Chicago, Jan. 2012 – David Leggett's work is raw, offensive, smart, funny, considered and glorious. Able to address both Lil Wayne and the major German painters of the 1980s, Leggett levels hypocritical art world pretensions and engages popular culture, all while paying respect to the heavyweights of art history and innovating an artistic approach that is uniquely his own. Challenging prevailing tastes and outdated notions of media hierarchy, Leggett makes frequent use of craft supplies in his art using things like googly eyes, colorful felt, pom pom balls and glitter. The quirky materials belie the serious subjects that sometimes underlie his work, topics like racism, homophobia and discrimination.
I spent a recent Saturday afternoon with David Leggett talking about his work in his studio, while the artist was preparing for his upcoming concurrent shows at Western Exhibitions and the Hyde Park Art Center, both of which are now on view. Like any good conversation with an artist, the topic quickly turned to issues of taste, power and preference in the art world.
Abraham Ritchie: So you think that a lot of young artists in New York are making Chicago Imagist type of work?
David Leggett: Well they don’t know that they are making Imagist work.
When I was at Skowhegan I had to make sure people knew who I knew. I had to talk about Imagists and remind people of them.
How I heard about the Imagists was when I was living in Savannah and being an illustration major [at the Savannah College of Art and Design] I always wanted to find new artists. I stumbled on this history book that had the Imagists and Peter Saul as well as the funk artist William T. Wiley who I really, really liked.
So I would talk about these people from time to time and no one would know who they were. It was strange to me because I thought they had interesting work. It obviously made sense to me because I was an illustration major at the time and these were narrative painters. But other people just saw it as flat out illustration.
David Leggett. Today's Rules. 2011. Pencil on paper; Courtesy of the artist.
DL: People still have this 1950s mentality that they need to distance themselves from this. That I don’t want to be popular. That I want to be thought of as a deep thinker.
AR: This is sort of the capriciousness of the art world isn’t it?
AR: And that reflects too in your work doesn’t it? In a lot of the jokes-
AR: I mean there’s a discrimination out there towards art that isn’t from certain places, or even of a certain medium.
DL: Yeah. I made a Basquiat painting, it’s of me and Basquiat—
AR: Sure it’s over there! [gesturing]
DL: [laughter] Yeah it was the one painting I didn’t want to sell, I gotta keep this one! But it was the first painting I made for the show; it was after someone had an argument with me about Basquiat. I think Basquiat is well-liked outside of the art world. I remember absolutely loving him when I was seventeen; I don’t care for it that much now, but still, [I’m a] huge fan. But we were talking about him, about Basquiat, and there was something about the conversation where it seemed like -- did he really dislike him? Or do you dislike him because he’s out of fashion right now? With the list of artists that he went through I don’t see how he could like them and then not like Basquiat.
AR: Do you think it’s because Basquiats are doing well in the market?
DL: I think so. I think people don’t want to like something that popular. Particularly the art world doesn’t want to like someone that’s famous outside the art world.
I've met plenty of people who don't know a thing about painting who know who Basquiat is, and they'll have a book about Basquiat or something. I don't understand why, but they love him. And that interests me a lot, that there's this black artist out there that people really like. I mean there was a 30 Rock reference to Basquiat, that's so bizarre to me. So I had to make a painting.
AR: So what else are you working on in here? I see that a Jesus is in there, like from a religious tract. What’s the interest in mass-produced imagery, both the scared and profane? How do you select what you include from mass culture?
DL: Well, for instance, someone once told me about Spring Thomas, this porn actress whose niche is that she’s a southern belle who only sleeps with black guys; doesn’t matter what they look like, as long as they have a big dick she’ll sleep with them. So I started to look at the videos online and they’re amazing [sarcastically] because I . . . can’t . . . believe . . . they went there. I mean it’s like her saying the n-word and that’s like supposed to anger the black guys, and then they all attack her and have sex with her. I started printing out a lot of stuff from her website.
AR: So what’s the interest in the mass-produced religious handouts and imagery?
DL: It’s something I grew up with. I’ve always been interested in that Jesus reproduction. I had to look for that particular one, the more popular one that everyone is familiar with—
AR: That blond haired, blue eyed one?
DL: Yeah . . .
ArtSlant would like to thank David Leggett for his assistance in making this interview possible.