A circumcised penis with breasts and wings perches on a pencil above the words “2017 the year you decided to become a political artist.” Made to resemble an eagle, with skin the color of raw chicken, this strange, amusing creation figures in the square-foot drawing titled Reporting Live From the Trenches, by the artist David Leggett. The piece sums up Leggett’s output and attitude: keenly aware of the world and quick with a punch line. And his work is finally finding a wider audience—people hungry for a smart, fresh take on our trying times.
“I wouldn’t outright call myself a political artist, but there are some very political things that go on in my work,” Leggett says. “It’s just the climate—people are responding to that more now. I’ve seen other artists after Trump won, saying, ‘We need to get back to work.’ I’m like, ‘What were you doing before?’ ” He laughs. “Whatever you make, it’s still your duty to be involved in some sort of way.”
Leggett, 36, is a striking presence. He’s six-foot-four and solidly built, with an easygoing and affable demeanor. The sense of humor that comes across in his work is palpable in interactions with him—it’s not a put-on. The same is true of his pop culture references: he repeatedly uses the likeness of characters like black Bart Simpson or Fat Albert because they’re part of his personal history; he grew up with them. Leggett mines everything for inspiration, from art history books to racist Americana to social media. He readily embraces the lowbrow as well as the dark corners of the Internet, frequently taking screenshots or making notes in his phone of phrases that stick out to him. Beth Marrier, his partner of five and a half years, says he loves to read the comments section of articles. “He reads the trash that everyone says to avoid,” she says. “When it’s dark out, he’ll start reading just the scum of the Internet.”
Leggett has a knack for bringing to light that specific kind of murkiness, the things people say when they think no one’s listening. He was recently the subject of a solo exhibition, “Their Funeral, Our Dance Floor,” at Shane Campbell’s downtown gallery; a follow-up show, “David Leggett: Drawings,” is currently on display until July 15 at the same location. “He has his finger on all sorts of problematic relationships, without passing easy, direct judgment on anything,” says Eric Ruschman, Shane Campbell’s director. “He uses humor to draw you in, so you’re laughing, and then you’re sort of implicated.”
Leggett is from Springfield, Massachusetts, and attended Sacred Heart, a private Catholic school, but says he “lived in a really bad neighborhood.” That socioeconomic disparity left a deep impression. As a kid, the sunny side of life, such as Disney movies and Sesame Street, felt “kind of forced,” he says. “I had that contrast of this wholesome world that doesn’t exist anywhere where I live.”
His neighborhood, though much changed today, was affected by the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. Leggett remembers daily violence and drug dealing. His parents countered that by sending him to a comic book illustration class at the Art Institute of Boston; his high school, Springfield Central High, also had a decent arts curriculum. Leggett knows he’s lucky. “There’s so many people who I grew up with, or played Little League with, went to Sunday school with, who are dead or in jail,” he says.
After high school, Leggett pursued his early interest in art and earned his BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. In college, he discovered and was inspired by the work of the Imagists and Kerry James Marshall. “The Internet was much different from what it is today,” Leggett says. The library had just one book on Jim Nutt, and a dated one at that. As an illustration major, Leggett found the surrealist, subversive work of the Imagists appealing. “It was stuff that I really related to because it was pop art, but clearly they were into popular culture,” Leggett says. “It wasn’t a cold read like Warhol. I was like, ‘I really want to go out here [to Chicago] and meet them.’ ” It was easier than he thought—shortly after graduating, in the summer of 2003, he moved to Chicago. “LA or New York artists, there’s no chance you’re going to meet them,” he says. “I think Ed Paschke still had his telephone number in the phone book.”
Leggett began taking classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and eventually enrolled in a master’s program there in painting and drawing. At the time, he was mostly drawing; for years he was skeptical of painting, never feeling successful when working on canvas. “Every time I tried to paint it just seemed like . . . failure,” he says. He finished the program in 2007, and about a year after that his practice started to change. He was invited to participate in a group show at the Hyde Park Art Center, “Disinhibition: Black Art and Blue Humor,” and impulsively decided to make paintings for it. The positive response to these pieces encouraged him to concentrate more seriously on the medium.
These days some of Leggett’s most poignant works are paintings. In “Their Funeral, Our Dance Floor” the vast main gallery was filled with them, mostly done on squares or circles, some as wide as seven feet. In Get in the House Once the Streetlights Come On, one of the pieces on display, three disembodied faces take up most of the orange and green canvas. A white man who distinctly resembles Darren Wilson, the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, floats on the right side; next to him is a black man’s face made of felt; and above them both is a cartoonish black man whose mouth is open, as if in shock. Felt letters spell out good cop bad cop at the top in red, green, and black, the colors of the pan- African flag.
This past January, Leggett quit a part-time gig teaching classes for the Art Institute online and began working as an artist full-time. His success has helped his parents, whom he describes as very religious, understand his decision to be an artist. “The fact that I went off to college, I got a master’s degree, that alone is impressive to them,” he says. Leggett still seems impressed by this, calling the work “a luxury.” “I almost want to click my heels together,” he says. “It’s very exciting. I don’t think it will ever not be exciting to do this stuff.”
Marrier says that although Leggett’s only recently been able to work on his art full-time, it’s been a priority for him as long as she’s known him. “Art is like taking your vitamins or brushing your teeth,” she says of his practice. “It happens every single day in some capacity.” In fact, it was this devotion to his craft that initially sparked her interest. The couple met online, and though they were both eager to meet in person for the first time, he scheduled the date a few weeks away, she says, because he’d already planned to be in the studio. “David won’t compromise his art practice for anyone,” Marrier says. “That was really attractive.”
Always pushing himself to try new things, Leggett’s practice has expanded to include more craft materials, and he sometimes works with ceramics. In “Black Drawls,” a solo exhibition that opened in November at Gallery 400, he and gallery director Lorelei Stewart decided to include an assortment of materials that inspired him, including cultural ephemera and works by other artists, like Kara Walker and Jim Nutt. An original 90s-era black Bart Simpson T-shirt, purchased from eBay, hung on one wall. Also included were selections from Leggett’s personal collection of pop culture memorabilia, like a McDonald’s Hamburglar figurine, and racist Americana, such as a set of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Moses salt-and-pepper shakers. He frequently scours flea markets and thrift stores for such items. Leggett’s interested in their lineage. “Things never really go away,” he says. “They’ll just get cleaned up and made more polished.”
On a recent trip to Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Flea Market, he picked up a COLORED ONLY placard and a few other artifacts for his collection. “When you go to flea markets, there’s going to be the racist booth full of stuff,” he says, laughing. At one booth, he saw something he’d never before encountered at a flea market: shackles. “With the Americana stuff, you can see how, through history, it’s been changed,” he continues. “But you see something that was bondage and torture . . . ” He trails off. By and large, white people in America get to choose whether or not they want to confront our country’s racist past and present. Black people don’t get such a choice. “For me, I don’t want to forget that this happened,” he says of his Americana collection. By expertly weaving this history into his work, he makes sure his viewers won’t forget it either.
“Niggas get shot everyday, B.” Leggett wrote these words with spray paint and an oil bar, in alternating colors of the rainbow, on a shiny gold canvas. Circular smudges at the bottom of the painting resemble sloppily covered-up graffiti. The words in the piece and the title, You’ll Be Alright (Elementary), echo each other, like two friends undercutting news of yet another shooting. The bright colors of the letters, the cheap gold finish, and the simple presentation could all be thought of as contradictory to the content, but for Leggett everything is calculated.
“If you’re going to make something that’s politically charged or has maybe a deeper message—having color, having humor, also craft materials, having these things is like sugar helping the medicine go down,” he says. “It makes people come closer. And sometimes people are laughing at something they probably shouldn’t have laughed at because it’s almost like camouflage.”
The importance of humor is apparent in Leggett’s work and life. He often tries to find the joke in any given situation. He told me that criticisms barely register for him. “Keep it moving,” he tells himself. Leggett frequently cites his appreciation of classic stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, whom he’ll often listen to in the studio. Pryor notably never shied away from politics, or the horrors of his own life, including being sexually molested as a child and becoming addicted to crack cocaine. Nothing was off-limits; and yet he always had his audience laughing. “That’s what I basically hope I can do with my work,” Leggett says. “I’m not sure if I always accomplish that, but I hope.” v
“David Leggett: Drawings” Through 7/15: Tue-Sat 11 AM-6 PM, Shane Campbell Gallery, 2021 S. Wabash, 312-226-2223, shanecampbellgallery.com, free.