Artsdesk: Creative Contradictions – Dan Leo

Posted 11 months ago in Arts and Culture

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

Dan Leo wears many hats. A graphic artist, muralist, illustrator and painter, he is known best for his bold use of colour and commitment to a clean aesthetic in his eye-catching animal murals on show up and down the country. This month, Dan is gearing up for a new challenge, altogether different in scale with his new exhibition FERAL, which has been over a year in the works.

Like his paintings, which are “graphic, colourful and bold” in nature, Leo’s story of artistic evolution is one of adventure, with plenty of twists and turns. In terms of early influence, he plants his flag somewhere between American sports logos and the resurgence of artistry in ’90s cartoon animation. The move away from cost-effective animation and the recycling of backgrounds towards thicker line work and more artist-centred design in the ‘90s drew Leo in, even as a young viewer sitting in front of the TV. He recalls watching shows such as Dexters Laboratory and The Ren & Stimpy Show for the first time and realising, “I have to do something similar to that.”

Dan spent some time studying animation in IADT, but ultimately found that animation didn’t quench the depth of his artistic desires. He returned to his personal practice and began reinvestigating his connection with thick line work, outside of the bounds of animation. Soon, Dan began using paint pens, which he would buy in the graffiti supply store All City, now located on Crow Street. Though originally intending to use these and other materials to create work on board or canvas, this gentle pivot thrust him into a sphere of graffiti and street artists, prompting a radical redefinition of his practice.

It’s perhaps hard to imagine, given the vibrancy of Dan Leo’s established style, but until his first forays into street art, he worked exclusively in monochrome. “The colour thing was definitely not something that I was comfortable with, at all…Like when I was a teenager, I would have only drawn with black biros…just black and white.” Colours, he felt, were difficult to correct on canvas or board and so, he never felt that the potential reward outweighed the risk. “It was only through the introduction of spray paint that all of a sudden it was easy to correct something if the colours didn’t line up.” Spray paint awakened his colour curiosity – a facet of practice that has had a lasting grip on his steady hand.

Dan Leo, the street artist and Dan Leo, the small-scale gallery and digital artist have been in constant negotiation ever since, like partners in a dance. “I’m trying to make it so that the things that I’m painting could be plucked directly from a wall and put onto the canvas”, he explains, “you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these ended up getting used for murals as well”, he adds, referring to FERAL. The key difference between the two ways of working, for Dan, is time. While working on canvas or board can be tedious and time-consuming, the alternative can take a mere handful of hours, making it much easier to balance alongside other projects, life and work.

Having said this, “one is an isolated personal affair and the other one is very much not that… the act of doing it is almost a performance piece.” In this sense, working on a smaller scale has advantages. “In a way, it’s nicer just to be left to my own devices, rather than having to deal with elements like people’s unreliability, bad weather…power lines above a wall…” – the list goes on. There’s also the question of ownership and connection to the work, as the artistic umbilical cord can feel further stretched with site-specific work, at times. “As soon as you leave a drive away from a wall, that’s kind of open for the public, to almost do whatever they want with it…People can throw stuff at it, and you can have people complaining about it – whatever. It’s there and it’s kind of out of your hands.” For FERAL, Dan Leo has leaned into the luxury of time and the precision afforded by patience. “Particularly for this show, because I’ve been making sure that they’re as sharp as I can get them right now in my life… I’m spending my time with them.”

Leo’s round-a-bout journey to this milestone exhibition sits in charming contrast with the self-described “simplistic” power that sits at the core of his work. But then again, Leo’s work is awash with captivating contradictions. His oeuvre, and indeed, FERAL in particular, chooses the natural world of the animal kingdom as its subject matter, while the artist himself consciously creates for a digital-literate eye. He favours a clean, sleek finish bathed in clear, precise lines and void of any impression of the human hand. “I’m not about the painterly brush marks. I’m trying to make it as produced-looking as I can.” For instance, “if it were to be confused with something that was printed…that would be a high compliment.”

All of Dan Leo’s pieces, whether for wall, canvas or board, are first designed in full on a computer, before being transcribed onto their physical form. Though consistent with his animation background, this lust for control also harks back to the early aversion to colour, and speaks to his meticulous nature. “I’m the type of person that needs to be fully prepared,” he outlines, “so having that trial-and-error on the computer, and not having to have trial-and-error on the canvas or the wall is the way it needs to be.”

Yet, what results from this heavy-handed preparation are bold, vivid images of animals who are at home in the wild. Dan Leo also suggests that the joyous essence of his paintings  are “in contradiction to [his] personality”: “because I’m a bit of a grumpy pessimist. So, the fact that I paint quite positive pictures in a way is maybe my outlet for for that.”

Having been instilled with a respect for animals at a young age, the animal kingdom has long been a “well of inspiration artistically” for Dan Leo. “A lot of the time, you can respect animals more than people…animals don’t tend to let you down,” he adds. While returning to familiar territory in terms of his bestial subject matter, FERAL also sees Leo treading new ground by adding 3D textured elements to each of the paintings, through laser-cut wood, transparent acrylic and sculpture. He hopes this will incorporate “a playful element without compromising the clean aesthetic of the paintings.”

For Dan Leo, this constant evolution of style and technique through experimentation and the incorporation of new materials “is the exciting thing about being an artist.” For a viewer, perhaps excitement lies in finding a searing truth among contradictions, vivid colour within clean, flat lines and a wildness that – though it may be calculated and considered – ultimately, can never be tamed.

Dan Leo’s exhibition ‘FERAL’ will run at Hang Tough Contemporary from June 15 until July 7.

Words: Emer Tyrrell

Photos: Michael Rubio Hennigan


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