Artist's Statement: Hugh Leeman on His New Hawk and Rat Art, His Work With Homeless People, and Why Traveling to India Was So Surreal and Satisfying

Categories: Art, Interview

It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.

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Photo by Shaun Roberts, courtesy of Hugh Leeman
Love and Luck at SOMArts

Hugh Leeman is one of San Francisco's best-known street artists. His wheatpaste posters of homeless people have adorned San Francisco buildings and other public spaces for the last five years, and in 2011, he won one of SF Weekly's Masterminds grants for emerging artists. In 2013, he was invited to do a major mural at South by Southwest. He's also exhibited a major new work at SOMArts. Leeman, 29, spoke to SF Weekly about his new work (which features a hawk and a rat), the South by Southwest festival, appearing in an HBO documentary, and why he's rethinking his work putting up posters of his homeless art.

Q: Your hawk-and-rat work, which is called Love and Luck, also features Arabic writing. It's such a departure from your homeless work - or is it? How did this work come about?
A: It started when this guy who has a house on Nob Hill told me, "Come to my place. I want you to paint my living room." I got there, and he said, "I see those homeless guys you've painted - it would be really cool if you did my whole living room this way." I said, "I'm flattered, but I don't really do that anymore. I don't know what I want to do." And he was adamant. And I said, "If I can do whatever I want, without any feedback from you - and you can't be in the room with me - then I'll do it." He sat there for a minute and then he said, "F------ eh; let's do this." The first night I got there to paint, I'm sitting in the room and he's elsewhere in his house, and I thought, "I have no idea what I'm doing to do." So I turned off the lights and started dancing. I needed to feel some sort of energy and some sort of vulnerability to myself. And I started painting. It turned into white on black. The hawk came out of that. It was wonderful.

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Photo by Shaun Roberts, courtesy of Hugh Leeman
Love and Luck at SOMArts
Q: And then you repeated the work at SOMArts?
A: Eight or ten months before that, the curator (at SOMArts) had said, 'Would you like to do this?' And I said, 'Sure.' I described the project in detail, and of course it changed heavily three times. I said I wanted to do something with how I see myself creatively. I see myself as being very tight and restrictive and neurotic within my art. And sometimes - boom; something happens. Two or three weeks before the show, I thought to myself, "You're kind of doing this new thing with the white and black. I'd like to do something with that." I recently discovered the darkness, literally. I'd just start sitting in my bathroom and turning off all the lights - it's pure darkness. You can't see your hand in front of your face. It's amazing. I said to myself, "You've done all these projects with Blue (a street musician) over the years. You've painted him and drawn him." It's been literal. I paint him because I like him. So I thought, "Talk about communication." My relationship with Blue is based on communication. "Paint a portrait of your relationship." About a week before the show, my father contacted me to say, "I'm coming out to San Francisco." I hadn't seen my father in years. And he's coming on the day of installation. It was a bit of a pickle. He texted me to say, "I already bought an airplane ticket." I was already on this idea of talking about a portrait of my relationship with Blue, and how that has evolved over the years - and the complexity of it, and quite frankly the ups and downs of it. There's no better person to paint this portrait of a relationship with than your father. That's what the painting is. At SomaARTs, I poured 350 pounds of salt in front of it on the floor, and that created the setting.

Q: Talk about the Arabic writing. Why is that there?
A: I was looking for things from my past, including vocabulary words. I wanted to go back to the essence of my idea. Instead of saying what do you want to do, find out what you are actually doing. And that was "communication." I wanted to do it in a way that was profound, intimate, and vulnerable. I wanted to do that but I wanted to do that, but I didn't feel comfortable having people know exactly what I was talking about. How do I show that aesthetically? It's an imagined font. It's how I represent the idea of communication and miscommunication, and the openness and interpretation of an audience. You look at it and think, "What does this mean? What does this say?" And you take and project your own inner feelings onto it. The first time I did any of the writing was in this guy's living room. A week or two later, I'm at South by Southwest. There, I printed off the reverse of a stencil. I'd traced around the letters on the wall in the living room. I printed them off 6- and 7-feet long. But the wind was blowing, and I tore them all up. I did them one letter at a time. And I had 40 hours to paint the mural. I finished the mural with 40 minutes to go; that's when my ride showed up for the airport.

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Photo by Hugh Leeman, courtesy of the artist
The street musician Blue in front of a work by Hugh Leeman
Q: Blue, who you've worked with for a few years, attended the SOMArts opening - but just barely.
A: I've done a number of projects with Blue. He always shows up. He's seldom on time. That's fine. And I get to SOMArts and it starts at 6 o'clock, and 6 turns to 7, and Blue hasn't shown up. He told me over and over that he would. And finally he walks in the door and I said, "Thank you so much for showing up. What's going on?" And he had just gotten out of jail; he had citations in his pocket. He hadn't eaten all day. He'd been taken into custody the night before. SOMArts was convenient, because he had just left 850 Bryant, and he walked to SOMArts. I got him something from the food truck outside. I recorded a conversation at the end of the opening with Blue and I, and one with my father and I. I asked them what they thought about the portrait. Blue paused for a minute, and then he said, "You know, man. Honestly. My dad always told me: You got nothing when you come into this world, Blue, and you'll have nothing when you leave this world. But in between now and then, if you have nothing else, you should always have your word. But there's nothing people can hold against you if you're a man who holds your word." It really spoke to me. We live in an age when the wind changes direction and someone can't show up to something. And there he was. He did it simply because he said he would. The idea that he traced it back to his father, and that the project was essentially about a fatherly-son relationship, was great. My father didn't know what was going on until I picked him up at the airport.

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Photo by Hugh Leeman, courtesy of the artist
Hugh Leeman's work at Hyde and Ellis
Q: The last time I saw your work was a few months ago at the former UC Extension building on Laguna and Haight, where there's a poster of Benz, the goateed, baseball-cap-wearing man with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Are you still doing random posterizing around San Francisco?
A: I haven't in some time. The work is beautiful and it's challenging. At the time, I was very much in love with the idea. It was less the idea of street art and wheat-pasting and putting up posters and more advertising. I started out as a kind of one-man corporation. I thought, "If I'm one-man corporation trying to get my message out there, what's the best way to do that?" And I decided, "You can't always be putting up more, more and more. You need to get other people involved." And I tried to adopt theories from other companies, which is that you give away stuff for free on your website, you give away stuff on the street. It gives people an ideal, and make them feel part of something. That's the idea behind marketing. You don't just wear Nike shoes; you wear what Michael Jordan wears, and what he slam-dunks in. My idea was to create a feeling and create a product behind that feeling. And the product was if you don't go to my site and download the poster for free, if you don't find me on the street and get one, then you can buy one through my site. Or you can get a t-shirt. The idea was that the profit from this product all went back into the advertising campaign. The idea was: What if the consumption and the communication in this marketing and branding campaign was not about selling you a Nike tennis show, but about the idea of empathy and compassion for someone else, who otherwise might seem inferior to you in society. But my life has changed so much in the last handful of months that it's not something I'm doing. I've stopped eating meat. I've stopped eating dairy. I've stopped eating sugar. I started meditating again. I started swimming in the ocean on a regular basis without a wetsuit. I'm starting to learn to surf. I stopped reading the Internet altogether. I just got a library card, instead of buying books on Amazon. With all of that, I feel guilty and awkward quantifying it. Quantification is absurd. I started feeling this when I first started swimming, and people would say, "How long did you swim for?" I had no idea. "Well, how far did you swim?" I had no idea. I don't take my phone with me. I just know that if feels. I've come to find that it's very inefficient to talk about how something feels, no matter how profound that feeling is. It's more efficient to use numbers, like "I swam for 20 minutes." In the last month, I went down to Costa Rica and started surfing. I didn't check my email or anything electronic. And when I got back, I found that someone had sent me a message that said, "Hey, I saw that you're in Costa Rica. I have a mural set up for you. We'd love to have you come by and paint whatever you want." But by not interacting electronically during the time I was in Costa Rica, I discovered something I hadn't felt since boyhood. It felt so good. Would I have taken away from that to have done the mural? And the answer was, "No." Since I've come back, I have the smartest home phone. I don't take my smart phone with me unless I'm going to meet someone at a specific time and they want me to call them beforehand. All these things make a big difference. I feel so much different.

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Courtesy of Hugh Leeman
Hugh Leeman's poster work featuring Benz

Q: When I spoke with you two years ago, attorneys representing the Dreamworks movie studio asked your permission to include your street posters in a scene of a Meryl Streep movie that was being filmed in Los Angeles. What ever happened with that?
A: To the best of my knowledge, the movie has never come out. In regards to postering that I didn't know about: The artist JR did this very large participatory project, and anyone would wanted to participate could. I did this project with Blue and Bernard, and they did all this postering on a wall at Hyde and Ellis. It was very rewarding. That was about two and a half years ago. The other day, a friend texted me to say he was watching JR's new documentary, and it was produced by HBO, and that I was in it. I'm narrating this scene of my thing. They had taken footage of the video I had produced. I had a videographer come and create a video of that day. I have not scene the documentary. I have not made any effort to. When my friend first told me this, I said, "That's great. I'll go check this out." But then I started thinking, "The reason you'd see it is because it's essentially ego-soothing. It says, "Hey, I achieved some level of success because this world-renowned artist put in footage of me talking about my project on this HBO documentary." Then I thought, "This is the same psychological mechanism of when someone says something negative or when you're turned down or rejected and you feel terrible - as if your career is over." It's the snake, if you will. It seems like it's your friend. So, I haven't seen the documentary. Another time, someone approached me at a show and said, "I was watching this reality show on Bravo, they shot a fashion scene on Wooster Street in Manhattan." I had just postered that part of Wooster Street the day or two before. So they had this fashion show in front of my street posters. And then what happened is DKNY had rights to the show, and so in one of their ads, they used my guy with the Yankees cap. At the time, I thought it was exactly what I wanted - getting other people to use this for you. But I don't know if it's fair to pat yourself on the back from these ideas. If it's going to be genuine and profound and indepth and insightful, these things are illegitimate. To pat yourself on the back for them is a disservice to yourself. The feeling you went into these things with need to be very genuine, as opposed to, "I'm the guy who did such-and-such." You start to accept these projections of yourself. What comes to you is success artistically, but it's defined aesthetically by what we call "style." I don't think it's natural to produce the same body of work over and over again for years - at least for me personally.

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Photo by Hugh Leeman, courtesy of the artist
Hugh Leeman's work in Varanasi, India
Q: A few years ago, you visited India, and put up your posters in the city of Varanasi. What was that like?
A: It was something else. I got to Varanasi during the day. I couldn't check into my place for another hour, so I went on a walk. The experience was like a low-grade acid trip. I didn't know what was going on, but something was going on. There were monks walking by in groups. There were men bobbing up and down in the river. There were men smoking hash by the river banks, with their faces painted white. There were bodies being incinerated in fires. There were monkeys on the edges of things. When I put up my posters with paste, there were birds coming up to me and eating the excess paste that fell to the ground. And there were monkeys that were coming up and kind of scaring me. There's chanting in the distance. I felt out of place. I did that the day before Holi, which is a celebration of color, and a madhouse celebration, where everyone throws color at each other. I was out at 5 a.m. There were other posters on the walls, advertising what I presume were Bollywood movies. Not long after I came back from India, I saw Blue, and he said a tourist stopped him at the Powell cable car turnaround, and had bought a t-shirt from my site of him playing harmonica. And when that person was in India, he had someone take his picture wearing that shirt with the Ganges river behind him. And I thought that was really cool. Blue was in India twice.

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