Bodies dissolve into blobs; figures into forms: in conversation with James English Leary

The fleshy forms in James English Leary’s paintings are provocatively playful, titillating and tongue in cheek. The shapes of the built canvases and painted forms are too suggestive to be ignored, yet cheekily dissolve back into abstraction just shy of any fixed representation. The interplay between abstraction and figuration creates a visual game that teases the viewer with psychological associations, visual innuendo and perception.

For the New York based artist, pure abstraction is a problematic concept as he believes that people are hardwired to look for recognizable features and visual cues in order to understand an image. In this way, James has come to think of the body as a kind of framework or perceptual vantagepoint, which he then manipulates in his work to satirize ideas of interpretation and self-knowledge. By playing with the point at which bodies dissolve into blobs, figures into forms, James’ work challenges the viewers to consider their subjectivity in pondering whether the shapes are benign abstract forms or amorphous body parts with psycho-social connotations. In so doing the viewer becomes implicated in the work and a player in the interchange of sign and symbol.

Humor is never far from James’ work. The artist explains that “humor is a pressure release valve for what is otherwise intolerable. I think a lot of the potential humor in a painting is simply a side-effect of the sanctified expectations of painting”. James’ aesthetic borrows much from the surreal abstract work of Elizabeth Murray and Philip Guston. In his playful and humorous compositions, James flips the script and turns the focus back at the view, ultimately returning to the age-old question: does art imitate life, or life imitate art?

James English Leary. Photography by Nicolas Barreto.

AMM: Hi James, do you remember the first piece of art you made? What was it and how old were you? What’s shaped your artistic journey since then?

JL: I think it was this endless book I made with Josh Anderson in kindergarten. There was no overall scheme, we’d just print out pages with a little bit of text or these proto-emojis and then we’d draw on the pages and sequence them into a clipped binding. It was a catch-all, like a book of the whole world, of the super-important and the totally inane, text, images, hard information, gags, etc. It was permissive to the point of being transgressive. I remember feeling intoxicated by the whole thing.

Or maybe it was this pelican-shaped ashtray I made in ceramics class—back when kids still made ashtrays. It’s unimaginable now.

I think I pretty much had the same experience then that I do now, that in making a thing you were turning a shapeless urge into a material fact and that somehow this made you real.

AMM: In the past you have spoken about how the notion of abstraction doesn’t really exist. Can you share some thoughts on what the word ‘abstraction’ entails in your vision?

JL: Everything can become representational depending on who is looking at it (the crack in the wall which contains facial profiles if you look at it long enough, etc.). Most of us are subject to deep pattern-seeking instincts. So it’s truly remarkable when a form resists representing something in nature and continues to refer primarily to itself. This is how I’ve come to think about abstraction: form that refers primarily to itself. I like Robert Ryman’s notion of being a realist, because his paintings are about showing the reality of paint. They don’t represent anything, they explain themselves.

James English Leary: ‘Shameless Artist’, acrylic on shaped panel, 46 x 56 inches, courtesy of Nathalie Karg Gallery

AMM: Are there any particular painting traditions or ‘old masters’ that have influenced your work?

JL: Obviously Guston and in particular Elizabeth Murray. I’m from Chicago and have always responded to the imagists, to pop and so on. I like Catholic good taste, especially when it’s been distorted through iterations of imperfect copies or infiltrated by some good, old-fashion American kink.

AMM: Most of your works are mixed media pieces, which border lines between objects and paintings. Tell us about your approach to making art.

JL: There’s been a lot of shaped paintings which brook a gap between strategy and improvisation. For example, there’s often a buoyant element, something that postures as being spontaneous but upon any immediate reflection must have been carefully planned. I’m interested in using a ‘built’ element to torque the interplay between gesture and space.

AMM: Which mediums/materials are you currently using? What appeals to you about them? Any new medium you’re keen to try out?

JL: Polymer paint for its petroleum-problem buoyancy; Luan plywood for its camp beauty.

AMM: The visuals you create look very playful and cartoon-like. What part does humor play in your work?

JL: I’ve always loved cartoons. There’s always beautifully lucid line work, and a latent minimalism with the flat color and reduction of form. It’s ancient stuff for me. I don’t really look at a lot of that stuff anymore but it’s in me.

I like Freud’s take on humor: Farts are funny because the fact that there is rot within your body is an unbearably creepy harbinger of your mortality. Laughter, humor is a pressure release valve for what is otherwise intolerable. I think a lot of the potential humor in a painting is simply a side-effect of the sanctified expectations of painting.

AMM: The objects you portray are mainly simplistic human body parts. If the notion of abstraction does not exist, what do these body shapes and silhouettes represent in your life as an artist and how do you think the viewer should approach your art?

JL: When I was young I basically accepted the story that at a certain point in its development art moves past mimesis and past figuration. But over time the thing that I keep always coming back to is this ridiculous body in front of me, behind me, on either side, above and below. To an extent, I have stopped seeing my own body as a negative constraint, a thing that negatively limits the possibilities of perception (although it certainly does), and more of a positive constraint, the thing that makes perceptual and even intellectual experiences possible in the first place. In my painting this seems to have taken a certain form, not ‘figurative’ art per se, but pictures that use that body as a framework or an architecture. I could make the distinction another way in saying that my paintings are less a window into another space and more of a proxy for the body— the ‘picture’ reified as a thing, an object as opposed to a depiction.

James English Leary: ‘Entrance (The Year 2016)’, acrylic on shaped canvas, 47 x 68 inches, courtesy of the artist

James English Leary: ‘Entrance (Purple Drop)’, acrylic on shaped canvas, 47 x 40 inches, courtesy of the Carl Kostyal

AMM: Human aspect is an evident part of your work. Are there any specific characters/people you are illustrating within your art pieces or is each particular shape bound within a more universal idea?

JL: I’ve been trying to make an Abraham Lincoln painting for years. In general though I think of the ‘people’ in my work as fictional and obscure as opposed to universal.

AMM: Your choice of color is very bold. What is your color philosophy?

JL: I don’t know, I like a palette that’s very reduced but made to do something very particular like in the work of Albert Mertz.

AMM: Do you start a new piece knowing exactly how you want it to be? How much experimentation is involved in your creative process? When do you know that the work is finished?

JL: I am wary of over-planning, especially given the construction component of the shaped works. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m ‘fabricating’ the paintings. That’s just gross to me. Better to loosen the reigns and be surprised. A painting is the most dynamic when it finds itself in its making.

In terms of what makes a work finished I can’t say. I’ve continued to work on things for years even after they were shown and so on. I guess a work is truly finished with when it belongs to someone else.

AMM: How is your average working day in the studio normally arranged? Do you stick to a specific routine?

JL: Despite my best efforts an enduring routine eludes me. I sweep my studio at the beginning of every day. Even if there’s nothing to sweep, I’ll sweep. It’s like burning sage, sweeping.

James English Leary: ‘Cameo (blue hand)’, acrylic on shaped panel, 39 x 52 x 1 7/8 inches, courtesy of Lisa Kandlhofer

AMM: In your recent exhibition at Nathalie Karg Gallery you are exploring the meaning of the Greek phrase ‘Hoi Polloi’ which translates as ‘the people’ but that gained negative connotations later on such as signifying ‘the masses’ or ‘the rabble’. Can you share some thoughts about this topic and why you chose it?

JL: Well, the show contained portrait profiles of people. There was a sense that the paintings are about the pathologization of a subject vis-a-vis the inadvertent betrayal of inner thoughts, satires of self-awareness or maybe more like satires of self-delusion. It just felt like a nod in the title to group-think and demagoguery was fair given the current political nightmare. On another level, the art world is an insular, elitist place where various forms of couched and overt class warfare are constantly being waged. It’s easy to criticize the powerful and monied in all of this, but at stake are deeper conflicts between avant-gardist tendencies towards difficult and vanguard art and Marxist ideas about social justice. These paradoxes are inevitable if art is going to continue to astonish but they leave us collectively confused about the big questions: What is art supposed to produce? Who is it for?

I remain dubious about whether the art world has anything legitimately popular to offer the general population. But there have been moments in history where great art was made for popular audiences—like in the history of cinema, or the history of Italian painting.

AMM: How do you navigate the art world, specifically in NYC where you currently live; and also internationally?

JL: In my experience the only way to make sense of it is to surround yourself with artists who are good enough that at times you envy them, gleefully and anxiously. Or maybe they scare you sometimes. They have to be good enough that if you disagree, you won’t be able to write them off. You will be forced to keep arguing until you change or they change. There is a good chance that neither of you will change and you will have to keep at it.

James English Leary: ‘Reluctant Capitalist’, acrylic on shaped panel, 40 1/2 x 50 1/2 inches, courtesy of Nathalie Karg Gallery

AMM: What prompted you to co-found the The Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF)? Could you tell us about your vision of free art education?

JL: BHQF was started so that a group of young artists could make works about the history and pedagogy of art through a satirical institutional voice. The University (BHQFU) was started as an extension of that collective, to open up the school structure to uncredentialed teachers and experimental formats. A central mandate of BHQFU has been to advance a notion of “free education”—debt-free, democratized and experimental.

I believe that art schools should design themselves to be free or at least cheaper than they are. Not only are there often scant economic opportunities for even the best artists, but the privatized and credentializing mandate of private, accredited, degree-granting art schools undermines the project of experimentation, precarious discovery and agitation against the status quo that is at the center of our conception of what artists do and are for. Exorbitant tuition is antithetical to freedom—both materially and metaphorically.

AMM: Can you name some of your peers whose work has been the most inspiring for you and explain briefly why?

JL: Keegan Monaghan—for the unflinching standards he brings to his work. Katya Tepper—for the way trauma and levity get expressed through her ideas about construction. Sophy Naess—for the way she brings literature into her paintings and tapestries. Trisha Baga—for putting everything in her life back into her work. Seth Cameron—for the way he can seem to be the most radical conservative one moment and the most conservative radical the next.

AMM: What does ‘success’ mean to you?

JL: Success is making good work.

AMM: What are the weirdest/funniest things people ever said about your art?

JL: “This looks like a painting hung in the office of a Viagra executive.”

AMM: Apart from making art, what do you love doing?

JL: I enjoy playing tennis.

AMM: What’s next on your horizon?

JL: In 2019 I have solo presentations at Parisian Laundry in Montreal, Lisa Kandlhofer in Vienna and VNH Gallery in Paris.

Find out more about the artist: www.jamesenglishleary.com

Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

James English Leary: ‘Hoi Polloi’, installation shot, Nathalie Karg Gallery, 2018. Courtesy of Nathalie Karg Gallery.