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Chocolate Genius

By Kathy Y. Wilson · February 7th, 2002 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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Painter Ken Leslie wields paintbrushes like Miles Davis brandished his trumpet.

Davis, himself a fledgling painter, blew flaming notes from the bell of his horn -- notes that appear to listeners as strokes of paint filling empty spaces. Leslie, a trumpeter who waffled between art and music as a child, manipulates paint -- wrestles it, really, into crude figures and swirling scapes that resonate musically.

Both artists leave in their wake head-turning masterworks with an undercurrent of evil healing. Dreamschemes -- Leslie's 42-piece opus comprising shadowboxes of found objects and paintings on unstretched canvasses, circular tabletops and pieces of wood -- hangs now through the end of the month at Simone's in Walnut Hills.

For the Saturday reception, there will be Styrofoam wig heads with fruit kabobs for "hair" and, as people arrive, barnyard sounds squawking from speakers posted outside. It's bound to be a spooky-electric, multi-sensory experience befitting the artistic explorations Leslie calls "cosmological."

At first consideration, this segment of Leslie's work appears a direct homage to the late, great Jean Michel-Basquiat. There's something at work, however, that's just as moving as Basquiat but with a still deeper context that draws you into a nerve-wracking vortex of onionlike layers that go on ad infinitum.

Leslie explains it's his interpretation of the work of Ouattara, an African artist.

"He does a lot of cosmological pieces, how the forces come together in earth-based (ways)," Leslie says.

"It's how what is happening in the universe can also be compared to what is happening in the dynamics of our lives. When I came up with Dreamschemes a lot of works are based on daydreams and night dreams. A lot of the pieces are dealing with the interaction of forces."

In several of them, some nightmarish, coonlike people with bugged eyes staring out, their faces plastered with wide, mathematical gridlike smiles. Their left hands are raised. Are they saluting the looker or telling us to halt?

Others are slabs of wood festooned with found objects like Mardi Gras beads, cowrie shells and snatches of magazine photographs à la Romare Bearden.

Watch the pieces, and they sing a song of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, of Charles Mingus or of Eric Dolphy, whose music played on the evening Leslie stopped by Simone's to firm up last-minute details and to label the pieces for the reception. Leslie intentionally creates musically inspired art.

"Music is colors," the 52-year-old native Cincinnatian says, hunched over a label maker, an Exacto knife in one hand. "I use a lot of blues. Music has a direct influence on my work. I'm always listening to music while I work. I listen to a lot of Miles."

Indeed, he does. "Miles Smiles" is a towering piece whose royal blue background unearths Leslie's opinion of Davis' royalty status. Davis is in profile blowing his horn, while down the right side are crudely written song titles and track times.

Leslie, a part-time bus driver and art teacher, says his father was an artist and his mother a pianist. As a young child he began painting, switched to trumpet and back to painting.

I first encountered Leslie when he led the group The Last Boppers, a Jazz outfit that played outré, loft-style compositions. I was transfixed years later when Leslie, as one-third of the 13-year-old visual collective NeoAncestralists, presented Disciples of the Hood, the multi-media installation at the Contemporary Arts Center.

When I tell him his reception is sure to be wild, he says that's exactly the point.

"That's what it's all about -- the cutting edge, pushing the envelope," he says. "It's about our spirit. What I always find in doing the art or playing the music, it's very healing."

And Cincinnatians could use a little of that. Get it where you can. Get it with Leslie.

Leslie, within and without the NeoAncestralists, numbers among black artists here who are unfazed by any lack of gallery or studio backing. They make their own opportunities just like they make their art -- fearlessly.

"Generally, in Cincinnati, period, you have to create your own opportunities," Leslie says, returning to his workstation to grab more labels. "I show more in Columbus than in Cincinnati. Columbus is my home as far as the artistic community. It's a matter of getting it out."

And that he does, in the most rhythmical and musical ways. Somewhere, Miles smiles.



Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
 
 
 
 

 

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