L.A.-based artist David Leggett’s current exhibition at Shane Campbell Gallery will leave you feeling full of contradictory emotions. On view are four large-scale canvases with repeated icons on each work. The comic, stylized work provides a friendlier approach to sensitive subjects like religion and racial segregation. At first approach, Leggett’s work can be seen as humorous, as the colorful, childlike shapes echo a simpler time, allowing the artist to soften the difficult subject matters he is tackling.
My first interaction with Leggett’s work brought an unexpected series of sentiments. The paintings all feature three young males, two black and one white. They are rendered in stereotypical characteristics, with large nostrils and lips, both associated with African-American features, while applying shoe polish to the face of the white male. Shoe polish was historically used in early American theater to create “blackface,” a practice where white actors would use the polish to blacken their face and exaggerate their lips. The black male’s faces convey a more offbeat reaction than expected. The act of blackface has often been primarily used by non-black performers, yet the common motifs of oversized lips and googly eyes displayed with blackface were not accurate representations of black features, but instead features chosen for white entertainment. The cartoonish drawings of these figures create political satire that causes the viewer to ruminate.
Below these three males a milk snake slithers closely. Milk snakes are harmless, but are similar in characteristics to, and are often mistaken for, the coral snake, which is harmful. Younger milk snakes are often killed due to this confusion between their species. Leggett echoes the misconceptions in our society that often result in death through the milk snake representation, similar to racial profiling and the recent police shooting of black men like Harith Augustus, shot in Chicago. As this unravels in front of the viewer, you become complicit in the acts on the canvas.
Leggett’s use of repeated images echo the images we see in society, be it repeated in magazines, the news or behind yellow police tape. His continuous incorporation of black figures reinforces to the viewer the importance of the black body and how we represent it.
In “She’s saved, but it is the weekend,” two African-American figures, one male and one female, face each other. They are positioned below a Jesus Christ figure. This positioning signifies the large role Christianity played during slavery, when Africans were brought to this country, introduced to Christianity and forced to embrace it. In post-Civil War America, this resulted in a large number of black churches that helped provide strength during the civil rights movement. Yet while the church allowed for unity in the community, it was introduced through their oppressors.
Christianity and the devil have always been polar opposites. Leggett explores this relationship more deeply in “Those Three Words.” Within the spelling of “LOL” is a pentagon with an inverted star, a trope to satanism, pointing to hell. Within distance of “LOL,” there is a witch’s hat. Witch hats resemble dunce caps with their elongated form. In general, pointed hats were frowned on by the church and associated with the horns of the devil. What is Leggett’s message? He allows the viewer to question how subtle cultural influences with double entendres influence our lives.
“When the ghosts in your closets no longer accept collect calls,” features Vanessa Williams, who became the first African-American Miss America in 1984. She was pressured into resigning due to photos of her in Penthouse magazine. America has long had a stereotypical definition of beauty. Using Williams’ likeness opens up the conversation about black femininity while dispelling media stereotypes by reminding the viewer that America chose Williams as a representation of American culture and beauty. Similar to most social aspects of our society, the Miss America competition made cultural changes to their judging criteria in order to keep up with the shifts of society. This media is a part of our society that we soon realize we are implicated in, just as we interact with the work.
Within this work, the viewer is caught not only unaware of these untapped feelings, but also involved in the origins of these emotions. You begin to question your own sense of self, what you are predisposed to, and how that plays out in the social context that we write for ourselves.
Humor allows Leggett to not only open himself up to the viewer but for the viewer to let their guard down and then forcefully take it in with each laugh. But Leggett’s paintings aren’t funny. They aren’t a water cooler joke; they’re bitter, sad and reflect our reality.
The political subtleties in his work keep you engaged even after you’re not physically in front of it. His depiction of black figures echo the views of black production as being secondary and comical and not fine art. The spontaneity we see in his work relays a thought pattern of how Leggett views the world around him. While there are only four paintings on view, they are all multidimensional and heavy-handed.
Leggett reveals antidotes of society to us through black icons, text, body parts and old imagery, all connecting to elements of American culture, but also to racism, a subject that is often swept under the rug due to social progression. At first you may not see race in these four pieces, but it is there in the undertone that incriminates the viewer. Race will always be a part of the conversation and Leggett makes sure we know that. (Caira Moreira-Brown)
David Leggett on view at Shane Campbell Gallery, 2021 South Wabash, through June 29.