Photos by Kevin Cayuca; Published in Contemporary Art Philippines, June-July 2012
If not for the careful execution of each piece that comes out of his studio, Leeroy New could be considered a professional dabbler. At 26, he has worked on both large and small-scale commissions from production houses, networks, theatre troupes, and private collectors, while entertaining a steady stream of collaborations and independent projects. The themes tackled in New’s portfolio range from religious iconography to consumerism. Most often, New is credited for large-scale sculptures using industrial materials and found objects, but by the time this gets published he will have branched out even further, by directing photo shoots for the maiden issue of RPA Style, an online magazine, and creating the centrepiece for this year’s Milagrosa festival in Ilocos Norte. Thus, while New has found both a niche and an aesthetic, he has managed to elude actual specialization—at least in the traditional sense.
Having studied at both the Philippine High School for the Arts and the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, New began his career by looking into opportunities and alternatives for exhibition outside of the gallery and museum. “To inflict experience or to affect, to impose or disrupt a routine, to create a disruption of public space,” was the ethos, and this only accelerated the evolution of his aesthetic, which could at times be interpreted as dependent on spectacle and scale. “The idea for my practice is that I open up these contexts, and then see what happens,” says New. As a result, this taste for deterritorialized and unbounded exhibition spaces—moving from galleries to gardens, and from storefronts to the runways of high fashion—allowed him to transition seamlessly between disciplines. “I guess in the very large spectrum of my practice, the art scene still absorbs me,” he shares, “But I’ve had criticisms where there’s confusion with my practice.”
While it’s easy to identify New’s work, it’s difficult to associate him with any existing movement or scene, raising questions as to whether these criticisms reflect more on New, or on the art scene itself, and thus sparking tired (yet inconclusive) debates on what survival in the local art market depends on. “It hasn’t been easy,” New admits, but for obvious reasons, the fluidity of his practice has served him well by allowing him to expand his sphere of influence while incorporating more fields and industries into his work. “I got into this without any consideration of marketability,” he says of the lack of opportunity for fine art sculptors. “It’s a challenge making work that people can’t put in their living rooms.”
Aside from drawing commentary on size and spectacle, another word often used to describe New’s work is “grotesque”, thus making his recent foray into fashion—the bastion of the beautiful—a curious one. The word comes to mind when looking at elements borrowed from Science fiction in shows like Corpo Royale (2010), or Psychopomp (2011), or the façade he created for Sputnik Comics in Cubao Expo. But just as Sci-Fi offers a better vision of the future through a lens that deliberately distorts, New’s work with the biomorphic (what he refers to as “this blobject phenomenon”) serves as a strong reminder of our own mortality – a layer of truth added through hyperbole. This concept is most clearly represented in New’s collaborations* with fashion designer Kermit Tesoro for Philippine Fashion Week (and on Lady Gaga’s now infamous “Marry the Night” cover), which played on perversions of the ideal, sending the industry’s perfectly proportioned figures down the runway clothed in bumps, marrow, and pustules made of latex, silicon, and fiberglass. By using otherworldly forms and playing on the un-pretty, New was able to render the human figure unnervingly organic.
The sculptural aspect of New’s “garments” forces one to ask: Is there a place for the unwearable in the fashion world? To this, New clarifies that his work with Tesoro only continues his goal of creating disruptions in physical space, in which questions of clothing and what people wear are integral branches. “Fashion is still a public sphere. The concept of what is wearable is still a public sphere,” he says. By definition, the survival of the fashion cycle depends on diffusion into broader markets, precisely through wearability; all the while maintaining integrity by catering to a very select niche. This balance of a sacred inner sanctum of devotees and early adopters with an endless supply of followers and laggards only complicates the question of private and public space that New raises with his own creations. “I’m not concerned with the commercial aspect of fashion,” he says, “My concern is conceptual, particularly the explorations of materials and technique. Like who would buy a silicone dress for everyday use?”
Aside from exploring materials and technique, New’s treatment of the human body as a canvas only affirms existing fears about where high fashion stands in relation to the female figure. The entry of sculptural pieces turns the runway into a pissing contest for fetishism and spectacle, where rubber, silicon, and fiber glass take center stage, shifting the attention from the bodies they are meant to dress. Despite the market for fashion being dominated by women, fashion undeniably makes it possible to deny the existence of the feminine form in its natural configurations. These result in images that are not only ethereal or escapist, but border on misogynistic, possibly even perpetuating the inherently patriarchal institutions supported by the fashion system.
That New identifies Alexander McQueen as an influence should come as no surprise, for the same undercurrents of misogyny prevailed in McQueen’s Savage Beauty—the posthumous exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum which drew over 600,000 visitors. However, the savage aspect of McQueen’s work was also its greatest contribution to the discourse: replacing the conventions in which women appeared as ornaments, with images of their capacity to disrupt, distort, and eventually shatter the existing notions of beauty as a mere decorative element. New’s work on the other hand magnifies the organic, making it easier to see how even femininity only adds up to being made of the same things as everyone else.
“I guess the only way is to create something that people can connect with,” says New of the challenges of his design work in relation not only to his manipulation of biomorphic forms, but of marketability. Design has allowed him to branch into problem-solving territory, heightening his sense of what people will actually connect with and want to see, and furthering the overlap between New’s work as a sculptor and his sensibilities as a designer. “There’s always a problem-solving component to manipulating materials,” he says, “I don’t differentiate between the titles of designer and sculptor. Art, for me, is utilitarian.”
This definition of art as “utilitarian” only heightens the confusion regarding where New stands amidst the art and design professions. What is design after all in the absence of functionality, and what becomes of art when it isn’t useless? And yet, despite a seemingly tenuous position in the local art scene, New’s extensive portfolio and the cohesion of his aesthetic testify not only to the clarity of his vision, but to a strong sense of direction. By utilitarian, New identifies art as a means to challenge himself. And it is through what others would call dabbling that he is able to further the discussions on what art is really for, all the while building a career that remains constantly in flux.
*CORRECTION: In this case, the term collaboration is used very loosely. Both the Marry the Night cover and PFW work were identified by New as a two-man show. Sorry about that.