ArtSquishy, liquid, glossy: Artist Rollin Leonard on New Portraiture
Hopes&Fears interviews artist Rollin Leonard about his new series of photographic sculptures, videos and GIFs.
Rollin Leonard is an artist's artist. For his upcoming "collaborative" exhibition, "New Portraiture," which opens Saturday at Brooklyn's Transfer Gallery—and later this month at XPO Gallery in Paris and online, via the exquisite corpse project, Cloaque—Leonard debuts a series of modular image-objects based on the principle of photography as sculpture. These photographic distortions of the human anatomy can be crunched, crumpled and coaxed into uncanny forms that are at once abstract and familiar.
Instead of taking the easy way out, Leonard literally creates more work for himself. To make the pieces in the show, he spent months submitting himself and his models to an array of Boschian bodily tortures. This latest body of work is all about replicating digital processes using physical techniques. But wait, isn't the whole point of software to expedite the drudgeries of manual labor? Not so for Leonard, who clearly derives some solace, if not pleasure, from figuring things out for himself. It might surprise you to know the compositions that seem the most digitally manipulated are entirely the result of studio methods while those that appear relatively analog require countless hours of Photoshop sorcery. Oh, and there will be animated gifs. There are always animated gifs.
Hopes & Fears: How did you link up with Transfer Gallery?
Rollin Leonard: I curated a group show at the Bronx Art Space and Kelani [Nichole, the owner] came. She hadn't opened the gallery yet. The building was just bones at that point. I remember standing in the space, planning what would be my solo show, and there weren't any walls yet. It didn't happen for another six months because my work cycle is so long.
Rollin Leonard is a Maine-based artist whose work is rooted in crude but systematic studio photography. The subjects are often bodies and body parts and most of the work has been designed to be experienced online. His work has been exhibited in New York and London at The Photographer’s Gallery, Museum of the Moving Image, Moving Image Art Fair, Bitforms and Postmasters and is included in the collection of 53 Museum Guangzhou, China.
H&F: Why is that?
With everything I do, I start from scratch. I don’t have any photographic training and I’m not a scientist. I’m an amateur whenever I start any project.
↓ MUD PUDDLE Rollin Leonard (2015)
1080p, 4k. Looping video. Faces are photographed through an irregular lens made of water.
H&F: Do you ever outsource your manufacturing?
RL: No. Maybe if I could afford it, I’d do it more often. But things like pouring or polishing resin I prefer to do myself because it has to be up to par with my standards.
For instance, I found out that I could have stickers manufactured in China. There was this company that would print off a bunch of sheets based on custom designs you sent them, but the quality of the samples was really bad so I researched how to replicate the process and did it myself. The fun part of doing all the labor in-house was that I could make each piece unique.
H&F: Can you talk about your artistic process for this show and how it departs from the previous one?
RL: The main formal difference is that I’ve moved from cubic shapes to more organic or liquid ones, though they’re a lot more related than people think, in the sense that they’re just little jewels or packets of flesh that can be reconstituted and recomposed.
H&F: That’s disgusting, but I like it. Do you try to hold yourself to a schedule or routine?
RL: Well, I usually wake up at the crack of noon [laughs] … Typically, I spend some time working on problems that I started the night before at home in my notebook and then I go into the studio and do physical labor to take my mind off of the problems. I try to divide my time in such a way that I’m not sitting around feeling stuck at any point. But it’s taxing and tedious to spend so much time manually cutting out little shapes, so eventually I get distracted and go back to writing or sketching.
1030 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn
Transfer is an exhibition space that explores the friction between networked practice and its physical instantiation. The gallery was founded in March 2013 to support artists working with computer-based practices by producing solo exhibitions and activations within our walls. In 2014 TRANSFER presented artwork at five international art fairs and curated 10 solo exhibitions in our Brooklyn-based gallery. Now entering its third year, TRANSFER is independently directed by co-founder Kelani Nichole.
H&F: I noticed that for a conceptual artist, materiality figures prominently in your work.
RL: Material technologies are something that I care deeply about, so when I hear about a new material or substance, I’m on top of it. When NeverWet came out, I was thrilled. NeverWet is what’s called a hydrophobic spray, so it repels water and restricts its flow when applied to surfaces. For example, you put it on your birdfeeder or something, and the rain just beads up and rolls off of it instead of being absorbed. When I first started playing with it, I loved that I could get a really large, perfectly spherical ball of water. It gives the effect that the water is suspended this weightless environment.
H&F: Where do you find out about new material technologies?
With everything I do, I start from scratch. I don’t have any photographic training and I’m not a scientist. I’m an amateur whenever I start any project.
RL: I don’t really have a system in place for finding out about these things, though I probably should since I care so much about it! Usually, someone will post something on Facebook, like, “Check out this cool thing!” Or, I don’t know, BoingBoing. Or, whatever garbage I happen to be reading at the moment.
H&F: What are the main themes or motifs of this body of work?
RL: The deal with this body of work is that there was this stock photo of dew drops clinging to a spider web or fern fronds. There are a million variations on it. There's one with a map and one with a globe, and I thought it was really stupid but wanted to play with it.
I isolated and stripped the reflections and shadows from the surface of the droplet, creating this flat UV. That’s a word from 3D modeling. In 3D modeling you have XYZ, which are the axes that correspond to length, height and depth, and then there’s UV, which is the 2D skin that drapes over the volume and conveys properties like color and texture.
H&F: What was the purpose of removing the reflection?
RL: I wanted to focus on the consistency of the water, which meant creating the illusion that there was no direct light striking it.
I mean, you can’t remove the reflection entirely; it remains reflective to some extent just from being subjected to ambient light. The purpose was to optimize the patterns of the faces within. I was playing with thin, flexible, water-based skins that could be draped over a plastic base. I wanted to approach photography as sculpture.
H&F: So this was all done with Photoshop or 3D modeling?
RL: No, It was all done with photography. The refractions are just water on glass. There is no digital manipulation whatsoever.
H&F: That's interesting.
RL: I like to use the movie analogy of practical effects, which are effects done on set, vs. visual effects, which are effects done in post-production. For example, fake blood is typically a practical effect.
One one hand, the fluid spatter on someone’s face or body from a blood packet exploding looks more “real” but, on the other hand, you’re subject to more physical constraints. That’s what I like about it. A lot of my ideas could more easily be executed with Photoshop or 3D modeling, but I prefer working with real materials in the studio.
H&F: Doesn't it bother you that you can out cut so much of the labor?
RL: No, I’d be missing out.
↓ Savannah Isometric Rollin Leonard (2015)
35 by 44 flat, variable as crumpled. Inkjet on cotton rag, Velcro and plastic.
H&F: So you're basically inverting the metaphors used by graphics softwares? It's funny because all of these effects and filters were obviously invented to expedite labor-intensive manual processes but you’re turning that whole notion on its head.
RL: Yeah, absolutely, like the term “liquify,” as in the liquify filter, but also terms like “warp” and “skew.” To be honest, this isn’t something I think about a lot with regard to my work. I’m simply compelled to do manual labor even though I don't necessarily subscribe to the idea of its having a redemptive power. It can be really awful, actually—like, this sucked. I destroyed the floor of my studio, the pants I’m wearing, other stuff. It was about three weeks of laying on my back with a plate of glass over my face, calibrating the equipment, painting with the repellent, tweaking the effects, referencing the screen. It was a training period to figure out how the water would behave.
H&F: What kind of setup did you have?
RL: I had a vinyl sheet over the glass plate. I had an eye dropper, a Q-tip, a rag to soak up the water. Eventually, too much dust collects on the surface and I have to wipe it down and start over.
H&F: And then the vinyl was coated with resin?
RL: Yeah, so I printed the distorted photographs on vinyl and domed them with a viscous resin, for example, the kind that you'd find on a Hello Kitty sticker. This was so that I could mimic the texture and consistency of water, blow it up, and still have it be pretty close to the look and feel of the original. Part of the point was to take into consideration what I was seeing as I lay underneath and turn it into object.
I destroyed the floor of my studio, the pants I’m wearing, other stuff. It was about three weeks of laying on my back with a plate of glass over my face, calibrating the equipment, painting with the repellent, tweaking the effects, referencing the screen.
H&F: Why are human faces and bodies the main subject of your work?
RL: I have a bunch of stock answers to that question. The thing is, I'm not even sure how I can't not give you a stock answer because I've been asked the question so many times. The way you interact with the world is through your body. It’s an initial, arbitrary starting point for perception, and my work is basically perceptual in nature. Maybe a better way to describe it is through the concept of facial recognition, which is probably more important thematically. The face is the first thing you recognize when you're a baby. You see it in shadows, in clouds, everywhere, because we're evolved social animals. It has a lot of visual elasticity, which is a term I coined because this question comes up so often. It coheres really well compared to other patterns or formations, organic or synthetic, that you encounter in the world. With facial anatomy, you have a clear orientation and clearly disposed features so you can tell where things are.
H&F: Let’s talk about the irony of calling this portraiture. The show is ostensibly about portraiture, it has “portraiture” in the title, but it’s not actually portraiture, is it?
RL: Yeah, it’s meant to be a little ironic. I mean, they're just heads—and that's all they are! It's the portrait genre updated with all the new technologies and ways of seeing we have now. But I do consider it to be portraiture in the traditional sense in that these are all individual sitters, some of whom even picked the components of themselves that they wanted presented. Each work is named after the person who modeled for it. Each work has certain identifying features—acne scars, fine lines, makeup, piercings—that anchors it from total servitude to my vision. The specificity of the subject matters a lot to me.
H&F: Do your models recognize themselves in your work?
RL: It depends. I've been staring at these pictures for so long that I can recognize them just by skin tone or characteristic details alone. I will forever know that that's Ed and that's Tim, but some people don't.
Each work is named after the person who modeled for it. Each work has certain identifying features—acne scars, fine lines, makeup, piercings—that anchors it from total servitude to my vision. The specificity of the subject matters a lot to me.
H&F: The other thing comes to mind looking at your work is this notion of the uncanny, as in, something that’s incomprehensibly familiar.
RL: I guess that term wouldn't automatically pop into my head, but to the extent that I’m playing with scale in the paper pieces without otherwise modifying them, and distorting the vinyl and resin pieces to the point that they’re barely recognizable, you could say my work fits that category. I make objects and images that subvert perceptual expectations to a degree but I’m not trying to make illusions. I feel like the viewer always has access to the mechanics behind my effects.
H&F: What do you make of the conversation about the digital or “virtual” world vs. the physical or “real” world? Is the difference between the two really that relevant?
RL: I don't think there’s a difference, and that’s why I like treading between the two. I visualize data and pixels in the same way that I think about physical, real-world materials. My studio practice is really half sitting on the computer and half making things. It’s pretty even because knitting the oversized, flat photographic pieces together takes forever, longer even than cutting out pieces of plexiglass or resin-coated vinyl. Normally, when you take a large, marcro photo, if the nose is in focus then the ears will be out of focus, and so on, so it has to be focus-stacked, meaning a separate picture has to be taken at every possible depth and composited into the final composition. To guarantee maximum accuracy, I have to take hundreds, sometimes thousands of images and compare these with reference photos. What you have is a shift in dimension from a 3D subject to a 2D matrix and then back to a 3D sculptural form.
H&F: Have you been following any of these art and academia conversations about cyborgs? Typically, you think of a cyborg as a composite of organic matter and machine parts, but your work is also sort of cyborgian in the sense that it depicts human beings mediated through technological processes.
↓ Water Lens, Wave Rollin Leonard (2014)
Part of a series.
RL: I'm not opposed to that reading. I've been in group shows where that’s the theme. In general, I’m really into working with modular objects. Specifically, I’m thinking of the low-poly aesthetic. It’s something that no one will care about in twenty years but now it’s a trend, which kind of annoys me. I wanted to figure out why people are so attracted to it, so I set about making my own version, approaching it through earlier sources that visually refer to it like mapmaking. When I was a kid, I had this homeschooling project where I spent time in a mapmaker's studio. They were talking about how to think of the earth's curvature and the different methods for sectioning it. One of the ways is this isometric matrix that they draw over the landscape and eventually it bends. You know how on globes there’s a distortion up in Greenland and down in Antarctica? I wanted to apply that mapping technique to a face, an object that couldn’t be mapped.
↓ Lilia (Giant Head) Rollin Leonard (2014-2015)
53 by 88 cm. Photograph printed on vinyl, mounted to Mylar. Image shows a variety of installations of the same work.
H&F: We’re talking about the pieces that are basically paper scored with triangles?
RL: Yes, exactly. With these, you unfold it as you would a map, then coax into a shape and stick it to the wall. There’s one of Kate Durbin that’s basically stolen from her aesthetic, which is very Hello Kitty or Lisa Frank. We did it together when she was in town. The jewels and decals function like topographical features on the landscape of her head. They almost look like they were applied after the fact. Another subject I chose because she has a lot of freckles, and yet another because he has tattoos.
H&F: When I was writing the post about your “Liquid Diet” font, I was thinking of the sheer ubiquity of liquid aesthetics and aquatic metaphors in art of late. What’s your take on this?
RL: I mean it’s always been something I've cared about. If you've ever painted, you're instantly drawn to liquid: it’s glossy, and squishy, and fun to manipulate. A lot of my recent wavy stuff comes from much earlier trigonometric projects, when I was doing sinusoidal forms like wiggling worms and humanoid bodies.
H&F: Would you consider making work that’s not about the human form?
RL: Oh yeah, and I do. It’s just that lately, for the last four or five years, it’s just been a lot of faces and bodies. A lot of times, I’ll work out a concept for a really long time before I introduce it to the public. I'll experiment with other subjects—not in an effort to get away from the human body necessarily, but just as kind of test for conceptual soundness. Naturally, you fail a lot.
H&F: How much of your process is failure?
RL: Oh, let’s see … all of it? The amount of failure is tremendous. There’s a huge box of stuff in my studio that didn’t make it past the experimentation phase and there’s a huge folder of stuff on my desktop that didn’t make it past editing. Every other picture I shoot is deleted.
If you've ever painted, you're instantly drawn to liquid: it’s glossy, and squishy, and fun to manipulate. A lot of my recent wavy stuff comes from much earlier trigonometric projects, when I was doing sinusoidal forms like wiggling worms and humanoid bodies.
H&F: Are you an e-hoarder, or have you taught yourself to be unsentimental when it comes to failed projects?
RL: I have six terabytes of data right now so maybe I am an e-hoarder, but I try to trim the fat. If it’s not working, it’s really cathartic to destroy it. I think it’s an extremely important part of the working process. I’m curious how other artists feel about that. Have you asked that question before? The only thing I regret deleting is this photographic series of a candle flame that I spent a week of my life shooting. I had this idea it could serve as some kind of analogy for a person. I was in art school, mind you, so my ideas weren’t very evolved.
H&F: So you went to art school?
RL: I actually didn’t go to art school, I was studying philosophy, but I was making a lot of art and doing as little schooling as possible.
H&F: Are there any artists or writers that you look to for inspiration?
RL: There’s a whole list of them who come out of Dia Beacon because I just happened to be nineteen when I visited and the experience imprinted itself on my impressionable mind. What I really like is how minimal everything is. You have Robert Ryman, who’s concerned with painterly surface. Or, you have Fred Sandback, who creates volumetric effects with yarn sculptures. My aesthetic is the opposite of minimalism, but whenever I think of work I like, it’s stuff like that. Oh yeah, and I read a lot of Susan Sontag.
↑ Water GIF by Rollin Leonard (2015)