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Cotton Candy Sweet as Gold: A Conversation with David Leggett

David Leggett. The Blackest Hole.2012. Hinge Gallery, Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Danielle Jackson)

Through the utilization of common craft materials, paintings, and drawings, David Leggett’s work humorously tackles race, sexuality, and class. He draws inspiration from popular culture, everyday occurrences, and art historical research. David Leggett received his BFA from SCAD, his MFA from SAIC, and is a former Skowhegan resident. Some recent exhibitions include: “It’s getting to the point, where no one respects the dead.Fresh to death” at Western exhibitions, “Coca River Fudge Street” at the Hyde Park Art Center, and a current solo exhibition at Hinge Gallery depicting works inspired by Afro Pop and Afro-Futurism. Last week, I sat down with David at his studio to discuss some of his inspirations, his love of humor, the Chicago Imagists, Rick Ross, odd encounters, and a whole slew of other things.

Danielle Jackson [DJ]: You actually mentioned at your artist talk that you “hero- worshipped” the Chicago Imagists. I’m wondering what it was about them? When did you first encounter their work?

David Leggett [DL]: I was at SCAD at the library just looking for new books. Somehow I stumbled across this one art history book. It’s probably not as rare now to see the Chicago Imagists in books, but back in 2000 if you weren’t living in Chicago you didn’t really know. So I was flipping through this book and there was Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and Karl Wirsum. Their work seemed so different. I was an illustration major at the time. It seemed more in tuned with what I was thinking about. I don’t make highly polished work like I used to back then. It was also seeing this very finely rendered work (no paintbrush marks). It was very just fine skilled –kind of bratty—making fun of the establishment kind of work.

DJ: You actually met some of them right?

DL:  I got to meet all of them actually. Well, Ed Paschke didn’t teach at the Art Institute. I worked with Karl and I got to see Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson around the school.

DJ: I was just reading an interview in Bomb on Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson. Jim Nutt had this beautiful quote where he states, “I always draw with an eraser in one hand and a pencil in the other. Every line is under threat.” Then he goes on to talk about how long it takes him to create a piece. He’s super particular about it.

DL: He’s very. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen his frames—and this is how nerdy I am—he makes all his frames himself and he’ll actually put all of these instructions for the art handlers, like “Do not put wire on this” or “Do not do this” or “This has to go in this light.” [Laughter] This is all hand painted on the back of the frame.

David Leggett. Night Owl. 2011. Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Image Courtesy of David Leggett)

DJ:  I definitely got that from him. It was totally an interesting article. What’s your process like? Is it quick?

DL: No, it seems quick because there are a lot of things going on. Some stuff for Hinge Gallery I’ve spent two years working on. It’s just this constant start–stop thing going on. I’ll start anywhere from ten to twenty things at once. Sometimes you’ll see the same color palette repeating because I started them at the same time, but it’s not necessarily going to be finished at the same time.

DJ: Is that because you get frustrated with something?

DL: Yeah, I need to walk away and think about it. I think it’s just a process. I probably won’t be as interested in it. There are a lot of things where I’m like, “Oh this is going to be the best idea.” Then you start making it and you’re like “Oh man no, no.”

DJ: Put it to the side. [Laughter]

DL: [Laughter] yeah put it to the side. Think of something later.

DJ: Going back a little, you mentioned you used to draw really tightly. What was the point where you decided not to draw so tightly?

DL: That goes back to Karl Wirsum. When I came here, he saw some of my more scrabbly sketchbook stuff. He favored those more and had more to say about that. I thought, “Well here is a guy I look up to, maybe he’s right.” He was. When I’m drawing so tightly I immediately become very self-conscious. I don’t want anyone to catch my line. I don’t want anyone to see a shaky line. It has to be straight and perfect. That will absolutely drive you nuts.

DJ: For me, what is impressive about your work is that you use these common craft materials, yet you have interesting compositions. You use felt, rubber stamps, glitter, and wiggle eyes. When did you start utilizing these materials in your work?

DL: I think I was taking book-making classes at SAIC. I wanted to make a nice cover. For whatever reason I was like, “I want to use felt.”I definitely like Mike Kelley’s felt pieces. At the time, it was just to make a cover, but when I first got the studio out here I started using craft materials. It was really an accident. I was seeing what it would look like. It was kind of problematic. When you use craft materials you have to figure out exactly how it’s going to work. You have to figure out the composition because it’s just going to look like craft materials. Several people who use craft materials—it’s kind of obvious. I’m trying not to use it in the most obvious way.

DJ: Just curious do you consider your work to be a commentary on black identity and black experiences?

DL:  I do and I don’t. To me it’s more important for the work to be like this is just a human being living and we all think of different things throughout the day (some stuff we will never admit to people). That’s how I see it. I definitely think of other black artists. I think it’s interesting that other cultures appropriate black culture, but usually when they do its Hip Hop culture exclusively. Not only do other cultures do it, but we do as well. It’s interesting to see people who didn’t live that trifle life incorporate Hip Hop into their work. It’s okay to be from the suburbs and have parents who are still together and went to college. That’s something to wear with pride. That’s why I made Burr (The Theo Huxtable experience) I would like to see an artist who grew up like the Huxtables make art that reflects that. I think that would be interesting.

DJ: It’s interesting because some black artists very consciously think about those issues.

DL: Yeah, to me at least with my work, it’s a little bit more slippery when it comes to that. I’m not trying to hammer it out for you. It’s a “you can take it or leave it” type thing.

DJ: Is one of your objectives humor?

DL: I listen to a lot of comedy albums when I make my work. I think if I wasn’t and this is in my mind [laughter] if I wasn’t an artist, I would have tried to be a comedian. I’m always cracking jokes. Humor just makes things go much more smoothly. I never know exactly what people are going to laugh at.

DJ: Can you speak about Coca River Fudge Street? What led you to do that? I think what’s interesting about that is that you made a drawing a day, took requests on Tuesdays, and even had Old School Fridays much like a radio station.

DL: The radio station idea came from a book warehouse I used to work at. The radio station was always on WGCI. Hearing that made me think of it. The whole idea started at my residency at Skowhegan in 2010. I was doing these 22 x 30 drawings. The drawings were in my window. I would just write text. I put two up at a time and then I would take them down. No one knew what I was doing with them until the end of the residency. I would put text up and people would walk pass during lunch or dinner. I could hear people having conversations about what the text meant. I would illustrate what they said. I really liked this idea of collaboration yet no one knew it was collaboration. So I wanted to do that when I got back. That’s how Coca River Fudge Street started.

DJ: Did you give yourself limitations for the project?

DL: I had to stop painting them because it was just going to take the entire day. So that was the only real limitation.

DJ: What’s the oddest request you’ve gotten?

DL: The last request was kind of weird. I was having Thanksgiving and one person requested Gerald Ford being bukkaked on. It was so random. I was like, “I don’t understand, but I’ll do it. It’s my last request.” [Laughter] I don’t turn down anything.

DJ: In your interview with the Chicagoist, you state that “You have to be willing to embarrass yourself.” Why is that important?

DL: I think it’s because if you’re constantly safe, what are you doing? You have to be willing to go “God, I can’t believe I’m going there.” At least for what I do if you’re making fun of all these different people and you’re the safe one, people can see right through that. When I think of comedians like Richard Pryor or Patton Oswalt –all these different ranges of comedians—they always attack themselves as well. Richard Pryor put himself out there.

DJ: He did. He was a character. Pam Grier recently wrote about him in her book. Crazy. [Laughter]

DL: Drugs man. [Laughter]

David Leggett. BO$$. 2011. Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Image Courtesy of David Leggett)

DJ:  In your drawings and paintings you insert yourself into them. Do you consider those to be self-portraits?

DL: Well I think everything is a self-portrait whether you want it to be or not.  I think it’s easy to use myself just so I don’t get the constant questions like, “Who’s that?” It’s kind of like I’m the every man—the every person.

DJ: You make a lot of references to popular culture. Where does that interest come from? I do realize that you’re an illustrator and you guys are well-versed in that.

DL: Yeah, I think it’s always been an interest. As I’m getting older, I don’t fully understand what people like nowadays. I’m a little slow catching up on things. I don’t know what I would say about someone like Katy Perry. That may be an old reference by now too.

DJ: You mention Rick Ross often.

DL: Rick Ross is hilarious to me. Most people don’t remember that there was this other rapper named The Boss back in the day—female rapper. She was hardcore. It was probably back in the early 90s. It was found out that she went to Catholic school and was a straight A student. That was the end of her career. No one wanted to hear her again. She had this gangster look with sagging pants. [Laughter] She had this big smiling photo in the Catholic school yearbook. Rick Ross to me is the same way. He’s this guy who went to college and was a correctional officer, but he’s claiming he was the biggest drug-dealer in Florida. Come on now.  He’s not a good rapper either.

DJ:  Do you have any upcoming projects?

Yes, I have two summer group shows and two fall group shows. One summer show is the Blacklight show curated by Paul Nudd in Virginia. Another show in San Francisco curated by Ryan Travis Christian. In fall, I have a group show at DePaul about the Imagists—artists inspired by the Imagists. I have another one at the Pittsburgh Museum of Art that’s going to be on text work.

Hinge Gallery

David Leggett and Kristina Paabus 

1955 W. Chicago Avenue

Chicago, IL

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