Thursday, February 9, 2012

On Simone Leigh's "You Don't Know Where Her Mouth Has Been"

Entering Simone Leigh’s show at The Kitchen—“You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been”-- is an enveloping experience, in terms of its visual power. The gallery space is sparse, dramatic, and the rich selection of sculptures and video loops included appear like well-lit jewels in a curio cabinet. Imposing hanging sculptures, comprised of clusters of such materials as terracotta, stoneware, salt, glass, and the pedestal-mounted ceramic pieces punctuate the darkness. The chandeliers in particular lead to the inevitable craning of one’s neck while standing directly below, like with "You Don't Know Where Her Mouth Has Been", a piece featuring large-scale cowrie shells of stoneware and porcelain (from which the exhibition title is taken), with violent wire spikes radiating from the great cluster. Indeed, motifs of seduction and violence seem to be on Leigh’s art agenda.

“You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been” features works that are nurturing, yet aggressive. They employ an 'essential' set of symbols: cowrie shells, breasts, tobacco leaves, flowers, calling to mind the various topics of maternity, womanhood, traditional craft, condemnation of female sexuality, and the experience of African heritage. Whether in the magnified intricacies of her suspended sculptures, or in the video loops (one featuring the bare back of a woman on her side, head covered in small stones, simply breathing), this show inspires a nearly visceral reaction. The gamut of cultural associations that can be drawn from the pieces is complex and individual to the viewer, as is the  emotional reaction. To feel aroused, empathetic, and attacked at once makes me sense that Leigh’s offering is immense, and personally encompassing. Without literal statement, she allows her symbols of womanhood and culture to speak for themselves, and they threaten to do so, sweetly. 


  1. I thought your description of “You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been” as elemental, nurturing, and aggressive was spot on. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to summarize it if I tried.

    Earlier on in the piece, you compared going into Leigh’s show as being similar to entering a church. As it is written, I can’t quite make the connection. Could you expand or clarify that thought? It’s also unclear how and where the noted seduction motif comes into play. Lastly, perhaps it is the switch to a more informal first person tone, but the final two sentences are stylistically jarring.

  2. While I understand the connection you are making with the gallery space as similar to entering church (sparse, the pieces emanating light, etc), I am not sure if it is a fitting comparison for a review of the show. I feel that this statement conjures a very different image of the space. I think the lighting of the artwork against the dark walls was more powerful than the idea of the interior of a church.

    I am not sure of your wording with your sentence ending “tension and intrigue are visceral qualities here”. As I read it, it seems that you are saying the art pieces themselves are what is tense and visceral, when I think the tension and intrigue more accurately describes the experience of the viewer.

  3. Inky could be interpreted wrong in this review of Simone Leigh's solo show. One begins to think of splats, drips, wet surface, and liquid. Her work seems to speak more about material and manipulation using solid matter.

    The rest of your review hits on some great points that the show so clearly is expressing: nurturing, and yet aggressive, topics of maternity, womanhood, traditional craft, condemnation of female sexuality, and the experience of African heritage.