With two significant shows concurrently on view in Chicago at Hyde Park Art Center in addition to Western Exhibitions, it has been rewarding to watch the increasing interest in David Leggett's work over the last couple years. Undoubtedly the artist merits the attention and more; his unique style fuses his own idiosyncratic way of making art with distinct historical influences from Jean-Michel Basquiat to the Leipzig School to the Chicago Imagists, and pop culture figures like Rick Ross and the porn star Spring Thomas.
Leggett's show at Western Exhibitions finds him openly taking on the challenge of making large-scale work in his signature style that he has largely perfected in his smaller pieces. The artist frequently uses craft materials like felt and googly eyes in his work, items that may not transition easily in scale. Wisely then, Leggett has chosen different approaches to making and including those materials in these larger pieces, if they are included at all.
And it works, as the larger areas of the canvas become passages of painted narratives and vignettes, or abstraction. The title of Dead and Stank is barely legible across the top of the large canvas, the rest of which reads as a fleshy abstraction that reminds one of the corrupted skin in Jim Nutt's early work. While participating in abstract painting fully, Leggett pokes fun at it – it's dead and stinking – relating the work to the title of the show: "It's getting to the point where no one respects the dead. Fresh to death."
Death literally hovers over A natural death (seen at top) in the form of a black skull and the word Jackson emblazoned in the middle of a field of gestural marks. According to the artist the name refers primarily to Jackson Pollock but also summons the recently departed Michael Jackson. Both men died of unnatural causes, a car crash and an overdose, respectively, but their deaths did seem natural to their preferred modes of living. The painting is purposely satirical of action painting but that was not enough to carry it for me, whereas the abstraction in That's where they made me at works both as satire and on a technical level.
The round, tondo format painting is one that I don't see a lot, and one that seems difficult for most artists to work with. But this is a format Leggett handles with ease again and again, as proven here by Unforgivable Blackness, one of the standouts of the exhibition.
Over the summer of 2011 a flood destroyed many works in Leggett’s studio, leading to motivations for this exhibition. He comments, “I couldn't help but notice how small the paintings were. I felt I wasn't challenging myself. It felt like what I was doing wasn't important.” Working on a large scale Leggett has achieved a stylistic synthesis with his other work while leaving himself new directions to explore, and this exhibition certainly does feel like he is challenging himself. A larger scale does not necessarily make an artwork inherently more important; the decisions that the artist makes cause one piece to be more important than another, regardless of size. I have never questioned the importance or weight of his smaller works, the tightly wound treatises of black experience, identity and humor. Sure some maybe one-liners, but they all fit into a much larger body of work as the two hundred drawings at the Hyde Park Art Center indicate. With the growing attention and exhibitions of Leggett’s work it seems that others would agree that size isn’t everything.
(Image at top: David Leggett, A Natural Death, 2012, acrylic and found object on canvas , 66" x 54"; Courtesy of the artist and Western Exhibitions)