The artist talks about his upcoming exhibit, depictions of the homeless, and art-related capitalism
If you’ve walked through the Tenderloin, along Market Street, or around SoMa, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Hugh Leeman’s art. (He'll be showing new work Thu/4 at SOMArts Gallery as part of the "Dial Collect" show.) Leeman is best known for his drawings of the distinct and arresting faces of Sixth and Market’s homeless, which he used to wheatpaste onto billboards and buildings. His iconic work has been characterized as “street art,” but Leeman views his homeless art project through a more enterprising lens.
The power latent in billboards and marketing campaigns – both to make a statement and to expose vulnerabilities held by the viewer – inspired Leeman to plaster his friends’ faces around town. (Leeman met most of the homeless men he's depicted by engaging in street-side conversation, usually with the help of a trusty pack of Camel cigarettes.) He aimed to get as many eyes on his work as possible by giving away free posters of his drawings and by allowing people to download posters off his website for free. He also screen printed his drawings onto t-shirts and gave them away to men and women on the street to sell for a 100% profit.
"All along, my thought was, 'I'm not making street art – I’m making advertisements,'" Leeman says. "It was a social experiment into whether we could use the idea behind selling a product, but do it for the betterment of society as opposed to just for the betterment of a corporation. The high aspiration was that you could connect disparate demographics this way."
Leeman will be exhibiting a piece as part of Dial Collect – a group show comprised of large-scale interactive installations – at SOMArts Thursday, April 4 through Friday, April 26. Leeman’s exhibit will explore disparate demographics – a concept he has explored during his wheatpasting past – social vulnerability, paranoia, and relationships. Leeman’s best friend Blue, who plays harmonica on the street for cash and lives in an alley near Sixth and Mission, and Leeman’s father, an attorney, will be participating in the interactive exhibit.
Blue and his wife Sam inspired Leeman’s mural concept, which will function as the backdrop of his piece. “Over the past several years, Blue’s been telling me stories about this hawk who lives in the alley,” Leeman says. “The hawk’s been swooping down and eating rats and pigeons out of the alley, and the way Blue always tells the story is like: ‘You know, man, I was just fixing my gear shift then BOOM – the fucking hawk ate a goddamn rat!’”
Leeman’s mural depicts a stern hawk with outstretched talons reaching out to snatch up an anxiety-ridden rat to prey upon. He used white paint to depict the hawk and the rat and painted them against a black background. The hawk represents formality and our society’s flawed concept of strength, whereas the rat represents those who “just put their sail up and go wherever the wind takes them.” Leeman sees himself as both the hawk and the rat at times and considers his father and Blue – two men with whom he has an extremely special yet complex relationship – to represent aspects of the hawk and the rat respectively.
“My father has a more structured, formal process within his being than I have ever had or been capable of. And I think the opposite of him is someone like Blue, who has always ran with the wind. I find myself somewhere in between,” Leeman says.
Leeman’s reflection on his existence as an artist in a capitalistic economy – something he’s been thinking about a lot recently – also ties in with his exhibit. The hawk in him wants to market himself, maintain a style, and gain notoriety, wealth, and fame through his work. As an artist, developing a style – and exposing it, often relentlessly – can be key to success, and Leeman says he’s felt pressure to conform. But his more rat-like sensibilities tell him to be free-spirited in his process; to make whatever he feels like making whenever he feels like making it, regardless of what other people want or expect.
“It all started to become more sport for me than art,” he explains, with regard to becoming established in his homeless, philanthropic art realm. “And the sport was all speaking in quantifiers: ‘what gallery do you show at? Who do you show with? How often are you showing? How much do your pieces sell for?’ But this has nothing to do with the beauty of taking off your fucking clothes and dancing” – one of Leeman’s many metaphors for art and the creative process.
Recently, Leeman has been creating free-form paintings of sea life and skulls and depictions of angelic women via blowtorch and cement. When asked what he'll do next and where his art is going, Leeman shrugs. “I’m just going to do whatever I feel. I can’t really say what I’ll do in the future. If there is one certainty, it’s that there is no destination. Life is just a constant transition and journey through the gray.”