Michael Leavitt (artist)
Leavitt at work on 1998 'Epiphany' installation
|Born||Michael Gipson Leavitt
November 4, 1977
Seattle, WA, U.S.
|Alma mater||The Evergreen State College|
|Known for||sculpture, painting, installation art, art toys, kitsch, puppetry, stop-motion animation|
|Movement||Conceptual art, Pop art, Interactive art, Urban art, Low brow|
Mike Leavitt (born November 4, 1977) is a visual artist based near Seattle, Washington responsible for a variety of fine art and design works in various media. With his HiPop Project under the name Intuition Kitchen Productions, Leavitt "blends art, design and social commentary". Most well known are his "Art Army" series of handmade action figures depicting visual artists, musicians, and entertainers. Leavitt exhibits with Jonathan LeVine in New York, NY.
- 1 Background
- 2 1999-2008 "Portable Homeless Shelters"
- 3 2001-15 Trading Cards
- 4 2002-13 Action Figures & "The Art Army"
- 5 2004-08 "Penny Places"
- 6 2006-14 Cardboard Shoes & "Hip Hopjects"
- 7 2006-12 Wedding Cake Toppers
- 8 2006-08 Barack Obama's Campaign
- 9 2007-13 Charles Krafft Collaborations
- 10 2013-14 "Empire Peaks"
- 11 Critical Response
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Leavitt was influenced by the wood-craft and engineering of Native American, Scandinavian, and industrial manufacturing in the region. His parents practiced education, graphic design, and environmentalism by trade, formulating Leavitt's early interests in both art and sociology. As a child he taught himself to build miniature hydroplanes in balsa wood. "My mom had some drawing skills, she started as a graphic designer at Boeing," Leavitt says, "I would have her draw my action figures, and I would watch her draw." Though Leavitt is not considered a "self-taught" artist, his art training was unconventional. He attended one year at The Pratt Institute in New York in 1996-97, took sculpture courses at the University of Washington in 1998-99, and completed a self-designed Bachelor of Arts at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA in 2001. "Leavitt began crafting a motley variety of apartment friendly, popcult-themed art after dropping out of Pratt to avoid working for whoever passes for 'The Man' in the art world." (Thrillist.com) From 1998 to 2004, Leavitt executed a diverse series of conceptual art pieces. "Grandpa's Forest" (1998), "Infinite System" (1998) and "Epiphany" (1998) were large, room-sized installations involving physical audience participation. "Push Button Performer" (2001–2004), "Velcro Clothes" (1999), and "Interactive Puppetry" (2000–2001) were cabaret-style, amateur performances using audience confrontation in public settings. The "Piano Massager" (2001) and "Improv Station" (2001) were designed as interactive objects, with both manual and motorized moving parts. Between 1998 and 2004, Leavitt's studio gradually became a gallery known as The Intuition Kitchen ArtShop in Seattle. If not outdoors or in public, it was at this location that Leavitt arranged the production and promotion of his interactive, conceptual, and performance art. The 'ArtShop' slowly evolved from an exhibition space to a self-produced retail gallery for Leavitt to sell his "product". Originally an installation-type setting related to Claes Oldenburg's "The Store" (1961), the space became more akin to concept of Keith Haring's "PopShop" (1988–2005). Leavitt's 'ArtShop' hosted his first handmade action figures, sold the majority of his trading cards, and occasionally dealt other examples of his paintings, prints, and small sculpture. This informal venture continued intermittently until the 'ArtShop' closed, and Leavitt began to show his work in retail galleries in 2004. Since then, Leavitt has continued non-commercial side projects, including plans for large scale public works, and political and community activism.
1999-2008 "Portable Homeless Shelters"
Three small, wheeled housing units were built for Seattle-area tent cities. The first two units, made from salvaged pallet wood, served these tent cities for 3 years, beginning at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. "As the homeless faced the threat of street sweeps during WTO, Leavitt's creations were used as a 'honeymoon sweet' (sic) for one couple, and as a headquarters for the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE). Log cabins for the homeless? It is an odd invention indeed. But it may also be a solutions of sorts for homelessness in Seattle."(Real Change)
The third unit was built in 2001, using vinyl siding scraps salvaged from construction debris. This shelter dismantled completely, with the roof, walls, and floor separating into large, flat, transportable sections. Though designed for domestic dwelling, the units were most often been used for secure storage and nighttime security posts in the Tent Cities.
2001-15 Trading Cards
Leavitt hand-painted small portraits of famous and lesser-known artists, re-printed in the likes of traditional baseball trading cards. "I had so many ideas- too many ideas- the opposite of writer's block" says Leavitt, "I started doing trading cards of work I had already done, ideas for things I hadn't built, and famous people... my influences, who inspired me." "ArtCard" subjects were drawn from varied genre, similar to his successive "Art Army" action figures, with icons such as Vincent van Gogh, David Byrne, Bob Ross, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Laurie Anderson, Björk, and Michael Jackson. As described by Leavitt, the trading cards were the direct precursor to the 'action figures': "the trading cards... were like singular figures in action. Why not 3-D? Why not an action figure, a toy?" In 4 complete sets of 45 cards each, Leavitt also developed sub-sets such as the "Future Stars" and "Concept Only" cards, representing unknown artists personally familiar to Leavitt and his un-executed ideas for large-scale works, respectively. Printed in limited editions and packaged in wrappers with bubble gum, "Art Cards" were sold personally by Leavitt and exhibited as art objects. Leavitt said, "It's a way I created to compare people and what they do across all kinds of different areas." "Many mass-produced trading cards are based on original pieces that are shrunken down to fit the space. 'I take great pride that that is the size I drew them,' Leavitt says. 'It's one of the challenges I like- it's like a game, to create art that small and make it work.'" (The Artist's Magazine)
"Media Heroes", 2008
Seattle-based independent media advocacy group Reclaim the Media collaborated with Leavitt to produce a set of "Media Heroes" trading cards. Included are Leavitt's drawings of individuals and organizations such as Bill Moyers, Democracy Now!, Children's Television Workshop, and Frederick Douglass. Though essentially an illustration side-project for Leavitt, the cards have become a useful fund-raising and educational tool for the mission purposes of Reclaim the Media.
"Star Wars Sketch Cards", 2009-15
In a trend pioneered by the Topps Trading Cards company, artists' are hired to produce quick drawings on 'sketch cards'. These are then sealed in retail packages of the trading cards, often coveted and dealt intensely by collectors after finding the rare original artwork cards as random inserts. Leavitt was one of several "familiar names" invited by fellow artist Sucklord, of 'Work of Art' fame, to contribute original drawings for Topps' 2009-10 Star Wars Galaxy sketch card sub-sets.
2002-13 Action Figures & "The Art Army"
Though accurately described as action figures, the "Art Army" series is more commonly considered fine art. "These are art toys with a capital 'A'." (Jason Atomic, PIMP Magazine) Leavitt is "interested mainly in the figure as sculpture, and less as a pure platform." (Dot Dot Dash, Die Gestalten Verlag) Since they are not made in plastic or reproduced in multiples, and are only available commercially through fine art galleries, the "toy" definition only describes the figures' engineering. Leavitt says, " 'action figures' are OURS, (they are) particular to the early '80's boom in mainstream toy business that predated the anti-social video game boom' and I like the connotations of the words 'action' and 'figure'- movement and motion, and figurative realism." The articulating, polymer clay, small-scale (3 to 12 inches, 7 to 24 cm tall) figures are assembled with elastic cord, have removable parts and internal armatures, and display in handmade blister packages, glass domes, and custom diorama-style backgrounds. Leavitt also carves the articulating action figures in wood, both at the small action figure scale and in a large scale (up to 3 feet, 100 cm tall).
"More of a good-natured joke than a stern commentary on the commodification of art" (David Stoesz, Seattle Weekly), the biographic series depict artists in an array of genres. Leavitt "perceives the potential for his figures to act as bridges between pop culture and art history." (Dot Dot Dash, Die Gestalten Verlag) From over 230 figures since 2002, subjects include Vincent van Gogh, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Laurie Anderson, Björk, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, and Ralph Nader. "The tributes to Leavitt's heroes will do nothing more than put a big dopy grin on your face." (Seattle Magazine) The series also depicts artists in the "low brow" and urban contemporary art movements, including Big Daddy Roth, Robert Williams, Mark Ryden, Shag, Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, Lori Earley, Sas Christian, Audrey Kawasaki, Friends With You, Fafi, Barry McGee, Ron English, Shepard Fairey, and Banksy.
"When it comes to art icons, Michael Leavitt has a deep set of beliefs about who deserves a reserved parking space in the annals of history." (Juxtapoz Magazine) Many of the action figures take on non-human form, as the likeness of the artist is shaped with trademark visual elements in their work. Leavitt has said, "I wanted to pay respect to people's work I love, and give them a little taste of their own medicine." The "enemy" of the "Art Army", "The Man", includes action figure versions of Martha Stewart, Britney Spears, Darth Bush, and the John Tesh, Michael Bolton, Kenny G "3-Headed Monster". "The project is clearly aligned against the forces of imperialism and cultural suckiness, but Leavitt makes his points with a light touch, being too high-spirited and incorrigibly silly to get bogged down in another dreary leftist critique." (David Stoesz, Seattle Weekly) "Leavitt succeeds in art’s most important function — to not only help us recognize and articulate our values, but participate in a dialog that validates them as well. At its best, art connects our best selves with each other, and he has done that... I’m grateful to artists who address the subject of 'What is it about fighting and glorifying fighting and power, anyway?' in a way that gets our minds thinking and lips moving." (Polymer Clay Daily)
An "Art Army" story is developed in a short set of movies with the articulating figures filmed in stop-motion-animated sequences. Leavitt custom-tailors his action figures as private commissions for vanity pieces and action figure enthusiasts. The figures are also formulated as memorials included in Seattle artist Greg Lundgren's "deathcare boutique".
2004-08 "Penny Places"
Small landscapes are painted onto copper 1-cent pennies "in the style of landscapes hanging in a 1970s suburban rec room" (Regina Hackett, Seattle P-I). In the painted scene, Leavitt attempts to re-create the exact location where the penny was found in public. An impressionist-like technique results from the brushwork, as no magnification is used to execute the miniature paintings.
"Sometimes what makes a painting so interesting is not the finished piece, but the painstaking steps the artist went through to bring it to life. Such is the case with Mike Leavitt's G-Train penny." (TimeOut New York)
2006-14 Cardboard Shoes & "Hip Hopjects"
"Mike Leavitt is a singularly talented Seattle artist. He makes all kinds of art, from action figures to reproductions of iconic shoes. Mike has lovingly recreated them down to the exact detail. But there is one significant difference. Although you would never know it to look at the photo, these shoes are made with cardboard. Mike Leavitt is the inventor of the cardboard shoe... a bit of a trickster, and certainly curious."(CBC Radio)
"If only there were a way to retain a pristine version of the shoe, and save the planet from excess shoe box waste. Enter Mike Leavitt and his recycled-cardboard kicks."(Paste Magazine) In Leavitt's ongoing series of cardboard shoes and 'Hip Hopjects', to-scale editions of cultural ephemera are made with recycled materials. "Though best known for his cardboard sneakers, the rest of artist Mike Leavitt’s work is just as jaw-dropping" (blog.UrbanOutfitters.com). Items such as a "ghetto blaster", baseball hat, and soccer ball have been rendered in actual scale and size with reconstituted cardboard and brown paper bag. "Give him some recycled cardboard, paper bag, along with some glue and acrylic paint, and artist Mike Leavitt could create just about anything" (JoshSpear.com)
The series of vintage shoes includes Puma, Adidas, lady's pumps, and Nike high tops; "an abundance of painstakingly detailed classic kick replicas". (Hi Fructose) "Leavitt works his creative magic on a number of classic silhouettes, including the Air Jordan 1, Air Jordan 4, Vans Slip-On, and Converse Chuck Taylor. Michael does an incredible job of recreating the colors and logos of these classics."(NiceKicks.com) "These shoes are genThrough Cardboard",) The shoes are "to not carry of course, but to admire as an art object." (nu.nl/lifestyle) "By creating cardboard sculptures of some of the most popular models in footwear he is essentially riding the commercial train and exercising his meticulous craft of making these wearable cardboard replicas... the demographic that would buy these may not usually buy a piece of art but they would buy this and call it Art." (Cyanatrendland.com)
Leavitt says, "I might dabble in satire of other essentials in a bad economy: eye glasses, winter coats, food items… but shoes are so intimately linked to our visual culture. They’re a necessity that we still get to have fun buying and wearing. I’ve always believed that fine art, high quality craft, and meaningful objects can be affordable. Galleries, museums and artists can find plenty of room for a different, affordable, more commercially sustainable kind of art-for-art’s-sake… that fits in both the museum and living room." (Seattlemet.com) Leavitt continues, "it's ironic to use a cheap disposable material like cardboard. Cheap, disposable material makes an expensive product, oddly resembling the manufacturing of boutique footwear. The simple image of the cardboard shoe speaks humorously and clearly on consumerism." (Suite101.com)
2006-12 Wedding Cake Toppers
Leavitt is also hired for his small-scale figurative work to make personalized wedding cake toppers that uniquely depict the bride and groom. "(Leavitt's) custom work is just a little bit different than most. He makes action figures, and what is more action packed than a wedding? With a few simple design modifications, Mike turned his action figure style into one of a kind cake toppers." (Handcrafted.com) Showing famous celebrity couples of modern history and same-sex marriage in gallery exhibitions, "the cake toppers are playful with a message... a look at love in the spotlight." (The Desert Sun)
2006-08 Barack Obama's Campaign
From late 2006 to the U.S. Election Day in 2008, Leavitt completed works in homage to Barack Obama. Among them were several portraits of Obama using rocks, marshmallow peeps, handmade pillows, and spray-paint stencils. A large surrealist painting was Leavitt's take on Obama's "grassroots" campaign: leading a large crowd, supposedly grown from blades of grass, is Obama loosely blended into the mass of people. His culminating work for Obama was an action figure in the style of "Art Army", depicting Obama in a Keanu Reeves/"Matrix" style robe, with a large wood cross and tentacles made of American stars and stripes. The satire was designed to counter-act negative stereotypes of Obama, a function of timing in the late days of the Presidential campaign.
2007-13 Charles Krafft Collaborations
In a series entitled "Pitchfork Pals", Leavitt collaborates with the Seattle artist and iconoclast Charles Krafft. Leavitt sculpts busts of controversial icons for the project. Charles Krafft is responsible for producing the "Pitchfork Pals" limited edition pottery by hand. Krafft is a prolific ceramicist widely known for his non-traditional, kitsch-like objects. Included in the series are figures such as Kim Jong Il and Charles Manson depicted as art objects, functional tea pots, and the British nostalgia collectibles known as Toby mugs. "They’re teapots, which is clever if not representative of each character pouring malevolence into the culture that surrounds them."(Jailbreak Collective)
On using the Kim Jong Il tea pot, one humorist conjectures, "when drinking tea from this miserable looking device, you have to avert your eyes and be eternally grateful for such a delicious brew. If you don’t, you might ‘go missing’." (Mof Gimmers)
2013-14 "Empire Peaks"
Advancing his sculptural and figurative work in 2013, Leavitt created a series of articulated wooden statues lampooning pop culture icons. Leavitt's hand-sculpted wood and clay "mash ups" featured celebrities, politicians, humanitarians and other famous non-fictional personalities crossed with fictional and infamous sci-fi characters. With 'Empire Peaks', Leavitt is "juxtaposing the classic archetypal roles found in Yoda, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the rest of the famed cast with pop-culture personas." (Laughing Squid) "By turning well known figures such as Kim Jong Il, Che Guevara, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs into consumer products based on the popular franchise, Leavitt hopes to explore such themes as idol worship, our coveting of mass-produced collectibles and our societies need for heroes, rebels, villains and tyrants." (Trendhunter) According to the Houston Chronicle, Leavitt went "viral with his spaced-out rendition of public figures as Star Wars characters" "Empire Peaks is a phenomenal, Star Wars meets pop culture, collection of hand-carved action figures." (Church Mag) "Every single work in the exhibit is a stroke of genius." (Zimbio)
"Like many kids who were raised in the late '70s and early '80s, the characters of Star Wars exist in a place in Leavitt's mind that is usually reserved for real-life figures," says Fast Company Magazine, "It is this mental distinction between beloved fictional characters who feel real and real-life people who feel fictional that Leavitt explores in his latest project, Empire Peaks."
"(Leavitt's) approach is rather unique and makes a statement, both serious and humorous at the same time, on the personality of each subject." (GeeksAreSexy.net)
Entertainment Weekly pokes fun at a piece depicting the television and film director Joss Whedon saying, "The sculptor and painter definitely got his hair and beard right, and the real Whedon also has seemingly greenish eyes — though they’re perhaps less demonic than these radioactive emeralds. Is he about to Hulk out or something?" (Entertainment Weekly )
Leavitt's Jeremy Lin sculpture created in 2012 is a source of controversy. Larry Hama, creator of the G.I. Joe action figure series says, "I don’t think this is offensive or anything, but it’s a bit of a stretch for a bad joke that’s just this side of a non-sequiter. And who in their right mind would pay that price for something that misses the mark?" (Animalnewyork.com ). Another critic adds, "While I love the fact that someone was inspired to make a Jeremy Lin action figure... did it really have to look this dopey? There's really no need to ninja-fy him." (Angryasianman.com )
Other critiques attempt to categorize Leavitt's work. "It is difficult to define what exactly Leavitt does. His extreme boredom for 'normal' art has resulted in a number of nonpareil projects displayed around the world." (Suite101.com) "His versatility as almost a modern day renaissance man" causes Leavitt's subject matter to range between politics, anthropology, and modern commerce. "Like the objects that they celebrate, Leavitt’s lightweight replicas sit on the border between culture and commerce." (Wired Magazine) "We've previously seen his ceramic teapots made to resemble notorious murderers and landscapes painted on pennies. Is there a medium that Mike Leavitt won't try?" (Neatorama)
Leavitt describes marketing as if he's "been turning green from a poor man's obsession with making more money... turning into a rat scrounging underground, fighting off other scavengers for any little scraps of business." Leavitt resolves, "Art tends to cut across normal political lines. The subject matter may lean a little left, but the business runs hard down the right. People successful with art have a firm handle on socio-economics, and artists have always enormously influenced culture, from the Renaissance to Hip Hop." "Leavitt hasn't always worked to solved social problems, though his artwork has always had a social angle. His interest in the individual's relationship with his or her environmental space... has long been the basis for his art."(Real Change) Leavitt says, "The challenge is designing an object that people want, while making it about something they don't want to hear about."
"... there is hope, there are a few braves who can help us try to understand this every day reality, Michael Leavitt is one of those. His ability to create and re-create unique pieces of work has helped modern art to be less chaotic, less elitist, and more affordable for the common people. Leavitt art is extremely fun, action driven, colorful and very dynamic. You feel you are in the game, it’s easy to become part of the experience." (Atrocidades.net)
"Michael Leavitt still keeps the habit of running with his dog and playing basketball everyday- even while working of his solo exhibitions in New York. His work based on well known figures in art and politics is a contrast to his simple personal life." (Obscura Magazine) "Leavitt has a raw talent for capturing prominent artists, musicians and entertainers in their elements and characterizing them into brilliant sculptures." (KidRobot)
"Artist Michael Leavitt continues his assault on the wider art world in the nerdiest way possible... there is no secret to the artist's fervor." (The Huffington Post) "The bravest move in art's to rebel against classical training to follow a low-culture muse- as with Marcel Duchamp's urinal... Turning a bold 'screw it' into sweet art for you, Mike Leavitt" (Thrillist.com)
"The hardest working man in the art world, Leavitt alters the everyday objects among us with his blazing technical skill and wit."(CapativeWildWoman.com) "From my interactions with Mike, I know the artist to have 'the opposite of writer’s block' and to be constantly producing work and improving his craft. Mike Leavitt will probably create something in the time it takes you to read this." (Jeremy Brautman) Leavitt says, "I’m kind of conceptual art, but I’m not that heady."(Port Townsend Leader) "Leavitt is a unique breed of artist. His work and execution (in both concept and finished product) are too impressive and relevant not to be considered on par with some of the most popular contemporary visual artists working today."(Jailbreak Collective)
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