The experience was like a low-grade acid trip. I didn’t know what was going on, but something was going on. There were monks walking by in groups. [… Men were] bobbing up and down in the river. There were men smoking hash by the riverbanks with their faces painted white. There were bodies being incinerated in fires. There were monkeys on the edges of things.
When I put up my posters with paste, [… birds were] coming up to me and eating the excess paste that fell to the ground. […Monkeys…] were coming up and kind of scaring me. There’s chanting in the distance. I felt out of place. I did that the day before Holi, which is a celebration of color, and a madhouse celebration, where everyone throws color at each other. -Hugh Leeman, describing his trip to Varanasi, India in a 2013 SF Weekly interview.
Leeman is a self-taught artist who has wheat pasted his work in Columbia, Mexico City, San Francisco, New York, Palestine, Israel, India and San Francisco. Wheat paste is a strong liquid adhesive made of equal parts water and flour. Leeman, like Young, and Colla, uses it to glue his posters onto outside surfaces. In a 2012 Dig In Magazine interview, he recalled leaving his Indiana hometown at age 18 to travel the world.
For three years he lived out of his backpack in “rundown areas” around the globe and befriended locals through drawing their portraits. For the past five years, Leeman has been living in the Tenderloin district of downtown San Francisco. The Tenderloin or “The Loin” is a downtown area made up of street art, graffiti, art galleries, poverty, dive bars, theaters, ethnic restaurants and high crime. It’s probably the most diverse neighborhood in all of racially segregated San Francisco. By the time Leeman settled in SF, he did what became familiar; he befriended locals, particularly the homeless that lived near his studio. His original plan was to save money, go to Rio De Janeiro and work a sailboat headed for Cape Town, South Africa, but he’s been living in the same SF studio ever since. He started drawing portraits of his friends and wheat pasting posters of them around the city. He gave away copies of his posters and made them free downloads on his website. As a social experiment he developed the idea of promoting his homeless friends the same way corporations peddle products. “I tried to adopt theories from other companies, which is that you give away stuff for free on your website, you give away stuff on the street. It gives people an ideal, and makes them feel part of something. That’s the idea behind marketing,” he told SF Weekly. Billboards and street signs became fair game for his version of gorilla advertising.
His portraits were pure promotional material, not street art. He turned his portraits into t-shirts for sale on his website. All the profits went directly back into the ad campaign. His theory was that if consumers bought and wore his portraits, it would promote and create a sense of empathy and compassion for the routinely displaced and discarded. With his own money, Leeman eventually started a philanthropic endeavor. He supplied men and woman on the street with his portrait t-shirts for them to sell for a 100% profit. It was called the T-Shirt Project. His utilitarian art became an intersection for art, philanthropy, communication and commerce. Leeman creates his work with a level of self-awareness that motivates him to be honest in his expression. Like most artists, he struggles with the intensity of what art means to him versus what is most important in life. In the Dig In interview Leeman talked about getting blacklisted from a major art organization in response to a crucial decision he made that they deemed disapproving. Although Leeman didn’t specify the name of the organization, he said it generates millions of dollars for the arts. After they told him not to expect funding for his projects, he didn’t waver, “I’d come to terms that I didn’t want what the establishment would offer, I wanted to speak to the people, not to the money,” he said. In our last installment of this trilogy series Leeman talks about how his work has changed, prioritizing and simplifying everyday life.
How has your art changed over time?
I have painted portraits on found lumber, of insurgents. [I’ve painted] portraits of people [from pictures] on Facebook with smoke (carbon soot) on billboard posters, and [I’ve painted] realistic oil portraits of the homeless. Now [I’m doing] white on black paintings of what I suppose is a journey inside the self. So in all it is a constant state of changing and creating, moving, and growing.
Can you describe your art making process from conception to completion?
I have no idea what I’m doing right now. I live my life and paint when I feel this overwhelming feeling to create, the feeling ebbs and flows over time. Sometimes it is a matter of just going with it and at others it is a matter of focusing a manic sort of energy and yet at other times it is a matter of wondering why do I feel so, well I don’t know, “un-intense.”
What’s the difference between getting up on a wall and putting your work in a gallery?
They can both be rewarding but when the art is crooked on the gallery wall it creates an almost neurotic response of frustration from me. On a wall outside, I never seem to even notice.
I’ve always enjoyed climbing things. When I was a kid I grew up in a forest so climbing trees, especially really tall pine trees, was awesome. That same idea applies here but then you add in the thrill of doing something that society frowns upon but yet another portion of society celebrates. This is a combination of things, which leads to feeling a sense of exhilaration.
What first inspired you to do street art?
I saw pictures of street art in a TIME magazine article and thought, Oh my god those pieces of paper glued to the wall, I can not only do that but I have so many drawings and photocopies of drawings laying around my studio at the time. It was perfect to have a place to put all these things. My first feeling after putting up a piece made me feel as if I had just found a new perception of urban life. Every wall or advertisement was potentially a place for me to speak on my artwork and its ideas.
Some street art looks good in a picture online, but disappointing in person. How has documenting your street art affected what pieces you put up and their placement?
After a couple of years I stopped taking photos of anything I put up outside. I just enjoyed the act of doing something outside at night.
Your previous portraits were inspired by people you knew who lived around your apartment building. Some of them were in unfortunate situations, but you seemed to have an affinity towards them. What effect did this have on your perception of the world? How did it affect your art?
Perhaps it made me a more loving person and caring, more empathetic but at times it also made me feel very frustrated and aware that not everyone is an angel, including myself, and some people, choose to live on the street as opposed to a shelter or SRO (single room occupancy) type funded apartment. It is a beautifully different look on living than waking up and being in the office at 9am and leaving at 5pm and living a cycle of corporate life.
The paintings in this show are a major departure from your previous work. Before you said, “I threw away all my things, gave away all my paint, and started with black and white. I stopped painting from photos or life and painted from my head, with my feelings through movement. I would dance while I painted, I was alone, […] I was absent from these paintings, my subconscious [was] creating on my behalf.” What inspired you to create these paintings? Did you have some kind of existential revelation?
My art needed to come second and my life first, I believe that I was putting art first in so many situations that the only thing I really had to talk about in the metaphor that art is, was art itself. I started swimming and surfing and doing some trips and traveling and meditation and changing what I ate and consuming less too. I don’t read the news or watch TV and I have one pair of shorts I wear everyday as well as a pair of pants, so their is very little decision to be made of what I should wear to this day of existing. I love life, it is intense and that is what I’m painting about.
In the age of information overload and social media, how do you think interacting with images has changed?
I found myself spending a great deal of time living through the images and videos of the Internet, so I decided to turn it off. Maybe I’m crazy or radical, but I don’t find myself excited to think if you die right now what did you do today, well I looked at a screen all day. It’s overwhelming too. I like life with less in general.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to paint, I have a canvas laid on the floor next to me, I’m seeing what paint does when the position of gravity changes and my positioning on the canvas changes, at least that is what I’m doing today, I have been painting artworks on the wall for so long I woke up and thought about doing it on the floor today, but you know there is one going on the wall too. Habits.
“The Revolution Will Be Advertised” is a three part series featuring artists David Young V, Eddie Colla and Hugh Leeman. They currently have a three man show at 111 Minna Gallery. The exhibit runs through March 29th.
Cover photo by Greg Gossel