As our species begins its first tentative explorations of the 21st Century, we exist immersed in a new-way-on (eon) of entropic ultra-consumption. We find ourselves immobilized in a state of suspended evolutionary animation by a potent and power-FULL all pervading, all devouring, covert and heavily cynical underlying structure. A structure that is reliant upon novel variations of the traditional formulae of addiction in order to maintain social and behavioral inertia in the service of those already wielding the tools of expensive and extended power. The primary force that drives this materialist engine is an understanding by the corporate powers that be of the essential “algebra of need” as isolated and explored in the literary body of work of William S. Burroughs. This culturally imposed state shares the underlying nature of true addiction. That is to say an appetite artificially developed that promises an illusory expectation of infinite satisfaction by indulging in a form of consuming that is innately and destructively insatiable. Burroughs proposed, using heroin as a metaphor for social control, that “junk” was the perfect commodity as the addict would pay any price for an unknown quality and no advertising was required. In cultural terms this proposes that no matter how much of one’s given “drug” of choice one can access it can never be enough nor can it supply a finite, completed experience.
“Art” ( or as we prefer to call it, simply CREATION), which for the purpose of this text implies a striving by the creator to expose the covert dynamics of every possible interpretation of its contemporary socio-cultural environment, is a metaphysical drive, a calling with an inner sense of unavoidable duty. Burroughs observed and analyzed a linkage between totalitarian control systems and the deliberately provoked symptoms of a “suburban” material need for symbolic luxury, unleashed with apocalyptic fury on post-World War 2 America using irresistible addiction as a key.
In a similar way, Steven Leyba uses his disciplined calling as an artist to reveal a predominant, over-arching, meta paradigm of 21st century mass consumerism that acts as a safety net allowing society to maintain a voluntary structure of denial. We surrender passively to tantalizing promises of the fulfillment of all our desires by purchasing obsolescent luxery goods, but like all addictions the prime dynamic by which it operates is that by definition the appetite can NEVER be permanently satiated. The incontrovertible quality of addiction presupposes an inability of the item desired to ever more than temporarily give an illusory mirage of resolution.
There is a similar effect of illusion, delusion and alternative resolution in Leyba’s paintings. Distance from the image directly affects the viewer’s interpretation, which in turn affects their emotional and intellectual responses. Just as advertising sells unnecessary goods by utilizing subliminal, and exposed sexuality, so Leyba expertly generates a pulsing, strobing effect as our eyes see both a recognizable portrait in one moment and a tangle of genitals the next. All that we are seeing is true, but not everything is permitted. We see the basic logo of a person, their face, but we also, in a unique and singular way,similtaneously see their body. More than that we see their flesh, their most intimate private parts mutated to RE-present their public image. Suddenly our nervous system is stimulated by sexual explicitness composed from an erogenous tissue of flesh that bypasses inherited taboos and an explosive fountain of meanings and resonances breaks out from the surface in a rush of considered, deliberate contradictions of meaning.
Right in the vortex of this flesh fountain will be found black holes, sucking our reactive interpretations in, through, and out of the
canvas in the deepest and most significant revelation of all. None of his portraits have eyes. They are always missing! Leyba simply paints them away with black oil paint. Eyes are the gateway to the soul in established traditions, but in Leyba’s world we are already damned and soulless. The artist sees us, observes us minutely, but we do not necessarily have the ability or comprehension required to look back. There is a terrifying emptiness at the core of all that substance that we take for granted as it lugs our baffled brains around.
In spiritually volatile times such as this we, as a species, need to ask ourselves some searching and uncomfortable, even disturbing questions. The miraculous unfolding and ongoing survival of humanity against incredible environmental and climatic odds throughout the ages has been preserved, catalyzed, directed, inspired, mirrored and sanctified on our species’ behalf by the shamans, soothsayers, storytellers, sorcerers, wise ones, alchemical healers and (once upon a time) by the Artists of each age. These oracular beings fearlessly explore additional dimensions to those of mundane nonsensus everyday “reality”. They push the boundary of established social protocols, using the discipline of brutal self questioning to carry out an independent cultural autopsy on the often putrefying body of humanity during any given age. These courageous and often vilified individuals are essential to the psychic hygiene and mental health of the social order or civilization of their time.
As our ways of life have separated further and further from a balance with Nature, the role and prestige of these visionary gestalt therapists working on behalf of their community after an, often involuntary, initiation by near death experience, has been in decline. For around 2000 years these “creators” evolved from obsessed, possessed, magical shamans chosen by circumstance (not by self will) to artists still serving the Divine and the transcendental through the Church in the West and bureaucratic religions in general. This interaction with the Christian church in particular led to the artist’s gradual subservience to patronage, as, during the Holy Roman Empire in particular the separation between nobility, priesthood, church and state became forever intertwined in ever more cruel, exploitative, vicious, bigoted, hypocritical, politically devious and divisive ways. Church leaders and landowning lords became more and more often one and the same which, very ironically, resulted eventually in positioning most artists on the payroll of the most anti-visionary, anti-change, anti-questioning and monolithic enemy of unbridled, uncensored, unlimited creative passion and inspirational perceptual exploration. To displease one’s patron was to risk execution. This unfortunate historical progression has led to the most fundamental problem concerning the basic nature and purity of intention of art. What is its function?
This question is complicated by the, by now, entrenched relationship between; those who wield power, by political or financial authority and who tend to directly, like Andres Serrano’s “collectors” ( read on!), or indirectly, via support of Museums and other art institutions and those artist/creators who were/are charged with limitless imagination on behalf of us all. Artists have been envisaged as incorruptible beings, acting as our fearless and peerless guides into the unknown possibilities and impossibilities of a future; pleasant or not, safe or not, comfortable or not, requiring radical change by us all, or not. This conundrum of how can the hireling freely enter into open conflict with the hirer raises a further question…Is there a different path than that represented by the “Art World” the “Art Market” which by now is almost a surrogate stock market? Is there a form of art, a way of being an artist that is independent and unique enough to serve the original functions of Art, which included its very EXISTENCE being almost a side-effect of its BEING innately FUNCTIONAL, being a ritualized form of aesthetic magical practice?
Whilst art history does have a subtext, an almost secret cabal of visionary artists who practice art as magic and inter-dimensional exploration in potentia, examples of artists truly and irrevocably, chemically wedded to functional, romantically existential, ritualized ART are still scarce, and getting scarcer, as the Age of Greed and Need crashes in upon us all. It is the belief of this author, both as an individual AND as one half of the merged artist Breyer P-Orridge that art that is not in a sense messianic, that is trying to both save and kick-start into mutational evolution, is not true art but what Brion Gysin use to describe to me as Deceptual Art.
This introduction will attempt to locate and to some degree clarify that Steven Leyba’s work is truly devotional, ethical, respectful, loving, intimately vulnerable and exciting. Furthermore we would argue that his work sits squarely within the quasi-religious, psychedelic, spiritual and shamanic source of the very notion and warrior path of true art itself. As he himself says:
“I am not a slave to the photographic image. It is a slave to me. It can always be painted over…but one must have the essence of something, someone. Something one can’t verbalize…that gives it life and makes it (true) art and not just the sport of craft. I create to celebrate and understand this life. The greatest artistic joy is to manifest something of refreshing and new meaning out of images usually discarded as crude or too private, something our of what is generally conceived of as nothing. It is the most liberating experience and I am driven to do it regardless of any consequences.” Steven Leyba
There are two contemporary themes running through mid-20th Century art that relate to the inevitability of the emergent disciplines that are essential keys to a deeper comprehension of the paintings of Steven Leyba.
Painting in America began to look more and more closely at the entire purpose and intrinsic value, or lack of it, in traditional canvas based and, primarily, figurative art. The subject/image contemplated was studied more and more closely in an ever greater magnification of the “surface” itself. This paralleled in several ways the development of technological and scientific ideas (especially in physics, chaos mathematics and quantum particle theories) leading to effervescent mappings and intricacies of light itself. In the avant-garde Brion Gysin’s “DREAMACHINE” became the first artwork “to be looked at with eyes closed” as it utilized light itself in conjunction with mathematics. Better known this exploration was classically rendered in the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Pollock approached the dilemma of representation of the essential inner matter of his subject from a passionate, physically involved direction. The creation of a painting being a performance action, a meditation of oil paint, the flesh and muscle of his body and legendarily …hard liquor.
The use of alcohol and other substances to induce or amplify access to shamanic delirium in all forms of artistic expression is an age old one, we do not have time to explore at length in this introduction, but suffice it to say Steven Leyba’s modus operandi when painting follows in this grand intoxicated tradition along with Francis Bacon, Cocteau, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, Rothko, Rimbaud, the New York Abstract Expressionists, most denizens of Warhol’s Factory if not Andy himself, the artist “Breyer P-Orridge” and countless other confessed and closeted hyperdelic travelers. We mention “Breyer P-Orridge” not for a gratuitous namecheck but because it was similarity of creative practice around an evolutionarily based re-insertion of the human figure into the art object(s) that made us mutually aware of each other’s work and led to our becoming friends and allies.
Being a friend and ally of Steven Leyba inevitably leads to a moment of hilarious and shocking intimacy as, stripped bare (like the bride even ), one discovers oneself spreading wide those buttock cheeks to clear the way for anus close-ups followed by vaginal, penile and breast portraits so detailed as to be medical text book quality!
At the same time as the limitations of the canvas were leading to stripping away layers and layers of consensus reality to try and capture the molecular essence of light, and the uncertain mystery of inner “meaning”, other routes were being explored. Pop Art, of course, looked beyond the traditional figurative, landscape and still life options of painting and focused on the superficiality of consumerist America. We had become so materialistic so afraid of an atomic war forshadowed future that we were, in a sense, socially hoarding artifacts, objects, symbols of wealth…STUFF! As the media became more globalized finally and truly earning the concept “mass media”, (later to be updated, post-digitally, to mediascape with the omnivorous arrival of the internet) so we saw silk screened, mass-produced “paintings” from Warhol, large scale reproductions of comic book “PULP” fiction print from Lichtenstein and, once again, our means of perception were magnified to a point where the viewer could see the tiny dots, particles of paint equivalent to essential basic matter that give the illusion of solidity to a “realistic” image.
One of the great mysteries of existence is, “Where does one form of being stop and another begin, or end?” If, as we use scientific hardware to peer into the very moment (alleged) of Creation, the gaps between the particles that make up what we experience as solid matter get larger and larger until, in a very real sense comparatively, there is so much space in between that we cannot honestly describe where nothingness begins (or ends) and what we experience as beingness begins (or ends). Art and science have tended to arrive at similar conclusions as the 21st Century begins. Everything is interlocked, interfaced, compressed in infinite layers simultaneously without time having a beginning or end. Time is viewed now as an energy, except for biological time which unfolds in a way we inevitably perceive as linear. Although the probabilities are that even THAT is an illusion that filters the enormity of attempting to contemplate every instant of sensory “life” by becoming a recording that has become inevitable and therefore always happened. We seem to either exist in a looped spiral of eternally repeating events that have already happened and by their very nature as recordings of choices will always happen again. OR, we exist on an immeasurably thin knife edge of “PRESENT TIME” as William S. Burroughs called it once to me.
Our lives, then are a sequence of choices made nanosecond to nanosecond and they intersect with, co-manifest amongst the infinite choices moment to moment of billions of other sentient beings, including all forms of life by the way. This swamp of choices is given substance, or the illusion of it, by the interpenetration of so many choosers. But the precise instant a choice is made it is over, gone, obliterated and more choices are being made. We are rushing “forward” with everything that ever happened already gone and everything in a future yet to be decided and thereby momentarily “created” before it too is past.
Human beings tend to suspect this underlying awareness of a past and a future really not existing in the traditional way of picturing existence. Past and future only exist as an ongoing expectation and it makes them uneasy, afraid, and desperate to cheat the onrushing inevitability of oblivion.
Once again, many people in America especially (although the consumer addiction virus is spreading, and being deliberately spread very effectively, by the accelerating global reach of the digital age where at last the “VIRTUAL” the illusory, the basically deceptive and dishonest reign supreme) are now deified by the new template for social control, TOTALITARIAN CAPITALISM. China and Russia are way ahead in socially defining that first word and America wins hands down for championing the most vacuous form of that second word, but, the way things look, soon everything, everywhere, will be pretty well balanced out and a homogenous new human breed of voluntary technoclones will emerge hotwired into the very surveillance systems and consumer addiction processes that oppress them so subtly via television and the entertainment industries (which includes fashion by the way).
When he writes…
“I am a painter and painters paint no matter what ! Consumers consume, fuckers fuck, governments govern, painters paint.”
…Leyba is crying out in aesthetic anguish, screaming with primordial PAINt for us to see THROUGH the deceptions and trappings, tricks and edits and thereby validate his heart, his deeply passionate compassion.
Leyba paints his most intimate sanity as his renaissance hands cling for DEAR life to nonesensus reality, the skin of those same hands’ fingers white, almost to transparency, with the effort of avoiding that last infernal plunge into the infinite pit below. For Leyba that pit is America. A nation founded upon death and denial. Death the execution of the indigenous population ( both human and buffalo) and denial their implicit belief that there was never (even worthy of hesitation) anything, nor anyone, in this predestined judeo-christian Paradise created by God specifically for the fundamentalist flotsam and jetsam of Europe to occupy and subdue before they arrive. That selfish, righteous unquestioning path of destruction continues to this present day. These American consumer boomers, these people are the wreckers of civilization. With a scientific rigor that is so rare amongst any artists in this day and age, Leyba uses a combination of photography, oil painting, collage, shamanism and an aesthetic interaction of his own body with the body of others to offer himself the possibility of attempting the work of Creator, putting himself in the very problematic place of a God he doesn’t believe exists located in a country built of sick and ailing illusions.
Like Man Ray’s “Rayograms” Leyba is x-raying the most central “object/thing” that we ALL perceive as representing US, our “avatar” as video/internet gamers would label it, the/OUR human body. He is not alone. The pioneering work of French artist Orlan investigated classical painting’s representations of female beauty, of fleshly perfection as personified by the “Mona Lisa” for example, and by using her skin as a contemporary canvas she allows us to “see” through male perception. To some degree Orlan has been able to repossess and redefine biological aesthetics and sensuality in her performance pieces ( receiving plastic surgery procedures whilst conscious and reading ironical texts in a deliberately theatrical setting, playing on the word “theatre” amongst many witty yet vital aspects of gender politics and identity issues).
The Australian artist Stelarc has worked ruthlessly to reduce the myth of the human body being sacred. Beginning with works of physical endurance that required his denial of the reactive “pain” functions of his own flesh, Stelarc has moved beyond an inherited biological container towards a future where function and choice rule supreme, enabling us to realistically plan and initiate colonizing space and, in the process of so doing, reject our birthwrong as passed on via DNA. Stelarc has successfully constructed a third arm that he has taught his muscles and nerves to independently signal to complete tasks, such as signing his name. He sees a vast proportion of our internal organs as redundant and “taking up space” as opposed to his ultimate dream of “taking us up into space”. Technological hardware could be housed in the body cavity and replication could be genetically designed and executed. His work raises outrage and paranoia because it confronts major issues facing our species. Overpopulation and overcopulation the ignoring of which has led directly to the current and ongoing collapse of a Western economic fantasy concept based upon neverending and endless economic growth and economic productivity. Refusal to accept inate material limitations on our resources has led to the dramatic crisis facing our species today.
Breyer P-Orridge’s works since 2003 have centered on their commitment to the conceptual and, as far as medically possible, physical creation of a THIRD BEING they call “The Pandrogyne”.
A Pandrogyne is neither male nor female, but an hermaphroditic symbol of two becoming one, of an end to the biological and cultural tyranny of binary perceptions, of “nonsensus” reality. They propose the Pandrogyne in order to move the human species from its primitive, pre-Astoric behavioural patterns of violence and intimidation being unleashed upon any thing, entity, creature or idea that is “different”, unknown, novel or alien. The current polarizing of macro and micro communities into warmongering, bigoted posturing is the endgame result of this mute mass acceptance of inherited social systems that require inertia to survive. Leyba’s artistic practice and philosophy is appropriately aligned with this rare but cutting-edge lineage of alchemical stormtroopers of evolution spawned by Breyer P-Orridge, Stelarc, Orlan and their kin.
In a tryptich of this Pandrogyne Leyba’s multi-layered textures of meaning work full force, illustrating the blending and merging of identity and gender in both intimate and taboo forms, as well as arcane and archetypal dimensions where other traditions of painting would be incapable of reaching. On the left is Lady Jaye, composed of her own genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics, on the right is Genesis created likewise, and, inevitably, in the centre, is a Pandrogyne assembled from the reproductive organs of both that illustrates their idealized vision of becoming one being by their absolute surrender to the merging of two. Ironically at the same time Leyba reminds us of their proposal to end biological replication of the species!
This incredible intimacy is a crucial element of Leyba’s works. We have created a socio-economic MACHINE so huge, so global, so all pervading that our SELF hood, our very sense of corporeality is swamped, submerged in a cultural tsunami of trivial consumerism. Inevitably an alternative subculture rises up in response, populated by unorthodox thinkers and anarchic collectives. So we look. We seek. Trying to reconnect with our SELF. First we engage at the surface with tattoos, then with the flesh itself with piercings, suspension on hooks, scarification.It can SEEM nostalgia for lost shamanism but it is NOT. It is a very contemporary existential angst driven, as we lose contact with even our own means of procreation, our vital organs, our VITALITY, as we ourselves find our identity submerged, erased and homogenized by the current, and ongoing, explosion of interconnecting technologies. Our bodies have become “cheap suitcases” as Lady Jaye would say…
The irony is complete. As we are conceptually (soon literally) made available to every other human being and every bit of uploadable data we find our SELF more lost and ALONE than ever before…
How do humans CONNECT at the deepest level in order to counteract this drowning in superficial bottomless pools of the datasphere? They make love, they fuck, they masturbate, they make babies. They fuse with another sentient being at the most profound level we so far know through orgasm.
This desparate quest for any connection whether base, debased or romantic and altruistic is the “grail” of Leyba’s art. He returns to PAINTING, to romantic mythologies and operatic scale in order, as Brion Gysin would say, “…to paint himself out of the picture.” So great is his disgust at the blinkered delusion rampant in the American mediascape today. Like all great artists, he can’t help himself. He knows he can’t help us either, but he is “duty bound” nevertheless to try. It is the greatest secret of all art that we try to expose the most disturbing flaws of our species not from anger, or hate, no matter what he says, but hidden away almost as a matter of shame, for how can this be? He is driven by his LOVE for us.
WINNER OF POOH
One of the ongoing criticisms of Steven Leyba’s art which is valuable to address is the occasional inclusion of his faeces within the actual oil paint. It seems quite clear that the constant references to most human being’s inate repulsion at their own intimate bodily functions is camouflage. Rather than seriously consider the artist’s intentions his dissenters exploit socialized privacy to avoid radically altering their own conception of these works or to distract any new audience from contextualizing the “bigger picture”. They try to dismiss a life-long body of work that has its roots in the mists of human history and, more importantly in an art historical context, that is firmly founded in modern art unorthodoxy. Salvador Dali famously deified his shit in his diaries and theories, whilst other more contemporary precedents include Gilbert and George, the infamous Madonna portrait with elephant dung at the “SENSATIONS” Exhibition in New York that Rudi Guilliani tried to ban, nazi style, as decadent ,and, right now ( September 2008) in New York, seeker of generalized publicity Andres Serrano has an exhibition opening with 66 images of shit that begin with a close-up of his own pooh!
Why does Leyba’s inclusion of his shit cause a deliberate and deafening silence from an art world that lauds Serrano’s neo-medical prattling parallel? Because Serrano first begs “permission” of himself, and of the art establishment, and, through an interview in the Village Voice ( August 27-September 2, 2008) where he justifies his project by saying, “Just before I started to make these pictures, I had a moment of panic: What if I can’t find beauty, diversity? What if they don’t look good?”… He then goes on to say, speaking of himself, “…a true anarchist doesn’t give a fuck. I’m very lucky that I create work that finds collectors. I think this is great work- it’s not only beautiful, it’s unprecedented.”
How a self-declared anarchist can motivate himself primarily by a desire to please collectors is baffling! As too is his wholly inaccurate and self-serving claim to be making unprecedented work! If anything, focusing upon the bogus central novelty of breaking an aesthetic taboo that is already established is a sign of a tired plagiaristically inclined imagination.
Why then does Serrano get a full page of unchallenging publicity whilst Leyba is vilified over and over? Because Leyba is a visionary artist, a missionary artist involved compulsively on behalf of us all in a form of creation that evolves our understanding of existence, is fully engaged in the original and true meaning and only real point in making any art, to reveal human transcendance and inspire our evolutionary expansion from animal to divine. An artist who is a prophet trumps an artist INTO profit every time!
So, despite getting in really close to a subject that repels him, Serrano remains trapped in superficiality. How does he get away with it? Well, especially in America with its early origins in extreme cultish Christian fundamentalism, the general population have been trained to shy away from, rarely discuss or even visualize the various excretory bodily functions. Nakedness when associated with sexual fantasy is acceptable to many. What remains hidden, almost inconceivable is our necessary but unspoken need to regularly defecate and urinate, and bleed from those same places associated with officially sanctified sex. Sex that is still claimed as sacred by the Christian minority whilst treated as shameful. This dual secret function has accrued so much contradictory emotional baggage, guilt and fear that it has, quite literally, been kept in the (water) closet.
We are dictated to by our social conditioning to thoughtlessly accept a tacit cultural agreement we had no part in that pretends, and tries to illusorily maintain, that we are, as a species, more than animal, freed from demeaning biological necessities. To accept, to confess our body’s animal processes undermines our arrogant assumption that we are Gods that are above and in control of Mother Nature. Our sense of superiority over all other creatures and our environment is exposed for the farcical lie that it is as we hide in our toilet and grunt and push.
Steven Leyba’s incidental inclusion of various excreta comes from a very different place than a veneer of arrogance and shame. His works are produced compulsively, continually, physically and become a socio-aesthetic statement of ecstatic abandon rooted in his keen awareness of the implicit power of empathetic magic.
Leyba creates paintings in the tradition of cave paintings, sand paintings, temporary Tibettan mandalas made of colored powders and rancid butter, the sigils of Austin Osman Spare and Breyer P-Orridge that are ritually channeled into plasticity in order to increase the potential of making something positive actually happen above and beyond the vacuous modernism that sees the construction of an “art” object solely in terms of “finding collectors”.
Art that exposes hypocrisy in our cultural conditioning is dangerous, it disturbs a status quo, it spawns discomfort in those born of denial. The contradiction in our attitudes to pooh are easily illustrated. As a baby one is encouraged to learn to use a potty in public. Applauded for success, given big smiles and cooed over. Then, as soon as the technique, the biological lesson has been thoroughly learned the same child is immediately banished to a closed, private room and ordered to stop expecting any more mention of their confusing situation! Even the room is referred to in coded language as a “restroom”.
By merely refusing to EXCLUDE any aspect of his artistic practice from the resulting works themselves Leyba strikes at the very heart of a modern human dilemma of contradiction and reveals many unanswered questions and unresolved issues. Privacy thus becomes a metaphor for more than bodily functions, it begins to represent what he sees as the very heart of an American corruption of our basic, and healthy, Nature. “Privacy” in this context is also the oppression of the ambiguously instructed “child” that is in turn the indigenous and rightfully original population of this America. Paradise is soiled by ignorant intimidation. Innocence is imprisoned in a darkened “room”.
“TRUTH, an artist should stand for truth, an image should facilitate that! To obscure truth is immoral.”
“Nobody here gives a shit, why do I? Because I am the modern alchemist taking the shit of our society and making it gold. Art should never be about going along with the program and business as usual. I am about subverting the programming and my business is the business of putting the mirror up to the moral insanity of business as usual. That is what the Coyote mythology has always been about, instincts and challenge over apathy and acceptance.”