Malcolm Liepke | Mapping the Senses

By Rosemary Carstens

Malcolm Liepke’s impressive figurative work extends beyond the classically inspired work of his heroes—Whistler, Velázquez, Sargent, Schiele, and the Japanese masters—to forge a strikingly modern vernacular. He explores the emotional fabric of our lives and charts the intimate moments when we feel unobserved. When viewing his paintings, we experience a sharp flash of recognition. “Malcolm’s work has always been about the emotional connection he is able to create between his paintings and his viewers,” says Steve Diamant of Arcadia Fine Arts in New York, which has represented Liepke for close to 20 years. “His juicy brushwork makes even the paintings’ surfaces sensuous.”

Liepke, who loves early modern architectural design and feels it has influenced his art, lives and works in a Prairie School home in suburban Minneapolis. The Prairie School style, considered the first uniquely American residential architectural style, evolved from the handcrafted, meticulous design and construction prevalent during the early years of the 20th century and is closely identified with Frank Lloyd Wright. It features flowing interior spaces and clean lines, often with well-defined vertical elements that mimic Japanese shoji screens. Liepke’s home is the perfect setting for his studio and artwork because these very qualities are often echoed in his paintings: It is not unusual for the artist to juxtapose flowing human figures alongside or in front of geometric patterns and shapes, and to employ vertical gestural components for emphasis and rhythm.

Liepke’s studio is not a showplace for fans to tour. It’s a private, working studio where only family members are allowed. It’s a place where ideas are enacted on canvas, where the artist sorts mental images like a puzzle master, trying a piece here and there, turning it this way and that, until, finally, it pops into place as his larger vision comes into focus. Liepke describes his studio as very eclectic and personal. “It’s messy, sloppy even, with paintings all over the floor and stacked everywhere,” he says. “At one end of the room is a stone fireplace with a davenport and a big-screen TV, and at the other end is my humongous library.” There are shelves and shelves of art books. He has amassed everything he can find about the artists he loves, at times spending years hunting down a rare book to add to his collection.

The remaining walls of the studio are covered with paintings and prints, and one area serves as an “idea space” where he pins up sketches, photos, and scattered notes about possible future paintings. He works entirely in artificial light, and all of the windows in the studio are taped up. “When I light my figures, I create my own vision of reality,” says the artist. “There’s not a lot of deep shadow or nuance. My process is mostly about the struggle of getting out what I want to say—the act of painting is probably only about 10 percent of it. There’s a lot of contemplation. Once I’ve worked out my concept, the painting goes fast. That flash of execution comes quickly.”

Liepke uses both professional and nonprofessional models and shoots a lot of photos. “I rarely have a model sit for a lengthy pose,” he explains. “That can cause a scene to go stale, to lose its freshness and immediacy.” He first blocks in an idea and then resolves any compositional problems as he goes. Employing his own highly personal sense of color, the artist occasionally throws in a dash of the unexpected, a visual surprise within a dominant palette of greens, grays, and blacks. He works wet into wet, using a loaded brush to achieve the lush, painterly look that is his signature. When preparing for a show, he often has 20 to 30 canvases in process at once.

Liepke grew up in Minnesota. His parents were designers who created seasonal décor for shopping malls all over the country. As a youngster, Liepke excelled in two things—sports and art. He longed to become a professional athlete, but as he grew older he realized it was not to be. Art came easily, and his teachers encouraged him. “Art chose me,” he says. He had considered becoming an architect, but after seeing a brochure for the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, he decided to head west to study art instead. However, it wasn’t quite the experience he had envisioned. It was an era when art education had turned from classical training to conceptual art, and Liepke had always been drawn to figurative work. “But they made me focus and gave me a craft as an illustrator,” he says.

He hung around L.A. for awhile, working as a commercial artist, even taking a turn creating posters for movies and illustrations for such well-known TV shows as Rich Man, Poor Man, starring Nick Nolte. But the West Coast scene just wasn’t for him. New York beckoned. Once there, “Things just exploded!” he says. “Everyone’s on their own road to self-discovery. It’s different for each individual. When I moved to New York, I started going to museums and learning from all the great artists. I learned color, composition, and technique. I realized their work was my kind of work. They were my heroes, so I became their student. I came to love the city. In fact, we kept an apartment there until just a few years ago.”

In New York, Liepke was a highly sought-after illustrator. His work appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, Forbes, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, among others. He did well, but eventually he tired of the compromises required by the corporate world. “Great art is about one person’s vision,” he explains. He wanted to focus on his own interpretations of a theme. So in the early ’90s, he left illustration behind and turned to fine art full time.

Eager to try new processes, he studied lithography. He gained access to two antique Marinoni Voirin presses—the same type Toulouse Lautrec used—and began producing labor-intensive, hand-drawn plates of elegant, graceful images. But each image took months to produce, and he didn’t really enjoy the process. It was time to devote himself to his true passion—figurative painting.

Today Liepke exhibits internationally and has received many awards and accolades that reflect his growing status as a significant American artist. His paintings are in the permanent collections of the National Academy of Design, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Smithsonian, and in the private collections of such celebrities as Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, Donna Karan, Brooke Shields, and Diane Lane.

Over the past decade, Liepke’s work has become richer, more sensual, and more evocative. Until quite recently most of his compositions featured one or two central figures (often emphasized in startling contrast against a background of geometric patterns and shapes) or small groups of people engaged in conversation in a busy bar scene. Particularly compelling are his paintings of lone female figures—all soft, curving lines with glowing, luminous flesh and lush lips—caught unaware in an intimate moment and rendered in a flurry of articulated, flashy brushwork. “I love dramatic gesture,” says Liepke, “and I consciously search out compositional devices that will heighten and strengthen a painting’s emotional impact.”

He collects Japanese prints and antiques and is a huge fan of Japanese artists such as Hokusai, Utamaro, and Sharaku. He is drawn to their understated style and saturated color, the carefully thought-out use of black, and the inherent sense of design that is so characteristic of their work. He has found similar ways to approach his own paintings, accentuating their highly emotional aspects through the angles of his subjects’ arms, bodies, and expressive hands. He maps the geometry of this human landscape through repetition of gesture, angle, and line, and underscores it through careful attention to negative space. If you squint, each painting appears a well-balanced, coherent design irrespective of figurative content, making the piece emotionally, intellectually, and visually satisfying.

In his most recent images, Liepke zeroes in on that most telling component of the human figure—the face. In these pieces he feels less need for a narrative setting and employs looser, wilder brushwork to further animate the subject’s emotional expressiveness. Considering such paintings as DREAMING, OVER HER SHOULDER, or RUBY LIPS, it’s easy to see he has closed in on the crux of his style and is painting it boldly with a master’s experienced hand. These faces are voluptuous and juicy and totally arresting. As Steve Diamant says, “Liepke is distilling down to the core essence of what attracts people to his work. He’s putting a magnifying glass on this essence by going right to the face.”

Early cartographers made maps that dreamed of an unknown physical world, while later geographers satisfied their dreams with carefully detailed drawings of every hill and waterway. Malcolm Liepke mines his world for emotional content, sweeping brush across canvas to reveal private thoughts and imaginings, and, in the process, reveals himself.

Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, Telluride, CO; Arcadia Fine Arts, New York, NY; Albemarle Gallery, London, England.

Solo show, Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, February 1-March 20.
Solo show, Albemarle Gallery, mid-May.

Featured in February 2010