Valerie Leavy in Temporary Art Review
Flight Pattern 3W: Valerie Leavy
By Liat Berdugo
Temporary Art Review
Valerie Leavy appears smaller than the rattan hummingbird that flies eternally above her couch, and the rooms of her home overflow with citrus – some oranges, and so many lemons. Liat Berdugo pays a visit with one special lime for the occasion, and so the lemons remain decorative on their tables. Valerie’s many unframed paintings of figures engaged quite intimately seem sweet as a bunny’s shadow. This house is such an embrace that it forgets it is a boundary. Holding their glasses like little bowls, Valerie and Liat begin their toastings. -Maggie Ginestra
TO FILTH AND IDOLS: toast #1, Milagro Blanco
Valerie Leavy: I was taking painting classes with Gregory Eltringham, and he was one of the most charismatic guys, on top of being one of the best painters I had ever met. His paintings were seductive and alluring – literally sometimes, with total babes and lingerie. I wanted to be just like him. We kept in touch over the years. When I co-founded a gallery in 2011, I had to start doing shows immediately. How many artists are prepared when you reach out and say, “Can we do an entire gallery show? Do you have the work right now?” I knew he would have the body of work.
Liat Berdugo: Is that part of what you idealize about him – how prolific he is?
VL: Oh yeah, he has discipline. He would use studio class time to work on his own paintings.
LB: And you didn’t begrudge him that?
VL: No, it was awesome. What better example, you know? He was there if you needed him. And he was there to teach you technique, and how to clean your brushes, how to paint. But that guy – he was provocative.
LB: Is filth for you about that provocative nature? A lot of your work is also filthy, edgy. You’re doing things that you’re not supposed to do. Is filth for you under the umbrella of “things that provoke”?
VL: I think it’s part of being adventuresome, because you’re not bound by fear of what people will say. Think about the academy system and the way that painting used to be. If you depicted a woman in too provocative a fashion, you’d get slammed at salons, and publically ridiculed.
LB: Do you feel most of your idols have the same kind of adventuresome spirit?
VL: Absolutely. The people I idealize are Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who flaunted all social norms. The Cacophony Society. Amelia Earhart, who takes up a profession that was really a man’s world and decides that she’s going to break some records. I care about people standing up to a group and saying no. That’s the bravest thing you can do: not to submit to social pressure. If everyone’s painting beautiful things, and you want to paint a filthy blow job, I like that. I think that’s what appealed to me about Greg: he had the confidence to be completely inappropriate.
LB: How did the inappropriateness of that show go over here?
VL: It was the best-selling show I’ve ever done. I think San Francisco has been not just tolerant but a very sexual city since it started – at least since the gold rush and the Barbary Coast. Even today it’s like we’re a bubble of sex positivity. Kink and queerness can exist here in total comfort and freedom in ways that other parts of the country it would not. San Francisco embraced the work very well.
LB: That’s interesting – you have this idol who’s totally filthy and adventuresome, and you’re bringing his filth and adventuresomeness to a city that is also an idol of how to lead that forward. It’s like this double-idol, this meta-idol.
VL: It’s kind of the perfect audience for him. But maybe the perfect audience for him is some buttoned up, outwardly prude place.
LB: I think you need to restage the show in Boston. Or DC.
VL: I want to hang it up in some congressional staffer’s office.
TO PERMISSIONLESS-NESS: toast #2, El Jimador Reposado
VL: To talk about permissionless-ness, we’d talk about the show I did with Torreya Cummings in a semi-abandoned building which also doubled as a public artwork by Brian Goggin calledDefenestration. I had access to this building…I wasn’t supposed to…
LB: How did you get access?
VL: I had assisted Brian with the restoration of Defenestration the previous summer, so I had my own keys and I knew my way around the building. In order to restore some of those works – the furniture that’s crawling around on the outside of the building – Brian was up on pulleys and ropes and I was just holding him. He trusted me with his life while he was up there restoring these artworks. When we were done restoring Defenestration, I returned some keys to Brian, but I kept a set.
LB: Did you have a sense, at that point, of why?
VL: I wanted access. And I used it. I would take people on tours through the building – not often, and not a lot of people. When Torreya was looking for a place to shoot some photographs, she knew I had access to the building. She asked if they could look inside. The thing is, the building is super fucking dangerous. I had my little safety spiel.
LB: How did it go?
VL: “Look down while you’re walking. If you have any doubts as to whether that floor is safe to step on, don’t step on it.” There’s a real danger about being in there. I emphasized that and gave her a set of keys. She took a series of portraits and photographs in that building, and we were talking about what kind of alternative space could she show these in. I did not have my gallery yet. I said, “Let’s just do the show here.” I picked a room on the 4th floor, we cleaned it out, built a bar out of this old door that we found downstairs and stocked it with speakeasy cocktails like Pimm’s Cups and Old Fashioneds. We had a little phonograph record player. We strung up some lights. Then Torreya grabbed a bucket of mica glitter and spread it all over the floor. We’ve not got this completely dilapidated, disgusting building literally sparkling. We only did the show two nights. I wanted to make sure that we kept it safe as possible so I maxed the guest list out at 35 guests a night. And the reason I had to do it like that was I did not have permission to be in there.
LB: Did you get in trouble?
LB: Do tell.
VL: Well, the furniture on the outside of the building that comprised Brian Goggin’s artwork was lit up. When I got in the building that night, I noticed that one of the lighting sets was unplugged. So I plugged it in. This was my fatal mistake: turning the artwork on! Because Brian happened to drive by with his wife that night on the way back from the movies. He had noticed for weeks that one wall of the artwork was off and had been meaning to turn it back on. So when he drove by and saw that it was on, he knew someone was in there. So Brian parks, comes in, and can tell for sure that someone is in the building because the gate that goes to the upstairs levels is unlocked and open – because I had opened it.
LB: Without permission.
VL: Without permission. At that point he called the police. I’m upstairs hosting this exhibition speakeasy – people have cocktails in their hands, people are buying art. I’m literally selling photographs out of an abandoned building. Then I see these black boots walk up, and I knew instantly what was up. I walked right up to this cop and I stuck out my hand and I said, “Hi, my name is Valerie Leavy and this is my party.”
LB: What a line.
VL: The cop said to me, “Oh yeah? Well, what are you doing here? Because the artist who does have a right to be here says you don’t.” And I said, “Oh, Brian’s here? That’s fabulous!” I ran down the stairs and I said, “Brian, it’s me, it’s my thing. I’m sorry. Can you call the cops off?” I took him upstairs and he immediately started having a great time. I said, “Excuse me everyone, I’d like to present a very special guest, artist Brian Goggin.” Everyone started singing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.
LB: Well Brian himself – that’s not his building. Brian’s work wasn’t permission-full.
VL: He put that work up there without permission. Defenestration was permissionless artwork. The thing is, Brian and I have a mutual respect for adventurousness. I knew that even if he was a little bit disappointed in me, he would – more than that – respect it. He would respect the effort. He would respect the rule-breaking. That even as he was objecting, he was also patting me on the back.
LB: It’s almost like the permission showed up at your party. Brian’s presence was like the permission showing up at your party.
VL: Indeed. Although I did have some explaining to do the next day.
LB: You mentioned that the artist Torreya was also very involved in queer culture, and fairy queer culture – which is a whole other realm in which people have to be permissionless. You’re not a part of society that is going to get permission from everyone to do what you want to do and be what you want to be.
VL: Absolutely. You’re structuring your life and choices – whether it’s who your partner is, how your body looks, what you wear – and you’re doing what you want, and flaunting it.
LB: I’m thinking more about permission and I don’t know why I’m going there, but I’m going to middle school. I’m going to youth – to a time you have to get your parents to sign permission slips. To a time when you understand for the first time what it feels like to get away with something. I’m thinking about my own middle school, about your middle school.
VL: Sometimes we get away with something and we’re really proud of ourselves. And maybe sometimes you get away with something and you feel so clever for a moment, but then you feel horrible about it. I mean, typically when I get away with something, I’m just very proud of myself. Especially in the life I’ve constructed for myself. I’m not beholden to very many people. I mean, there’s always the government.
LB: That’s your next frontier.
VL: I probably break the law all the time. I know I do.
LB: Like the the good old California roll on the stop signs? Tax evasion…?
VL: I do pay my taxes. I’m a liberal. I’m as liberal as Jesus.
TO DEATH AND TECHNOLOGY: toast #3, Cazadores Añejo
VL: Death and technology – that sums up the interests of my friend Fernando Orellana. He’s primarily a sculptor who makes robots. He’s also fascinated with the idea of ghosts. I don’t know if I should say this, because the show is coming up, but he does not believe in ghosts.
LB: You have no permission to say that.
VL: I don’t believe in them either. But the thing is, Fernando is fascinated by the idea of ghosts because it’s so contrary to his idea of the world. If he were to have an experience where he felt like he saw a ghost, it would change everything about life and death and the universe. So he builds these machines that are like ghost traps: they’re designed to both lure in ghosts and set off an alarm once they do.
LB: Will you describe the machines?
VL: Fernando goes to estate sales, where they open up the homes of the recently deceased, and strangers look through the stuff and buy it. Fernando buys little trinkets that he thinks may have had a personal connection to the deceased. He’ll then take that object home and make a machine that’s designed to put the object into action. So for instance a bell: he made a machine that detects what paranormal researchers look for when they’re ghost-hunting – a drastic temperature change, electromagnetic fields, infrared lights – I don’t even know – and if any two of those show a drastic fluctuation at the same time, the machine springs into action and rings the bell.
LB: It’s so funny how scientific they are. That’s the technological side. Do you think Fernando wants to believe in ghosts?
LB: Do you want to believe in ghosts?
VL: I do.
VL: Because it would mean so much. The implications are huge, right? The way I feel is that when I die, my consciousness dies with me. I have this beautiful, painful experience to live for eighty-or-so years – and I’m grateful for that – and then it’s over. But if there were real evidence of ghosts, it would completely change my worldview. Fernando is very rational, scientific, methodically. You can see it in the sleek minimalism of his machines.
LB: I think that if I were going to believe in ghosts, no amount of scientific data would sway me one way or the other.
VL: I know. The thing about these machines is that he builds them – not believing in ghosts – and has no expectation that they’re ever going to become animate. It’s up to the viewer to trust that the machines actually do anything. They could be elaborate little stages that don’t actually function. Three of these machines were in a space in New York, and one day one them went off. The women who owned the space called him up and they were distressed. He went and looked at the machine and there was a totally explainable mechanical error, but they didn’t care. They wanted the machine out of there. You can see the two different ways of approaching the same stimulus.
LB: It’s funny that Fernando goes through so much effort to make these machines work. They’re incredibly precise. He puts so much mechanical precision into this moment that will probably never happen. It makes me thinks of all of the potential energy that’s stored in fantasy.
VL: I think believing in ghosts is believing in fantasy.
LB: What you’re bringing to audiences is what fantasy can offer. Or, a model of one kind of fantasy.
VL: More and more I’ve been working with abstract artists, and their work is aesthetically beautiful but it lacks fantasy. When we go outside of abstraction and we talk about basically any other kind of art, we can relate it to fantasy. Obviously Greg’s freaky paintings…
LB: Right, sexual fantasy! All this talk about fantasy and about death and technology also makes me think that this conversation would be lacking if we didn’t talk about the fact that we’re in the Bay Area, the center of the technological fantasy – the startup dream.
VL: We are a technological hub – perhaps the preeminent technological hub of the world – and we are surrounded by it, saturated with it. But in the Bay Area we don’t have seasons. We don’t watch leaves fall off the trees. We don’t have to confront death. We’re all Peter Pans who never have to grow up. There’s a permissiveness, a wildness, and eternal youthfulness to the culture here. I think it may be influenced by the fact that nothing dies here. That might be feeding the fact that this is the technological hub. There is an optimism here: we have the freedom to be exceedingly impractical.
LB: We’re so impractical. It’s a blessing and it’s also disarming sometimes.
VL: You know, I wouldn’t ever want to pull the plug on that one. I see the value in criticizing it, but behaving as if there’s no consequence – that’s liberation. It might be stupid, but it’s going to be fun. I place great importance in risk-assessment, but I like to behave as if there’s no risk at all.
LB: Do you really do a lot of risk-assessment? Because I want your spreadsheets if you do.
VL: Death and technology – these are two things that I don’t think people pair. And it’s hard to talk about them together. But technology dies all the time. And we’re pushing off death with technology. But when it comes down to it, at that dying moment, technology has absolutely nothing to do with it. There’s something purely human about that moment when you slip off this mortal coil. There’s nothing between you and nothingness. That’s the fadeout. And that’s why I think talking about death and technology is so hard because it really has no role. Technology can extend your life, but that’s technology’s relationship to life, not to death.
LB: This crazy image just popped into my head of what it would be like to die while I’m looking at my iPhone. I would be so upset if I died while looking at my iPhone.
VL: Oh my god.
LB: But if I die while looking at your beautiful palm plant in the corner, I would kind of be ok. I die while looking at my iPhone, I would be so upset.
VL: I completely agree with you. What is it about that? Because the action itself is the same: you’re looking at something.
LB: I think it’s about looking at something for distraction versus looking at something because there’s an aesthetic appreciation. Rarely do I pick up my iPhone and say, “You’re so black and shiny. I love you. Thank you for existing.” My iPhone is a window into a different world for me, and I think technology often offers us that. So if I am leaving this world, and I’m already not here because I’m looking at my iPhone, that would just be so sad.
VL: That’s what it is: to not be present in your own death. That’s the tragedy of it. I’ve always felt I wouldn’t want to die in my sleep. I’d rather have an awareness of what was happening. I know it’s probably going to be immensely unpleasant, but it’s my life, it’s my experience, and I don’t want to miss a part of it. This is my movie and I want to see how it ends.
VALERIE LEAVY is an independent curator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She coordinates exhibitions of emerging and mid-career artists that emphasize craftsmanship, concept, and aesthetic in contemporary art-making. Her most recent project is a new monthly web series launching in April 2015: as host and co-producer of The Artist Statement, Leavy sits down with working artists in their private studios to talk process, inspiration, and the state of the arts.