Staging artistic wrestling events in full Luchador regalia against invisible opponents, taking on semi-pro football players in full pads during mock bull-in-the-ring practice drills and painting larger-than-life self portraits of himself as a superhero are just a few examples of the creative work of artist Shaun “El C” Leonardo. If you’re looking for a theme, know this — it’s all about being a man. Specifically, Leonardo’s work consistently raises questions about hyper-masculine figures — ranging from superheroes and professional athletes to historical figures and even charismatic family members — and the roles they play in shaping notions of manhood. We caught up with Brooklyn-based artist from Queens and former college football player before his upcoming show at KETEL ONE® Vodka’s artist studio at Art Basel Miami 2013 to gain some insight on his work and his thoughts on masculinity today.
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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. A series of drawings based on video stills from The Arena, the performance I will reprise for De Nolet presented by Ketel One® Vodka in Miami. I am feeling very good about the drawings. The performance, on the other hand, feels quite daunting. For the piece, my opponent, “Firebird” Jorge Santi, and I will perform a wrestling match reminiscent of a Greco-Roman style known as “shoot” wrestling. Playing around with certain aspects of the environment, I purposefully intend to skew the audience’s expectations and perceptions of this kind of spectacle — one of the main elements being that, as a video backdrop, percussionists Craig Hauschildt, Alec Warren, and Blake Wilkins of Musiqa, an amazing orchestra from Houston, will provide improvised “music” that mirrors the action of the match.
They are our contemporary deities. They are a reflection of our desires and fears, our ambitions and our failures.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Art and Artists — work that doesn’t take what is around us for granted…always asking questions.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Sun and Steel by Yukio Mishima.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. Mom’s home cooking with a nice glass of red wine. I’m sure I could come up with something more elaborate but it just comes off as pretentious to me.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. Thank you.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As someone who contributed realness.
Q. How did you discover your artistic potential? When did you realize it was a passion you wanted to dedicated your life to pursuing?
A. I don’t know that there was ever a choice made or another option, for that matter. What is consistently a choice, however, is remaining to be an artist. It is certainly fulfilling, but also very challenging to follow your passion.
Q. The popularity of superheros, which are common subject in your work, seems to be at an all-time high these days. What is it about these characters that makes them so appealing to society at large?
A. They are our contemporary deities. They are a reflection of our desires and fears, our ambitions and our failures. We all want heroes in our lives, especially at times when the outside world seems chaotic.
Q. Do you have a favorite hero of your own? If so, what separates him from others in your mind?
A. I had many…in terms of popular culture. But what separated me from them was their whiteness. Often times I feel my work is a response to not viewing hero figures in my likeness as a child — the racial/cultural exclusion and stereotypes present in popular culture growing up.
Q. Common real-world caricatures of hyper-masculinity such as luchador wrestlers and football players are another popular subject in your art. How have your high school and college experiences as an athlete influenced this work?
A. I played American football for 10 years, including a college career. That athletic past informs my work both in its practice and content. That dual experience of being an artist and athlete is important to my approach. I immerse myself into the worlds of those idols I have a fascination with in order to truly know my subject matter, whether it’s by training as a luchador, football player, bullfighter, or mixed martial artist. I attempt to become these icons as a way of actually understanding what it means to represent the hero figure.
Q. Expectations and definitions of masculine behavior differ across cultures. Latino machismo is one such variety you’ve explored often. How do you think it compares to other concepts of “manliness” throughout the world?
A. I only explore notions of masculinity that “belong” to me — ones that influenced my own perceptions of what it means to be a man. In that way I feel that my investigation is sincere from its outset. I do, however, believe there are certain belief systems that carry across many countries. “Macho” translates across many cultures.
Q. Drawing, painting, sculpture, performance art — you seem to enjoy dabbling across artistic mediums and styles. Is there actually a format you prefer? Why is it important for you to experiment so widely across forms?
A. I am project-driven, so the content of the work comes first. I then execute whatever the work calls for. But the various artistic mediums provide a personal balance. The different approaches satisfy the different aspects of my personality, I suppose. Without the solace of the studio practice I couldn’t turn it up in the ring.
Q. It’s just our interpretation, but most of your work seems intent on mocking the ridiculous extremes of masculinity at large in the world in order to expose their role as flawed expectation setters for the average guy. Do you think these male examples are as influential as they once were?
A. Ridiculous — maybe. Flawed — absolutely. But that is only half of the point. I believe if my work has any resonance it is due to its ability to impart both critique and admiration. This contradiction is at the heart of my questioning. We are imperfect. We try on different, often prescribed, identities as a way to find our place in society. The examples I use are specific to my upbringing but can be interpreted universally. Are these examples as influential today? I will let you and your readers decide.
Q. Are any new examples or trends emerging with perhaps more positive and realistic takes on what being a man is really about?
A. Just the opposite…I feel one only has to look at the political landscape, bad reality tv, or music videos to witness a continuous resurgence of male bravado, or what I like to call the “cowboy-ism” of male society.
Q. You are frequently the subject of your own art, standing in as a place holder for the male ideal. How do you keep in shape to play this part?
A. If I am standing in for the male ideal it is to communicate the sense of failure that follows. My work is an attempt to question and reconfigure the concept of hyper-masculinity, and discuss the inevitable sense of defeat experienced when chasing that ideal. With that being said, my work is not ironic. I have every intention of fulfilling the potential of these characters. In preparation I train, follow a nutrition plan, and generally isolate myself socially…all toward mental focus and physical performance. When I step on that mat for De Nolet I have every intention of performing to the best of my ability.
Shaun will be reprising his performance piece The Arena at De Nolet presented by Ketel One® Vodka on December 5th during Art Basel Miami