The conceptual artist who goes by the name s. legg — first initial only; and all lower case — is something of a mystery figure in the Denver gallery scene. He shows up every few years in one space or another, exhibits a batch of his odd and entertaining objects, then disappears.
He is not a networker or a careerist or a status-seeker; definitely not the type of artist you run into at an opening chatting up dealers, looking for the next opportunity. He prices his sculptural pieces at the low end, for less than they probably could fetch, and that keeps his brand accessible to just about everyone.
Legg lets his work do the talking, as they say, and it is quite the conversationalist: witty, familiar, surprising, sometimes intimidating, often obvious, and always a puzzle waiting to be solved.
Consider his piece titled “peels,” which is described most simply as a short dress made of dried banana peels. The skins are brown, curled and way past their prime, and yet still sort of elegant in the way they are swirled around the curve of the hips, pulled in at the waist and gathered gracefully at the neckline.
Like all of his works, they make us consider materiality. Banana peels are a strange choice for a dress textile, though as a covering or a sleeve, they work just fine for bananas and have protected their flesh with dependable skill for eons. So why not try out the malleable material on a human garment?
It may be impractical but it does make us contemplate just how valuable this organic “fabric” — that we discard or ignore unless we slip on it — is to our existence.
In that way, legg takes ordinary things, breaks them down in his mind to their very essence, then reconfigures them into objects that exaggerate their purpose so you stop taking them for granted.
His umbrella made from hundreds of condoms? Perfectly logical when you consider the main job of condoms is to serve as protection from fluids. They could keep the rain off.
His male bust made of slices of actual white bread? An apt exploration of race and the words we use to describe ourselves and others.
And so it goes at Leon Gallery, where legg’s exhibition, titled “pieces,” is handsomely exhibited through Aug. 6. Like most fine art exhibitions, the show is elegant in its way, full of elevated objects placed on pedestals and hung preciously on walls.
But it is also a cabinet of curiosities, lightened up with peculiarities made from recycled seatbelts, razor blades, pencils, plastic spoons, pins and more.
To be sure, legg’s work can get very close to feeling like a series of punchlines, or come off as cute and homemade — the kind of projects churned out by hobby mavens armed with glue guns and popsicle sticks.
The piece titled “tack,” for example, plays on the dual meaning of “tack” as a word used for both tiny push pins and the parts of a horse’s saddle and dressing. It is literally a stirrup and spurs covered in shiny, gold thumb tacks.
But the artist saves the piece — elevates it thoroughly — through a combination of craftsmanship and commitment. He stands behind his silly joke because it serves the purpose of making us rethink common objects and language. At the same time, it is strikingly well-made and sparkles like fine jewelry; it looks like something you might see in a Tiffany store in a posh Western haven like Aspen.
And just to give it some edge, legg positions the tacks with the pointy end out. It’s dangerous and extreme and demands to be taken seriously as an object.
There are other urgent moments in “pieces,” which is curated by Leon Gallery director Eric Nord. There is a glass slipper made of sharp shards of red glass and an automatic rifle made of shattered liquor bottles.
There is also just enough mystery to keep you guessing. How do you interpret, for example, the piece “conduit,” which is an old children’s school desk wrapped in rows of metal conduit piping used to cover electrical wires in buildings?
Is it a junior version of an electric chair? Or is the conduit meant to look like bars on a prison cell? Either interpretation has ominous implications for the way we educate our youth.
If you go
The exhibit “pieces” continues through Aug. 6 at Leon Gallery, 1112 E. 17th Ave. It’s free. Info: 303-832-1599 or leongallery.org.
The same with his “bandaids,” a piece that is essentially a full-scale female figure covered head-to-toe in store-bought adhesive strips. Is it about the wounds we inflict on women? Or a gesture to make us consider our over-reliance on the flesh-colored bands that safeguard our wounds while blending in with certain skin tones?
Possibly, or both guesses are wrong. Or there is no answer.
“If artwork is done well, it far exceeds any intent by the artist,” legg writes in the exhibit’s artist statement.
He goes on: “After finishing a piece, the artist needs to step back and let the work take on a life of its own.”
If only more artists acknowledged as much, instead of trying to force specific meanings on their work, and blaming the viewer if they don’t “get” it. Our obligation as viewers, I always contend, is to try and understand what artists are saying. But it is the fault of their communication skills if we fail.
There is a refreshing suppression of ego throughout “pieces,” and maybe that is what you would expect from an artist who self-diminishes his identity into lower-case letters and hides his first name.
It serves the work and enhances the experience of walking through the exhibit. And you should see this show — before s. legg disappears again.