Shortly after Tayah Leigh-Barrs graduated from Central Saint Martins in London in 2011, she started working as art director to Mario Testino. So, every day for two years, she found herself interacting with the photographer's eclectic art collection, a hodgepodge of his finds from around the world and blue chip art.
“You’re constantly surrounded by it when you’re working for him, it becomes part of your world,” Leigh-Barrs, now 27, said recently.
Soon enough, she began to think about her own practice, mainly by experimenting with painting and ceramics, and the possibility of her own collection. “I was always fascinated by how an object gains a functionality when you're allowed to interact with it,” she said. “There was no longer a cold removal from the art, but rather an intimacy and inherent warmth.” She resigned from her high profile job and in September opened her own gallery, which she called Studio_Leigh.
Housed in a sprawling 19th century varnish factory in Shoreditch (which Leigh-Barrs describes as “a quietly majestic gem of a building”), Studio_Leigh’s inaugural group exhibition made it into Artnet’s “Top 10 exhibitions in Europe in 2015,” alongside institutions such as the Reina Sofia, the Tate Modern, and Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
At the gallery, she works closely with her artists, encouraging them to depart from their conventional use of materials and to experiment without abandoning their personal aesthetic. “While I invite artists to make work that responds to my gallery space, I want to stay true to who they are, how they think, and how they practice,” she explained. “So there’s a lot of conversation and development as to how they can do this and not just be a commercial venture.”
Leigh-Barrs has succeeded in this, most recently with abstract painter Gabriel Hartley, who is known for his multi-layered 2D canvases. Hartley’s first-ever body of glassworks, which opened last week and is on view until late April, is the product of frequent studio visits and discussions as to how he could work beyond his customary flat surface and create sculptures that work in harmony with the gallery.
Leigh-Barrs said that while Hartley strayed from his usual material strategies, his works remained characteristically his own. “In this exhibition it was important to see how his existing practice could respond to Studio_Leigh,” she said.
The result? “Artworks with a different, intriguing kind of personality.”