JAMES ENGLISH LEARY
JAMES ENGLISH LEARY
The artist on expanding empathy and protecting art's right to be useless.
James English Leary always questions convention. Whether in his solo work or during his time as a founder of the groundbreaking art collective Bruce High Quality, it's a challenging practice but one the artist relishes all the same. James opened up to Platform about the unsettling power of metrics on modern creativity, the things he's learned about legislation in the US and how profoundly literature can expand empathy.
Your work often addresses how paintings are traditionally 'read' and breaks down the elements of painting. What do you think can be problematic about more traditional 'readings' of painting? And how do you work to address those things?
I don't necessarily think about my work's relationship to what it means to read a painting as a critique of those historical ideas. There is a historical idea of picture-making as illusionistic, like the Renaissance conception of the painting as a window into a world. My work engages with the surface as an illusion but it is also very much about enacting the underlying structures of a painting as events in and of themselves. What is the structural drama of a painting?
Your works often have, to your point, really interesting and unusual physical shapes in terms of their perimeters and their design. How did that develop?
I'll give you this sort of long answer because I guess that's what we're doing here [laughs]. I've done a lot of different kinds of work and had different kinds of practices. I've done a lot of collaborative work. I was really involved with the Bruce High Quality Foundation, which was about social practice and collaboration and education and teaching and all of that. So having all that in my head set the stage for my own painting to be simultaneously more cerebral and more self-conscious. More cerebral because it was an individual effort, so as opposed to my group work, I could afford to be intuitive. And more self-conscious because I was making “paintings” as opposed to some other kind of work. I wasn’t processing every kind of impulse I had through my paintings, I was doing other things with other impulses at the same time. So when I was painting, I was engaging the medium on its own terms and thinking about what was particular to it. I tended to focus on an approach to painting that was very much about “building” the painting from scratch, cultivating it from its component parts and so on.
I guess, on a less narrative level, I just love Elizabeth Murray. I’ve had such a good time looking at her work over the years. The paintings are so funny and nasty. I was always very inspired by her frankness when it came to revealing the underlying structures. Like, if she wants to extend the shape of the canvas, she just Frankensteins on a new section of panel and you can see exactly where the add-on occurred. When I started making these shaped paintings with add-ons or bites taken out and I was trying to figure out how closed or exposed those underlying constructions should be, the frankness of her approach was very meaningful to me. To what extent do you let the painting “tip its hand”? What kind of experiences do exposure or concealment engender in a viewer? There’s a conversation in these shaped paintings between planning and improvisation that I think has always been very informed by Murray’s work.
As you've said, artmaking is so introspective and personal, and you also mentioned the Bruce High Quality collective. What was it like for you working as part of a collective versus working in your solo practice? Is there a divide in your brain between how you work in those different settings?
Yeah, definitely. Collaborative work is amazing, and it has a kind of speed and momentum in it that is very rare in individuated work. Everything is sort of sped up through these dynamic confrontations and conversations between the participants. That part of collaborating is so exciting. I don't know if this is true about all collaborative work, but the way Bruce High Quality worked, projects emerged out of a rhetorical, conversational space. So, there’s an inherent social dimension in the work from the earliest stages which is very rich. Working with people has amazing permissions and it grounds the world in a kind of inherent politics. You can do big things and think institutionally because you already have a social momentum. But, of course, there are also limits to that. Ideas that emerge from language are already sort of proscribed by the logic of language and the possibilities of language.
For example, it's very hard to do poetic formalism in that way – “by committee”. It's hard to do that with someone else because those decisions about how to articulate a line or how to induce a wobble into a surface or a wispiness or how to scumble one color across another color are very preverbal, intuitive, personal impulses for an artist.
It's interesting that you mentioned the political component. Do you find it more difficult to engage in that political way when making your own solo work, as opposed to in the collaborative setting?
I think paintings and stories and books are absolutely political, but it's a slower form of politics. It's not the kind of politics where a group of people is going to go out right now and do something concrete and material, where an alliance is coming together and you're going to sit down and have the meeting or the conversation and write the manifesto and take action.
The political effects of art are widespread but more obscure, or at least they play out over a longer period of time. You can’t expect results right away. It’s actually demeaning to art to create a mandate for any kind of immediate political utility. But art radicalizes and sensitizes people’s consciousness over time. You want the president to have read Alice Monroe's short stories, or looked at Corot paintings, or whatever. Art experiences set the stage for people’s personal politics. Of course, there are works of art that produced sudden political change, but those seem like novel anecdotes, or situations where artworks had a journalistic function, like with The Jungle.
I remember being on a panel about the political effect of art I did right after Trump came into office. There were people in the audience – and I don't blame them, I have these feelings too – who were like, "We're artists, we need to get Trump out!" It’s an understandable impulse, forgivable in that panicked moment. But it was always clear that the art world wasn’t going to undo that election.
It’s important to defend art’s right to uselessness. An artist can, of course, make their personal politics explicit as content in their work. But that’s still an expression of the personal possibilities of art. Institutional or collective pressures on artists to embody political action through their work are just . . . doomed.
Speaking of inciting change, I read in an interview of yours that one of the hopes of Bruce High Quality was moving the emphasis in the art world toward the relationships between artists as peers versus money and art fairs and institutions. Has the art world moved more in that direction at all in recent years? Or not really?
Artists often have an uneasy relationship with bigger institutions. It’s an important source of liberation and support for artists to form their own groups, enterprises, initiatives. This is one of the forms of politics that artists tend to be more effective at than other kinds of people. Whether or not the art world has been moving in this direction more or less in recent years? God, I don’t know . . .
But it probably is, somehow. There’s always going to be this interesting tension between the young people who take over the old institutions versus the new institutions that new generations are creating.
In some ways, it seems harder than ever to have a community. What it means to “hang out” has changed a lot since the era of the avant-garde. American city-centers are not affordable, so the old bohemian, cosmopolitan ideal is untenable. So much of Bruce High Quality was about engaging the historical moment of the avant-garde’s untenability, the nostalgia and cultural confusion that exists for artists in moments that that old model is no longer possible. But even the conversation about the death of the avant-garde already seems unbearably dated. The internet just kind of renders it irrelevant. And I’m not nearly literate or savvy enough to understand what that means for art.
Speaking of the internet, what is your own relationship with technology like?
I’m bowled over by all of it. I’m in awe. And bored with it, too. I have all the standard, boilerplate spiritual stuff about what my phone does to my attention span. I don’t know what to say about any of it . . .
I’m glad it wasn’t around when I was a kid. It’s fascinating, as a teacher, to watch young artists negotiating visibility on that level from the beginning. Every 20-year-old I know knows someone their age who has, like, 97,000 followers. It’s impossible to ignore.
And I think the ubiquity of screen-logic is obviously having a tremendous impact on the way that people think about picture-making. Screens become assumed and invisible, in a way that makes it a lot harder to critically unpack images. Historically, when you would snoop around in the painting rack in an undergraduate arts program, you would see hundreds of muddy, kind of shitty oil paintings because oil paint is an incredibly recalcitrant, difficult medium. You need to make a lot of oil paintings before you start to make anything that isn’t just mud. The pedagogy of teaching painting was developed in the context of the medium’s particular difficulty. But the field of material possibilities has expanded so rapidly. I've had students come into class with things that were astonishing in a fundamentally alien way. Like they would say, “I took this picture on my iPhone, and put a Gaussian blur on it, and had my friend who works at a banner printing place make a big print of it for me. And then I got some of that reflective road powder, and I painted a hieroglyph on it with glue, and I threw the powder on." Wow! It would take 40 minutes of talking just to unpack what the thing is on a literal, straight-forward level before you could even get to these bigger questions: Is what it’s doing worth doing or what the artist intended it to do? There's a level of sophistication that the screen, the image manipulation programs, and the algorithms bring into picture-making that is completely new. It’s both exciting and tedious.
I was interested to hear you mention the number of followers people have on Instagram. It's weird to think about metrics and just how pervasive they can be. Do you have any thoughts on how those might be impacting people's creative processes? Or just how they conduct themselves in general?
Well, it’s going to be the dominant organizing principle of our life going forward. People are understandably panicked and resentful. But it’s here, it’s ubiquitous. I was watching the World Series last night with a friend. The fielders were changing their positions for each batter because data metrics have alerted coaches to the fact that certain hitters hit to this part of the field this percentage of the time. I don’t know what that really implies, but it seems obvious that there’s a connection between things like opaque, copyright-protected algorithms undermining the romance of baseball and the crisis of institutional legitimacy in our society.
It’s always intriguing to stumble on a factoid like that. What’s something else that you've learned recently?
I've been watching them trying to pass this gigantic bill in Washington. Getting into the granular stuff about how social insurance policy gets structured. Whatever ends up passing, I know I’ll be disappointed. But it seems that an overtone shift is happening about what specific things are up for discussion. Things like paid leave which seemed radical 10 years ago could actually come to pass. Watch, by the time this thing goes to print the thing will be completely gutted and I’ll look completely naïve, just an absolute rube . . .
It sounds like you’ve been reflecting a lot. Are there any old habits or thought patterns you're trying to outgrow?
I read a Zadie Smith quote the other day, something like, “The hardest thing is still to accept that other people are as real as you are. That’s all. Not using them as tools or examples or to make yourself feel better, but that they are as real as you and have the same demands.” It turns out it’s just a tremendous amount of ongoing effort to keep re-sensitizing yourself to that.
Is there anything that helps you in deepening the understanding that you're talking about?
I think literature is one of the most powerful empathy machines. It’s good equipment. Good practice for life.
Last question: What do you wish you were asked more often?
A lot of what gets asked in artist interviews is about ideas, intellectualizations, takes. I suppose it might be nice to have more conversations about feelings. It might be nice if interviews were like therapy with more questions about how things make a person feel. I don’t know, now that I’m thinking it through it seems nightmarish . . .