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Interview by artist JE Simpson
Lionize exhibition review by Kiera Charbonneau
Leo Krukowski, Lionize
Offsite Gallery and Cafe, Toronto, January 6th - February 12th
Contemporary Canadian artist Leo Krukowski lacks formal definition, creating works that act as a purposeful exploration and examination of material, medium and technical practices. Like most conceptually focused artists, the process of making and experimenting with the work is an imperative feature of Leo’s art. His latest exhibition, Lionize presented at OFFSITE gallery and concept space from January 6th to February 12th, is a continuation of his constantly evolving practice and creates an elaborate narrative involving the vast histories of the materials used, and the artist’s role as creator or destroyer.
All of the bronze works in the show are arranged in a horizontal line on a white wall. The viewer initially can be led to believe that they are unassuming paintings, hung in a classical or straight forward curatorial fashion. Though upon closer examination the viewer must confront that these objects are in fact not even paintings at all, but rather bronze castings of what might have been canvases. The castings carry a prominent visual weight on the wall, despite their rather small size. I had the opportunity to sit down with Leo, who allowed me to take the works of the wall and personally engage with them. Aside from being very obviously heavy in a physical sense, Leo was also quick to emphasize the emotional weight of the pieces, in terms of trauma, and extensive histories that are present in their conception. The objects themselves are an assemblage of bronze and other precious metal items the artist sources in a variety of ways, which include vintage jewellery and artifacts. By melting these items and combining them with bronze the artist actively negates their personal histories in a violent and deliberate manner. The molds for the castings are made through a lost wax technique, where the artist uses old canvases from various sources including his own paintings, to create a mold for the bronze. Leo points out the back of the works where there are visible indentations as a result of where he scraped the hot wax out of the mold by hand. He stresses the importance of this physical connection with the work, and the markings add a sort of fragility to the pieces that directly contrasts the durability or roughness of the material. The whole process deals with these complex comparisons, the fragility or ephemeral themes often associated with paintings or with precious meaningful objects is effectively destroyed in this work by the hand of the artist, whose mark is left visible like a signature on the remaining product.
Bronze as a medium seems out of context in this setting, as one might often associate it with large statues, medals, or industrial uses. Leo explains that using this medium is an intentional commentary on colonial aspects of the work. He discusses himself in terms of an appropriator, using bronze as a means to take over or rewrite the history of the objects and art involved in the works, forcing them to serve a new and very specific purpose. The viewer is also compelled to address the works as a timeline of sorts. They are dated to the years 2016 and 2017, but combine an assemblage of different art works and precious objects with their own various dates and lineages. Leo mentions how as a civilization we have yet to reach the lifespan of bronze, but in contrast we have surpassed the lifespan of oil paintings. The nature of the material itself suggests a longevity that the paintings and objects used might not have been able to afford, and in that sense the artist is preserving these items through their destruction.
This longevity is also evident in the reconstruction of the works through the tech element in the show. In the back of OFFSITE, is a video produced in collaboration with Xavier Snelgrove, a computer scientist working on a seperate project entitled Subjective Functions where he uses images of Leo’s work and a set of algorithms that learn from the images and express separate patterns in terms of the pieces in Lionize. The result is a slow moving, visually textured set of graphics that echo the subtlety of the immense work behind the bronze pieces hanging on the wall. This video aspect acts as another exploration of the art, an addition to the already lengthy and complicated narrative involved in these pieces, and in turn it preserves and evolves these objects. In this preservation though, Leo emphasizes that they still have the ability to be destroyed some day, whether it be by him or someone who purchases them, or someone who finds them years in the future. The show acts as a lengthy evolution of manipulation that both negates and embraces a history of fragility and materiality.
Interview by Ash from Grounders Magazine
read it at Grounders: https://www.groundersmagazine.com/blog/2018/1/5/conversations-leo-k
afternoon of December 22, 2016 at OFFSITE.
edited for brevity by Ash & for clarity by Leo
Lovely to meet you. I’m Ash. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself before we get into your work?
Likewise. Thank you. I’m Leo.
Right now, I’m sitting in a place called OFFSITE Concept Space (867 Dundas West, Toronto) where I will be having an exhibition from the sixth of January until the middle of February. The open invitation will be on my website at www.leokru.com and that is the most important thing to know about me - right here, right now.
Will pieces be on sale as well?
All part of Lionize?
There will be one or two other things included, but it will all about Lionize. Right now I’m speaking with a computer scientist named Xavier Snelgrove. We’re working on making a procedurally generated series of short videos based on my pieces - based on components that are extracted from my photos and analyzed by computer.
[note: Since the interview, Xavier has contributed a video experiment called Subjective Functions x Lionize. Calder Ross, the curator and director of OFFSITE, has also contributed an installation based on Lionize.]
What do you mean by procedurally?
It means algorithmically generated. So, we will feed images of Lionize through a program by Xavier called Subjective Functions which will develop, through viewing them them, a language. Sometimes there are patterns of light and dark, sometimes there are dots of green, sometimes there is a fancy border... It will look at all these traits as components of the entity it is looking at, make a language based on them, and express sentences in that language. But, the way this program speaks is in images; so, as sentences, it might create images and pieces in this series that don’t actually exist, or something entirely different. For example, we may ask it to interpret the Mona Lisa in that language developed from my work.
Do you think it would be possible for any of these languages to be robust enough to create useful or relevant images?
I think technology is much more useful than art as a baseline. It’s not really about usefulness generally, it’s about exploration in the same way that Lionize is an exploration of what a painting is, what an image is, what bronze is, and what history and art are. Because these all contribute to the materiality of the project. The videos that Xavier is producing are treating data and information as materials.
So, coming back to Lionize, what is the process?
For those of you who are not sitting with us right now, this is one of the pieces from the series. It is the eighth piece. It’s called Unseeing. This is what it sounds like [at this point, Leo raps the piece with his knuckles. It sounds like a brass gong]. This is the remnant of the investment, which was used to produce the second piece in the series, called Self Portrait. The process I am using is an adaptation of the Lost Wax Process, which is about 4500 years old and, allegedly, invented by the Prince Sennacherib of Assyria.
The process: you make a mold of an object, you pour wax into the mold, you remove that wax and cover it in ceramic, you melt the wax out through a hole, pour bronze into the hole, and then break off the ceramic once it cools and hardens.
This is part of the mold that was facing the painting, so this is the texture of the second piece.
[note: Leo is referring to a fragment of shell material from the casting process of Lionize]
What is the wire for? [referring to a wire mesh embedded in the shell material]
When you pour in the bronze there is a thermal shock to the shell which can crack it or warp it. As the bronze cools it contracts which can warp its shape. This wire is to add strength against unpredictable tensions.
Are you working with multiple people to produce this series?
Right now, I am working with a company called ArtCast based in Georgetown. The owner is named Marcus Knoespel, and he’s doing a lot of the work directly with me. I’ve worked with others as well. ArtCast is a really good company.
On your website, you mentioned that most of your work is exploratory. What have you learned in your exploration through Lionize?
It’s hard to put into words. I’ve learned a lot about death, and the ends of things. About half of the paintings I used for this are destroyed in the process - and, they are not my paintings with the exception of one of the recent ones. So, I am learning what it feels like to destroy something very personal to someone else to achieve some kind of ideal – which is something happens all the time to people who are hurt or abused or exploited.
I’ve learned a lot about appropriation. I was more concerned about that at first. I am less concerned about it now. I’ve learned that for me, the actual sensation of appropriation requires assuming the identity of someone else, which I am not doing. I am very firmly seated as the person who is making these sculptures, not the person who painted them. I’ve learned a lot about durability as the absence of fragility rather than as something protecting fragility. It’s been a sad and painful process. Self Portrait is from a picture someone painted of me, and it is not one of the paintings that survived. So in making this, I learned what it feels like to tear apart a portrait of my own face, and then to have it absent from the final piece as well.
How did that make you feel?
Serious. When I do things like this, it makes me want to earn the position I’m in.
When you mention durability and the feeling of destroying other people’s work. How do you feel about your work being destroyed?
Oh, it’s really hard to destroy this. The building could burn down and they’d be fine.
Do you mean physical or emotionally?
Yes. To be serious, it’s hard to destroy these because destruction is implicit in the process. When the vector you are on involves degradation anyways, the work becomes really good at absorbing abuse.
Do you keep photos of the paintings before you use them?
Is your main format normally sculpture?
No, it’s kind of new to me. The last artwork I made – you know how I said that these are made of art and history? The last artwork, using this metaphor, was made partly of privacy. I made it in secret, and lived like a monk during. About sixty people have seen it. It was a book of pictures that I made over the course of two and a half years. There was another year and a half of attempts before that. The thing I did before that was study the French painter Delacroix and make kind of mashed up copies of his pictures. Before that I mostly painted pretty birds and trees.
Did you find painting pretty birds and trees exploratory?
I didn’t necessarily have the language for it then. At the time my interest in birds, trees, and circles was that they seemed to be very open symbols. Everyone reacts to birds and trees. If you read anything that comes from a place of imagination, or a place of trying to understand the world, there are birds and trees in all of them, and they are always different.
I feel like you have a strong curiosity about the way the world works.
Do you have any concrete ideologies you feel strongly about?
I was raised by a very moral Catholic and someone so moral they were nonreligious, because religion wasn’t true enough... So my moral code is really important. It’s kind of where I am from. Since then, I’ve learned a lot from Daoism and, in general, a lot of pre-modern Chinese philosophies inform a lot of my perspectives. When I read Confucius, I kept agreeing with things and I feel kinship with things like that. If I have a philosophy, it is that it is worth taking things seriously without being heavy about them. Ultimately I believe in nature, whatever that is.
You mentioned, on your website, that you get more inspiration from Asian art over Western. What are the main differences between the two?
One of them is an element of service. I was sitting at this table yesterday with an artist friend of mine named Ekow Stone. He draws a lot of imagery from his roots growing up in the West Coast looking at Haida and Coast Salish art, and from his heritage in Africa – to engage with the spiritual symbols of his ancestry. We were talking about that yesterday. There’s a greater sense of seriousness as soon as you get out of the European tradition. It is about honouring things. I don’t really buy the whole European notion of art being about expressing yourself. I don’t feel creative when I make work. It doesn’t feel like something I made. I’m not very expressive in that way. It feels like it’s something that I found either inside myself or outside of myself – and I’m trying to honour that.
When people look at your work, what do you imagine is the ideal response from someone looking at your work?
A moment of clarity. Like looking very clearly at fog.
Funny because this piece, from Lionize, makes sound.
I’m talking with some local musicians about organizing a series of musical soirées where drummers from various percussion traditions would perform on pieces from Lionize. This, which is now a secret between me, you, and Grounders, might happen at some point in 2018.
What was the question? Oh - the perfect circumstance.
A few years ago, I made a work of art that really humbled me and taught me about being honest and I haven’t really made anything for someone else since about a quarter of the way into that project. I know that what I am engaging with, with my work, is vital and true enough that if people who are in a position to engage with it, to meet it, they will. I’m really only concerned with my relationship with it. Not that I don’t appreciate my audience. A lot of people who don’t notice my work. I’ve also had people who spend an afternoon staring at a piece, and people who laugh and cry. Those are all amazing responses, including those from the people who didn’t notice them.
Online you mention that a future work will explore fakeness. Could you elaborate?
I’m interested in the idea that something could be ingenuine. In a way these are fake paintings - the kind of object somebody would produce if they were trying to create a painting but didn’t know what paintings were. They’re heavy works, but they’re naïve as well. I’m interested in the way things shift between authenticity and inauthenticity. I’m working on a project right now that uses all different kinds of gold, including fake gold.They are works on Japanese paper that use hand-beaten Italian gold leaf, which costs a billion dollars, alongside five dollar artificial “gold.”
Are they all mixed together or on separate pieces of paper?
They are all mixed together. And they are all real. Just, one of them is a real fake thing.