Rooted in crude but systematic photography, American artist Rollin Leonard’s work, which is mostly designed to be seen online or digitally, often features a body part of some kind. Leonard was born in 1984 in Boulder Colorado, USA and is currently based in Maine. The artist’s work has been shown at such venues as: The Photographer’s Gallery, London; Point Ephémère, Paris; Museum of the Moving Image, New York; Moving Image Art Fair, New York; Essential Existence Gallery, Leipzig; Fach & Asendorf Gallery, online; NADA art fair, New York; and has an upcoming solo show at Transfer Gallery, Brooklyn May 2015.
Carlos Saez: Your own body has been an exciting part of your work for a while. How did this start?
Rollin Leonard: I wrote a paper in a Philosophy of Aesthetics class a while ago about about how our perceptions limit the kinds of thoughts we can have. The paper was not particularly good, but the premise interested me enough to apply it in a very superficial way to some drawings I was making at the time. A series of lines was replaced with my thumbprints.
CS: I have been following the process of the liquefied style work you used in “Water Lens (2014).” As a viewer, I perceived a more experimental atmosphere than other times. Do you always have the end result in mind or do you go with the flow?
RL: Any of my complete works are the result of a lot of planning and experimentation. Since I have no training in photography I often feel like I’m starting from scratch with each picture. Thus, trial and error is a basic reality for me and I build up from there. A central series of work in my upcoming shows at Xpo, Paris and Transfer, Brooklyn are these resin-coated water sculptures. They were created by loosely painting water on glass. The water refracts and distorts the subject below (my face). Working with an unruly liquid seems unrestricted but in the end the pictures were taken under extremely specific conditions. The setup for the pictures had to balance several qualities:
1) The maximum amount of distortion vs maintaining recognizable faces. How complicated the blobs were and where they fell in the frame turned flesh into just smudges of color. I wanted things to walk that line between cartoon distortions and emulsified flesh.
2) A magnification that makes the water look vicious yet could still be identified as a liquid. When the images were too macro it looked Photoshopped and unnatural. When I was too far away it lost the round quality. I wanted it to look gooey but not sculpted out of plastic.
3) How soft or hard the shadows on my face were and how evenly distributed the light impacted how recognizable the distorted facial features would be. When the light was too soft and even and the features flattened out. When the light was too hard and directional the illusion of the flesh blending with the water broke down and it appeared that you were looking through the drop to a face.
I could go on with more examples but you get the idea that it was a highly controlled environment that took a lot of play to find my way to. As far as planning goes it was excruciating because I shot all of the images with the light only falling on the face and none of it hitting the water itself. This made it seem like a 3D model before highlights and shadows are applied — very flat. All I had for nearly six months was a kind of texture map that I hoped would look correct once resin was introduced. I wanted the highlights, reflections, and shadows cast by the ‘water’ to actually exist in 3D space. When the light in the room changes the droplet responds. You’re not looking at photographs of a shiny reflective blob but an actual shiny reflective blob. Fortunately, it worked very nicely.
CS: Your work has an interesting “test” kind of aesthetic to it. Because of its beauty, sometimes its hard to know if the pictures you share on social media are previews or the final pieces. Did this ever create an unexpected new piece or some new ideas?
RL: I mainly use uncropped and unedited test shots because I don’t want to ruin the surprise for the show. Seeing an object I’ve spent hundreds of hours on posted to Facebook is depressing if I think too hard about it. I try to keep my final work off of Facebook and stick to process, installation, and castoffs. Facebook only serves to stroke my ego and keep me in contact with people. Any meaningful thought I have about a picture that I post to Facebook I’ve already had before I upload. Only a project constructed within social platforms such as Amalia Ulman’s Instagram project would really experience meaningful feedback from the medium. Most new ideas I have come from trite stock photography, half true quips that I overhear, and staring at a journal with the explicit intention of coming up with an idea.
CS: There seems to be a never ending zig-zag between digital and analog in your work process. Could you let us know a percent of how your daily work is divided in this term?
RL: I wish I could tell you that my working life is a balance between physical and screen-based processes but usually my day, week, or month is very lopsided. As of today all I’m doing is cutting and folding paper. Last month all I was doing was blending 2000+ high resolution images together in Photoshop to make a print of a giant man in his underpants. 1633061820 pixels to look over. My output is sometimes ‘mediated’ as Kelani Nichole, my Brooklyn art dealer puts it, meaning the work has to be experienced by using a technology that itself isn’t the artwork. In my case it means it is either web-based and uses bits of html, css, js to hold it together or is simply a video that needs a screen to play it. Any work that I make that’s mediated first comes from some physical object that I’ve constructed or body part I’ve interacted with. Inversely, my work that is ‘rigid,’ requiring no technological mediation outside of the work itself, often draws on logic and conventions that I learn from sitting in front of a monitor. Despite the majority of my skills resting in a digital world I’m more drawn to make physical objects. Cutting and folding paper is more gratifying than color-correcting thousands of images but each process informs the others. I can’t help but frame some of my experiences in the world as if they were in a screen and probably will never dissociate from reality enough to claim I can look at a screen without thinking of it having a relationship to a physical world.
CS: What body part do you prefer to work with?
RL: The face is the most useful to me because of a term I invented called “visual elasticity.” I’m sure that the idea isn’t new, but I needed a term because of how often this comes up. Visual elasticity is how much you can stretch or distort an image before you can’t tell what it is. The face has extreme visual elasticity because our brains evolved to recognize a face. When babies are acquiring their perception it is the first thing they start to identify. We see faces in trees, clouds, inkblots, and mash-potatoes because our brains are tuned to find faces. Many of my projects exploit this. The torso is more fun though because it is mostly a big sack of organs. Looking at a hand you can match the function to the appearance, but not with the torso. The torso is funny because it’s more vague.
CS: Do you like selfies?
RL: The repetition I experience when I scroll images of friends and associates online is staggering. I’m always happy to find a selfie that’s even slightly different. Of course I like to look at friends and beautiful people and stupid cats so if any of those things are in a selfie then I’m okay with it too.
CS: Choose one software that you would use exclusively for the rest of your life.
RL: Photoshop as long as I don’t have to pay for it on subscription.
CS: If everything would turn into the same color, which one would you like to be?
RL: I have a pair of rose-colored glasses for this purpose.
CS: Choose a composer to score your life
RL: Laurie Anderson because she has already been molding my Playdough brain since I was a kid.
CS: Choose a painter to paint your life
RL: Hieronymus Bosch because he’d make it more of a violent orgy than it is.
CS: If you had to change your artist name because there was another Rollin Leonard, what would it be?
RL: I like my brother’s name, Tad Francis.
CS: Your upcoming solo show at Transfer Gallery is very close. Could you tell us a bit about it?
RL: It is a three-part show that starts at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn on May 2, later in the month an online component begins at Cloaque.org, and then May 28 the third part opens at Xpo Gallery in Paris. A lot of my objects are in one way or another modular, rearrangeable, or flexible. Having two shows lets me play with this aspect of the work. There will be nearly 500 unique resin-coated faces, a couple large paper portraits, some short looping videos, and one really big floppy giant that Velcros to the wall. It is all liquid, wavy, and detailed to the point that the installation pictures won’t do it justice. Philippe Riss of Xpo recently added me to his roster of represented artists and this will be my second solo show with Kelani Nichole at Transfer Gallery. The galleries operate independently but have collaborated to help make this show happen. The online component will be a dense composition of looping animations of water, glitter, meat, and of course my own face.