Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Comedy Is a Great Way to Break the News: A Conversation with David Leggett

Lauren Berlant


David Leggett’s Nite and Day is the cover image for Winter 2017’s special issue, Comedy: An Issue, edited by Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai.  Leggett's work has a queasy cartoonish violence at the heart of its aesthetic. Cartoonish, in that it’s unreal, surreal, a register and performance of the force of life’s effects—and also that many of the bodies are cartoons, or nested in their palette. Violent, in that racism, sexuality, desire, money, fantasy, the ridiculous art world, and the ordinary weirdness of pleasure memory disturb everything they make to the point at which deaths that keep on dying and laughs that keep on laughing collapse at once into mourning, rage, the quizzical, and the color wheel. The affect of the work diffuses structural violence through many pleasure/pain enigmas. Lauren Berlant and David Leggett talk here about his work. 


LAUREN BERLANT:  David, you told me an enthralling story about Nite and Day, the rebus-like image we’ve used for our Comedy: An Issue cover.  It evoked a whole world of  cultural memories (your 1980s) and condensed a sense of how spectatorship works for you comedically, which is to say, as tragedy, catastrophe, and ridiculous pomposity plus timing.  Can you reconstruct some of that here? What we initially saw in the pop of the image cluster (the classic comedic and also Warhollian banana peel, the feral phallus that is always all wrong, the spectators in various attitudes of attention and care) had zero to do with your sense of its composition and operation, which was fantastic.

DAVID LEGGETT: The photo at the bottom is of Al B. Sure!, more or less the Drake of the 1980’s. He was the sensitive brother who would steal your girlfriend if you were not treating her right. He was chubby crooner who had a unibrow and was still a ladies man. (He even had his own 900 number that my older sisters called often and ran up a high phone bill.) “Nite and Day” is the title to his biggest hit from 1988. I knew I wanted him in a painting just due to not seeing R&B singers look like that today. Bert and the lady with sunglasses are looking to the left with a look of shock and joy as Al B. Sure! looks at the viewer as if he is in on the joke with you. Bert has always been an interesting character to me with his relationship with Ernie from Sesame Street. They share the same bed and seem to be partners and balance each other’s quirks like most or many relationships. Yet there is a normalcy about them. The images are stacked on top of one another like a totem pole as spectators of a slowly peeling pink glistening banana. I see it as a deflated hyper-male sexuality. It’s the great reveal that is met with a bit of tragic disappointment. Talking a big game and giving an underwhelming performance.

David Leggett, I Did Enough


LB: So, you see the banana as a figure for a universal disappointment in phallic ordinariness binding us? It’s as though the three spectators see what all of us share, an experience of being let down by the things in the world that we’ve inflated to equal the size of the world—but only some people can bear to be in on the joke of it. Yet the totemic phallus keeps losing its magic without entirely losing its association with magic because fantasy keeps the phallus inflated.

It’s also telling that you see the banana as “slowly unpeeling.” For you, then, is this kind of image like a single frame extracted from an ongoing cartoon or comic narrative, life clustering into associations in animated movement? Your work focuses a lot on race and sexuality and the US as scenes of cartoonish realism, involving aggression, awkwardness, ridiculous projection, desire, ambivalence and, crucially, repetition. It often seems like there's a sense more than a story there, an observation. How does the way you place the cartoonish and the comedic in relation to politics make it possible for you to see, say, and effect? Not everything you make works with icons like our cover image does, but in everything the stamp of convention abounds, working the intensity of aggressive play or what happens in its shadows.

DL: I wanted to be an editorial illustrator when I was younger. What I like about editorial illustration is you are able to voice your opinion on any subject through drawing, and it is often taken as an authority said it. Editorial illustration can be funny or introspective, but it always grabs the viewer’s attention for a second. The comedic and cartoon are used in my work like a spoon of sugar. Humor can make heavy subject matter more digestible. Often the viewer will see the work and laugh at the absurdity, but after closer inspection the viewer may be upset that they laughed at the subject matter that they are told by society is not a laughing matter. That can lead to questioning of that subject and how do you really feel about it. Humor can make you think of a subject differently that you may not be open to otherwise. I enjoy standup comedy and often listen to standup in my studio. Some of the best comedians can take any subject matter and make it funny and at the same time making that same subject okay for you to talk about in more serious terms in your own life. Humor has the ability to take the edge off.

LB: Humor’s a kind of sugar lure, but it also forces tasting the obscenity of one’s own enjoyment, the laughing in spite of things. I see that wobble in your images, too, though the intensively sexual material is more queasy/comic than many of the racialized scenes of searing play and play on play. Sometimes the work taps into the comedic uncanny; sometimes a painting’s an image-blurt throwing some confusing and edgy affect out there; sometimes it’s capturing a mood of pure criticality. This makes me wonder about style.

It’s possible to see you in the context of other art comedy that uses objects, obscenity, the grotesque, and the exposed subject of political suffering—a Mike Kelley, a Hairy Who, a Pope. L., a Kerry James Marshall.  Does talking to the art world matter as much to you when you’re painting as, say, pop culture does, as catastrophic events do? I want to return to your comments on stand-up or the editorial cartoon and ask how they contribute to the incessant surrealism of the work, its intensities of figuration pointing to broken realism and nonsense, for example. You have made so many heads or solid figures floating detached on canvases that are blank or cloudy or full of noise, including many self-portraits where you appear like a surprising punctuation mark. You’ve offered as a “funny” example the portrait I Did Enough. It’s so different (or is it?) from the larger more aperspectival paintings like We Made It or Dragon Breath: Black Love and Smoke Signals where the expanse of canvas is as active as the bodies popping into them that are both present and citational. I'd love for you to talk about that, about the relation of your small scale portraiture to your grand style, the ways scale shifts the criticality and play of this work.

We Made It

David Leggett, We Made It


DL: It’s not important for me to talk to the art world per se about those topics. I know the art world is the core audience for my work, but I would like to also speak to family members and friends back home who have no interest in art. They understand some signals in the work that may be missed by an art audience. I also post work online and it reaches people all over the world who may never step foot in a gallery or museum due to many reasons. That is why standup is interesting to me. Richard Pryor would be on stage telling painful stories of abuse and racial inequality, and he had a mixed audience of races and backgrounds laughing together. There is also absurdist humor that I employ in my work. Artists like Marcel Duchamp or comedy groups like Monty Python that use absurdist humor in unique ways that opened my eyes to construction of artwork and the use of non sequiturs. I Did Enough gets to the point quickly where We Made It and Black Love and Smoke Signals are using art historic references and size as a way to bring the viewer in for a longer look. I Did Enough is small and was meant for the internet. You need to grab people's attention quickly when placing work online, and I find it helps if you go straight for the gut punch with online drawings. I do however feel they are in the same realm. I do not see a hierarchy when it comes to size in work. I feel that is often a trope that people fall for that a large painting means it’s serious art.


For more on David Leggett visit his website.  Other interviews with him can be found in Artslant and Chicagoist.

Lauren Berlant is a coeditor of Critical Inquiry and teaches English at the University of Chicago. She is the author, most recently, of Cruel Optimism (2011), Sex, or the Unbearable (with Lee Edelman, 2013), and Desire/Love (2012).

  • David Leggett’s Nite and Day (2016)

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