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Kevin Ledo on Idealized Beauty, Salvation, and Stick on Googly Eyes

Juxtapoz // Saturday, 07 Nov 2009

Interview by Lindsay Alderton


The paintings of Montreal artist Kevin Ledo explore the persuasive allure of idealized beauty, found in medieval Christian iconography and in the airbrushed perfection of contemporary fashion advertising.  Framing fashion models as saints, his paintings question our desires, and the manipulation of the product – be that God or couture.


Outside of the studio he’s been busy re-facing Montreal, with a unique little graffiti project called “I'm So Vandal”.


What do you enjoy most about being an artist?


Painting – the act of painting – feels normal to me, and when I’m doing any other job, and I’ve done a stack of other jobs, it doesn’t feel normal.  I’ve had that experience when I’ve started out at what I thought would be a ‘good’ job and I’m working with ‘good’ people, and on day two I’m like “What the fuck am I doing with my life?”  No joke!  It’s shitty… I’ve done so many types of jobs and they all seem like a waste of my time.  Painting feels normal.  It’s what I should be doing with my life.  The lack of stability freaks me out sometimes, but there is no other choice.  
What’s it like being an artist in Montreal?


I love living in this city; it’s a creative, dynamic and vibrant and there’s an abundance of artists, musicians, and creative people.  This can also make it really hard too, being an artist, surrounded by artists.  It can be kind of hard to get sales! But living in this city, such a multi cultural dynamic place, there’s always things happening, there’s always something going on.  I’m very lucky.


Talk about the influence of religion on your art.


I was raised Roman Catholic. I’m not religious, but researching these themes has certainly broadened my understanding, and opened a connection. In particular with my most recent series I’ve been exploring the idea of ‘salvation’, an idea which sits prominently in many different cultures around the world, based on the concept that you need to be saved from something and that religion’s the tool.


There’s also this idea of salvation from yourself, salvation from your mind, which is prevalent in New Age thinking and this also interests me.  It’s got a very broad scope.  It’s like we’re not sufficient enough as we are and so have look to something to save us.


Salvation, I've found, is something you catch glimpses of. When it comes, it can arrive at unexpected moments in unexpected ways. I learned this first-hand when I was living in Taiwan. Living in the city was being in a crazy polluted environment, architecturally uninspiring with not a lot of natural beauty to draw inspiration from.


I remember this time I was sitting on my scooter in traffic, feeling totally run down, dirty fumes filling the air and sweat running down my face, and I imagined myself suddenly being lifted into the sky, completely weightless, and completely absolved.


That was the first time I’d ever had imagery like that, and it definitely stuck with me, and is what I’ve been drawing on for all the ‘Salvation’ series. Those vibrant ribbons that reach down from the sky and cut through the darkness: liberating our lives from the bleak and mundane.
It’s difficult to miss the pointed irony in the paintings from your Guiding Light series with titles such as ‘The Church of Vogue’ and ‘St Calvin Klein of New York’ accompanying portraits of well-known fashion models framed as religious icons.   What’s the main theme you are trying to convey?


Manipulation of the truth; both in fashion and religion. This is down to conflicts I’ve had in the past with being raised Catholic and then studying commercial art, and seeing the similarities. In this ideal they were both busy selling.


In Christian iconography there are these powerful images of heightened perfection, and the same themes are mirrored in commercial advertising – this airbrushed manipulation of absolute beauty.


The parallels were evident and it crossed over into reality when I was painting one day.  I thought to myself “I can’t put halos on supermodels!” and then I was like “YES that’s exactly what I’m going to do!”  Of course a lot of people are just drawn to the beauty of the paintings, but there’s a deeper meaning within, and a wink and a nudge.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?


I try to nurture myself and actively create the space in my head so that thoughts can come to mind.  I go to my studio and always try and be actively working on something – I always ‘show up’.


Ideas flow better when I’m happy.


Although saying that, strong emotion also has its place and I’ve done quite a few stencil paintings when I’ve been really pissed off, and in fact ‘Turning Point’ was a painting that came out of a really dark period for me. That painting is like 8 feet tall and it was this huge dark cloud with a massive sinister face on it to begin with, really dark, and I even showed it at an exhibition just as it was.


And then I returned it to my wall in my studio, and I was working on something else, and then out of the corner of my eye one day it caught my attention and I was like ‘Oh my god, I need to paint a huge pink thing on that now’….and so that’s what I did, I just went for it.
That impulsive streak informs a whole lot of what I’m doing now, in reaction to what I was doing before.  With the Guiding Light series I pretty much predetermined precisely what I was going to do with every painting.  I found the image, I had the composition, the colors, everything, in my mind – and then I executed it for the next 2 to 3 weeks.  I had a full idea of the finished piece from the very onset. It was a very meticulous process.


Now I’m totally allowing myself to step away from that, and it doesn’t matter so much anymore!  I’m exploring new ways of doing things, and enjoying the process of fucking things up as I go along…rather than having it all so pre-planned, because fucking things up can lead to surprising results and unplanned beauty can come through those mistakes.


The Guiding Light at first was kind of stalling my spontaneity, and now I’m cutting loose.  It’s kind of funny, but because of the economic downturn in the world I’ve been allowed this new kind of freedom, it’s like there’s no more pressure to sell anything ‘cause nobody’s gonna buy anything anyway!  So at last I can do whatever the hell I want!

Your ‘I’m so a vandal’ project got more than 130,000 visits from Stumble Upon as you brightened up a range of Montreal’s utilitarian street objects with stick-on googly eyes.  Were you surprised at the reaction?


That whole thing was totally retarded and I loved it!  I was hanging out in an art shop with a girlfriend one day and we came across those packets of stick-on googly eyes.


Next thing I know we’re hitting the streets: lampposts, fire hydrants, everything had potential.  And when I posted up the photos on Facebook people went crazy for it so I uploaded to Behance, and then someone posted it on Stumble Upon and the whole thing caught on like wildfire. It just rose up the list, getting higher and higher.  I’m continuing the process in a few cities now and can’t help but see the possibility in all sorts of inanimate objects: the googly-eyed potential of limitless fun.


For more on Kevin Ledo, visit his website here.


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