New American Paintings/Blog


The Big Hoot: A Twisted Comic Landscape of Epic Proportions by New American Paintings

The Big Hoot is the result of a fruitfully epic collaboration between Albuquerque-based artists David Leigh and Larry Bob Phillips that draws on the persuasive power of comic-inspired renderings to convey themes of nature, violence, death, beauty and the absurd. The floor-to-ceiling fun-house of expertly rendered grotesquery not only serves to overwhelm the viewer with its vast imagery references and chaotic narrative, but it also provided a backdrop for an interactive performance by CHERYL, a four member, semi-anonymous collective based in Brooklyn, NY. Leigh and Philips spent the better part of three months cooped up in their studios working at a frantic pace to create the individual larger-than-life “pendants,” that would eventually fill the 16’ x 75’ exhibition space. Using an approach that could be considered an architect’s answer to large-scale collage making, images were painted on thin plywood veneer, cut out and stacked away in the artists’ studios. During the installation, Leigh and Phillips curated the images from their sizeable pendant archive they felt best fit the criteria of both practical and conceptual considerations. I recently had the opportunity to ask David and Larry Bob about their thoughts and process of preparing for The Big Hoot– Claude Smith, Albuquerque & Santa Fe contributor  

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David Leigh, Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013, installation view

Claude Smith: Talk a bit about the conceptual process of The Big Hoot, how did the exhibition develop over time? The Big Hoot was intended specifically as a backdrop/setting for the NYC-based experimental performance group CHERYL. How did the nature of their performances influence the type of imagery you created? Did CHERYL play any role in developing any of the content?

Larry Bob Phillips:  One thing about working with CHERYL is that they can’t be overwhelmed, so imagining The Big Hoot as an environment for CHERYL helped in a lot of ways. The CHERYLs are really free-wheeling when it comes to their work and a brainstorming session with them will leave your head spinning, so while we weren’t guided by their ideas per se we were definitely inspired. We did get to help design some costumes for the performance. We also have plans to keep augmenting and showing this body of imagery and we look forward to embracing new themes and adapting it to new environments.

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Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013; photo courtesy the artist
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David Leigh | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013; photo courtesy the artist

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CS: This isn’t the first time you both have worked together; how does this exhibition compare to past projects? You both also have experience as curators, how did that role come into play throughout the evolution of this project? Does that experience allow you to be more objective when you’re making decisions regarding your personal artistic processes?

David Leigh: This is actually the first time we’ve collaborated on an exhibition of our work, not to mention on a project of this scale. Our previous experience–running a gallery or whatever–cultivated a deep trust in one another. There wasn’t a question of what would get done…or of how good something would come off…

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Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013; photo courtesy the artist

LBP: This is by far the biggest project either of us has participated in…. which says something, but we both thought we had the right partners and I think the end product confirms that. The most important thing we have done together until now was the Donkey Gallery, which ran for four years in Albuquerque. It was a tremendous commitment in terms of time, money and energy and, after that, we knew we could count on each other’s professionalism, skills and artistic vision to take it all the way.

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David Leigh | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013; photo courtesy the artist

CS: I particularly like the notion of the individual images as architectural components and it’s quite effective in terms of conveying an environment that speaks to a theatrical set or stage. When did you arrive at the decision to cut out individual pieces as images and then reassemble them instead of painting directly on a wall?

LBP: The individual “pendants” was an innovation that I made two years ago while in residency at Recess in New York, I had contrived to paint the entire space and it went well, but was continually vexed that every change required a tedious manipulation of the background. When I was asked to curate the work onto a smaller wall at Snowy Wilderness in Brooklyn, I cherry picked and brought together a boisterous collection of pieces and knew that I’d found the right format to let the pendants really interact.

Our cloud pendants and the rocks are the only vestige of this background attitude and they do provide context even though they are mobile and independent.

One of the remarkable things I noticed is that while several individual pieces retain characteristics of your own individual styles, it’s incredibly cohesive as a whole, such that without prior exposure to your larger bodies of work, most people wouldn’t be able to tell who painted each part. Did you both have to agree on a particular technical approach or was there some collaboration with respect to arriving at a particular style?

DL: I know that for me style was a concern when the project started. I couldn’t wrap my head around how we would blend the pieces we made individually into a larger, uniform whole. But early on, there was a conversation about Harvey Kurtzman and about a black key line around each image and I was looking at Winsor McCay and Jaime Hernandez and covers of old horror comics and at some point I just embraced the idea of making singular, everyday objects that could fit against any number of other objects that either of us made or would make over the course of the project. That process freed us both to devour and reproduce a wide range of image information in the hopes that it would extend the overstimulation we wanted in the final installation.

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David Leigh, Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013, installation view
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David Leigh, Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013, installation view
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David Leigh, Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013, installation view

You both obviously had to create a serious amount of pendants to fill the space. How many did you make and how did you decide which ones to include in the final installation? Was that decision made collectively? Did this project present any unique challenges either artistically or curatorially speaking?   

DL: Other than one or two pieces, we included every pendant we made in the final installation. During that curatorial process, there were some pieces that were cut down in size or split up across the wall to establish continuity or to fill a hole or something. Materially speaking, the pieces aren’t as precious as a painting on canvas or even a drawing on paper; they were things that could be flexed and manipulated into the larger work.

The curatorial process was under a lot of pressure because we needed to build a 75-foot wall and install all of the pendants in a cohesive way in less than a day and a half. Add to that that we didn’t really plan how everything would be laid out prior to our install dates. That sort of pressure seemed to feed into the intuitive development of the project and allowed us to feel our way through until we had pieces that were stuck in the right places.

LBP: We both trust one another and can express ourselves honestly so there is lots of deferring to the other with an occasional flash of inspiration which almost always is needed. David is cool, savvy and compassionate which makes him literally the best person in the world to work with.

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David Leigh, Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013, installation view
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David Leigh, Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013, installation view

You both have done your fair share of large murals and challenging installations. How does The Big Hoot measure up in terms of pushing/testing/reconsidering your respective approaches to painting? 

DL: Most of our previous projects had to be done in days or, at the most, weeks. For The Big Hoot, we had about 3 months to complete the images, which kept the energy pretty high in the studio. The problem with shorter installations is you tend to work against physical limits in an acute way. Your mind and body are stressed against the deadline for the piece. This project allowed us to work prodigiously without so much of that intense physical trade-off. Now, we’re thinking ahead about how to manage future installations or perhaps residencies where we can focus on developing more images as well as building deeper relationships between the finished pieces.

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David Leigh, Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013, installation view; photo courtesy of the artists
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David Leigh, Larry Bob Phillips | The Big Hoot, latex on panel, 2013, installation view; photo courtesy of the artists

Larry Bob Phillips hails from Amarillo, TX. His work has been exhibited at the Houston Arts League, Recess Activities (NYC), Good/Bad Art Collective (Brooklyn), and NMSU Art Museum, among others. He has participated in residencies at Djerassi and Roswell, holds a BFA from Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA from the University of New Mexico. He currently teaches studio and art history at Central New Mexico University in Albuquerque http://www.larrybobphillips.com

David Leigh was born in Forth Worth, Texas. After receiving a BA in art history from Arizon State University, he attended the University of New Mexico, where he received a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in painting and drawing. He has shown his work internationally, most recently as part of Aqua Art Miami with Eileen Braziel, Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque, SITE Santa Fe and the DLI Museum and Durham Art Gallery in Durham, UK. http://d-leigh.com

Claude Smith is an arts administrator, educator living and working in Albuquerque, NM.

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