Portraits of many famous painters hang in museums. But how many artists have seen their likenesses rendered on the side of a recycling facility in Northern Trenton?
Mel Leipzig, a painter strongly identified with the arts and culture of New Jersey’s capital, has received that honor, and it’s unlikely that anybody in Trenton would argue that he doesn’t deserve it. Leon Rainbow, a graffiti artist and muralist who was once Leipzig’s student at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, captured the master at work. Leipzig, whose willingness to engage in artistic dialogue is one of his most appealing characteristics, returned the favor with a painting of Rainbow’s portrait, and Rainbow himself.
“The Artist Paints the Graffiti Artist Who Painted Him” is one of many impish, colorful canvases in “Everyday People: Mel Leipzig’s Figurative Realism,” a retrospective that will run at the Morris Museum in Morris Township until April 19. This uneven but thoroughly entertaining exhibition covers 60 years of painting and occupies several sizable galleries. The portrait of the artist that emerges from this show is of a man whose fascinations have remained remarkably consistent over the decades. Leipzig likes people, especially people who like him back. If you’re in his life and you engage closely with his work, you stand a pretty good chance of ending up in a portrait.
Be warned, though: If he paints you, he’s not going to beautify you. Leipzig is comfortable with the rough edges of humanity, and he expects you to be, too. The expressions and poses he captures in oil are deliberately quotidian, sometimes offhand and, in a few portraits, aggressively casual. His brush isn’t a harsh critical instrument, but a frank and explanatory one.
His interest in slice-of-life portraiture aligns him with a tradition of American painterly honesty that dates back at least as far as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. Shrewdly, however, the Morris Museum has hung “Everyday People” next to “Aerosol: Graffiti,” a show celebrating Jersey street art. Leipzig’s late work carries with it the explosiveness and brilliant color of hip-hop portraiture, and that vitality is what makes the recent canvases of this 84-year-old painter feel as modern as they do.
Street spray-painters like to surround their portrait subjects with stuff: objects associated with the person’s achievements and interests. Leipzig does the same — and then some. His subjects sit in rooms busy with material items, and more often than not, those items are jumbled up and sliding into entropy. In “Lou and His Son,” a portrait of a MCCC colleague, Leipzig captures his subject in a cramped office space, hemmed in on both sides by filing cabinets and shelves overstuffed with binders. One brisk wind or slammed door might send those papers cascading all over the subject’s desk. Yet there’s no sense of alarm in the painting, and no judgment from Leipzig, who renders it all with scrupulous detail. Clutter, he seems to be saying, is just an expression of irreducible personality — and if you don’t have any in your vicinity, well, maybe that doesn’t speak very highly of your individuality.
This approach is best realized in a pair of extraordinary portraits of the artist’s son and daughter. They’re shown as adolescents, in bedrooms crammed with the sort of personally significant junk that helps teenagers navigate their passage to adult life. Leipzig’s daughter is shown seated on her unmade bed, and her melancholy, impudent expression is echoed by the pop stars and actresses in the posters pinned to the wall. The painter renders each with remarkable fidelity, and also turns his eye on an array of pills and powders on a messy desk, clothes strewn across the floor, dolls and masks, an exercise bike that doesn’t look like it’s getting much use, and other artifacts of an ’80s childhood. This is a mess, yes — but the painting radiates compassion for the author of that mess.
Leipzig’s teenaged son, who is now an artist himself, has scrawled punk rock logos and crude illustrations all over every available inch of space in his own bedroom. There he sits, pugnacious, alongside the members of his band, each one rehearsing insolence in that precise manner that all would-be punks do. If you’re from Jersey, these unintentionally sympathetic young people will be familiar to you, and their relationships – with each other, and with the painter — will instantly by legible, too. The Morris Museum presents these two large canvases on the same wall, with pictures of Leipzig’s late wife to the left and his grandkids to the right. You’ll think you’ve invaded the top floor of his house.
Yet there is no sense of eavesdropping. Leipzig, a genial host, invites the viewer all the way in (sometimes as far as the bathroom!) and makes no attempt to hide the intimate details of the subjects of his paintings. If there’s a gum wrapper on the floor, it’s going on the canvas; if there’s a photo on the wall, he’s determined to capture its likeness. Everything crumpled in the hamper will be painted with the same care as his subjects’ faces are.
This comprehensiveness is part of the reason why Leipzig is called a realist painter, but it doesn’t always help his paintings feel real. Perception is rarely this meticulous or impartial: it tends to be selective, guided by some internal motivation. Because Leipzig won’t distinguish between details that are vital and ones that are unimportant, his lesser portraits can be mazes dotted with dead ends. Unlike Edward Hopper, a clear influence, he’s not a storyteller: he’s not peeking through the shutters, and he’s not leaving the viewer with blanks to fill in. Hopper is a spectral presence in his own paintings; Leipzig, by contrast, is fully present, giving introductions, taking you by the arm, and showing you around town.
That generosity of spirit surely recommends him to the street painters of Trenton. The marvelous expressiveness of his human figures does, too. But above all, what Leipzig shares with hip-hop artists is his willingness to center himself and his life: through his paintings, he makes his relationships manifest, and he’s not shy about sharing any of it. To see “Everyday People” is to shake hands with him.
Luckily, Mel Leipzig is not an everyday person in the slightest. He is the rare artist (the rare human being, really) who has never discarded an idea — one who has learned plenty from his own students and who, as the final gallery demonstrates, has integrated the vibrant colors and odd angles of street art into his own highly personal style. Extra exuberance, you might figure, is the last thing he needed. I bet he’d tell you that too much is never enough. I bet he’d be right.
“Everyday People: Mel Leipzig’s Figurative Realism” will be at the Morris Museum in Morris Township through April 19. Visit morrismuseum.org.
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