This blog exists to inspire people to seek out all the great art that lives in and around the Minneapolis skyway.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Interview: Leslie Holt discusses Hello Kitty and the responses she inspires

 Hello Rothko 2009 oil on canvas 8x10 inches

Leslie Holt is bringing her deceptively complex show "Hello Masterpiece" to the Burnet Gallery, where it opens tomorrow, Nov. 12. The party goes from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and should boast an audience of both seasoned patrons and eager neophytes as these paintings feature popular commercial character Hello Kitty dwelling within some of the most famous artworks of all time. Kitty takes on the mood of each piece, dressing appropriately to its style, whether inspired by Caravaggio, Matisse, Picasso or Klimt (just to name a few of the artists she has paid homage to). Most of Holt's creations are postcard sized to reflect how most of this internationally known art is consumed -- as items for sale in a museum shop. Holt wants us to see that these celebrated images are bought and sold in much the same way that our friend and tour guide, Hello Kitty is.

Leslie took a moment to chat with me about her work and inspiration before coming to Minnesota. Hope you enjoy the conversation -- I found her to be amusing and personable, and she admits that old Kitty has lightened her art up quite a bit (though it is no less compelling).

Hello Magritte (eye) 2010 oil on canvas 4x6 inches

Skyway of Love: "Hello Masterpiece" is a sly and smart show, but also shows your skills as an artist.  What led you to use Hello Kitty as your way in?

Leslie Holt: People always ask me that. It came to me not in the shower exactly, but Hello Kitty has always been a force in my life. She came up in the seventies when I was a kid, but then I wasn't that into her. Too Girly. It seemed like she resurfaced about eight years ago, showing up all over the place. I just started thinking about her sort of sub-consciously as a pop icon, but it wasn't even that deep. Basically I started teaching art appreciation and I had been working with Hello Kitty in another art series that I was doing. I had two hundred figurines of her and one day I actually put one of the figurines on a painting. That's how it began. And when I first did these I used to stage her on photographs of the works -- a still life set up. It's funny -- people sort of just started to responding to her and the work. And I have to say it's been so much fun as a painter. I've learned a lot as an artist from doing these paintings -- working in all those different styles. 

SOL: It seems your mixture of commercial elements with a fine art style has been in play for awhile. The "Hello Pills" and "Pills and Spills" series from years past show that. Was that your first foray into that theme?

LH: I think the pills were the beginning of that and it has extended into "Hello Masterpiece." It‘s always been about juxtaposition for me, which, I know, is an overused word. But in those older collections I wanted to show the tension between what is handmade and what is mass produced.

SOL: I know that you’ve been very candid about having a family member with mental illness. Did that inform those earlier works?

LH: Absolutely. Both pill series and the "Unholy Ghost" works were about dealing with my mom who is pretty seriously ill. Those works are all about how that can very much skew your vision of the world. The Hello Kitty paintings are definitely lighter in theme.

SOL: You're from back east, correct and now you live in St.Louis?

LH: Yes, I'm from Delaware originally and honestly I didn’t really know where Missouri was until I moved here to go to college at Washington University. But now, I’ve lived here for 20 years.

SOL: What’s the art scene like in St. Louis?

LH: It's great and growing. We have a nice mix of established galleries and museums as well as new non-profit spaces popping up each year. It's a burgeoning and youthful art scene with a lot of experimental stuff happening. With all of the university students in town, it is fresh and vibrant -- plus it's affordable to live here. You can be starving artist in St. Louis, or even a chubby artist. People here have the opportunity to do their own thing because, it's cheap enough that they can find time to make art. They don't have to work at paid jobs all the time.

SOL: Has the "Hello Masterpiece" show extended? I see that you have two other sets of works on your website -- "More Hello Masterpiece" and "Hello Modern Art."

LH: They are all part of the same concept. In St. Louis I did do a "Hello Modern Art" show, which is on the website. Those extras happened because the challenge has been to create enough work for each new show. The pieces sell so well, that for every show I often have to make several new paintings to fill in the spaces. The Burnet show includes a range of some pieces I've done in the past but, about half the work was made specifically for the Minnesota show. I definitely favor some artists -- like Matisse. I think there are a million Matisse's that I've made. And, for Burnet, I tried to get to 50 paintings, but I think I only have 47 or 48. Because they are so tiny, I have to make many of them to fill a gallery. 

SOL: Are the works all postcard size?

LH: Some of the modern stuff is 8" x 10" or 6" x 12". Previous to last year I only made the actual museum postcard size, to help make clear the conceptual connection to museum postcards. But I’ve loosened up on that as I felt that some pieces would be better in a larger size. For example, I feel that Jackson Pollock deserves at least an 8" x 10" size for his work. And, some of my newest work is Matisse cutouts. At the end of his life, Matisse was quite sick and could not paint so he did colored paper cutouts. I believe my cutouts will be placed in the windows of the Burnet Gallery

SOL: Did the idea for "Hello Masterpiece" come from your teaching? (I think it’s great that you teach both art technique and art history).

LH: Honestly, I never really think of the art work and my teaching as being connected. I teach art appreciation, which gets a bad wrap as a class in general. I guess in a way I was making fun of it of with "Hello Masterpiece", although I don't really think it is a bad class to take.

SOL: What have been some of the more interesting responses to your "Hello" shows?

LH: People are very responsive to them. It’s interesting to meet people while showing at an art gallery and find that several folks are not art lovers. For a lot of people the entry point is Hello Kitty. It's interesting to see what compels someone to look at the art. But whatever brings them through the door is fine with me.
Hello Venus of Willendorf 2009 oil on canvas 4x6 inches
At the David Lusk gallery in Memphis, an upper middle class woman responded to Hello Venus of Willendorf, inspired by the 60,000 year old fetish piece. It has a huge belly and breasts. The woman told me that she just loved it because it reminded her so much of herself. I asked her, “Do you know who that is?” and she had no idea. So she missed the point, but came away with something anyhow.

Another set of women at a show -- it’s happened to me a few times and I find it sort of troubling – said, “This series is just beautiful but can I give you some advice? The paintings are lovely but we highly suggest that you take the little cat thing out of it.” Also I've received a lot of advice about what paintings to do next and how to do them. Someone wanted Kitty in the Dali piece to be dripping, just like the clocks.

SOL: What else are you up to?

LH: I’ve got a new job as the Executive Director of VSA Missouri, which promotes access to the arts for people with disabilities. I’m all about bringing art to larger audiences, so in a loose way it is connected to the "Hello Masterpiece" work I've been doing. This series is about accessibility - even if you don’t get what I was going for, you can enjoy the show in your own way.

SOL: Have you ever been to Minnesota before? Anything on your must-see list?

LH: I have an old friend in St. Paul who I'm going to see, but basically no. Once I drove across country and I did see St. Paul, but only for a little while, and in the dark. I'm coming in Thursday and leaving Sunday night and my friend is going to take me around. I've requested visits to the Walker Art Center and the Soap Factory, which looks really cool.

SOL: Good choices!
The Details:
"Hello Masterpiece" at the Burnet Gallery
Le Meridian Chambers Minneapolis
901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Opening: Friday, Nov. 12 6-9 p.m. (free to the public)
Show: Nov. 12, 2010 - Jan. 9, 2011