Michael Leavitt

art army by michael leavitt

Michael Leavitt (b. 1977) is a visual artist based in Seattle, described as “the best caricature sculptor in the city.’ The ‘über-allround-cool-creator’ is most widely known for his ‘Art Army’ series of handmade action figures depicting visual artists, musicians, and entertainers. Through his company, Intuition Kitchen Productions, Leavitt is a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ responsible for a wide variety of conceptual art projects and performance artworks.

From a disinterest in convention, Leavitt proclaims, ‘I’d be afraid not to try other mediums.’ 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, took sculpture courses at the University of Washington, and completed a self-designed Bachelor of Arts at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. ‘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.’

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. 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 pursued several non-commercial side projects, including plans for large scale public works, and political and community activism.

In 1999, Leavitt built small, wheeled housing units 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.’ A third model 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.

From 2001 to 2003, 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 pre-cursor 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 four 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.”

In 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.

Though accurately described as action figures, the ‘Art Army’ series is more commonly considered fine art. Leavitt is ‘interested mainly in the figure as sculpture, and less as a pure platform.’ 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).

According to David Stoesz at ‘Seattle Weekly,’ the figures are: ‘More of a good-natured joke than a stern commentary on the commodification of art.’ Leavitt ‘perceives the potential for his figures to act as bridges between pop culture and art history.’ From over 230 figures since 2002. 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, Friends With You, Barry McGee, Ron English, Shepard Fairey, and Banksy.

According to ‘Juxtapoz Magazine,’ “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.’ 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.’ A review in ‘Polymer Clay Daily’ suggests that, ‘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.’

In Leavitt’s ongoing series of cardboard shoes and ‘Hip Hopjects,’ to-scale editions of cultural ephemera are made with recycled materials. 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. The series of vintage shoes includes Puma, Adidas, lady’s pumps, and Nike high tops. 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.’ 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.’

Leavitt is also hired for his small-scale figurative work to make personalized wedding cake toppers that uniquely depict the bride and groom. 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.’

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 counteract negative stereotypes of Obama, a function of timing in the late days of the Presidential campaign.

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. 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. One reviewer wrote, ‘They’re teapots, which is clever if not representative of each character pouring malevolence into the culture that surrounds them.’

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.’ He 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.’

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