment of the artist’s intentions – would have been more to the point here. An interesting, but generally neglected phenomenon in this context, is that only the current hype of group-shows enables curators to do this. Perhaps it is about time to return to the intellectual integrity of one person exhibitions or at most of shows featuring a few congenial artists. [Kyra Delsing on Christian Leigh’s Silent Baroque]

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