Interview with artist James Leonard

Monday, October 17, 2011
James Leonard has shown his two video portraits “Captain America” (narrated by comics-fan Lazzarus) and “Magic” (in which fetish model Jax recounts her ten year history working as a horse whisperer) at DAC and on Wednesday, October 19th, 2011 he performed his ongoing “Warbonds Performance”. He recently had a show at Open Source entitled 927 Days at Sea, which featured his “No Fishing Signs.” James generously took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of my questions about his work, America, his artistic approach and fractals.
-Karl Erickson
James Leonard is an intense, dedicated artist exploring consciousness, the environment, history and the artistic process itself. His work is a veritable maelstrom of systematic, complex ideas, wry humor and outrage.

Karl Erickson: A lot of your work has a distinctly American vibe to it. I’m thinking of the “No Fishing Signs,” the video portraits of Lazzarus and Jax and the barbed wire fences in particular. Each seems to have traditional American concerns: sprawling narrative, independence, and even a sense of manifest destiny. Is a sense of national identity a concern of yours?James Leonard: I don’t think I’m overtly interested in national identity, per se. At least not in isolation from all the other sources of one’s identity such as gender, generational cohorts, personal psychological and spiritual histories, etc. But I have over the years grown increasingly self-aware that there are elements of Americana laced throughout most of my work. Initially, I wasn’t aware that of the pattern. It was over a decade ago when another artist and friend, Jason Mombert, first brought this observation to my attention. I was at a different stage of development artistically. I think the recognition initially sparked some desire for me to run with Americana as a theme, enough that I’m sure it influenced my editorial choices in the studio. You know how it is when as an artist you find yourself with too many ideas to pursue in any given year and you have to make a decision? Well I think at first I was weighing those that more overtly played with American iconography, I probably weighed those ideas more heavily. Ironically, in just the past couple years, I think I’ve been actively trying to get away from such overt American icons. It’s funny that you include my most recent body of work, the “No Fishing Signs,” in your question. But I see how those too could even be included as an extension of my engagement of these American icons. I guess some habits are hard to break.

It’s also interesting that you mention Manifest Destiny. That notion is mentioned by name during the “Warbonds Performance.” I have a number of works, topographic paintings, map pieces and the barbed wire fences that all engage our relationship to landscape. The “No Fishing Signs” are definitely the spiritual cousin of these works, directly engaging in some ways our industrialized relationship to the seas. Despite it being my own work, I’ve never really thought of these relationships to landscape as also a relationship to the notion of Manifest Destiny. But I think you may be onto something there. I think I have a strong ambivalence regarding Manifest Destiny. I see cultural and policy biases based strictly upon utilitarian relationships to the land getting us long term into a lot of trouble. Peak oil. Soil depletion. Collapsing oceans. And yet there is still something seductively heroic about the mythology surrounding American Manifest Destiny.

(Jax in James Leonard’s “Magic” video portrait)

KE: To continue with the American theme, how does the self-made and the hand-made inform your work? I draw a distinction between the two in that the self-made has the aura of “pulled up by one’s own bootstraps” and the hand-made is literally that: made by the artists own hands.

JL: Our relationship to the hand-made is definitely something that directly informed my work for many years. I explored this theme mostly by actively working against it, mirroring what I saw happening in our consumer culture. As more and more industry has left the States during my lifetime, I witnessed us transforming from a nation of capable craftspersons to a nation of consumers. I think factory made objects for most Americans are accepted as a fact of nature, as much as any stone or leaf, when in fact they are all really human contrivances. I think for at least eight years, I was interested in directly addressing this cultural reality. I actually find this shift in our relationship to manmade objects rather depressing. To me it implies many members of our society getting locked into an eddy of consumerism. Endless plastic crap.

(“No Fishing” by James Leonard)

In the past four or five years, I’ve made something of a departure from addressing the shift in our relationship to objects from makers to consumers so directly. This has coincided with my own personal growing interests outside my artwork in things like the slow food, slow money, sustainable living and most recently the Occupy movements. I have at times wondered what the cultural shifts represented by these could offer contemporary art. Does contemporary art as we know it, primarily an exhibition based manifestation of the arts, even have a place at the table in a sustainable future culture? It’s not an easy question to answer. One could run away entirely from exhibition arts and focus on something such as knitting wool caps to be sold at the Brooklyn Flea. But after dedicating so much of my life to exhibition artwork, from our historical era and from others, that evokes deep spiritual intellectual aesthetic experiences–where the whole brain and body continuum participates in the generation of meaning–well, I’m not quite ready to walk away from that yet. I firmly believe that an active robust internal spiritual and psychological life are essential to each of our abilities as individual productive citizens making relatively sane choices and positive contributions to the world. I think the kind of art I produce has deep value for society, even if it is not direct utilitarian value. So as we move into this next chapter of human culture where we in the developed world begin to restrain our consumption and alter our lifestyles, a significant amount of adjustment and reinvention of our role as artists making art for art’s sake is in order. And this is where notions of the self-made come into play. Both within the arts and more widely as we begin to challenge and remake our culture. It’s part bootstraps and part postmodern road warrior scavenger. Invention and recycling coexisting in the same space.

KE: Your work also has a “grand vista” quality to it, in that nothing is small, either in length (the oral histories of Jax and Lazzarus), extremely large editions of multiples (the un-Suicide Note, the “No Fishing Signs”, the War Bonds) or in repetition (the figure drawings, the multi-dimensional cube drawings). Is the goal to overwhelm the viewer and/or yourself?

JL: Scale is very important to me. I have a fractal understanding of the universe, fractals being shapes of partial dimensions with patterns repeating over a scalar dimension. As you zoom out our in, certain forms and shapes repeat. It happens in coastlines. It happens in trees and leaves. It happens in social networks. I can’t help but see many more abstract philosophical and phenomenological aspects of our existence through this lens. I think that sometimes I’m swapping the fractal scalar dimension of D with a time dimension of T in effort to draw out fractal like patterns of meaning that emerge over time as themes and notions seem to reiterate themselves. This is also very akin to the phase space of any strange attractor–a concept I try to make a little more widely accessible in the Warbonds Performance. The strange attractor is a mathematical form representing the collapse of an infinite range of possible outcomes of a given self-sustaining dynamic into a tighter range of possibilities. In short, it’s a mathematical means of proving that though something like our weather systems will never be 100% predictable, we can say with certainty that it is never going to rain gumdrops and Yankee’s shortstops.

The goal never really has been to overwhelm myself or the viewer with this material. Instead, that’s always been just a side effect of the more successful ventures. Increasingly in my studio practice I am directly engaging trance states and altered states of consciousness. In part because I think much of what I am exploring currently lies at the limits of our cultural and individual consciousness. The multi-dimensional cubes you mention are specifically in this territory. I started doing freehand drawings of those 4, 5 and 6 dimensional cubes in an attempt to gain some sort of direct phenomenological understanding of higher dimensional spaces–something many mathematicians and engineers regularly navigate from a numerical perspective. But I wanted to understand these higher dimensions spatially as an artist. The result? A total headtrip.

KE: So, if you go into this headtrip, do you want the viewer to get lost as well?

JL: I don’t think getting lost in the work is necessary. But I think if someone really engages a number of my pieces over time–getting lost is inevitable. I spent the greater part of a decade, including two years in graduate school, studying modern complex systems theory. I think a majority of the insoluble problems we currently face as a civilization–peak resources, peak fossil energy, over population, unavoidable significant climate change, increasingly dysfunctional systems of civic representation, collapsing financial systems–will only be able to be addressed when many of the basic understandings present in complex systems theory find their way into popular cultural understanding. Paradoxically, I think that many of these tenets will only become relevant to most peoples as we actually begin to seriously tackle any of these problems.

I often imagine that for many people, the shattering of the heavenly spheres and the geocentric universe that accompanied, was a similarly overwhelming experience intellectually and spiritually. During massive rapid cultural transformation, I imagine that most of us will feel like we are falling for a bit. So I guess for the greater good of mankind, I hope we do get lost in these heady, exciting spaces for a bit. But not so lost that we never find solid footing again.

KE: There is a tone of violence carrying through your practice as well: overtly with the Warbonds, as subjects in Lazzarus’s re-telling of Captain America, and implied (the barbed wire fences, the “No Fishing Signs”). Is violence equitable with anger in your work? If so, towards what?

JL: I don’t know if it’s anger. I mean some of it likely is. But in some cases it might be alarm. Or in other cases just more descriptive. Though violent, a tornado or an earthquake aren’t really angry. They may be poetically speaking. But through many lenses, their inherent violence is just a matter of rapid change over a timescale that makes most living things, us included, horribly uncomfortable. And in some cases, the violence that is present is more playful and boyish, like the violence in a videogame. I think that’s where parts of both “Captain America” and the “Warbonds Performance” are coming from. Of course there are some moments of horrific clarity that suddenly drop any façade of play throughout both pieces, such as the retellings of the Tuskegee experiments or the red scare in Captain America. And there’s a moment in the Warbonds Performance where I turn to the audience and say “To turn your back on science? Well that’s just hateful to our way of life.” And I mean it. There I am angry. I’m angry at the moronic Young Earthers who think that their religious opinion is as valid a fact as science and should be taught as such. In general,willful ignorance makes me angry. So does corruption. Corruption of fact. Corruption of charity. Corruption of good will.

Though much of my work engages deep philosophical and heady intellectual ideas, these emotional realities do find their way into pieces. I think much of the work I do is dramatic. I want people to feel genuine emotions that somehow loop back and touch the real world, either via very private internal experiences or shared, immediate global concerns. And I suppose anger and it’s sibling outrage are two valid, legitimate emotional responses. But as you’ve noted in your prior questions, so are awe and wonderment. I think many of bounce around in our emotional response to themes as large as those that I tackle. So I think it’s only appropriate that my work illicit such wild vacillations.

Interview with artist James Leonard | 2011 | Writing