Street Artist Hugh Leeman Paints Society's Collapse
A black and white image of a young woman looking up with a golden halo radiating around her head seems reverential, even intimate.
But the artwork holds several surprises beyond the first glance. The portrait is made from carbon soot emissions, the canvas from corporate billboard posters and the girl’s photo taken, without permission, from Facebook.
Hugh Leeman, a San Francisco-based artist, has used screenshots of strangers from Facebook for his new series of portraits to be shown at the Hold Up Art Gallery in downtown Los Angeles.
The exhibit, “Epilogue,” includes work from two other Bay Area street artists, Eddie Colla and David Young, with the common theme of catastrophic collapse.
For the past five years, Leeman knew the subjects depicted in his work well. He even started a T-shirt intiative in which the homeless people he painted could sell t-shirts with their images on them for profit.
To explain his recent shift in subject matter, Leeman views his past work as looking at one tree while his new work involves stepping back and seeing the entire forest.
The artist has no plans of contacting the people he found on Facebook, citing his aspiration to mirror how social media and corporations interact in society.
“You don’t know where information has gone or who is using it,” said Leeman.
His work may lead people to believe that he has a negative view of social media, but he believes his ideas as more complex than that.
“It’s not a judgment or a stance,” said Leeman, “it’s more a fascination than anything.”
With roots in street art combined with social justice, Leeman believes that art at its best functions as cultural commentary.
“Through the lens of an artist’s eyes, art takes a look at what was going on, what was relevant while I was alive.”
While Leeman still enjoys making art in the streets, he is moving toward displaying his work in a gallery setting, citing his own mortality as a reason.
“Street art becomes urban athletics. You can only climb up things for so long.”
But his gallery work still has elements of mischief and rebellion – the images aren’t the only things that were stolen. The background of each portrait is constructed from strips of corporate advertising posters with bright colors and indecipherable texts peeking through the layers.
Although street art may seem more informed by its urban environment, Leeman’s new portraits also parallel the experience of living in a city.
“Even though we’re surrounded by people, we increasingly feel more isolated, which speaks to the commonplace of social media,” said Leeman.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of street art, according to Leeman, is that it functions as a public address system, typically broadcasting an idea.
Through his homelessness project, Leeman wanted to convey the message that if as much ad space was spent on helping people as selling products, the world would be a better place.
In true artistic self-reflection, he began to wonder how true his belief was, which led to his deeper interest in systems – namely of power.
In “Epilogue,” the artist explores a strong shift of power, depicting mostly women for the first time in his artistic career.
“It alludes to a hopefulness – procreation and rebirth,” explained Leeman.
The portraits are aesthetically pleasing, but beneath the beauty lies a message. For Leeman, the medium is the message, using carbon soot emissions to create his new work.
The process involves slowly burning billboard scraps, the rich black carbon sticking to the surface of the canvas. Then the artist removes negative space to create an image.
This reductive method is similar to the chiaroscuro paintings by one of Leeman’s sources of inspiration, the Renaissance artist Caravaggio. The street artist’s works are much more graphic and bold, but their work shares stark tonal contrasts between light and dark.
In the future, Leeman plans to take his art to an even more abstract level. Instead of creating portraits of real people, he wants to move into allegorical painting. Although the artist is not religious, he finds stories from the Bible speak to the human condition.
“Epilogue” - the term is commonly known as the final chapter in a story but can also lead to a sequel. For the ever-evolving Leeman, the latter is especially true.
The exhibit opens 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, at Hold Up Art Gallery, 358 E. 2nd St. in Los Angeles.