Salt Lake City-based Stephanie Leitch, known for her labor-intensive and mesmerizing installations, continues honing her craft in recent exhibitions that comment on life’s murky truths.
Staring down the length of a long table arranged with seemingly infinite dots, one’s line of sight can detect a partition between wires that hold plastic disks hovering above the table. The effect creates a dizzying visual mirage that entices and dislodges the sense of self.
Indeed, the installations of Stephanie Leitch exist on multiple levels—the tangible, the phenomenological, and in the photos and videos that serve to document their unique and elaborate creation.
The work of the Salt Lake City-based Leitch boldly embraces dualities—permanent versus ephemeral, chance versus precision, durable versus finite. Her labor-intensive installations are unforgettable in both execution and visual effect, rendered with exhaustive care out of thousands of minute fragments such as berries, BBs from a BB gun, and plastic disks. The intensity of the installation work mimics a more private labor Leitch undertakes with works she calls text spells, where words are continually reconfigured to become geometric drawings, which for her are private ruminations.
Her text spells began as journals, growing more elaborate with each variation of the artist’s hand. Leitch crafts words on paper before carefully overlaying the initial text on top of the original configuration to create geometric and textured designs. With multiple iterations, the words eventually break down into their most basic geometric components and become a fascinating symbol for the process of mental rumination.
These methodical text spells evolved into Leitch’s drip fields, which consist of three-dimensional iterations of the works on paper. Here, she utilizes serial repetition in expanded fields with material poured through carefully arranged systems of linear elements that collect at the bottom of the “field.” She calls this process “diffusing the spell.”
“With drip fields, I want to make it precise, pouring twenty-four gallons of fluid enhances the chances that result,” Leitch explains. “This is different from exerting control over the things created on a smaller scale.”
In recent years, she has exhibited in various locations throughout Utah. Her most recent exhibition, Spell Field, ran at Ogden Contemporary Arts from August through October 2023. The Springville Museum of Art kept her site-specific installation, Pitch Field Three, on a semi-permanent basis from 2021-2022. Last year, her work Milk Field won the Best in Show Award at the 2022 Statewide Annual juried exhibition at Ogden Contemporary Arts, an esteemed accolade considering the highly competitive selection process and storied history of the competition. (Disclosure: one of Leitch’s installations was also featured in the 2020 group exhibition Women to the Front curated by myself and Nancy Rivera.)
The daughter of a medical photographer father and a machine repairer mother, Leitch’s lineage is steeped in both the artistic and technical. Returning to an early artistic inspiration, Leitch recalls a teacher scolding her for drawing unclear lines. Leitch says her lines were muddy, which to her made more sense considering the fuzziness and ambiguity of the world. It became apparent to her, even at a young age, that arriving at the truth was messy—that hidden realities are often obscured or buried in various layers. This led to her compulsion to layer things on top of each other.
When I first visited her studio—a concrete-floored space brimming with drips, tools, and thousands of individual ephemera used in her installations—I was struck by the diversity of her sources of inspiration. Her pitch cast pieces incorporate religious imagery lurking hauntedly behind layers of tar-looking plaque. For this practice, Leitch collects images from Utah’s predominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faith as the base layer for obfuscation. This process symbolizes her youth and the act of obscuring the messages of the predominant faith.
For her OCA exhibition, Leitch crafted the installation Spell Field, a dynamic three-dimensional iteration of her intricate text spells that comprises roughly 1,700 brass wires suspended from a large hanging layer of acrylic sheet. The base of each line is weighted by four tiers of small acrylic disks centered on the line with pipette tips and etched with the word “entrance” three times around the edge of the disk’s surface. Although each of the disks hangs in series from the vertical wires, they float in suspended animation from afar. This effect is heightened by the placement of a low platform underneath the installation that contains 400,000 individual BBs arranged along a twenty-seven-foot-long table. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Leitch includes a video of herself arranging the BBs, which, divorced from their larger context, appears abstract and almost topographic. The video shows her pouring and positioning the BBs with her hands, embracing their various patinas in composition and allowing physics to inform new shapes.
“This is the closest thing to painting with my hands that I have arrived at through this process,” Leitch says.
This massive installation creates a fascinating phenomenological effect—forcing viewers to become aware of their bodily movements within the gallery space and to confront how an artwork’s scale can be transcendent. Leitch’s process intentionally plays upon this psychology through the delicacy of its materials, the suspended layer that looms eerily above the other, and the enormous scale of an artwork that defies spatial compactness.
To Leitch, the word “entrance” that is etched on the disks references this sensation—being on the threshold between worlds and capturing the ability to move freely between directions in a non-linear time frame.
I asked Leitch to catalog the exhaustive process underlying her creations. She described working in an internal world all her own—that each part of the larger whole is its ecosystem. Once she begins creating an installation, she is entirely focused, harnessing her admittedly OCD procedure.
It feels incorrect to call oneself a viewer when interacting with one of Leitch’s installations. Those who encounter Leitch’s work are participants, not simply because the installations straddle exhibition rooms and invite one to ponder them in a three-dimensional or phenomenological fashion but because they also evoke a tangible psychological effect. There is a sense of precariousness that makes one sense the delicate balance that holds every minute element of the installation together, as if we can recognize not just our bodily movement within the space, but our breath, perhaps even our thoughts.