Suburbia, but not as we know it: Stacy Leigh imagines a surreal world to escape into
New York artist Stacy Leigh is getting her first showing in Hong Kong with Escape to B-roll, which reimagines the American Dream in vividly colourful fashion. We chat with her to learn more.
In film and television production, B-roll is a term that refers to supplemental footage intercut with the main shot. For example, in a cop show or sitcom set in New York City, it's common to cut from the main action to swooping shots of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings from above.
As a New Yorker, who attended New York University and has exhibited many times in the city, that's exactly the kind of B-roll that might be used to contextualise artist Stacy Leigh. But recently, she started to imagine an alternative 'B-roll' for her own life: a fantastical world, far away from the city, that she wishes to escape into.
That led to an unplanned series of 10 paintings, which are now about to go on show at WOAW Gallery Central in Hong Kong. We chatted with Stacy to find out more about the impulse behind her work and how she went about creating it.
Urge to escape
The underlying theme behind these paintings is the need to escape the city. For Stacy, that's not just a theoretical scenario but one based on real and personal experience. "The urge to escape my current living arrangement is a result of an extremely unpleasant experience with my boutique condominium board," she explains.
This has come as a bolt from the blue for the New Yorker who's lived in the city, "sandwiched between all types of people," for over 30 years. "During this time, I've been lucky to live in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan without any issues ever. But as it often does, probability finally caught up with me, most unfortunately. Suffice it to say the situation isn't resolved yet, but anyone who's lived in a big city knows that it's like a relationship: you have to be compassionate to others' needs. I can no longer have my physical comfort be beholden to my neighbour's dilapidated property."
Consequently, her desire to sell her loft in Manhattan and move to a house without being sandwiched between people is so strong it's spurred an entirely new body of work. "Escape to B-roll gave me a chance to live out my fantasy on canvas," she says. "It was actually quite therapeutic making these special works."
Suburban yet surreal
The world these paintings represent is based on suburbia. But rather than the mundane world of picket fences and soccer moms we're all familiar with; they envisage these outlying districts as something a little more surreal.
Inspired by Stacy's dream of selling her apartment and moving to a house somewhere with no neighbours, her series of unplanned, freestyle paintings feature quaint houses and landscapes of lush greenery, realised in bright, bold colours.
With whimsical titles like 'House full o hoes', 'Bad bish', and 'The life of a drone day 8', it's all a bit bizarre, and yet the scenes remain grounded in some sort of reality. Stacy's paintings exude a suburban calm, littered with potted plants, tiny dogs, and handsome cars.
Behind half-drawn shutters, viewers are offered glimpses into the cosy interiors of warmly-lit houses. On the outside, the neatly-trimmed lawns and isolated cliffs provide the setting for weekend barbecues and picnics on a summer's day.
Yet there is also an unsettling quality to the perfection of these scenes, with their vivid colours and bold brushstrokes, as though at any moment, the arrival of a stranger may puncture the fantasy and bring the peace to an abrupt end.
Most strikingly, these homes are set against a backdrop of sunset-drenched skies, with no trace of human presence in any of the frames. The artist sprinkles a sense of humour across hidden corners of the paintings, and these artworks require careful viewing for all their details to come into focus, such as the barbed messages on the doormats.
Grounded in narrative
Stacy Leigh first came to prominence in 2017, when she held her first solo exhibition of paintings, Nerves, at the Fortnight Institute in New York, and American painter and photographer Richard Prince discovered her figurative works and gave them prominence.
A self-taught artist, she describes her style as grounded in narrative. "I studied film production with the dream of making music videos someday, documentaries and films," she explains. "So my style of painting lends itself to storytelling.
Beyond that, she says: "my paintings are vivid and unique, but somehow I think they have a feeling of something nostalgic or familiar. It's hard to describe my style because it doesn't fit neatly into a box. As a child, I spent a lot of time in front of the television, so I can't help but see animation's influence on me.
"Even when I paint figurative works, the flesh and eyes look real, but there is an AI quality to the figure. I can't really describe my style in my own words, so instead, I'll say this: my style is 'Post Place Contemporary'. That's something intelligent I think Richard Prince would say."
Most recently, Stacy presented her solo presentation, The Condition of Things, at Harper's Gallery in August 2022. She's also attracted attention with her series Average Americans, for which she created sets and staged stories featuring sex dolls to interrogate the rise of artificial intelligence, human connection, and the politics of desire.
But despite her career success and decades of city life, recent events have lured her towards the idea of stepping away from the rat race and finding a calmer pace.
A calmer pace
"I think that part of being a human being is to ponder what life would be had you taken the other path," says Stacy. "Often, we find ourselves neck deep in a life that we created for ourselves, only to stop and question why we chose this path. Life is certainly all about balance, so most of us imagine a calmer pace occasionally."
In fact, she's already made one big life change by becoming an artist in the first place. "I was a stockbroker for a firm on Wall Street around 9/11," she explains. "I continued to work in finance until 2004, when I took stock of my life instead and realised I was miserable.
"I resigned from trading shares and went with what my mother and husband always told me was my destiny, art. I began to paint immediately, though I was quickly distracted by photography, which would become my focus for the next decade, only to find my way back to painting again. While being in the creative sphere was a calmer pace, it presented itself with an entirely new set of challenges."
Right now, she feels, the perfect escape would be somewhere lakeside. "I can't help but imagine an indoor/outdoor bedroom with all the windows open and a warm fresh summer breeze," she says. "I imagine myself lounging with my 10-year-old adopted chihuahua in a huge bed with soft, crisp, cotton bedding and the sound of chirping birds and rustling leaves. One of my favourite movies would be playing in the background, probably something silly to make me laugh, like Dirty Grandpa with Zac Efron.
"There would be a table nearby with a plate of fresh fruit and a glass of iced citrus and mint water. Nothing more. Just my dog, a breeze and me. Maybe we would take a nice long walk afterwards in a park somewhere. Clearly, there is a theme here, and it appears to be solitude with my dog! For me, this is perfection."
But she was self-aware enough to question where this fantasy would truly make her happy. "I wonder if human beings can truly ever be satisfied with everything all at once?" she ponders. "I'm happy even now in my current apartment, despite the awful situation! But I'd be happier if I could escape my current living conditions. Absolutely! But make no mistake: I'm happy despite the adversity. Or should I say, despite the adversity? I find having a positive attitude will get me through the toughest of times."
Escape to B-Roll is on show at WOAW Gallery's location at 9 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong from 20 March to 19 April 2023.