by Kelsey Sandra Ables
It’s easy to assume lawyers spend their nights flipping through pale yellow legal pads, filing cabinets and manila folders packed with depositions, court orders and transcripts. We certainly don’t imagine our lawyer to be doodling ideas for his next masterpiece on the back of a napkin at lunch or going home to work on canvases depicting symbolic recurring dreams. LeRoi Johnson defies the stereotype, existing in both the legal and art world with ease.
To the international art world Buffalo native LeRoi Johnson is known for his strikingly vibrant figures, his Afrocentric themes and surreal dreamscapes. In fact, his work currently adorns the glossy cover of Art Tour International, an art magazine with over 2 million readers in 192 countries. To the music industry, LeRoi is the former manager of his brother Rick James’ legendary career. To the entertainment industry he was a known regular at the elite seventies nightclub Studio 54, along with many celebrity friends he’s outlived like Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Prince and Robin Williams. Here in Buffalo you might know him as a board member of Burchfield Penney Art Gallery and the Buffalo Artists Society, or he might be your attorney.
He calls his work “electric primitive.” “I’m a primitive artist because I’m untrained, unschooled I use primitive themes.” says LeRoi, “but I use color; that’s what makes it electric. If you went into a cave and you saw the work there, that would be primitive, but once you start adding a lot of color to it– what is it now? I would call it electric.”
While he separates his career as an artist from his career as a lawyer, one thing certainly connects the two—his ability to navigate gray areas. In the law, LeRoi has to find clarity in gray areas and in art he creates them. For example, our Artvoice cover image Untitled, has three figures; that seems obvious. We assume that their colored skin makes them black, their boldly delineated breasts, voluptuous lips, and voluminous hairdos and earrings make them female.
LeRoi would tell you that because they are split in half there are actually six figures and that they are androgynous. He might call them his “colored people,” but that does not mean they are black. “We are all composed of different colors,” says LeRoi, “In my blood, the highest amount of DNA is from Ireland and Scandinavia which is absurd, but it’s true. I can put myself next to any black person and you’d say we’re both black, but you won’t find anybody that has my exact color. The color span is crazy [and] that’s what the whole idea of ‘colored people’ is about.”
LeRoi’s work revels in uncertainties. “You might think a halo’s a halo,” said LeRoi, as in our cover image, “but at the same time it’s a noose and it’s a weight that’s carried and there might be some indication of royalty there but at the same time that royalty has been taken away, so you have to really think…”
These figures exempt from gender and race present an idealism we simply cannot achieve in our structured 9-5 lives. “We are all searching for some kind of freedom and less structure” says LeRoi “I mean some people want to be structured so I say ‘ok, you’re no different than other people why would I want your work?’ I can paint any way I want to paint. Would you tell Picasso that leg is not supposed to be there? That hand is not supposed to be there? … I mean you can have ugly colors and make it work and you can have stupid things that don’t even make sense and have it in paintings and make it work.”
What might seem “stupid” and nonsensical in LeRoi’s work is actually a part of a greater symbolic narrative. “Every last one of them has a story, a deep story,” says LeRoi. Each element– whether it is the left and right hands flipped on his painting of his brother or the golden nuggets the nuns in St. George are throwing—originated in LeRoi’s imagination and has been placed in the painting for a reason.
LeRoi, who has spent a great deal of time in Brazil, calls St. George, “one of the few [paintings] that I really get outward with symbolism.” Religious themes and Brazilian influences come together in this evocative piece. In the foreground, St. George on horseback holds a sword in one hand and a bible in another. In the background we see burning favelas (slums), reminiscent of LeRoi’s trips to Brazil. To the right soldiers are being attacked by nuns throwing golden pellets at them and colored people soar across the sky on jetpacks. Perhaps, what is most striking, however, is the soldier on the ground. St. George is typically depicted fighting a dragon, yet here the dragon is absent and in its place is a beheaded soldier that St. George seems to be trampling over. St. George was ultimately beheaded by the Roman Empire and this soldier could be foreshadowing St. George’s imminent demise.
LeRoi collaborated on a piece with his daughter in 1999 called Attack on Civilization that proved to be a premonition of 2001’s 9/11 terrorist attack. The NYC Towers are a recurring symbol in LeRoi’s work, and were inspired by his training in architecture. “My first towers were done in the 70s,” said LeRoi. What is peculiar about this painting is just how closely it depicts the terrorist attack that had not even happened yet– the greatest terror attack in US history since Pearl Harbor. “I use these three towers… they have been broken off and are falling and there’s a circle and a target that the towers are falling into the target” Eerily, to the right of the second tower is an airplane. The theme is “destruction of civilization” says LeRoi, a theme that was certainly realized in the chaos that ensued two years later in 2001.
LeRoi has often been compared to Brazil’s famous civil rights leader and artist, Abdias do Nascimiento, “I think the comparison only goes to color and Afrocentrism… there’s some similarities in terms of the essence of my work and the essence of his work” says LeRoi. “He’s explained things to me that I didn’t really understand,” says LeRoi of his friendship with Nascimiento, “I create these icons and he explained that ‘these things come from your soul. You might remember or you might not… some of them might even go back hundreds of years back into Africa.’”
While his icons might come from his long-gone ancestral past, LeRoi’s use of perspective comes from an unforgettable event: a severe truck accident that left him hospitalized from age 10 to 13. “I had nothing to do in the hospital” LeRoi remembers, “the guy in the next bed from me bought me a sketchbook and gave me some crayons so I would sketch the room, but everything was from the perspective of being in a bed and looking up… so that’s where my perspective comes from.” This vertical perspective is rare– almost any painting you see in a gallery will use the more familiar horizontal perspective. “I feel Picasso also [used vertical perspective], because I can break his work down easily.” “Easy to break down” is certainly not the way most people would describe the work of the enigmatic Picasso.
But Picasso did have his “African Period” and his use of African symbols is a clear point of comparison. But though the two have been compared stylistically and thematically, LeRoi is quick to point out their differences. “Picasso stole from African art!” LeRoi says. In one of LeRoi’s paintings at the national archive in Brazil he uses an African mask known as a Bacota. “Picasso took the bacota idea and made the Les Demoiselles painting I used that same image but I don’t change it.” Les Demoiselles is one of the most controversial pieces in art history for the way it sexualizes the women depicted wearing these masks. LeRoi notes that “[Picasso] took that [African] form and then made it into a whole school but the school was already there—African art was already out there.” Picasso was even quoted saying, “African art? Never heard of it.” “In my work, I’m not trying to hide anything,” says LeRoi, “an African would look at it and recognize it and say oh that’s a bacota. Or that’s a karumba…it’s very different than what Picasso did.”
When asked who his [LeRoi’s] influences are, LeRoi is hesitant to pinpoint anyone specifically. He cites Abdias do Nascimiento as someone whose work he really loves and speaks enthusiastically about primitive art he’s seen in ancient caves. “The main guys that I like—Picasso, Dali, Chagall… I’m not really influenced by any of them.” He takes pride in maintaining his distinct style…“I try to stay true to my form. If I think what I’m working on is looking like such or such then I’ll get rid of it.” But he also keeps an analytical eye on what else is out there.
The studious nature that brought LeRoi to the legal world also informs his approach to art. While many of the elements he brings to his art are otherworldly—his dreams, visions, and African ancestors, he says he is “very analytical about art too.” “I was going to galleries when I was on the road [with Rick James]. Every city that we played in I made sure that I went to every gallery. I’ve been to almost every important gallery and major museum in the major cities of all 50 states.”
While managing his brother Rick James, LeRoi was not painting, but these gallery visits and his run-ins with Warhol and Basquiat at Studio 54 served as reminders of his dormant artistic talent. He actually took a 10-year hiatus from painting after Rick told him that he didn’t like his art. LeRoi didn’t return to painting until a curator took interest in some of his older paintings. When he began to see success as an artist LeRoi remembers, “Rick asked ‘why don’t you ever give me any of your work?’ I said ‘I don’t give people work who don’t like my work’ and he said ‘What you talking about?’ and I said ‘you told me that my work stunk’ he said—‘I was just kidding!’ I said ‘so I stopped 10 years of work because of you and you’re telling me that…’ he said ‘yeah I was just kidding with you. I always liked your work’ I said ‘well I’m still not giving it to you.’”
Despite this interruption in his career, LeRoi has seen fast success around the nation and around the world. He just returned from shows in France and Italy and, as mentioned earlier, is featured on Art Tours International this month (http://goo.gl/CMvyqc). Despite being a lawyer by day, LeRoi is so prolific he accidentally bought one of his own works. “I did a lot of paintings out in Los Angeles. I don’t know where the Hell they ended up.” He remembers seeing a painting at someone’s house in LA and asking to buy it. “The man said ‘no you can’t buy it.’ He says, ‘why don’t you give me a dozen paintings for it.’” Up for the challenge LeRoi quickly did 12 paintings for him… “12 great paintings” LeRoi says. When the man finally handed over the piece, LeRoi remembers, “I asked again, who did it? And he said ‘you did it!’ I said I DID IT? You’re a thief!”
For now, LeRoi is still using the early morning and late night hours for paintings and the backs of napkins for preliminary sketches, but his growing global success as an artist suggests he could toss his day job if he wanted to. “I showed in Canada…all I did was go to show, and I ended up winning this international prize, and I said ‘I wasn’t even here for that’… I’m not even really ready to be moving that fast but every time I put it out there it takes off.”
We build our lives through the choices we make and life’s journey can be full of stress or full of joy and contentment. LeRoi Johnson, who is also a talented classical guitarist, chose to live in joy and contentment through his painting and his music. And interestingly enough that peace and contentment brings the patience and focus demanded of his law practice. In the parlance of the 1970s, LeRoi Johnson really has his shit together.