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Mel Leipzig & Friends: Picturing His World

Exhibition from May 30 thru August 4, 2019 Reception on June 7

Review by Deborah Forman

When Mel Leipzig paints a portrait, the composition is as much — sometimes more — about the place than it is about the face. The identity of his subjects resonates in their surroundings, which he beautifully delineates in rich details.

“I am very interested in how the room says something about the person,” Leipzig says by phone from his Trenton, N.J., home. It’s about “creating space with a figure. It’s the composition that thrills me. I want the viewer to feel he can be drawn into the room.” He is emphatic: “The background says a lot about the person. The background really tells you who these people are.”

Leipzig has painted members of his family, friends, students, writers and artists. For the exhibition “Mel Leipzig and Friends: Picturing His World,” which opens today at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, he has focused on his portraits of artists, a number of whom are known for their connection to Provincetown, including Robert Henry, Selina Trieff and Carmen Cicero. (His portrait of the writer and her husband is also included in the exhibit.)

Leipzig, now in his 80s, often summers on Cape Cod. He comes with his daughter, grandchildren and other family members. They go to the beach, but he doesn’t see it as a time for lazing about. He is here to paint, at a place where he has a wide variety of artists to choose from as subjects. Still, “I have to like the people’s work if I’m going to paint them,” he says. And as much as Leipzig loves painting the background in his portraits, he’s not interested in just doing interiors. “I can’t do a painting without a person in it,” he says. “I like the accidental way the person interacts with the objects.”

In his portrait of Selina Trieff, for example, the clutter of material in Trieff’s studio captures her lively approach to art. “I do like mess,” Leipzig says, laughing. “I love packing the painting. I love complexity.” Artists’ studios often aren’t neat, so some of the artists he has painted have asked him if they should straighten up. Leipzig tells them no. The room with all its things adds a dimension that he seeks. You can see that in the books, stacks of papers, bric-a-brac, plants, paintings on easels or stacked up on floors, family photographs, benches, fireplaces and tables with all kinds of doodads. And though he thrives on painting messy studios, trash barrels and all, he may remove the walls from a room to take the viewer outside, as in his portrait of Carmen Cicero.

The Cape museum show will include a sampling of works by the artist subjects of Leipzig’s paintings, some of which are abstract. “I love abstract painting,” he says. “I just don’t want to do it.” Although he sometimes uses one-point perspective, he often records the scene from a few different angles. “I enjoy distorting perspective,” Leipzig says. “The eye moves here and there. I do tend to paint all over the place. An artist really has to trust his instincts.”

Distortion of floorboards and ceilings (in particular, cathedral ceilings) are vital elements of Leipzig’s work. It helps to hold your attention as you proceed to explore a room and the person within. There is so much to look at. Your eye may catch an intricately decorated Asian ceramic, a stack of books or a glass of red wine. It sweeps over the room, endlessly engaged. There’s a story there.

When Leipzig talks about art, the exhilaration in his voice is infectious. He has great admiration for Manet for “his boldness and contrasts.” He’s also influenced by Degas, the master draftsman, and, not surprisingly, the exquisite patterns of the room interiors of Matisse and Vuillard.

Born in 1935, Leipzig began studying art at Cooper Union, earned his BFA at Yale and his MFA at Pratt Institute. He studied in Paris on a Fulbright grant in the late ’50s. For more than 40 years, he taught art and art history at Mercer County Community College, near Trenton. His commitment to realism, defying the mainstream of abstraction, didn’t prevent him from achieving success — his work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New Jersey State Museum, among others. “I never did a non-objective painting in my life,” he says rather proudly. “I just wanted to paint the figure.”

But he couldn’t stop there. “Once I decided to become a realist,” he says, “I had to paint everything.”

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