Rollin Leonard is one of those artists whose work is really insightful yet fun. His work is inventive and fresh to me, but not intimidating. It’s easy to see that he creates for himself and you’re welcome to come along if you wish. Check out his website www.rollinleonard.com and our cool chat and see what I mean.
MICHAEL: Hello Rollin! I'm anticipating we'll have a fun chat. I love conceptual artists like you because I think conceptual artists seemingly have no boundaries or restrictions. Do you feel that way?
ROLLIN: Thanks for the invitation! I might have the option to do whatever I want, but fertile ground for me is under extreme restriction. My work uses self-enforced limitations and the process is often rule or pattern-based. The "pallet" is tightly-controlled. If I'm making a piece that involves paint as a material, it will most likely be generative combinations of two colors. If I'm making a photograph and the subject is melting ice, very little else will be in the frame. I do, however, give myself a lot of latitude with which medium, subject, or idea to engage with. The most freeing part of my work, for me, is that I don't have to be good at anything. I'm a very amateurish photographer, paper cutter, knitter, painter and writer, but I allow myself to do those things. I have a lot of respect for craft and skill so when I approach an art medium I try hard, but I don't determine the success or failure of my work based on how much skill or craft I was able to master. As a project develops, so does my own measurement of quality; a certain perfection in my very imperfect penmanship, mixing paint so precisely it requires measuring tools, or popping a water balloon a hundred times until I get exactly the right kind of pop.
MICHAEL: Some folks might say that your statement "... I don't have to be good at anything ..." is what's wrong with art today. They might argue that contemporary art is banal and that mediocrity often masquerades as art. What do you think?
ROLLIN: I don't like doing a bad job even if the job is to paint a garage door very evenly. I can’t imagine a circumstance where doing a bad job is the point. I hate my boss and to spite him I'm going to paint over all of the windows and spill the can on the driveway - doing a very good job at painting badly. So I might not be an expert at house painting or photography, but I am going try to be as good as possible at whatever task I give myself. My goal, however, is not to master photography or garage door painting, but I do find a mutation of craft or mastery goals in my process. I might obsess for months about how to achieve a particular effect with paint, but that goal might not correspond with the goals of somebody who would proudly call themselves a landscape painter or a house painter. To determine the value of a drawing, I base it on how much it makes me think and feel and less on how straight lines are, unless the straightness of the lines is the point. As an art collector, I look for craft and mastery, but only in how it relates to the meaning of the work. To some, art is reduced to skill. "Oooh! How'd he DO that?!" To others, skill in art is a way to make transparent the medium so you can look at the idea or the subject without considering the paint itself -- stare into the soul of the subject in the portrait and forget you're looking at paint. When I buy art, I sometimes like it when the material or the practice is opaque and I don't often get excited about "Oooh! How'd he DO that?!" If you want to look for amazing technical feats you should consider how they engineer skyscrapers or fly rockets, not how precisely somebody can translate 3-D flesh into 2-D paint. If you want to see the result of a finely trained hand you should go eat at a really expensive restaurant where the chef has worked 10 hours a day for a lifetime perfecting her technique. Both the perfect meal and the rocket are more impressive to me than the level of skill you can exert on paint.
MICHAEL: Well said. I love your video art. What inspires you to work with that medium?
ROLLIN: The first way I treat video is as a tool to document something. The banana chop video was very simple. I set up the camera to point at the banana as I chopped then extruded the innards. Though slightly more complicated to shoot, the video of my mom spinning and laughing on the beach during hurricane Irene was also just as direct. Point it at the subject - the end. The other video product I output is more carefully edited and focused. Those are actually stop motion photographs designed using quirky measuring techniques to move objects (such as my body) very carefully through space OR the video is simply chopped up photographs made to move. What inspires the first type of video (banana chop) is how useful and direct video is for recording something. Video takes an enormous amount of data in effortlessly. What inspires these videos I suspect is very similar to what inspires somebody to take a video of their kids playing in the snow or of their trip to the Grand Canyon. The second type of video I make stems from static images. Most of those videos are made with the goal of making a large 2-D printed piece. The reason those projects turn into video is because the idea is more legible in motion. If for example I make a picture that uses several similar, but not identical sprites distributed over a surface, you can see the minute differences between those sprites better if they're cycling past your eye a few at a time. I think the reason for this is just a boring perceptual fact about humans. A static view of that field of sprites you notice the shape of the field. A few individual sprites moving past your eye sequentially you see the change from one individual to another. Depending on what I want the viewer to notice, sometimes my static images become animations.
MICHAEL: What did art school do for you? I get varying opinions about art school.
ROLLIN: I have a degree in Philosophy from the University of Minnesota, but I started at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I had at least three very important professors at CIA. 1. Christian Wulffen who was the other half of my first two-person show and my first art mentor. He was a great friend and brilliant conversationalist. I should mail him a cigar. 2. Saul Ostrow who gave me a philosophical paper scanned from a book which then made me realize I wanted to transfer and study philosophy and other topics instead of art. 3. Olatubosun Ogunsanwo Ph.D. taught a basic literature class that also had a big impact on my decision to go study other things. After two years at CIA, the second of which was nearly intolerable for me, I transferred to the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis because it was the cheapest way for me to go to a school in a big city. I took as many credit hours as I was allowed with special permission so I could finish in two years, mostly because I was anxious to get out of school and move to NYC, but also because I didn't want to spend more money I didn't have. Minneapolis, despite how little time I had to work on my art, was a great experience too. Keith Gunderson, who wrote a book called “Mentality and Machines,” taught the two best classes I ever took. In short, school was essential, but unpleasant (mostly because I made it that way) and I would not change things if I could go back in time, but it sure is expensive!
MICHAEL: Where are you now? Some artists tell me the internet has diminished the importance of NYC as the "Art Capitol," while others say New York is still the place to be if you're truly interested in making it big in the art world.
ROLLIN: Cleveland is a beautiful city, but I haven't been back other than stopping for a week on my way to New York from Minneapolis in an old van that had a quarter of a million miles on it and all my possessions in it. I was living in New York until my girlfriend's grandparents fell ill. She wanted to return to Maine to be with them before they passed. It is quieter than I'd like, but I've been very productive artistically. The internet has always been a part of my social life. I've done more collaborative projects with artists I've never met and shown in more galleries that I've never been to. To me the "Art Capitol" is the internet, but I still miss living in a city. Since I have not "made it big" yet, I can't say whether or not living in NYC is a requirement for success.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world? Are you keeping your head above water as an artist?
ROLLIN: It doesn't seem mysterious or big like it did when I was in art school looking in. Having worked for Nancy Hoffman Gallery for three years, I got to see how a gallery operates, what art fairs are about, and who the art buyers are. The client demographics, artists, and directors must be very different from gallery to gallery. Listening to Bad at Sports it sounds like some galleries operate very differently than Nancy's. I'm keeping my head above water by taking small design jobs as I have done since high school, but I sell something once in a while. I don't yet have gallery representation, but I've made a catalog of my work with the intention to mail it to my favorite galleries to start courting. Until recently, I've been rather slow with the career side of being an artist probably out of some irrational fears. I think it’s good for artists to make money from their art; when I can afford it I will buy more art myself.
MICHAEL: This is a particularly tough time for emerging artists, but the blue chip art market is on fire. It's amazing and sad. How do you think
the internet is affecting things? Your work seems ideal for the internet.
ROLLIN: I don't know how or if the internet affects the art market other than the difficult-to-encapsulate global cultural effects. I see a lot of news about the record sales at art fairs, auctions, and other one-percent art world activity that seems to have jumped the formaldehyde shark, but I don't keep up out of lack of interest. I make a lot of work specifically for the internet because I want to engage with other artists. There is a very lively and participatory audience that moves quickly and produces a lot of work. Also, since I pay rent by making websites I spend a lot of time thinking about how things appear on the internet; the result is I have internet-specific ideas. Often I'll find myself designing a painting or photo collage and come to the conclusion late in the process that it makes more sense as moving or static images on a webpage than in the physical world. Also, I'll find effects like the variable size of a users screen find their way into physical art projects. http://rollinleonard.com/elements/flame-9x12/ This piece, for example, stretches out long if you expand your window or gets very tall if your window is narrow. This narrow vs. wide window changes the effect of the gradient: slowing it down by making it a long waterfall or making the vertical change faster and expanding the panoramic experience. This is how the actual set of prints function. If a wall is tall and narrow it can fill that space, if the wall is a long hallway it can flatten out. My brother bought an early working model of this piece that will fill a large square wall in his Oakland apartment -- when he moves the piece will stretch to fit his new wall.
MICHAEL: If your body of work has a message thus far, what would that message be?
ROLLIN: I don't have a particular message, but some projects relate to one another conceptually. Lately, my flesh videos come from thinking of my body as material arranged a certain way. Rearranging myself realigns the perspective on what we are; bones and blood. We're only a fraction of a organizational degree away from being a family of grubs or a cloud of dust. Tweaking the organization just slightly, I end up looking like an insect or something even less human. Someday we'll be grubs or dust, but I think even that statement betrays my human hubris! For the entire history and future of the universe, the stuff that makes up our bodies, except for the cosmically nonexistent moment that we're alive, is something else. To say "we'll be dust" almost sounds like our legacy lives on in dust which it certainly will not. And then there is dust and no nouns left to even call it that. Something always looks like something else, but I am making an effort to run away from nouns with the flesh video project.
MICHAEL: Finally Rollin, what are your plans for the future?
ROLLIN: In the immediate future, I am still working on a few shows: one in New York, a storefront window installation in Portland, and a show at my favorite online venue, Fach & Asendorf Gallery, which I'm honored appreciates my work. When I put on a show, I like to make all new work specifically for the show which can be exhausting but energizing. The ideas that have spun off of my plans for Fach & Asendorf would stack up to a year’s worth of work to actualize all of the diagrams in my notebook. Making art for a show or for an individual is a great way for me to focus my energy and also to think about plausible projects. Lately I've been quite busy with that. When my calendar clears up in a couple months, I'll return to the shrouded painting in the corner of my studio which seems less plausible at the moment. My long term plan would be to simply find a way to sell more work and produce more of my technologically and financially limiting projects.
MICHAEL: Thanks Rollin. All the best to you.
Check out Rollin’s work at his website, www.rollinleonard.com.