Born in Zhongshan, China, New York-based painter Leon Xu draws on his experiences as a graffiti artist and a fine artist in his early paintings. The medium is a highly personal one for Leon, as someone who has been painting since he was four years old. His father was a photographer and his mother practiced both drawing and painting, though neither pursued crafts professionally. His parents eventually enrolled him in painting classes as a child, and he hasn’t really stopped painting since.
“After spending the last few years working multiple jobs simultaneously, 2020 has held major shifts for me and my practice,” Leon tells It’s Nice That. “Quarantine was the first time since moving to New York that I’ve had the time and space in my life to treat my studio practice as a full-time job. Before, I would be working five to six days a week and only have one day for me to digest my creative thoughts for art making.”
In Leon’s early work he finds that the medium takes on a different political meaning, depending on the legality of his output, creating varying levels of institutional acceptance when comparing graffiti and canvas work in the studio. “I began to be very interested in the motifs of ‘buffed’ walls, walls which have been tagged, then painted over and created abstract paintings using this method,” Leon tells us. “My explorations of the city, which were deeply tied to my practice as a graffiti artist, became fruitful parts of my ‘fine art’ practice,” he adds. Building on this body of work, he also experimented with other mediums such as photography and found-object sculptures themed around “the antagonistic forces of graffiti and gentrification.”
As graffiti became a less active part of his life, Leon now draws more on personal experiences and memories for his current practice. Now, he paints a blurred representation of this city life, an altered reproduction of reality that represents the mechanism of memory. He tells us that when he sees something he really likes, Leon gets what he calls “brain tingles,” a physical sensation in the back of his head akin to the experience of listening to ASMR. It’s these scenes that he decides to paint, wanting to translate this sensation into paintings so that others can experience it themselves.
Although Leon mostly works with paintings, his approach is highly influenced by his experience with other mediums. “With photography, the medium has so much control of what I do. In a painting, I feel it’s the opposite, I have complete control over the medium,” he explains. “My method of sketching is photographic rather than preparatory. I work directly from my photos to remember specific details, but I always come back to painting in order to alter the reality.” There is an element of letting go in this method, perhaps a way to balance out the control that he has over the medium. This is how Leon views the experience of memory recall. “Memory draws from a reality-based source but alters it in its reproduction,” he explains.
He talks about one of these memories. “I have been making art about my car a lot. Since quarantine, my car kind of became my safe space. I would go on drives and little trips to keep my mind sane,” he explains. “My car is always giving me visual gifts, moments to remember, a more facile experience of moving through space.”
Leon plans on continuing this current series until he feels like it has been exhausted, or until he discovers something else that gives him the same brain tingles. “I want to stay attuned to the gifts given to me by the world, the little moments, so I am able to translate them through my art,” Leon notes. In his hazy paintings, shadows of fire escapes rest gently on apartment walls. The folds of a translucent white curtain barely hides a vibrant scene outside, and a closed window blocks an orange sky. You feel consumed by the tenderness in these images, as if they were scenes from your own life.
Leon Xu (Copyright © Leon Xu 2020)