The People in Your Neighborhood: Artist James Leonard

09/09/2011 10:33 AM |


Oh, look, it’s another edition of our interview series with Brooklynites of note, The People in Your Neighborhood. Today we hear from artist James Leonard, whose new solo exhibition, 927 Days at Sea, opens tomorrow at Open Source Gallery in South Slope, and continues through October 2.


Best place to people-watch?
Just about anywhere. This is New York. And it’s one of my favorite activities when out alone.

Best place to drink?
I’m quite fond of Habana Outpost in Fort Greene. Usually a good vibe. I like the open air seating.

Best restaurant?
I’m a huge fan of Le Gamin on Vanderbilt Ave. It’s simple, but I really go for their continental breakfast. And the mustard they have on the table goes great with the hard-boiled egg.

Best bookstore or record store?
Greenlight Bookstore is a fairly new and welcome addition to the Fort Greene section of Fulton Ave. It’s great for local and indie publishing releases. I’m also a fan of getting lost in the unsorted room of the rare books floor at The Strand in Manhattan. I’ve come across crumbling texts from the 1600’s there that read like gossip columns of centuries old provincial politics.

Best grocery store or farmer’s market?
I’m a devotee of the Park Slope Food Coop. Despite what the haters snark about in the comments section of the New York Times, when it comes to green grocers, make mine socialist!

Best laundromat?
We used to go to this really crappy place on Fulton not far from the Franklin C stop. The place was so neglected that a stray cat was able to give birth behind the machines and no one who managed the place seemed to notice or care. And junkies were always coming in, two and three at a time to get high in the toilet. Even after you had to ask management for a key. The TVs were always too loud and tuned to something awful like the 700 Club or Nick Jr. But it was cheap. So we went there and made do.

Now we have a laundry setup at home. I doubt I could go back. I think I’ve gone soft and lost my patience for that place.

Best outdoor spot?
Though I really like what they’re doing with the two new big parks, the High Line in Manhattan and what’s opened so far of the new Brooklyn Bridge Park on Piers 1-6, Prospect Park remains my favorite. Vaux and Olmsted did a great job nestling little secret spots into that park. I don’t know how you can beat it.

The park’s circuit is great for biking and longboarding, despite occasional attitude from random velodrome enforcers. On holidays, people treat this park like their front yard. I love it. Soccer. Cricket. Frisbee. Barbecues. Birthday parties. Monstrously huge kites flying at least a half mile high. Drum circles. Wedding processions with Klezmer bands.

Top all this off with a century of small renovations and adjustments that leave just enough clues to the park’s storied past and you’ve got me.

Best place to attend a show/view art/see a movie?
When I first moved to New York about 8 years ago, I started up my own little (now long defunct) art blog. At the time, this motivated me to get out and learn about so many little hidden spaces throughout the city far faster than I would have if I was just working my day job and focusing privately on my own studio practice. For example, there are some 3rd, 4th and 5th story commercial spaces tucked away in Chelsea that fairly consistently show good work that I likely would not have discovered for many more years had I not been giving art writing a go. But it’s not just Chelsea that I got acquainted with.

There are dozens of other spaces scattered far and wide in the boroughs that engage their own neighborhoods in ways that are very special and unashamedly un-New York. A number of years ago, there used to be a little tiny gallery in a backyard toolshed called Holland Tunnel. I loved that space simply for existing. And I even saw a number of great little shows there, including a sweet series of ball point pen scribbles on paper. Sounds weak in words. But I loved that show.

I have a fondness for those sort of spaces that dare to push back on the New York thing, the international art fair thing, art as commerce. I think this is why I really like Open Source Gallery where I have my current solo show. These spaces occasionally remind me of galleries I knew outside of New York. For New Yorkers, engaging the art world can involve blindingly high stakes: Will I make it? Will I get rich? Will I get famous? Will I be remembered? Will I be able to stay? I think many of us artists risk losing our way when we come here. At least for a bit.

And when we do so, many artists seem to give into an unnecessary level of obfuscation about their work. How it is presented, described, priced. It takes this thing that really in my opinion should be an everyday part of everyone’s life and turns it into a rarefied commodity. Meanwhile, everywhere else I’ve lived, there’s been the opposite: a consistent tone of outreach. I think these neighborhood galleries like Open Source begin to bring some of that back to the table. In my mind, they are the visual art’s response to things like the slow food movement.

But regardless of venue, it really really depends upon what is playing. And it’s not just visual art. This goes for theater, film and music. From the Angelika’s established “indie” house rep to the slightly worn 80s decor of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and from the gilded plaster of The New Victory Theatre to the raw bootstrap homeliness of The Brick in Williamsburg, the same thing always rings true in my experience: it’s the art that makes the venue, not the other way around.

So to answer your question, though I hate to do it, I’m gonna pull a Sarah Palin and say, “All of them.” But only sometimes.

Best coffee shop?
I occasionally take gigs that take me into Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Whenever I’m there the folks at Ninth Street Espresso in Chelsea Market always treat me like a regular. I like that. Plus the baristas really know what they are doing. It’s worth the extra buck or two.

Best subway line?
I’d be disloyal if I didn’t say the A/C because that’s my line. But that 4/5 train is a pretty sweet shortcut up the East Side.

Best neighborhood person whose name you don’t know?
I would have answered this question differently a few years ago. We’ve been on the same block for 8 years now. I’m still a long way from being an old timer, but after 5 years of activity with our block association, I’ve learned a lot more names than I ever expected to. But there is one person whose name I never learned a few blocks towards the train: a grandmotherly lady who would be set out on her stoop in a chair by her 60-70 year old son. She was easily in her 90’s if not over 100.

At least twice a week on my walk home from the train, she’d hiss at me to get my attention. I think she was trying to whistle or make some inconspicuous animal sound. Anyway, she’d do this when her son wasn’t outside. Once she got my attention, she’d immediately gesture for me to keep silent. Then, via her own version of sign language, she’d start asking me for a cigarette and a light. But I don’t smoke! Even if I did, I’m not sure I’d be into aiding and abetting this centenarian in her quest for nicotine, especially when her son had so clearly forbidden it!

I don’t see her around anymore. Haven’t for several years. She’s probably passed on by now. I would have liked to know her name. She must have been quite a character in her day. I wonder if she ever got her smoke.

Which are there more of: dogs, bodega cats, strollers, American Apparel ads, or old men on stoops?
We’ve got a lot of cats. Seriously lots. But none of them belong to any bodegas. Stray prowlers and midnight tomcats. The kind that cry like human babies when in heat. I suppose they keep the rats at bay. But I hate ’em.

More importantly, Bed Stuy is home to some of the best stoop sitting in the city. Period. But it’s not just the old men. All of us do it. Unless I qualify as old already. I don’t know. I’ll have to think on that one.

What’s missing from your neighborhood?
Varied amenities. It’s getting better. I hope it continues. But with small businesses rather than big corporate names coming in to hoover out the loose change from the cushions of our neighborhood.

In the past few years, we’ve seen the opening of a number of neighborhood coffee shops and bakeries alongside the many liquor stores, nail salons and Chinese lunch counters that were here when I first moved in. There’s even a chichi nightspot in the Vodou Bar on Nostrand now. Most nights of the week that place is pretty full. Tin City and Cinnamon Girl are both awesome retro soda fountain type mini stores that offer a few staples of organic dairy and produce as well as sweet treats. And the guys at the long-lasting Fulton Bikes are simply awesome. But I’d love to see even more variety. Like when does Bed Stuy get its own version of Bergen Street Comics?

What’s the biggest change since you’ve moved in?
Integration. Just look at the census numbers from 2000 to 2010. It’s been a challenge for newcomers and old timers alike. Doesn’t matter if you’re brown, black, white, yellow or red. Many of us have had to face some inner demons we didn’t even know were there. It’s been a challenging decade. But with a lot of love and a number of awkward moments, newcomers with heart can integrate into this very tight woven neighborhood.

But you’ve got to become a part of the community. Some of these people have been on the blocks for all their lives. It’s not easy to inject yourself into that. You can’t be too gregarious. But staying inside your apartment is no way to do it either. It’ll change you as an individual. And in turn you’ll likely change your block and become a part of the next chapter of the its history. No matter what though, it is important to respect the history of these blocks. A lot of people have called this place home.

It’s a Saturday night in September. You don’t feel like traveling very far but are antsy for a night out. Where do you go?
Someone just recently introduced me to Café Moto on Broadway under the JMZ. I can’t believe I’ve been here in Brooklyn for the better part of a decade and never heard of this place. Great bar, great food and a date cake to kill for. The ambiance reminds me of Tribeca’s former Palacinka, R.I.P. Top that off with live music every night? And only a ten minute bike ride from my doorstep? Yeah. I’ll be back.

Several of your latest works have a nautical theme (“Anchor and Chain” and the “No Fishing Signs”); was that a deliberate choice? What attracted you to that imagery?
Not deliberate at all. The No Fishing Signs were born out of an abstract anxiety whose exorcism demanded some harsh mark making. The Anchor and Chain began with a desire to respect my materials through frugality. Another project in the studio was producing tons of scrap black wire, each piece about 4 inches long. At a loss, I started folding these scraps into links of a chain. The chain then presented itself as this beautiful gossamer thing: the way it draped in a logarithmic curve, the way it felt when piled into the palm of my hand. Only later when I stepped back did the anchor emerge as part of that piece. It really started abstractly as this chain thing. I see now how the nautical elements are essential to this body of work and my current show.

The imagery is like the capstone of an accidental arch I built. Considering where my head was while developing this work, it’s totally fitting. The No Fishing Signs started happening about the same time Deepwater Horizon exploded and the Gulf was getting massively poisoned. My wife and I had a trip scheduled down to New Orleans about that time. We were there before the oil hit the oyster beds.

There’s a lot of cultural and social overlap between Bed-Stuy and New Orleans. Many of our neighbors have people down there. Several of our neighbors went down after Katrina and volunteered doing whatever they could: driving buses, construction, demo, etc. Anyways, we felt quite comfortable striking up conversation with the locals and got to talking to some folks connected to the fishing and oyster industries. Even before the oil hit, people were already hurting bad in anticipation. Men who had oystered every day of their life were getting ready to go out for the last day for at least six months. It was heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time.

This latest high profile disaster was just another nail in the coffin for the health of the oceans. Our oceans. From the giant jetties of plastic miasma to increasing acidity from higher carbon dioxide, the seas are in really tough shape. A lot of people don’t realize it. And a lot of people don’t realize how essential the bounty of the oceans has been to the stability of our civilization. Not just modern civilization, but the entire progressive history of human civilization. We’re talking at least five millennia.

The oceans are dying. Because of us. And most of us are too distracted—often by vested interests—to do anything differently. To demand necessary change. It feels like we’ve lost our souls as a species to industrial scale greed and comfort. I see me reacting to some of these big, heavy thoughts in the work that’s in this show. I didn’t set out to tackle these anxieties and this sense of atomized impotence. But these feelings definitely have invaded the studio. And I absolutely see them in the work.

There’s a great deal of humor and even sarcasm in your work, yet it maintains a certain sincerity; is that a balance you find difficult to achieve?
These days I’m angry enough to spit blood. Yet I can’t do anything about it. It seems like everyone currently in a position of leadership and power, from captains of industry to politicians to key cultural figures, is running around behaving like a royal shit-head. Many of these powerful people are actively working against any efforts we the people put forth to mitigate these massive problems of the oncoming Anthropocene.

So, yeah, I laugh to keep from crying. I do my work so I can get on. So I don’t give up or give in. I guess I hope if it helps me to get on, it may do the same for others. I’m not sure if the audience is as essential to my studio practice as it once was though. I identify strongly with the blues players of yesteryear and old school jazz. Any balance you might see, any beauty, is a byproduct of efforts to maintain my own sanity.

You work in many different media—painting, drawing, writing, video, sculpture, installation, and more; is there one you feel more comfortable with? Is there an as-yet unexplored medium that you’d like to try out?
For years I was trying to find a way to work with blown sugar. I’m told it’s similar to blowing glass. Prior to the bursting of the global real estate and finance bubbles, this sort of sugar felt like the perfect medium of our era. I never was able to get to sugar. I suppose I could have just bought the gear. But it is a dying art, despite the occasional feature on gourmet food channels.

But then just this summer, I started working in glass for the anchor from my Anchor and Chain sculpture. That piece is hot sculpted glass that is cold worked. It was my first glasswork. Once the show comes down, I intend to be doing more. There’s something there for me. Who knows though. After glass, maybe I’ll find my way to sugar. But I’ve also got about half a dozen long term projects in varied media in different stages of development hiding in my studio. But I’m an intermedia artist at heart. For me, choice of medium is as intuitive and poetic a gesture as any brush mark, any line.

(Photo: Catherine Nolan)