As we discuss in the interview, I’ve never seen Leonardo Drew’s works in person. I’ve never been “in” them in the ways that their scale and breadth provides that possibility. I’ve never touched them, never smelled them. But if, as Jack Halberstam writes by way of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “music is also the anticipation of the performance,” then not only have I seen Leonardo Drew’s works, but I’ve been in them as well. They’ve been doing a number on me ever since I first saw them on a computer screen. I anticipate the synesthetic affect of scent and touch. I anticipate the memories conjured—evoked and invoked across the senses—by experiencing greater physical proximity. And so the work has already begun.
I’d like to start with your way of working. I watched several interviews where you talk about these ways in which you almost surrender to the more ethereal elements of art making . . . how you wake up knowing what you’re going to do, and there isn’t a whole lot of thought.
So you’re asking about a way of working, like how I approach my work, and has it always been that way?
It’s definitely been pretty inspirational to me in the last couple of years.
Where have you seen the work?
That’s the thing, I haven’t seen it in person, and so some of the questions that I want to ask you are about elements of the work that aren’t accessible through an image.
I have a show opening this week in New York. I may be doing something in San Francisco with Anthony Meier Fine Arts next year. Do you go to the art fairs?
I’ve been to a few in the last couple years, but not anything where I would have seen your work.
We’ll have to remedy that. My practice—because of how much work I produce—it does become a bit problematic. At times it seems sporadic because I produce only so much work, so it’s a matter of being a little bit more strategic. I do get complaints by way of social media that there are fans of the work that don’t get to see it… I’m always moved by the prospect of that kind of commitment; to be moved by images of art that you’re only seeing online. I do feel responsible and obligated to make sure that you and others who are actually fans of the work get to see it. There’s something about that; you’re writing about the work, though you’ve only seen it online. How does that work? Does it resonate even—the fact is you haven’t seen it in the real . . . can you explain that?
Sure. I think for me, because I am based in movement and music and writing, I can engage with work that carries those elements in the different forms they present themselves in. So with your work I see a lot of movement, I see a lot of posturing in a way or positions held. I think too, the more spiritual nature of your work offers a kind of power that is still present in the images. My view also isn’t without the knowledge that there are the elements of smell and sound. Since it’s such heavy work, there’s the creaking and the shifting in those ways that are subtler, but over time you start to witness that too. I know that there’s an element of the earth and the smell of wood itself, I know that those elements are missing, but just knowing that that’s there also lends it an allure and a pull.
That’s interesting. There are a number of things I definitely have to consider, but this conversation does help, and it just reiterates what I’ve been hearing.
My first question is borrowed from one of my favorite instructors who would always begin class this way. She would ask us all what our current obsession is, or something that’s kind of been on your mind or in your body within the last week or so. So I want to ask you what your current obsession is.
My current obsession is color; I’ve been obsessing over this for the last year, maybe longer than that. I thought that I would have resolved it by now, but it has been perplexing and ongoing. This is an interesting segue into a number of issues I would to address. Because honestly, by route, you can create work, signature work, if you’ve been working long enough. I admire Richard Serra’s work, but I always know what I’m going to get, what it will look like, what it will feel like . . . but what if he decided to do something completely off the wall different? What would that look like? What would that feel like? I think as artists we should be on a trajectory of discovery—constant discovery—pushing forward and asking questions. To be propelled into a state of otherness. These questions at times can be perplexing, but it does add to the overarching conversation.
I got it. You were talking about color and that it’s unresolved at this point for you. Can you talk more about where the snag, or where the struggle is in that regard?
Because of “multifacetivity,” there are a number of variables and directions. At the moment, I’m on my way to China for the month of November to study tri-color glazing. If you’re familiar with history of China and what they’ve done with clay pottery and glazes then you can only imagine the potential of the merging languages, but this is an unknown that remains to be seen.
I’ve read interviews where you talk about your childhood and I wanted to ask you if there was a childhood smell that you recall, or one that sticks with you.
There was a company called Herman Isaac just outside the projects I grew up in that did animal rendering, melting down animal parts to make soap. Trucks would come through full of animal carcasses. Horses, dogs, cows, you name it. The visuals were surreal, but what really captured and stayed with me was the smell. To have the knowledge as a child that soap was made from dead things . . . other worldly! And to this day I can still smell it. It still affects me and still informs my creative oeuvre. Number 8, the mother to all of my works, speaks of that experience most eloquently. It’s a very visual and weighted catalog of where I’m from, and what I’ve seen. Landfills, cesspools, and of course Herman Isaac . . . a one two punch and a kick that propels you into the self, that becomes who you are.
I’ve definitely been thinking, in particular with your work, about the terms nasal and renascence, having to do with rebirth, and even thinking about how you talk about yourself as an artist and as a kind of filter in a way, how in the ways we pick up scent—it’s often one of the first memories to go—but the ways in which it embeds itself in our photographic memories, in our physical memories: your work, even just the visuals, recalls certain scents for me, certain senses of smell, certain feelings.
The scent of things, the presence of things. The very shaping of the self. Yes, melting down animals! What’s your name? Tasha? And your last name?
Ceyan. It’s my middle name, but I use it as my last name.
Yes, Tasha Ceyan! An interesting question that lead to an interesting answer.
I mean, I feel like that’s what your work does for me, and I feel like it is a thing you intuit because it keeps coming up. As I was reading and listening to your interviews, that element kept coming up. That, and the almost religious practice, like you go about art in these ways that seem almost monk-like, with your routine and your ritual and the kind of gutful following that you—the way you follow the work, the way you follow the messages that materials transfer to you as you transfer your lived experience as material back. That actually brings me to another question I had, which was about cannibalism.
I was watching your interview for the Against the Grain show and you mention that term, and at first there seemed to be a kind of—resistance to it, but then I read another interview in the Wall Street Journal where you talk about curator Valerie Cassel Oliver’s use of “material cannibalism” and how you feel a resonance with it. What may have shifted in your initial resistance to the term to your current appreciation of it? What is your relationship to the term cannibalism and to the evolution of a work?
To me, those two things actually mean the same thing . . . you can’t have one without the other. The longer something lives, the more layered and complex the life. The more powerful it becomes. I’ve seen it time and time again, where I’ve actually taken works, parts from previous works, and transformed them into more meaningful works. Adding history and gravitas. Imagine the layers of the Grand Canyon—it starts from the bottom up, but within all that, like the rings of a tree, you have this layered history. There is a physical history that exists within the layering, it settles in, like the pages in a book. This is also true of my work. Consider Number 8, the first piece, keeping in mind that there had to have been a 1 to 7. Interestingly enough, a friend of mine came over to my studio when I was working on Number 6, a huge haystack of a monstrosity, and within that there were animal parts tied in to this thing. He asked me, “How are you going to get it out of here?!” And I hadn’t thought of that! I hadn’t been thinking about that at all. I was thinking about creating. But soon enough Number 6 became Number 8. Cannibalism.
Yeah. I mean—I guess my question around cannibalism is thinking through it as taboo, as well as it being a thing that is often considered bad because it’s one kind of material consuming a material too close to itself, and so—
Yeah, that’s funny! If you are going to create, throw out the rule book. Get rid of it! There’s no right or wrong when you create art. Whatever you decide you want to create, do that. If you feel it, do that. Put your body in the act, and your ass will follow! You can actually divide this into two different directions. You can decide if you’re going to work to create art for the public or if you’re going to work to create art for public consumption and temperament or if you’re going to work to create art for the journey. That’s up to you. You can reap a great deal of financial reward by creating work for the public, but ask if that’s going to be fulfilling. Would you be fulfilled by that?
If you can break yourself into two people, maybe you can do both, but I suspect your mind will not allow you to do that. There aren’t enough man hours to do both. Ask questions, seek answers. Like scientists, we’re about discovering uncharted territory to keep life going, to keep life interesting.
That’s actually one of my questions for you . . . if you didn’t—if you hadn’t taken this path in terms of being a professional artist, what other career path would you have taken?
I was born an artist. My mother tried to break me in half to get me to stop. She couldn’t do it. I’m an addict, a habitual maker, and nothing can change that. In school they would give me a test paper and I would flip it over and start drawing on it. It’s a good thing that the older artists around me at the time saw something in what I was doing and put me front and center. I had my first exhibition at 13, and I truly never looked back. You could go through a number of newspaper articles from when I was 13, up until 1982 . . . until I decided, “Okay, we have to re-address this whole exhibiting thing and who I am as an artist,” but that’s a whole other chapter. That’s when the transformation happened and I became this version of Leonardo. I couldn’t imagine anything else. I hope that answers your question.
It does, I find it fascinating, when people just know—it’s almost like your metaphysical dials are dialed all the way up in terms of artist. It’s like: that’s it. For me, I didn’t come to this kind of art making until maybe a year or so before I started grad school. I was primarily a writer, then started using my camera on my phone, started doodling in the margins, but believed I didn’t have that mojo at first. I just believed I didn’t have it, and then you know, all of a sudden it clicked and now I’m in it, but I had a whole lifetime of different career aspirations.
I suspect that you’re an artist, but, this is true, some of us don’t find our voices until later. That means that because of the ascent of computers and video, all of a sudden there are artists finding their voices through new media. Before that they didn’t know anything about drawing, painting, whatever, they had no interest and they didn’t even know, but all of a sudden, boom. The world moves, computers are brought in, and all of a sudden you’ve got your voice, you understand what I’m saying? You’re an artist! It was there, it was dormant, what was necessary was for the proper tools to come around and sort of introduce you. Like back in the day, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, all those, came after me when I was a kid. I had no interest in doing that, I could do that kind of work, but I had no interest in it. So for you, push even further out, it would have been like not drawing, you know, but just all of a sudden something happens, you know? And you were a sleeper! Now you’re awake.
I like to think too in the same ways you talked about how your life is just—it’s in your work. So even though I didn’t necessarily start out consciously, confidently as an artist, I still lived an artist life. I like that the trajectory for me means a particular practice that will have my signature, but isn’t necessarily the thing that I’m always trying to put forth.
Wow! And your art is something, you’ve got to keep it popping, girl! Sounds like you’re on a journey!
It sounds like you’re a bit of a guide.
I so appreciate hearing that. I recently had the weirdest visit actually—you’re hitting me at this time when something just happened, you know. So, a number of people follow me on social media. I don’t really actually—I know I have a Facebook page and I also have an Instagram thing, and my assistant, Melissa, takes care of those things, but she gets me on occasion to tell her this or that if someone asks questions that I should address—but about in the middle of last week I was outside fixing this kid’s wheel on his bike, a six-year-old kid, and then all of a sudden there’s a shadow over us and there’s this guy standing over us and he has this grocery carriage, you know, the kind they use for pushing around in the grocery store. He said he came all the way from Westport, Connecticut with this cart because he knew that this was what I needed! I was like, what?! And this kid there was with me and at six years old he knew that this was crazy, you know? But he’s saying he’s been a fan of my work forever and he just had to come out to see me. These are the kind of fans—you might be one of those kinds of fans, I don’t know! I get the most fanatical and strangely committed people who follow the work, and whenever I do have the chance to read this stuff online, it’s always that kind of person. This is interesting. I need to take a sit down and actually think about that because there’s something that I’m pulling at and there are people who are actually following that very same thread of commitment or passion, and I think it’s a beautiful thing, but at the same time it also verges on a very interesting depth of psychological, you know—something there!
I would be touched by it!
He sat with us for like an hour and a half at least: it might have been more than that. And he was talking about the work and what he’s read and what he’s seen, and he was like this encyclopedia, and I was—I thought it was really interesting. I invited him to the exhibition. He’s a filmmaker, and he was going on about what he does and he was curious also about my approach to art-making and how it got him to think about things, think things were already in him, but what it did was actually make it be okay for him to approach life in this way. And my narcissism or ego was sort of like, wow. I just wanted to sit down and listen to him! You know? I suspect he’ll be coming around. He made a long journey out from Westport to Brooklyn—he knew exactly where I lived, these days they can find your number, they can find you. Not too many people actually come out to my neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that’s only now become a little bit gentrified, but it was like—it’s got two beautiful parks now, but it’s just like Williamsburg when I first moved to Williamsburg back in the early ’90s, which is where you went to go and get killed. That’s not what Williamsburg is now, but that was what it was like when I was there. It was a dangerous place. I would have girlfriends come out to visit and they would always get chased down the street by some trucker who thought, “Oh a hooker! I’m going to chase her.” And I would come outside and say, “Oh brother, she’s not working! She’s here to visit me.” But that is not Williamsburg now. We see the most expensive areas of New York, and like two seconds ago it was like the high crime rate area. But this guy came out here to this neighborhood and it’s like a real cute neighborhood now. New York is really being pushed into like—we don’t have any teeth anymore. It’s not a rough place. It’s very hard to find a rough place now, it’s like, Brownsville, all these places back in the day, these were dangerous places.
But it’s interesting . . . I liked my neighborhood when it had a little bit more edge, because there was a protective barrier there too, meaning there were people who lived there who were real salt of the earth people and they’re being challenged now—my neighbors even say it—so when this guy popped in, I wasn’t surprised to see this white guy hanging over me . . . but it was kind of like, now there are more people around who are artists in my neighborhood, and I was, like, the first one, you know. But now just two doors down there are artists, and it was nice for two seconds when my neighbors thought I was a homeless guy that actually had a home! They tried to figure me out, but now slowly but surely—I think they still scratch their head, they kind of go, “He’s somebody, but uh . . . he’s always dirty! And he’s always riding that SeaWorld bike looking around for stuff,” and it’s like, you know, they’re perplexed, and there’s a beauty to that, when you’re around real people. When you’re around a bunch of artists, man, it’s like oh my god, it’s like you need to have space away from other creative spirits. As beautiful as we are, it’s a great thing when we can actually have our solitude. In Williamsburg? I had to get out of there, I wasn’t getting it. They knew who I was and that was when they were really aggressively coming right at me. Here I can count in the almost 10 years that I’ve been in this neighborhood, that guy that came through, there’s probably been only maybe six times that’s happened and that’s not really a lot. It’s comedy is what it is! Wish you could see it.
I might have to make my way there, but I’ll do it on terms that you’re aware of. I won’t just show up!
I find a way of making sure that the passion is about the journey, and to let them know that this is also their journey. I bring them in, you have to bring them in. I’ve seen it a number of times especially at openings, where people passionate about the work need to see you, need to talk to you. So I bring them in.
Can you talk more about the work in the gallery? Anything you want to add as far as the opening?
As far as that work, I’m still digesting it and I think the answer to that question is something we would have to address later. I’m already on to the next thing. It’s just the way I approach life; it’s never stagnant. I installed the show a week-and-a-half ago, and I look at it, and all I can see is the future. I can only see the future. I can’t see what’s in front of me, I can only see the future.
One of the things that’s been sticking in my head about your work has also been the elements of movement, and that’s part of why I asked you if you had any other career alternatives in mind, because I could definitely see being some kind of—
What does that mean, movement?
So movement for me, it incorporates dance, but when I think of movement, I even think of the way you talked about how your work when you were starting out, you did a lot of drawing, which is a more static kind of movement, it’s more static in that kind of process in that you may be sitting in a chair drawing, but you’re not actually moving about the room, but it isn’t necessarily divorced from that because when your hands move, you may fidget in your seat, all of that becomes material for any kind of movement practice. I’m interested in movement as it involves the definition of art that comes from the word “be,” and so how do you move as you exist in the world. You went from drawing to actually drawing with the materials that would then be part of the work. So instead of drawing the bits of a broken up tree you actually apply the tree as a mark itself. And even in the sense of movement as the more—the internal movement, the way that the filmmaker who came all the way from where he was to share with you his zeal in that, that is a kind of internal movement that your work caused in him as it’s moving you internally. I’ve been thinking about those things in my practice too, how your work called me up out of my seat, out of my thinking in those ways to actually just make marks, to apply gesture, my hands, my feet even, to sculpt and shape in these ways. I definitely think movement is one of the words I would say sticks with your work for me.
Interesting, very interesting. Interesting that we can talk in terms of the body and we can also talk in terms of your internal clock, how you actually time a thing to be realized. I know that there are things that I know and there are things that I don’t know, and I have to actually combine those elements to actually make sense. For a physical gesture to happen that can be read in terms of scale. For example, if I create something that’s 2 feet by 2 feet, if I were to break it down and reconfigure the form, the easiest realization of this would be the grid . . . from here I could add and/or subtract to continue to enhance the overall composition. It is from here that the body can be made to interact with the body of the artwork. In fact, the complicity of the viewer is what shapes and completes the art. The rhyme and reason of its “being” is set off by the mirror reflection of the viewer. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it makes a lot of sense . . .
Yes, the difficulties of making sense . . .
We were talking about movement and then you brought that into the understanding of the grid and how you have been disrupting that. So I thought it was a really interesting connection between the ways in which life in those ways is gridded, and your disruption of that, or even how you’re using that as part of a kind of internal schematics that you’re almost parsing out in these ways, and that seem to register and resonate with a lot of other folks. Like I said, the way your movement effects movement in others and as they express themselves as well.
That’s it, you got it!
I’m definitely really humbled and honored to be speaking with you.
Yes, you made me think about things I had not considered . . . I’ll restructure my lectures to include this happening.
Well, I’m glad I could offer something in that regard. If you had anything else you wanted to add that would be great, otherwise I’ll let you get back to your work.
I think we got it and this has been enlightening for me too, so I definitely appreciate it.