In what he refers to as a “garbage parade” of small paintings, artist Brian Leo addresses culture, politics and American identity. The parade, a cavalcade of tiny images exhibited en masse, show events of deep cultural significance flanked by bizarre meditations on moments of Leo’s personal experience. Each tiny piece, in turn, contradicts itself; episodes rank with chaos and suffering explode off the canvas in bubblegum garage-pop tones.
Working within the language of present-day visual culture, where talent show winners are as recognizable and evenly glossed as the latest war atrocities; Leo creates a tangible and overwhelming visual conversation, accurately presenting the warped and whimsical bombardment that is contemporary American life.
Somewhere between Osama Bin Santa Claus and Angelina Jolie’s disembodied lips, Leo, unravels and reconstructs the experience of living as a first generation American, of Korean and Italian heritage, at the forefront of the 21st century. He draws upon this background for inspiration in his work, recently manifesting itself as a series of paintings which depict the North Korean dictator and murderer of Leo’s patriarch, Kim Jong Il.
In what can only be described as a moment of lost innocence, an AK-47 toting Husky greets Kim Jong Il, “the ugliest Asian,” outside the Superdrome. His chain smoking Golden Retriever comrades only look on in passivity, awaiting th-e reaction of the deemed “alpha male.”
This, and a litany of other fever dream surrealities shift and swirl around the indoor-outdoor gallery space at Capla Kesting Fine Art, located at 121 Roebling Street, Brooklyn where Leo’s recent installation of over 200 artworks is expected to draw over a thousand visitors, and artist Brian Leo stands in the center of it all.
As he stares at a toxic, tumor laden portrait of his home state, New Jersey, a self-effacing smile disguises the mind behind madness. “A lot of times, I’m not sure where the images come from, or why they end up together,” he points to a well manicured fingernail which lays as a foundation to a suburban dream home. “This one’s easy. The root of my family’s American dream paid in part by my Mother working at a nail salon.” Others aren’t as easy to identify, he admits, while holding an image of skeleton-like guppies with human heads and skinny children’s legs, which swirl around a tiny slice of pizza. “I guess a lot of it has to do with questions of globalization. Things we have, which come to us so easily, and that others couldn’t dream of.”
Leo’s work also reflects the cynicism and questioning that plagues the media-saturated younger generation. Questions of truth, behind the never-ending array of contemporary tragedies is clearly a repeated theme in Leo’s work. Instead of using his painting as an opportunity to mourn or repent, Leo instead explores his own fears and conspiracy theories of what lies behind the headlines. One painting shows a melting submarine detonating an atomic bomb underwater. “Did you know it’s possible to have a manmade tsunami?” Looking at Brian’s paintings, you can see a slant of misgiving in his tone of voice, “other than a few tourists, the majority of the dead from the 2004 tsunami were poor underprivileged Asians.” His eyes shift to his large SuperDrome painting, where a few teeny tiny victims haunt the front lawn. “It’s hard to believe that all the death, the vigilante justice, the chaos and starvation of the Katrina gulf coast, happened only one year ago.” His somber kindness exudes evidence of a worldly self-consciousness which blends with a Frankenstein-like creativity, exploding out of these tiny paintings.
It’s that misgiving slant in Leo’s tone that the viewer keeps coming back to in his paintings. Not quite sarcasim, but not yet mature enough to be a lecture, leaving the audience to question the racism and greed that sits in the underbelly of the day to day. His use of bright colors and whimsical humor provide a flashlight and sense of hope, which makes this often dark content seem less so.
Brian Leo has been creating an ongoing series of paintings in a style best typified as Garage Pop Surrealism. The series has been exhibited as a deluge of up to 500 paintings .
Garage refers to a grungy warehouse of stored poetic language addressing raw emotion. In Leo's work, mundane imagery resonates against solid backgrounds of vibrant color, evoking Pop Art commercialism. Cartoon-like, whimsical subject matter, referencing individual identity, pop culture and current events, are juxtaposed and re-contextualized to form surrealistic icons of disposal. The psychological tug of these paintings reveals the Surrealist underpinnings of Leo's endeavor.
Working within the paradigm of contradiction, the artist contrasts the bright and festive colors of his palette with images of modern day despair and quirks from everyday life.
Leo's setting is an imaginary place where a sense of wonder and innocence prevails. We see the inhabitants of this magical realm as if though through the eyes of a child; poetically imagined, yet charged with symbolic meaning.
In this latest collection of works titled Truck Bomb, Brian Leo completes his series of paintings revolving around the morbid, yet feasible prediction of President Bush declaring Martial Law to postpone the elections of 2008 with a pseudo-terrorist attack.
Truck Bomb, a formation of canvases stretching over 12 feet tall to create the recognizable icon of Optimus Prime a nostalgic child hold toy from the Transformers, which symbolizes the innocence for those of the artist's generation. “The selection of Optimus Prime, a character designed in Japan and manufactured in China, speaks of the art world's current bandwagon of Art from Asia. It parallels strong international criticism of China and its exports of toxic products from food, toys and its political thought towards Tibet and religious persecution,” explains the artist Brian Leo.
Often working within a dialog of contradiction, Brian Leo, a 31 year old artist and first generation American of Korean and Italian descent says, "Optimus has a strong sense of justice and righteousness, and has dedicated himself to the protection of all life, particularly the inhabitants of the U.S.A.; he will battle his foes with unyielding resolve to uphold this belief. However the irony of this character comes from the slave shops he is manufactured in and the direct opposition his morals detail towards the oppressive government in which he was born."
Artist Brian Leo, who may very well be called “Sigmund Freud’s Post-Modern Pre-Apocalyptic Wet Dream”, explores American identity, contemporary global politics and the asinine and contradictory terms of life in a media saturated culture in his canvas conglomeration, ROBOT.
ROBOT introduces a new aspect into Leo’s work: an overarching formation to his attention-deficit cavalcade of mini images. Brian Leo reflects a world we have been unwittingly numbed and confused by; one in which 24-hour news networks constantly blast in the background of local businesses and homes, interspersing global gossip and devastating atrocity divided into equal three minute slices.
In ROBOT, we encounter some of Leo’s familiar signifiers: innocent dogs, the “character” Wilson from Cast Away, and of course, the persona of Leo’s own perspective and childhood (the very Robot formation, aside from its symbolism as an automated humanoid, also reflects Leo’s childhood memory of Transformers.) We also see familiar salient personas—Anna Nicole Smith and her bags of money, running away from the unknown, Paul Wolfowitz’s toes exposing themselves through cheap socks in a mosque. Brian Leo’s imagination certainly doesn’t have to run far from the daily misinformation which we’ve accepted so unquestioningly.
In ROBOT, we see a myriad of modern-day cyborgs; ones that we have accepted as natural states of being. The robot’s parts are Leo’s reflection on our modern knowledge, use, and misuse of science and how our complacency towards the unnatural and “progress” eventually revolts against our daily lives.
Artist, Brian Leo, explores the reality of a presidential mandate for martial law allowing George Bush to remain in power for an unspecified period of time. Viewing into a near future, Brian proposes the hope for an end to the Bush presidency is left unrealized in the 2008 election. Precipitated by a possible outbreak of the bird flu and the subsequent citizen unrest, Bush declares Martial Law, and cancels the democratic process for the foreseeable future.
In Martial Law Winter Wonderland, Leo imagines the five ways Martial Law could be reinstated in the near future: epidemics of disease, civil unrest, a natural disaster, an act of war, and an economic crisis. Brian Leo greets the upcoming new year with an explosion of doom that we can only hope is science fiction, but are already becoming the reality: diseased and deformed newborns, a Red Cross ship loaded with ammunitions, Americans performing jobs we've come to associate with desperate poverty, all in his familiar, and now deeply strange style. Like George Orwell and Ray Bradbury before him, Brian Leo creates an alarming narrative in order to remind us: if we are not vigilant towards the politics and policies of the present, then the possibilities of the future election and beyond are only dreams.