AFA: As a distinguished artist, with numerous publications (including the New York Times), conducting a spanning career of exhibitions, including 8 solo exhibits, how do you reflect on this accumulation of accomplishments?
Paul Leibow: The accomplishments in many ways are not always in one’s control, I realized the work had to come from some where authentic, to the point I could give up possession and bravely put it out there. Once the work was in the public’s eye, it had a new run, in a way fully finished by others contact with it. Writing and sending many press releases to the papers and media helped to get reviewers there, they can boost up and single out works as something they have not seen before and those connections are in ways key. But the love of the work is at the core, the initial energy, will ultimately drive what makes it all worth the squeeze. One project leads to the next, such as in the early days when working on a music publication for Simon and Shuster, after the project ended with the art director, it put me in touch with a rock and roll icon after she saw my fine art. Then my work was introduced to Bruce, over the next few years the art I worked on with Bruce Springsteen was some of the most rewarding I have done.
There were a lot of all nighters, after a while I was exhausted, Bruce sent me sheets of adjusted lyrics and his recorded music his art director wanted me to hear, to get his new songs, so I could create some ideas after listening. Spent days playing the songs over and over until I could practically sing each verse myself. Drawing into the night, I truly got into it and came up with inspiring concepts and sketches, honing in on a feeling, about both inspirational youth along with the dim hollow future about American life – life long gone by not only revealed in the lyrics but also in the haunting tone, an emptying out of the inside into the real disasters for common folk across our land not seen on TV. Attempting to emulate both the vibe off his songs and something Bruce shared with me - a very large-scale piece of art he liked that depicted his aesthetic vision. The art piece was huge, with many figures painted or hand-dyed into what seemed to be the material of burlap, depicting minimalistic figures in the time of the Work Projects Administration, WPA, very 1930’s. After that ideas became more detailed finished sketches that came together in one large painting, a world unto itself reflecting Springsteen’s lyrics, people he sings about simply trying to hang on to strands of hope, longing for something else - an American Dream not really meant for them, unfortunately some things which still resonate today.
Thinking about it all one day over coffee, my eyes bleary from lack of sleep, I recall it feeling really great, looking at what I made, also it didn’t hurt actually being paid to listen to his music, given tickets to his shows and working on art pieces for his album and CD covers, and deciding how the art on his tour books would work out. Finally one of the designs ended up branding the entire tour, working on everything from the books, denim shirts to backstage passes. The rewarding end though was that Bruce felt on some level it reflects his own voice, it was quite an adventure. Springsteen’s album cover, the Ghost of Tom Joad, was very Grapes of Wrath, the one I was originally asked to create, held dark tones in the mean streets he sings about. It was very fortunate that one of my covers made that happen for the album cover, over 60 other designs; then before the dust settled, something unexpected occurred with problems over the copyrights on an AP mob-hit image used, which mucked it all up. But here’s the squeeze: I always tried to dream big. And although I missed the moon, barely grazed a star, I think I hit a satellite. Yes, definitely a satellite. And I would have never hit that damn thing if I did not dream big in the first place. It all began when I was young and naive enough to think of becoming a well-known painter, gracing the walls of the Metropolitan and MOMA. I never imagined I would work with a musician of his stature and that I respected, perhaps in a small way I felt I became part of his world for a while, which help push the work forward in such a difficult field.
AFA: Could you describe your methodology concerning the various media you use?
Paul Leibow: In the past I worked with oil and acrylic paint but soon mix media became my thing, I became obsessed, experimenting, going after a true source. Utilizing gels and x-ray films in illuminated series, became part of a recognizable style. Recently the use of appropriated film footage from smart phones, capturing officer’s misconduct, paired with antiquated animation over a mix of our own raw footage, was fascinating for me. In the past I had co-directed a video entitled “For a Limited time” with Morgan Reese from DV8 Video, an art film base around my paintings. We attempted to stage an art-piece displaying the subject of my father watching television from a chair in a darken room and climbing into the TV, using a six-panel sequence of paintings I made showing my dad, Joseph Leibow, and his struggles, suffering with Parkinson’s disease. We filmed him, then super imposed his footage into the artwork footage, we also did this along with a few other paintings, one filming a dancer with the same effect, it felt magical, the figures visually would appear as if they were moving inside the paintings and drawings animating into life. I am not sure if these motion ideas or other aspects were the key which helped to secure its position into The Metropolitan’s Museum of Art’s (art on film dept.) for ten years through the nineties but the aim was to create a new style film about my artwork to run at my exhibitions and attempted to be authentic as an art film.
Years later more art videos followed in between my mix media works, the latest "Black Babylonian Beads” a culmination of art and poetry looking at race in America. I wanted to use poetry as a visual medium without loosing the imagery one plays in their mind while hearing it. This was not as easy as originally thought, because that process is at odds with itself, I wanted to display what the performer’s words are stating, while holding back some specific details in the visual sense for the audience to participate on their own, which can get confusing, especially when seeing the piece run only once. Experimental video has ambiguity that is not always negative or positive, as with the first film attempt twenty five years earlier blending my dad’s static painting into live action, this new film created in 2016 utilizes appropriated Batman animation turning comic cartoons into live action police footage in a montage, interactions with African American citizens with animation of Batman and Robin fighting villains. This confounding juxtaposition on the motto “protect and serve” sadly blurs the line as to who is viewed as the villain. The film also addresses ideas on the French new wave as a medium, as well as disturbing state of affairs of unarmed youth and men following police orders with showing of hands, only to end up killed, which is devastating because its now systemic. The films seemed a alternative approach to express the malaise, if born of black skin in our country, are unsafe in life, expose another angle on the community narrative. Things obviously are not working, current, severe and complex circumstances surrounding the protection of the public citizenry should be an open call.
The performer Larry Jackson plays the main character, helped a lot with voice syntax sealing the authenticity behind the film, and both of us constantly discussing the issues, especially what feels like the lack of empathy and outrage in the public citizenship. Groups such as #blacklivesmatter movement started out with pure intentions from mothers of victims, has now become somewhat tainted by outside forces, are further distorted into being suspect by harsh propaganda driven news-tainment such as Fox television and talk show radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, even inside our law enforcement institutions a cousin I have on the force, told me they are shown biased protest films internally, scaring the shit out of young police even more to carry their fire arms every ware, even while off duty. This adds more fuel to the fire in a cruel, vicious way, how injustice and systemic violence may never cease in our gun culture with misconduct gone unpunished. We wanted the film to show rather then tell, which gets intertwined with history, an African shaman spanning 500 years straight to an American king, in civil rights, this cinematic collage all becoming fused as part of the process. The 9 min film can be viewed at: http://paulleibow.com/BlackBabylonianBeads or on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/169238366.
AFA: What is the difference in message you wish to convey between your installations and two-dimensional works?
Paul Leibow: I use to do more installations in the past, it goes deeper into the work and theory normally, after the 2007 housing banking scandal of biblical proportions, which put America into a deep depression. I had a goal of hope, for inspiration locally, which transformed into desire to turn the entire town into an open-air gallery space. I went before the mayor and council, showed them a larger then life “wall” sized treatment of Spiderman I had taken down from my sons bedroom wall. The town manager helped me hold it up to display how each vacant property could look by introducing large-scale art, made into prints behind each storefront window facing out to Main Street. They loved the idea and wanted more super heroes, I explained of the licensing issue and said that this was meant only as a large sample to display how it might appear scale wise, although with original art derived from children’s drawings or my own work and not Spiderman…but they still got the gist of it, at least I explained it would esthetically enhance the entire towns appearance and at best, help get new business to invest or bring in new companies renting retail space rather then seeing half the town looking down trotted and ram shackled with construction paper on all the windows. They took to my idea, we set a budget and they paid for all the art prints to be made, the installation was a huge success for store fronts I did, yet even after the project took off and plans were in the works to take it to other towns, the recovery of main street began to take a turn for the better and new business moved in, which was great. Though it meant that there was no longer the need for the full completion of a town open space public gallery. The work was informed by the economy, working within the system, and although the initial installation project slowed down, it however then turned into a (150 foot) art mural as new construction started on a strip mall from a developer who paid for all the supplies, and then while construction continued the mural went up on the giant plywood wall in front with the art running for a block and a half along main street, which now lives on Google Earths gallery site for public art.
All said I still love to make two-dimensional work, especially now that the work has evolved some, and the new installation work started from several poetry / music events, I put on locally, that lead into where the art film “Black Babylonian Beads’ was derived, and soon should be part of a wall based installation on historical ideas, in the planning stages.
As far as message, meaning or reason, in many ways they contain the same ingredients, portions of my sculpture and mixed media series, originated from a personal attempt to x-ray my entire body as a self-portrait. The radiologist, worried about excess radiation, advised me to work from other materials, provided me with films in the hope that I would not harm myself. I began slicing film, adding gels, then in one of the most ground breaking works in the new series, “Reclining Ray Nude” I came upon employing a deviated version of Matisse’s figure, Matisse did more than a score of paintings using this pose, each one increasingly abstract. This one is taken from the late middle of the series, the face still a cartoon rictus of cuteness to which most of us can relate immediately. “Reclining Ray Nude” is composed of these salvaged x-rays. The face is a cranium shot, the pursed lips and catlike eyes emphasized with cut-out shapes housing extra translucent film on top, and the body became almost cubist in nature, repurposed by shearing and illuminating the figure—the great arcing thigh has a thick thigh bone running through its middle, the resting left hand fades into a bird’s cage of metatarsals, ribs make a cat’s cradle over her unnaturally elongated torso. In the perception, if this contorted model existed in real life, if her body was x-rayed, might it reveal something new, or even a missing component about life? Yet only in the idea - in fact, the impressions - is Matisse’s goal from the high Modernism’s claim to cut through a beauty that is only on the surface, an argument for the distortions that Matisse and others felt were necessary to break through artistic convention at that time, perhaps by updating this nude, there is an additional intent within the collage process that needs not full explanation.
AFA: What relationships does your work have with science?
Paul Leibow: On the surface the media is derived from science, which might suggest it be categorized that way on first glance, although it is based in the figurative. The work entitled, “Inside Man Ray“ holds areas of invention. Under the left shoulder is a series of small repeated skull MRIs, making up half of the upper arm. The entire right arm on the hip is in reverse, as well as the hand leading up towards the opposite shoulder further abstracts the body. Disconnected are the genitals, but slightly visible which would not normally be seen in some classical Greek sculptures due to war and destruction over time.
The stance is something like that of a warrior. Included are directional x-ray letters in many areas of this series, indicating the left or right side of the film. This was intentional to depict that the image is also made up from the medium, radiologist films in a utilitarian use for the health care system which work with these same tools, also suit the art well. This became my medium, materials that can become beautifully glowing in fascination, also my intent for the work was for it to display and address our humanity. Using the apparatus of biological related objects of health tests with MRI’s, manipulated, distorted and altering components from invisible radioactive blasts allow doctors to look inside layers of tissue and bone beneath the skin. To pier inside Pandora’s box allowing us to see under the hood. Inspires and allows me access in the contrivance as well, etching the film, modeling and illuminating from inside out. In part the purpose was to “paint without paint” with surgeon’s tools, from the shimmering light of the shamanic gods, allowing for other ways to come upon how art can be… (constructed), connecting our personal world rather than simply depicting it through traditional paint on canvas. Expose ideas how style evolve or advanced over time, helping the work to become something other, a hybrid of illuminated complexity, art that is not quite photography, not quite painting, not exactly sculpture but a world in between.
AFA: There seems to be a stark contrast between your early works and your recent art, what caused you to adapt towards a different approach?
Paul Leibow: This sometimes is best left to critics or curators to decipher because to me, my current work somehow seems to relate to my earlier works if not (exactly) the same are at least still relevant for my esthetic today, and although they may seem different, and perhaps they are more then I realize, the older pieces in many ways fall on this imaginary timeline living in the same vocabulary which informs the new work.
After a near fatal accident in 2011, it became more serious, although about the pleasure and looseness in my work, and what is available to my esthetics, my goals became more methodical; I understood not to waist opportunity and have it become more efficient. Getting so close to ones mortality definitely heightens the effect and purpose of truth in your work. I see clearly how this is so temporary, trying to make it all count for something as a way to handle the shock of what almost happened.
I go back and forth now even more; still drawing and painting old school whenever the feeling hits me, yet poetry and film of recent years have taken over my main goals on my more serious larger ideas. I am always drawn to works on paper though, usually how new works come about anyway, and the primal scratches and sketches in the studio from strange inspirations or the work I do with models in the city. I see the art series intertwine my past with the present work just like my life away from the artwork does.
So in ways drawing nudes, was where I started out in college, I am back doing it all over again but differently. I guess what I’m trying to say for me even with the advent of time, the evolution and journey adds to the work, melds into new territory and although the work of course evolves it also feels familiar, still displaying the figures interior twenty odd years later. Of course there are contradictions here, everything changes over time, but I suppose as long as it remains life affirming, adding substance in some ones existence or mine. Then the work enriches, makes our meaningless world, feel as though it holds a little more sense of order over daily chaos and total disorder.
AFA: The neon colors in your work are very effective at grabbing the viewer's attention and are quite beautiful, would you like to elaborate on this?
Paul Leibow: I never intended for a neon effect at all, it was the way lighting gels illuminated the works, excites my impulses directly, like jewels appear at times into the retina. Normally I prefer knocked down hues better, with minimum color transition. Yet playing around with the joy of what’s possible, adding in the color gels, going after something strangely bright and wild offered a radiant effect. I think work can easily fall apart if not focused but then come together again by some mysterious magic if sensitive to catch what’s missing and open to the choices and possibilities to change what ever is required, the shape, scale light and structure over composition as to why it’s even considered art in the first place, plus the richer color pallet utilized for a spell, helps to move me and the art forward.
My brother Allan is a highly regarded lighting designer in the world of project managers and architects, so when he gave me a sundry of lighting gel material, it opened up another area to experiment with. As bright and colorful the spectrum became, soon enough I scaled back on using too many, opting in favor of the single stronger mono chromatic hues such as with the dense ocean blues, for use with the large scale work entitled “Broken” showing this goliath standing over ten feet tall, but keeping it simple in all subterranean blue, gave way to a better vibe from everything else that was going on. Especially the warm ambient glow from incandescent Edison light bulbs hanging over the entire body. In the end, it is more about the full breadth, the entire body of work that holds wonder for me.