In literature, tragedy usually involves a respected character whose situation goes from bad to worse. A tragicomedy usually involves the same trajectory, but with enough humor or flippancy to leaven the situation—much like David Leigh’s Donna Party. The exhibition’s title refers to the famously ill-fated group of pioneers, the Donner-Reed Party, as well as the decidedly upbeat Donna Reed of 1960s TV fame. Add in some early ’90s cartoon and video game sensibilities a la The Ren & Stimpy Show and ToeJam & Earl for an exhibition whose creative ADD associations span more interdimensional time frames and plot points than Lost—just with fewer episodes.
All of the pieces, by some stretch of the imagination, could reference both the doomed pioneers and the ’60s matriarch. Between each piece, a weird game of connect the dots arises to lend insight into Leigh’s bizarrely associative, stream-of-consciousness thought process. The works are presumably stand-ins for the hallucinatory and scattered thoughts and considerations that played out amid the cold, one winter in 1846—with Donna Reed interfering like dark-humored but Technicolor static through the rabbit ears.
Donna Party includes a number of illustrative gauche, ink, acrylic pencil and marker drawings that vaguely—sometimes representationally, frequently by title—reference its titular tragedy. Occasional faces or feet, cars or trees are clear amid emotive and suggestive series of squiggles. These works posit Leigh as an animator—presumably one fired from Disney because of his PG-13 content (rated so for upsetting thematic references).
The Tamsen Donner series, referring to the pioneer who perished in the Sierra Nevada and orphaned her five children, is a set of six colorful works in which hand-drawn tendrils amass like trash for the focal point. The pieces evoke feelings of terror and waste, but with just enough neon brightness to distance the viewer from any real anguish. “Kids” and “Into the Woods” are compositionally similar, their titles also provoking snapshots of the tragedy.
A piece made of two stretched, glass diet soda bottles, “Mirage” features wavy, inexact contours that look like the sad trick of the eye common to the forsaken. Perhaps the Donner-Reed Party would have hallucinated a mirage with calories before it was forced into cannibalism. “Food Chain” is a set of colorful, vinyl animal stickers placed one above the other in an order slightly askew from the real food chain (rabbit above bear, eg). Note that this model has no room for an animal to eat its own kind.
Leigh mediates the family’s hopeful triumph with an ink-jet print of a 1963-’80 owner’s manual for a Triumph motorcycle. Take another (il)logical jump and find “Egg,” a yellow pigment yoke with motor oil whites—perhaps a nod to the Donners’ hope of triumphing leaked out like so much lubricant from the Triumph or to Tamsen’s fear that her offspring would die before they had lived.
The exhibition’s takeaway is a picture of an intriguing mind with an unexpected but playful firing of synapses. However, such a spare show—only 12 pieces—fails to satisfactorily mine such a rich mind. As it stands, the exhibition seems incomplete. Left to meditate on and develop more fully his subject matter, doubtless Leigh could have painted a complex, fun and intriguing reel of his brain’s inner labyrinth to be teased out and guessed at infinitely. For now, all we have is a CAT scan.