Around 30 years ago, film producer Roger Corman was a guest on the old Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson.
Known as the "King of B Movies," Corman had enriched American culture with such movies as, Night of the Cobra Woman, Blood Bath, Attack of the Giant Leeches, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Blood Beast, The Brain Eaters and, of course, Little Shop of Horrors.
When host Carson asked the soft-spoken, conservatively dressed Corman - who looked to all the world like any average accountant or insurance salesman - how someone so normal-looking could make such violently bizarre movies, Corman simply smiled and replied, "Well Johnny, you never know what's going on in a person's mind." The studio audience laughed uproariously.
Since that memorable TV moment, a generation of serious scientists - ranging from cognitive psychologists to neurobiologists - has endeavored to discover what indeed goes on in a person's mind, and exactly how people think. And now, joining their ranks is an artist. In her current exhibition, "Images of Thought," Daphne Leighton explores the intricate thought processes of the human mind through the medium of abstract painting.
Leighton, 64, is blessed with three adult children and, in her words, "nearly seven granddaughters." Born in the northwest of England and raised around London, she and her family immigrated to Israel 29 years ago. Asked why, Leighton replies, "Well, as they say, you don't have to be mad, but it helps."
Her first project, shortly after her arrival, was the completion of an undergraduate degree in English literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, followed by a Master's degree. Before long, Leighton was teaching English literature at the university. Her particular interest was poetry, which she also wrote.
Leighton's transition from writing and teaching to painting and exhibiting took less than a decade to complete. She recalls, "As the years passed, and I did my M.A. and part of my doctorate, I continued writing. But I started to get interested in visual means of expression."
"I started making short films for community television," she continues. "These were short impressionistic films of the neighborhood I lived in. From that I went to photography and had a couple of exhibitions of poetry with photographs. And although the main exhibition was called "Mother and Child," the photographs were actually abstract pictures of garbage-garbage from a nearby empty lot in Jerusalem. But I really became so dissatisfied with photography because it's so untactile. So I woke up one day and decided, 'I know what I want to do. I want to paint!'"
LEIGHTON STOPPED teaching at Hebrew University and began to paint. "And from the day I started painting, I haven't stopped."
She studied under Orna Millo in Jerusalem, whom she continues to admire as both an artist and teacher. "Her way of thinking had the poetic quality I was looking for in a wordless medium," she says.
In addition to further art studies at the St. Ives School of Painting in Cornwall, England, the Dedalo Arts Center in Italy and the Slade School of Art in London, a driving influence for Leighton's painting has been the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Quoting one of her own poems, Leighton reveals the major underlying motif of both her previous poetry writing and current painting: "I look for something undefined, though strong and sure."
Asked if this isn't a blatant oxymoron, Leighton replies that for both her and Deleuze, there are no oxymorons, and no opposites. Things that appear to be "either/or" are actually "andâ€¦andâ€¦andâ€¦"
Does she paint primarily for herself or for others? "One has to be painting for oneself, but in a way you're always painting for others. You become an 'other' when you look at your own paintings. But I'm having an exhibition coming up and of course I'm constantly asking myself, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I having an exhibition?' And I guess the simple answer is that if you paint, you want people to see what you paint."
Seeing what Leighton paints can be a rather surprising experience, as demonstrated in her last exhibition, "Unknown Familiar Land." "My studio is in the industrial zone of Talpiot in Jerusalem," she explains. "You look out on parking lots, cars parked, garages. And my studio is on the third floor, so you're always looking down on these desolate views. And I think that the cars, in a way, became my metaphors or symbols of people and relationships."
Indeed, the keynote painting of that exhibition depicted a bird's-eye view of three cars and three people, all positioned in front of a huge, gaping black passageway in the middle of the dirty yellow wall of a building. The cars appear to be exiting the black space, the people seem to be entering. The title of the painting is, "They All Go into the Garage," an evident reference to a line from T.S. Eliot's poem East Coker, "O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark."
In addition to other studies of cars and parking lots, the exhibition also featured the strangely erotic "Woman, Pipes and Corrugated Iron," as well as a fascinating study of a man bundled up in winter clothing, walking against the wind. If "Unknown Familiar Land" can be said to have had a unifying theme, it was certainly one of alienation and emptiness.
And what is the unifying voice of the Leighton's current exhibition, "Images of Thought?" She explains, "The subject that I have been exploring for the past two years is the process of thinking. Shortly after my last exhibition, I started painting. That, incidentally, is always a difficult time to start painting, right after an exhibition. But I did some painting on old canvases, blocking out parts, painting over, just looking for what I was painting.
"Just shortly after I started these paintings, I had a conversation with a friend who was talking about Deleuze and his explorations of thinking," she continues. "And I thought, 'My goodness, this is just what I'm painting!' I realized that what he was talking about was a way of thought that wasn't exclusively 'and/or.' This is exactly what I was trying to explore - how we think, and inevitably, how we think in relation to the world around us."
Is she trying to chart out the "mind" theories of cognitive psychology? Leighton replies, "No, not in a schematic way, but more in a 'feeling' sense. I talk about 'thinking' both as archeological layers, made up of all your experiences, your thoughts, the past, the unconscious who-knows-what; and connections, both rational and associative, with the world outside. These are all part of your thinking processes."
A good example of this perspective from the exhibition is "thinking 1," depicting a human head with strings of thought coming out of the head while other strings of thought are going in. The painting, Leighton says, portrays a person as a puppet, operated by an outside world that is dominating its mind. Strings of thought explode out from the mind, while other strings enter and dominate it from outside. Other paintings are more abstract and less accessible to the casual viewer.
Despite the abstractness and occasional bleakness of her paintings, Leighton is good humored, with an almost relentless air of whimsy. Considering Leighton's almost 30-year residence in Israel, one is tempted to ask whether her art is informed by anything "Jewish" or "Israeli." She replies, "Well, Israeli, certainly. The parking lots I painted are in Talpiot."
When told that those parking lots could be anywhere from Brussels to Beijing, she says, "They are part of my Israel. My Israel is not some idealized place. In fact, a friend of mine from England who has been several times to workshops in my studio calls the industrial area of Talpiot 'The Holy City,' because that's what she has seen of Jerusalem," Leighton says, laughing.
"Images of Thought" is composed of four series of paintings: Thinking, Connections, Mapping, and Thinking with the Body. All of these attempt, one way or another, to clarify the enduring mystery of what goes on in a person's mind.
Images of Thought is showing at the Office in Tel Aviv Gallery, 6 Zamenhoff Street, December 18 - 8 January, Monday - Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., Monday - Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Call (03) 525-4191 or 054-452-7052 for further details.