Studio Visit: Leon Loucheur

Earlier this month, we visited with San Francisco based artist Leon Loucheur to discuss his solo show in November, Sentient City, at Modern Eden Gallery. We spoke him in his studio about his process, life as an artist in San Francisco, and yes, pigeon sex. 

Photo credit: Kimberly Needham

ME: How did you go about selecting your subject matter and what is the your inspiration for the show?


Leon Loucheur: This show is all about urban-wildlife surrealism featuring the wild animals that live in the city of San Francisco and off our coast. I’m starting to subscribe more and more to a local approach to painting, both in terms of subject matter, but also in the sense of the work being increasingly autobiographical, however abstracted. It reflects my own experience in life as someone who thrives in the environmental extremities, enjoying the mania of urban life, as well as the quiet solitude of nature, and the vibe of this show reflects that duality. I also included a few human animals for good measure, lest we forget what we really are. So the work really draws directly from a source right outside my door, the animals I can observe every day flying the Victorian canyons, or scaring the shit out of me in trees at 2 in the morning, damn raccoons. Herons, coyotes, ravens, owls, I’ve seen them all here in the city. I wanted to express the sense that we were all sentient, feeling beings sharing the same spot on planet Earth. The show is about life shared, and more-over, a city shared. And it is also about awakening to the sometimes invisible presence of nature that is all around us, even in the heart of an urban environment.


ME: In addition to the animals, your compositions include skeletons, floating anatomical hearts, urban architecture, and what seems to be an ample dose of surrealism. It seems like you are pushing further away from conventional interpretations of your subjects and into more symbolic territory. What has been the motivation behind this transition?


Leon Loucheur: No doubt. It gets back to my love of balancing extremities. I’m looking for a tipping point between the vibrancies of waking reality and some surreal state that reflects dream and death. It’s what poet Shuntaro Tanikawa characterizes as “a silken mass of despair balanced by a speck of leaden hope.” It doesn’t always have to divvy up like that, but you get the picture; it’s all about the arrangement of the silk and the lead, only I use bones, which most people associate with death and despair, and hearts, the beating force of life, the speck of leaden hope. Anyway, yeah, I like to get into that surreal stuff. I enjoy the drama and the story telling aspect. It’s all about expanding your vocabulary of images and using them strategically without being obtuse or rambling, which is itself a balancing act.


ME: So do you have any SF wildlife stories?


Leon Loucheur: Oh, absolutely. Ha ha, a few interesting ones. I saw a heron stalk, kill, and choke down a massive gopher in front of a big tour group of kids on vacation. It took the heron about 5 solid minutes to get the meal down its neck, which was bulging grotesquely from the size of the massive subterranean rodent lodged in his throat. The tourist kids were bugging out while their chaperones scrambled to shield the eyes of the sensitive or squeamish. Needless to say, it made for for an entertaining scene.

Also, I saw a coyote standing so still in the bushes, a few feet off the sidewalk, that I watched person after person walk right past in broad daylight. Not one of them noticed the wild dog they had just passed within an arms reach of. It wasn’t aggressive or anything, just statue still, like it was in some kind of trance.

Then…there’s the pigeon sex in the sandbox at the playground, which is always awkward, with all the parents sitting around pretending not to notice the wildly flapping birds mounting each other amidst the playing children and sand toys. It’s a real moral quandary. One voice in your head is saying “I should probably break this up,” and another voice is saying “come on man, don’t be a hater.”

But, hands down, the strangest experience was when I was preparing for a show called Nature’s Revenge a few years back. I was painting these two giant raven paintings in my living room, which was my stand-in for a studio at the time, and I kept hearing this loud pinging noise on my heater unit. I realized some animal was on my roof going at the ventilation pipe. I had roof access, so I snuck around to the staircase in crocodile-hunter mode. When I got to the roof, there were about thirty ravens hanging out, directly above where I had been working on these raven paintings. The way I burst though the roof-access door, I scared the shit out of them, and they all took off in unison But it was what they did next that kinda blew my mind. Instead of just flying away, they all started circling directly above me at a really low altitude, right above my head. They just kept circling, and circling, like some black avian tornado, making a hell of a racket and getting incrementally farther away from me with each pass, again, and again, and again, until they finally broke formation in the distant sky. I just stood there dumbfounded. Then I walked back down to my work and sat there in front of my raven paintings thinking, “did that really just happen?” I felt like I was the anointed one, although no doubt it was just a very fortunate coincidence. It was none-the-less profound, and it brought the work into focus for me. All of a sudden I was painting an image that I had a very intimate connection with, and once you start tapping that well-spring, there’s no going back.


ME: What’s your daily life like? What are some things you do when you’re not painting?


Leon Loucheur: I spend a lot of time with my kids in Golden Gate Park. The Botanical Gardens, Academy of Science, way too many playgrounds. I’ve been considering writing a definitive guide to the playgrounds of The Richmond District if this painting thing doesn’t work out. That’s the only other thing I’ve developed any expertise in over the years. My daily routine is all puzzles and juice, jungle-gyms and crackers. Oh, and some late night painting sessions. To be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The blessings are abundant.


Sentient City opens November 9, 2013 at Modern Eden Gallery in San Francisco.

Kim Larson
Kim Larson