David Leggett is a visual artist who lives in Chicago. He received his BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design (2003), and a MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2007). He also was an artist in residence at the University of Chicago, Arts and Public Life (2014-15). His work tackles many themes head on; hip-hop, art history, popular culture, sexuality, the racial divide, and the self are all reoccurring subjects. He takes many of my cues from standup comedians, which he listens to while in the studio. He runs a daily drawing blog Coco River Fudge Street that started in 2010. He has shown his work throughout the United States and internationally, including an upcoming solo show at Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago (2016). He received the visual artist award from 3Arts in 2009.
Q&A with David Leggett
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi David! Can you tell us a bit about your process? How do you begin and how does the process of making a painting or drawing unfold for you? Do the drawings inform the paintings?
It usually begins with writing. I will either write in the notes feature on my iPhone or a notebook a phrase or word. Those phrases or words are sometimes written directly to the paper or canvas or will become the title for the work. The texts are a springboard for me to create the work. I will sit and think how can a phrase or word be turned into a visual work. I also have endless amounts of old and new magazines as source material for drawing and painting in my studio. To me the drawings and paintings work together. I no longer see one informing the other. They work together.
Can you tell us more about your drawing blog, Coco River Fudge Street? It seems that you posted the last drawing on May 31st, 2016—is it finished?
Coco River Fudge Street ran from 2010 to 2016. The original run lasted a year. Each day I would draw something new and post it online. On Tuesdays I would take drawing requests from people and on Fridays I would post old embarrassing drawings, mostly from grad school. I wanted the blog to be somewhat like a radio station.
I started the blog in hopes to get my work to reach a wider audience as well as to collaborate with people. Posting your artwork online was still a new concept in 2010. After the first year, I had a solo show of 150 drawings from the blog at the Hyde Park Art Center here in Chicago. That summer after the show had come down I decided to go back to the blog for a two month run. This time with no collaborations or old drawings. I would go back to the blog during the summer every year and stopped last year after feeling nothing new could be done.
I was introduced to the blog by a friend in 2013. Did you find that the project helped to create a dialog with others about your work or introduce them to your work?
The blog was how many people were introduced to my work. It reached people all over the world. I didn’t anticipate that. The Internet doesn’t have a hierarchy like a gallery or museum, and it doesn’t close. Everyone is welcomed and that is what I enjoyed the most about the blog.
Congratulations on your recent solo show, Their funeral, our dance floor at Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago. Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition and the body of work that you made for the show?
After my solo show at Gallery 400 in the fall of 2016, I knew I wanted to make larger works that were more concentrated on a theme. The title for the show comes from a painting of the same name. The painting depicts a couple whose heads are floating above grass, and there is a glittery sun above them. They are being watched; it’s your death and their dance floor. Many of the works follow the same theme of black life. The paintings are made to talk with one another, as they are to talk to the viewers. The conversations range from police brutality, love and friendship – to name a few. The paintings are lined up with one another and each engages with those themes. I also created eight drawings that had more immediacy to them and talked about newly formed political artists, helpful liberals, and the general political discourse in 2017.
What role does appropriation and pop culture play in your work?
Many of the pop culture references in my work are things I liked in my childhood. I went to catholic school until I was in the 7th grade and Disney cartoons where shown often to us. Disney movies were wholesome. I admired the early Disney artists like Ub Iwerks and became an illustration major when I entered college. The illustration influence is still a part of my work. Images from popular culture already have their own meaning, so they’re easy to manipulate. Viewers recognize them and are drawn in.
How does the repetition of imagery within the work function for you?
When I use an image repeatedly I’m trying to give it importance and have the viewer ask why are the images repeated. I can change the meaning of the image by changing the paint application. By doing this I can talk about art history as well. Repeating black figures reinforces that black images are important and contributes to greater representation in art.
You work with a wide range of materials, including some with a connection to commercial craft (like felt and googly eyes) in relation to more traditional materials like acrylic paint on canvas or linen. How do your materials and the combination of different media function conceptually?
I think of them on the same level. Many in the fine arts often consider craft materials as lowbrow. I believe craft materials helps bring the viewer in for a closer examination for the work along with humor and color. Craft materials have a familiar quality to them that can help soften difficult subject matter in a painting.
You create a strong tension between serious subject matter with a vein of humor. Can you tell us more about the role that different or opposing emotions play?
Humor is a great way to break the news. It is a tool to engage the viewer with subject matter that may otherwise turn them off. I can talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, and other societal ills with humor. That humor is like sugar that helps the medicine go down. The viewer can be left asking himself or herself why they laughed at something that deals with such depressing subject matter.
Can you tell us more about how you title your work?
Titles are important to me. They can change the meaning of a work of art completely. I pull my titles from many different sources. Song lyrics, TV and movie dialog, and the comment section on YouTube are a few places my titles come from. I sometimes have the title first and it will help dictate the painting.
Text plays a prominent role in your work. What is the process for writing and editing text?
I don’t really have a process. I write in the notes feature on my iPhone or in my sketchbook for use later, or sometimes I write directly on the canvas. It’s more intuitive for me. Colors and images often dictate what text is added.
Are there themes in your work that you feel people often miss or overlook?
No, I feel everything is out in the open about the work.
What is one of the most exciting things happening in your studio right now?
I’m not sure how to answer this question. I do have a 1980 Cracked magazine I bought recently that is in the studio, and I keep think of all the things I can do with it.
What is a typical day like for you?
During the week I go to the studio from 8:30am–5:30pm. I turn on a podcast and start working. I have lunch at the same time everyday in my studio. I do not go to the studio on the weekends. I try to get out to shows and relax during weekend. I treat working in the studio like a regular job.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Robert Colescott, Jim Shaw, Otto Dix, Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Horace Pippin, Wilford Limonious, Emil Ferris, Kara Walker, Richard Pryor, Ms. Pat, Johnny Ryan, Nina Chanel Abney, and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
Monster Roster at the Smart Museum and Kerry James Marshall Mastry at the MCA. Both shows were a couple of years ago but are still my favorites.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I enjoy reading and films but I wouldn’t say anything in particular has influenced me deeply. I am a big fan of Star Wars and sci-fi. I keep going back to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but I wouldn’t consider it a huge influence.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
I had a painting professor in undergrad that would walk around the classroom with a bucket of white paint. If he thought you were being too fussy with your painting he would make you step back and he would make you start painting parts of your canvas white. He would say, “ You cannot break a painting” as he used the white painting. Paintings are not precious. You cannot get hung up on small things. You can always paint over mistakes.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
The most challenging aspect was time. Time to work in the studio and have a job to support myself. Time is one of the most important things for artists. I often felt I rushed work for shows due to having a day job. I’m now a full time artist and have time to think and work.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I like to listen to long form podcasts and comedy albums. They help time go by and for things to stay loose while working. The comedy albums help me with putting humor in my work.
What is the art community like in Chicago? Any advice for artists who are interested in creating community and finding an audience for their work?
Chicago artists do their own thing. They don’t really concern themselves with other cities or trends. If you want to show your work more and reach a wider audience, show you work wherever you can. Do not be a snob about gallery spaces if those spaces are free to show in. Get your friends involved. Show your work in your apartment. Try to challenge yourself and not just be happy with a recent series of work. I have witnessed several artists here who will make a new series of work that they have been working on for a month and think they should be showing in the best galleries only. That’s not a good attitude. There are many spaces like the Hyde Park Art Center that you can show and expose yourself to a new audience.
How do you interact with social media, both personally and professionally as an artist?
Social media is a tool and gets your work to people who cannot see it in person. I think it is important for artists starting out to use social media to promote themselves. I enjoy making memes for my shows and posting work before the show opens. That helps with general interest. I try to post regularly and post what I think are interesting things.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I have a solo show in September at Kimmrich Gallery in Berlin, Germany. I’m also doing an artist residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans in 2018.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about David and his work, check out his website.