The first time I saw a photo of Leigh Salgado‘s work, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. When I first got to see her work in person, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She cuts, and burns, and folds, and paints largish paperscapes depicting vintage lace, lingerie, and flowers that cascade and fuse with bones and organs. She will occasionally insert sly cultural references such as corporate logos and fleur de lis into her pieces. It’s hard to write about Leigh’s art without being too lyrical or precious, but the works are unmistakably feminine, delicate, erotic, haunting, transcendent, and yeah, divine.
I don’t always feel the need to meet the artist behind the work. Sometimes it’s best to just let the art do the talking. Upon seeing Leigh’s “New Work” at Coagula Curatorial, I found myself not just confronted with the art itself, but with the very soul of the person who created it. It’s evident that this is an artist who bleeds the work, who lays herself bare within it, and that, my friends, is the stuff that makes life worth living. That’s the kind of art that gets me out of bed in the morning. That is why I wanted to talk to Leigh Salgado. I met up with her a few days ago in Chinatown, and she didn’t disappoint.
Are you from Los Angeles?
I’m originally from San Diego.
Do you come from creative stock?
No (laughs)! Both my parents were high school dropouts, didn’t do anything. No, one of my grandfathers was a musician, but that’s it.
At UCLA, did you major in art or something else?
Yeah, I majored in art.
What’s the most useful thing you learned in art school?
Hmm, that’s an interesting question. You know to be honest, when I first went to school, leaving San Diego, it was more like learning that there was a whole kind of world out there, and a lot of possibilities that I never even imagined. So, it was kind of the whole experience.
Do you think it was helpful, for your career, to have gone to art school?
Oh, well I took a detour, and circled back around. So, I do think it was helpful. It didn’t teach me anything about having a career though, I have to say that. It just planted the seed that it was something I had to do. It didn’t teach me anything about galleries or getting myself out there. No business whatsoever, so it didn’t teach me anything about that. Also, I went to UCLA and a lot of my friends had gone to community college first, and I actually thought that the two years they had at community college, they learned a lot more than I did my first two years at UCLA. Because they learned a lot more about the craft of art making at community college. Years later, I went back to kind of an alternative school, Santa Monica College of Design & Architecture, and that’s where things really got going for me. Then I met other artists and just got more into what you call the “art scene”, so I wasn’t, you know, so isolated. I learned a lot more from that experience.
Were you always doing the paper cutting, or did you start as a painter?
I started as a painter, and then I was making these drawings, kind of a free association thing, just with Sharpie markers. They weren’t supposed to be precious or anything like that, and I was working on a really huge one. Well, for me it was huge. It was about seven by four feet, and I didn’t like some parts so I actually cut them out, out of anger and frustration. This was in the nineties, the late nineties, and I was like “WHOA! I actually like this, this taking out…the freedom to take out parts of this drawing. So that’s how it actually began with me, and they were bigger chunks of paper I was taking out.
So, it was sort of like an aggressive fight against negative space?
(laughs) It was aggressive. I just remember being extremely angry, like “I’ll just take you out!” and it was like “ooh, I like taking things out, with an X-acto knife!” which I still use.” So, now I’ve gotten better at it, and they’ve gotten more elaborate and more crazy, and more excessive, over the last decade.
In the Eric Minh Swenson video, you mention cutting yourself and going to the ER. Have there been any more stitches since then?
Nooo, no, I’ve been really good, and I hadn’t had stitches in a long time before that. I was really upset that I let that happen. No, no, no. I haven’t had a cutting accident in over a year now.
Can we get into some technical questions, your magic tricks if you will?
I like technical questions. I have no problem with that, because I like shop talk.
Cool, let’s get into it then. I’m really curious, what kind of paper do you use?
Right now, I’m using Arches watercolor paper.
Yeah. It’s thick. I like that because it’s sturdy. I used to use a French cotton blend paper that you can also get on a big roll, and I like that one too, but I like the Arches better because it’s a little stronger. It actually cuts better, you know, when it’s sturdy and hard like that. I also paint the back.
You paint the back?
Yeah, the reason I paint the backs is because the color will then show up in the shadow. Red shows up really beautiful on the wall. And I found that out by accident. At a show, I had painted a back just because I wanted to give it some more heft, and make it more sturdy, and I had painted this one piece red on the back. Then when we actually hung it and lit it in a gallery, it was like, WHOA! I didn’t even see that in my studio. This is really nice. So, then I exploited that, with the work after that.
I don’t know if you’ve ever counted, but do you know how many X-Actos you typically go through on a piece?
You use number 11’s right?
I do. I’ve tried others and I always go back to #11’s. I hate the X-acto knife brand by the way. They suck!
Yeah, it seems like they were a lot stronger, you know, twenty years ago, right?
They were. Yeah, they’re not good. I order blades now from a place called Cincinnati Surgical, and they’re much better. I still have to go through a lot, but I was reminded how much better they were because I had to buy some X-actos once. I ran out, and I didn’t want to order them because I needed them, like, that day, and it was like ‘Oh my God! This is why I hate these blades!” because they’re not, they’re just not good.
In the Sisters piece, it looks like you have sections, or layers if you will, stuck on top of each each other.
Yeah, that’s unusual that I do that. I’d actually like to experiment more with doing that, because then you can make them even more three dimensional.
What kind of adhesive are you using for that?
I use Golden’s soft gel medium.
In Eyes, isn’t that the CBS logo you incorporated there?
YES! You caught that! (laughs) I was just trying to find some kind of logo that had like an eye. It’s not exact, because of the cutting; it had to be a little more bulky.
You listen to baseball games while you work, which boggles my mind. What do you do during the off-season?
That’s funny. You know it’s different every season. When I first got into baseball while doing my work, I was so addicted to it, that I just kept on the same radio station, which at the time was ESPN 710. It’s just a sports station, so I just listen to all the other sports. I don’t really like other sports, but it would just sort of engage me. Football’s the hardest to listen to, but I would just listen to them yammer too. You know, just talk about sports. So, now I know more about sports than I ever wanted to know or intended to know.
Weird question, but is there an announcer that you prefer, who gels more with your process?
Ooooh yes, but the one I love has died. It was Roy Markas. He died a couple years ago. I used to love listening to Roy Markas and Terry Smith do the Angels games.
You usually hang your work away from the wall, but you didn’t do that for the Coagula show. Was this an intentional shift?
It didn’t work with these, because the shapes are too organic and they just didn’t lay right, away from the wall. It just would have seemed kind of forced. Like, oh, I’ve always done it before so I have to do it with these. It just wasn’t working. So, I just pinned them against the wall…and they look better. It’s not that I wouldn’t go back to that, because I like the shadow effect and it creates a whole other kind of a drawing. It just didn’t work with these. I would have had to hang like ten spacers, and it was just too awkward, so I like these better just flat against the wall.
A lot has been written about the feminine and erotic elements in your work. I was wondering, since your depicting vintage lace, bones, and vital organs on paper, if there might be some exploration of mortality in the work?
Oh definitely, there’s definitely a mortality theme running through the work, and just the vulnerability of our physical nature, our physical being, yeah. There’s a lot of it actually. There’s a lot of that in it.
You had a piece at La Luz De Jesus (last year I think) that was encased in Plexiglas, it had a jarring effect, as if your work was imprisoned. I understand wanting to protect the work from destructive elements, but I also wonder if the work isn’t meant to be temporal, like say Andy Goldsworthy’s work, open to yellowing and brittleness with age, perhaps dissipating into dust?
Well, I don’t make it with that intent. In fact, I think if I had that intent, I wouldn’t put as much…I would use even more fragile paper. I mean, I’m aware of that, and I’m aware of the fragility of paper, but I actually hope they’ll stick around for a while.
Do you put a protective varnish on them?
I use a Golden spray varnish with a UV protector.
As a fellow compulsive creative, I fully understand that “have to do it” aspect of being an artist. How long can you go without making art?
How long can I go without, before I start feeling crazy? Maybe about three days, but that starts to really bother me. Yeah, I get really anxious. Very high anxiety.
How many hours a day do you spend in the studio?
Five or six, if I can get five or six hours in, that’s a good day. And that’s just constant working. I don’t do anything else when I’m there, so it’s solid. I don’t have a computer there, I don’t have a smartphone. I don’t have any distractions. I go in and work, work, work. After about six hours, then I’m kind of in pain, (laughs) physical pain!
Are you sitting down when you work?
Yeah, you know what? This is crazy, when I first started doing them, I was standing and doing it against the wall, and sticking my board, my self-healing mat, underneath and holding it! Can you imagine? That’s when I was cutting bigger pieces too. That was nuts! I don’t know why I was doing that.
I read that Jay DeFeo’s The Rose had a huge impact on you.
Yeah, that’s like my favorite artwork in the world actually. It’s very romantic, and I guess I’m really romantic, you know, at heart. The way I found that work was interesting, because I always thought Jay DeFeo was a man, and I wasn’t really familiar with the work, but I was familiar with the name. Then in the nineties this woman, who was doing a kind of informal critique, said I should go see The White Rose at the de Young in San Francisco. So, I was with someone at that time and I said ‘let’s drive up to San Francisco and see this rose painting’ (laughs). So, we go to the De Young, and I don’t know what we’re looking for, but there was a Don Bachardy portrait show, and I always liked him, so I was thinking, at least I saw this, you know? But they were also doing The Beat Show, and I said ‘well, we have to go see The Beat Show’. And so we go in, and you walk into this room and there’s art all around but way back, at the end of the wall I see this thing. You know, it’s like this big thing. It looks like this light, like this spiritual thing. I was like ‘Oh my God! I gotta see that!’ So I just bypass everything else on the side and go straight to it, and I look at the title, and it’s The Rose by Jay DeFeo! So, it’s just a monster thing, and it weighs like two tons. It took her eight years to do. And I like that, that she was obsessed. That she would just smoke and drink and work on this thing for eight years. I just like that. She was so, she was the opposite of a careerist, and a lot of those people were. It was just totally about the work. It was just a different time.
Who are some other artists that have influenced you or inspired you?
That’s such a weird question, you know, because I know I am, but I don’t keep good track of it. It’s actually something I want to do. Like John Singer Sargent, I love the clothing and stuff. But, I’m kind of all over the place. For instance, my work has nothing in common with Phillip Guston, but I really like Phillip Guston.
I ask because I have a hard time tracing a direct lineage to your work.
I don’t believe I’m inventing stuff, because you just soak up everything. I don’t look at other artists with a view of expanding on what they’re doing, or taking it to another level. I think some people are kind of trained to do that, but I’m just not like that. I don’t care about that. My masters is in art therapy, it’s not in art. I studied clinical art therapy, because I was very interested in psychological stuff.
I understand that you drew a lot of artistic inspiration from St. Francis and St. Clare. Can you talk about that a bit?
Yeah, I used to be obsessed with St. Francis and St. Clare. That was a while back. I did some work, that’s before I was cutting paper, I did some, actually I kind of forgot about those paintings. I made some paintings were I was wood burning and painting them. I didn’t do very many. I did a little show called “St. Clare’s Passion”. Because I was reading everything I could find about St. Francis and St. Clare. It’s not so much that that got me into art, but it had my interest in the body. I thought that repudiation of the body, that abhorrence and neglect of the body…well, they were just so anti the material world, and they couldn’t wait to get to heaven basically. Reading St. Clare and you know, St. Clare was his buddy, his female counterpart basically, and when you read the stuff about their love of God, love for Jesus, and washing St. Francis’s feet, and just the writing, what they wrote was very romantic, and erotic in some respects. What interests me, it even goes into another show I did that had to do with women…there was a piece I made about church ladies. It was from my memories of going to church, and the hats they would wear, with the bells and everything, and older women and that love of going to church, and I just feel that it’s very erotic in a lot of ways. You know, there was this lack of comfort with the actual body, but it’s still this kind of same thing, this same desire. This wanting to merge something, you know? I just found that very interesting. So, that was my interest in St. Francis and St. Clare, because I really like having a body. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve never had a serious illness. I understand that I’m blessed. So, I got really kind of fascinated by people who have no use, really, for their body, you know? They’re somewhere else already. Yet, when they use words, it’s like having a lover. If you read the writings of St. Clare, it’s like somebody speaking to their lover.
Lastly, Cartwheel is always interested in art collections. What do you have in your collection?
I don’t have a very big collection. I have a Carlee Fernandez. Bear Study 1, which is probably my favorite piece. I just haven’t had the money, you know, and we don’t have very much space where we live either. We have stuff hanging, we do, but not very much. So I haven’t cultivated it, because you know a lot of artists will trade, and it’s not that I’m averse to that except a lot of times I don’t have enough work to trade, because it takes me so long, and I kind of plod. But we just don’t have wall space. I don’t want to get art and then pack it up somewhere, you know?
No, that’s borderline criminal. Thanks for talking with me Leigh.
Oh well, thank you. That was fun.
“New Work” by Leigh Salgado runs October 27 through November 24, 2012.
977 Chung King Road
Los Angeles, California 90012
The gallery is open Wednesday thru Saturday, Noon – 5 PM.
Top photo by Marlene Picard.
All other photos courtesy of Leigh Salgado and Coagula Curatorial.