Steve Locke: The first works I had seen of yours were the Invisible Man series and I've seen a few of the fighting performances. They are quite brutal (I'm thinking especially of Bull in the Ring.) The sheer athleticism of those performances meshes uncomfortably with the raw physical fact of them. In watching your work, I am always amazed at the effect it has on the spectators. I have seen you turn a room of well-heeled art world types into a mass of people screaming for blood despite themselves. The work, sited as it is in (sometimes literal) arenas of masculine performance permits a certain level of spectatorial pleasure in watching the violence meted out at you, or rather at your "El C" persona. It was fascinating to see people forced to deal with how much they wanted to see you hurt, especially in the performance where the act of failure or loss is involved. The work goes on a journey of display and bravado to times of bone crushing defeat and impotence. Unlike Matthew Barney, whose masculine performances seem theatrical (and thus, unreal) to me, and unlike Bob Flanagan, whose masochism seemed rooted in exercising some control over his body, your work seems to inhabit and utilize masculinity as a site of investigation of personal and public limits and social desires. Sports are one of the few social spaces with a prevalence of black and brown male bodies. These are examined and exchanged, and are cheered for their for power and discarded when they are no longer able to perform. Which brings me to my question:
How does your work affirm and critique the social desire for the evaluation, elevation, and destruction of the black/brown male body?
Shaun Leonardo: Most interviewers do not have the balls, so to speak, to ask me such a poignant question, so I promise to give you an equally real answer.
A journalist once attempted to compare my work to that of Matthew Barney's. At which point I felt I could not submit to her line of questioning. "Fundamentally, my work cannot be compared to Mathew Barney's." "Why not?" she asked. "Because I am not white..."
That is to say that I acknowledge that the exhibition of my body, in sport or otherwise, plays within a system and cycle of (mis)representation that has and continues to use, ridicule, and distort the image of the black body. My body, or at least the perception of my body, is not always my own.
It is not a coincidence that I've chosen the spectacle of fighting as one of my primary vehicles of expression - the sweat of the dark-skinned, male body cloaked under the suggestion of "athleticism;" this body beaten and battered under the suggestion of "aggression;" and the animal behavior of this body (I've wrestled in a cage haven't I?) under the suggestion of "intensity."
As you stated so well, I take on the uncomfortable reality that within the span of 10 min., 1 hr, 3hrs.... I can provide people a hero, only to experience them wish for that hero to be torn down. We are ingrained with the desire to see the black athlete achieve champion-hood, but are equally thrilled to see that same person self-destruct. What we do not honestly accept is that we all have a role in creating that narrative – he can't win, win... keep this spic/nigga boy running. Sometimes, a portion of the audience wishes for the hero to be upheld or reborn, because, I suspect, many of us are exhausted of witnessing (societally-induced) failure.
I am most successful when I am able to have the audience note their own place within the performance - the how and why they've handed themselves over to such a spectacle. We all know how to participate, whether consciously or not, in the metaphorical and literal arena of violence. This is precisely why it is so necessary for me to disrupt the performance at its very end – to remove the mask and reveal my humanity. It is only then that I may reclaim my identity, and also only then when I may, in utmost hope, reach my objective of having the viewer observe him/herself.
The 'evaluation' aspect of your question excites me most but in an indirect sense. It is no accident that following much of my performance work, members of the audience (if he/she does not have the intention of trying to sleep with me) have a difficult time approaching me. Is it that they are embarrassed of what they have subjected themselves to or the manner in which they behaved? Or maybe, immediately following a performance, the veil is not yet pulled from their eyes—I continue to be a mirror to their desires and prejudices and, in that, they are too frightened to confront themselves.
Shaun Leonardo is a Brooklyn-based artist from Queens, New York City. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has received awards from Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture; The New York Studio School; Lower Manhattan Cultural Council; Art Matters; New York Foundation for the Arts; McColl Center for Visual Art; Franklin Furnace; and The Jerome Foundation. His work has been presented internationally with recent solo exhibitions in New York City. He was included inRadical Presence NY: Black Performance in Contemporary Artat the Studio Museum in Harlem. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 28 February 2014, he will perform One-on-Oneswith two members of the Harvard Crimson Football Team.Images and videos of his work can be found online at elcleonardo.com.