A Digital Surgeon Cuts a New Perspective on the Human Body

We spoke with artist Rollin Leonard to gain exclusive insights into his upcoming three-part show, 'New Portraiture.'

Benoit Palop

Process image by Michelle Fennewald. Images courtesy the artist

After more than 10 years of digital exploration and artful experimentations on the human body, and more than 3,000 subjects handled and captured in every imaginable way, next month visual artist Rollin Leonard will launch New Portraiture, a triple exhibition that highlights the digital surgeon's most recent works. The show simultaneously links IRL components at both the Paris-based XPO gallery and the Brooklyn-based Transfer Gallery—including a series of flexible artworks that adapt to the singular architectures of both spaces—to a playful, dynamic, 33-screen-wide URL component, presented online on Cloaque.org

Showcasing both physical and virtual environments, the one-of-a kind exhibition allows the Portland-based artist to present a brand new series of computer-generated works featuring large-scale isometric folding paper portraits, giant printed bodies, and an array of fleshy elements refracted in water. A dozen subjects were subjected to Leonard's “digital scalpel” to generate his “pragmatic” artworks and to keep his signature clinical aesthetic, their macro or microscopic photos manipulated through his meticulous, highly precise creative process.

To get a few more details on the origins and development of New Portraiture, and to get an exclusive overview of the tripartite show, The Creators Project spoke with Leonard at his workshop in Portland, Maine:

The Creators Project: Hi Rollin. At this point, you may have a good knowledge of the human body. Can you talk to us about your relationship with it and the reason why you chose it as your primary subject?

Rollin Leonard: I see the body as a starting point for understanding the world. I am a unit of measure for everything I interact with: 'toxic' is what makes me sick, 'bright' is what shrinks my pupils, 'small' is what I can hold in my hand and everything in degrees in relationship to the starting point. 

Obviously, knowledge gets much more abstract and interesting than crudely judging sensory input but it seems to conceptually lurk everywhere. I'm aiming at those lurking bodies or at least seeing faces in the shadows of ideas.

The way you use digital tools to revisit the human body is quite unique. Can you tell us about your work's relationship between new technologies and the human body?

I am responding to the technology at my disposal. When you're being taught how to hit a tennis ball you're told over and over about how the racket should feel like an extension of your arm. This idea stuck with me because I imagined it as a kind of bodily enhancement. The tennis racket makes me feel like a powerful, tennis-ball-hitting cyborg. My perception has been irreversibly altered by learning how to use a camera.

Can you talk a bit about how you started working on this series (and the few others that led you to New Portraiture)? What are the origins and the other artistic inspirations?

The starting point for new work is usually old work but the water pictures were new to me. I saw a terrible stock photo of the Canadian flag in rain drops on a spider's web. I saw the effect and wanted to fuck it up. I wanted to see how to really unify the water and subject, to take a closer look at the effect itself and isolate it. 

Why did you choose a 3-part exhibition for New Portraiture, and why does this triple format interest you? Why did you choose to employ both URL and IRL spaces?

The format idea was Kelani Nichole's (Transfer Gallery) and Philippe Riss' (Xpo Gallery). The two physical spaces will have mostly the same work but will be installed differently. The objects can be be bent, crumpled, or reorganized.

The online component on Cloaque.org is more like a forming thought bubble. It's a series of wriggling semi-human blobs of meat, skin, and glitter. Making work to be experienced online is just different. The online work exploits the endless scrolling window and the ease of displaying animated images. 


New Portraiture is probably more “mature” than some of your previous series. Can you tell us about the evolution in your creative process with regard to your previous work? 

The biggest technical improvement since 2013 was the effect of three days I spent as a studio assistant to the folks that take all the catalog pictures for L.L.Bean. I had to move reflectors around, turn lights up and down, and watch the photographers troubleshoot complex lighting situations. It convinced me to buy a few new pieces of equipment: a macro lens, a camera with a larger sensor, and brighter lights. The result is flatter and more detailed images. 

I allowed more time for iteration and study which resulted in a lot more work that I could edit down from. I still had the chance to make a few really time-consuming singular pieces, but the focus was more on multiples. What stayed the same was working on several different but related projects at once. I find it interesting to develop several ideas simultaneously if only to see how they inform one another.

Isometric Sculptures, 
Kate Durbin

How do you choose the subjects you work with and what's your relationship with them?

My subjects are often friends. This started when preparing a show at Fach & Asendorf Gallery (online) called Rearrangements. In the summer of 2011, I gathered pictures of friends in their swimsuits before heading to the beach. Each person was shot in the same paper doll pose. I remember making a set of cardboard angles to make sure that the arms were a consistent distance from the torso. The light was even and the images were as sharp, consistent, and precise as I could muster with the skill I had at the time. The only personal expression left was what they chose to wear (or not wear). All the bodies then went through a series of tortures and manipulations to rearrange their visual data. Knowing the people I mulched made it slightly more serious than if I was just fucking up Tom Cruise's face. I don't set out to use the images of my friends like voodoo dolls; caring about them personally is a kind of check on just how I treat them. It doesn't stop me from cutting them up but it at least adds a moment of reflection in my process.

Occasionally, I'll stop somebody on the street if I'm looking for a specific feature—facial tattoos for Isometric Portraits, a huge mop of green hair for an unreleased hair series I'm working on, and I went on Craigslist to find somebody with a lot of freckles. I've found that a lot of the strangers become friends. Sitting down with somebody to shoot their isometric portrait is pretty intense because I have to draw on their face for several hours. After the first half hour of work with any photo project, the talking tapers off and I learn about people's tastes in music as I rarely set the soundtrack myself.

Rainbow: process image

What's next for this project? Do you see any possible evolutions? Do you have other projects in mind?

The show dates are a stopping point for these ongoing series. I'm currently working on more complex water animations now that I've developed a working technique. There are piles of glass slides in my studio with trial shapes. I've learned what kinds of forms are possible and even what kinds of optical distortions to expect from certain shapes of water. This isn't very interesting in itself, but it gives me more range. The giant portraits will continue, but as big heads. I want to make absolutely monstrous heads pushing my process near its limit (if anybody will sit long enough). I have about 3 unprinted isometric heads where I play more with the scale of the grid. So yes! They'll all go on in some form. 

There are always a bunch of new plans too, but it is too confusing to talk about work that doesn't exist yet.

You would make a good subject Benoit! I should come to Montreal.

Cloaque samples

Rollin Leonard's New Portraiture launches at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn on May 2, on Cloaque.org May 20, and at XPO Gallery in Paris on May 28. Click here to learn more. 


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