The imagery found in David Leggett’s art is culled from a myriad of popular culture sources. Cartoon and comic book characters, celebrities, and toys are all enlisted to challenge hierarchies of power through examining race, racism, art history, hip-hop, political movements, and sexuality head on and with wry wit. These tactics of subversion are on full display throughout the works in Leggett’s first large-scale solo exhibition Black Drawls.
Gallery 400’s communications intern Jae Hwan Lim interviewed Leggett about his pop culture inspirations, his personal collection, and his opinions on the prevalence of biased representations in mass media.
Many of the works in Black Drawls reference well-known cartoon characters—from the Simpsons, Fat Albert, and Grimace, to Casper the friendly ghost—and I’m curious about your own memories of encountering these characters in your youth and what they now represent as characters or figures in your artwork?
Many of the characters mentioned have a wholesome quality. I went to Catholic school as a child and those cartoon characters were very beloved by the nuns and staff of the school and were often shown to us as a special reward for good behavior. Old animation interests me as well as its history. Companies like Filmation and Hanna Barbera were a big part of my childhood and I still watch their cartoons often. What those images represent to me is joy. They are familiar and when used in artwork can have many interpretations. With the images being familiar the viewer may be more inclined to give the artwork a closer look. It can be jarring when a familiar image is assigned a new meaning.
Do you see messages of racism, sexism or homophobia in popular media like comics or cartoons as potentially more alarming and perverse than everyday encounters because it comes in the form of easily digestible, serial entertainment?
In past popular media I do. I wouldn’t know where to look today for such things. I feel the lack of representation is more of the problem today. The cartoons and comic books of the past are charged with many stereotypes. It’s hard to tell how much effect they have had on older generations and have they been passed down to the children of those generations. What interests me the most about past representations of different races and cultures was how clear the main goal was to make those different from the European model seem less than human.
How do you think about the overlaps, disconnects, or complicated territory between the public’s perception of one kind of group through news media and that of popular entertainment like television, magazines, or the internet?
As I mentioned before I think the lack of representation is one of the main causes of problem. When you are used to seeing one group as inherently good and the others as evil. When your only interaction with another group of people is media instead of an actual interaction you are bound to have a lack of understanding.
For you, is appropriation a way of rewriting the narrative of a character or reclaiming what they might represent? Do you have any parameters on how you will manipulate a character or what context you will use them in?
I wouldn’t say it is reclaiming as much as it is parody. Parody is what I enjoyed about Mad Magazine as a child. Remixing images and character to tell another narrative. I turned the 1980’s movie Teen Wolf into an alt right conservative and McDonalds Grimace into an antagonist for the black community. Those things make sense to me. I couldn’t tell why assigning those identities with those characters happens. It just does.
What implicit criteria do you have as a collector? And how do elements of your collections enter your artwork?
I’ve been a collector of objects/things for as long as I can remember. I’ve collected comic books, trading cards, and toys as a child. As an adult I’m attracted to some of the items that I once owned as a child and no longer have. The McDonald’s happy meals toys are what my mother would buy when I was young. I also collect artwork from mostly friends, books, and racist Americana ephemera. I wouldn’t say there is criteria for what I collect. It is mostly items that I am attracted to. Those attractions range from humor to nostalgia. My art practice is steeped in my personality. I believe that is something an artist shouldn’t avoid when making their work. It’s natural to me that my collection/interests enter my work. I’m aware there is an idiocratic quality to that thinking. I do not have a hierarchy in what enters my work. It is just what interests me.