Whitehot Magazine

June 2010, Interview: Brian Leo

Brian Leo, Haiti Harvest, 2010
Courtesy of the artist


Kofi Forson in Conversation with Brian Leo

Brian Leo, a New York City artist, has exhibited his paintings in venues such as Leo Kesting Gallery, Capla Kesting Fine Art, Umbrella Arts Projects, D.U.M.B.O. Arts Center, McCaig Welles Gallery, Front Room Gallery and numerous art fairs including Scope NY, Fountain NY/Miami, Bridge Chicago/Miami, Next Chicago and The Governor's Island Art Fair. His work has been included in The New York Times and The Miami New Times. His clusters of small paintings address culture, politics and American identity. The cavalcade of tiny images exhibited en masse, show events of deep cultural significance flanked by bizarre meditations on moments of Leo's personal experience.

Kofi Forson: Looking at your work I get the sense you’re having fun, all the colors, the drawing style, they give the impression of someone who’s concerned about the life we’re living. There’s something playful and musical about it as well. Is this what you call Garage Pop Surrealism? 

Brian Leo: Yeah there’s something definitely musical about it. It’s a mash up of Pop, the flat background colors, the surreal image, the idea of garage. Rather than expressionism, there’s this stored-warehouse-unfiltered-emotion. It has somewhat of a punk, garage rock aspect.

KF: The idea of Pop Art and Surrealism interplay but how does Pop Art and Surrealism figure into your work?

BL: The form of the work is the flat background colors. Nowadays I mix in some Minimalism and abstract elements. The images of the work are surreal because they make people question what they are seeing. The juxta-positioning of the images give a dream-like impression. I’m aware of the content I’m communicating. It’s not about aesthetics. I’m using different movements and mediums from the past as language. Content is what justifies the work. Much of this is left up to the viewer’s interpretation.

KF: Pop Art was a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. Motherwell begot Warhol. As a Garage Pop Surrealist what movement are you reacting against?

BL: We’re within the realm of Post-Modernism more or less recycling and recontextualizing, appropriating images, picking out different styles.

KF: Your work seems more commentary than the politicizing of art.

BL: I like to think of my work as a mash up of personal, social and political commentary. It’s filtered through my being as a first generation American. I meditate on events and objects and products that come from my immediate existence.

There are different themes in my work, the environment, 9/11, greed which is a timeless theme, graduation massacres, G.M.O’s, cloning, internet pornography. Meditating on mass media is interesting rather than having it go through one ear and out the other. I concentrate on events that I’ve experienced and memories that I’ve had. So I like to mix it all up.

KF: About identity…you are a mix of Korean and Italian. How does that help your sense of awareness, the keen eye and ear you bring to your art, your observance of what’s happening in society?

BL: It goes back to the postmodernism reference. There’s no time in history when we’ve had this many bi-racial people. And being first generation American my commentary is a little more brazened than people who have lineage or history to America. I’m somewhat desensitized. I feel free to meditate on and incorporate the existence of our collective experience, such as environmental disasters, notions of terrorism, prostitution, slavery and war.

Bi-racial people don’t in general feel like one or the other race. I guess I’m totally Americanized anyway. That’s what’s great about being in New York, growing up in New Jersey. This is multi-culturalism. This is postmodernism. The white man has controlled the art movements and now we have gays, bi-racial people, women and minorities having more of a voice since the 80’s.

KF: As far as the 80’s what is the influence of the MTV generation on your art? 

BL: There are a couple of pieces in my work that mention movies from the 80’s like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Optimus Prime. Things like dust busters or certain scenes from movies back then had a powerful effect on me, JAWS for example. We recently sold a painting of Jaws actually.

The surreal aspect is the idea of violence and the fear it instilled in me. As far as music and MTV that short lived grunge movement in the early 90’s perhaps adds to that garage element.

Brian Leo, Nobel Piece Prize, 2010
Courtesy of the artist

And as far as post G.W. Bush and where we find ourselves with Obama what are your thoughts?

BL: I’ve done a lot of work about that. Subject matters like the low-flying airplanes, sub-prime mortgage crisis which I have an installation of. Themes like the Freedom Tower which we haven’t built. I don’t mind entertaining conspiracy theories. I just made a piece about Haiti. I heard somewhere that doctors posing as medical volunteers were harvesting eyes and livers and kidneys and hearts selling them on the black market. I tend to code much of this and leave it up to the interpretation of the public.

I have a piece called Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a stick of dynamite with a hand holding it. It’s a masturbatory gesture. I simply went into the origin of the Nobel Peace Prize which is Alfred Nobel who in the 1800’s felt guilty for his discovery of nitro-glycerin and established the Nobel Peace Prize hence the stick of dynamite in the painting. Obama’s name is written on the stick of dynamite. People normally think I want to blow up Obama or something to that effect. It’s just referring to the fact that Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last December. Internationally and domestically many people felt it was premature for Obama to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. At the same time I like the commentary on all of the blind followers of Obama creaming over this cult of personality.

KF: The general aspect of your work is not so much to provoke. You tend to pull back just a little.

BL: I don’t want to spell it out for people. It makes things more accessible. In my Sex Trafficking piece there are girls with red dresses but some people might think of it as flamenco dancers. I have a piece that’s quite popular called The Choir. It’s about 9/11 victims falling out of windows. The painting looks like a choir floating in a sea of blue. I tell people it’s spiritual. I have some Bird Flu pieces as well. I tell people it’s from my trip to Asia.

I have this subversive element that doesn’t need to be revealed verbally. I like this idea of the bright colors. They contrast the content of the work which are tragic media events, then the filtering of the quirky events of my personal experience.

KF: There’s a sense of joy to your paintings given the fact that these are some “heavy duty” topics.

BL: I’m basically working through the paradigm of contradiction. Within the extreme content there’s a sense of quirkiness. Then again that’s the Pop aspect.

KF: What are your thoughts on stardom? 

BL: That would be ideal if I could live off what I’m doing. But if I get recognition and I could actually contribute in some way to society with whatever message it is then it would all be worthwhile.

Brian Leo, Tiger's Speech, 2010
Courtesy of the artist


Brian Leo, Mama Meow-Meow, 2010
Courtesy of the artist

Kofi Forson

Kofi Forson is a writer, POET and PLAYWRIGHT living in NYC. His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture. 

Email: lidonslap@gmail.com

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