In conversation with Leo Coyte


Leo Coyte’s works have been likened to album art, rising out of a recognisable punk, DIY aesthetic, and buzzing with tension between abstract and representational. He covers all kinds of ground between glorifying lowbrow – such as face-mashing dime-store masks of Osama bin Laden and George Dubya – and depicting raw human emotion. Though, in truth, that emotion may appear in a wincing smile, rendered in paint, but appearing as a squeeze of toothpaste on a beach umbrella. Disarmingly, these off beat subjects are approached with exquisite technical skills. His paintings are steeped in the history, action, and process of applying paint to a surface. Essentially while revelling in peculiar and unsettling imagery, he is painting about, well, painting.

Varia Karipoff: Where did you grow up? What was it like there?

Leo Coyte: Between my mum’s place in Bellingen (mid-north coast, NSW) and my dad’s place in Bathurst. Both were on small properties out of town so there was little to do but make art, really. The contrasts between the two landscapes, the schooling and the styles of parenting were quite different.

VK: What were your interests as a teen? Did they carry across into your art practice?

LC: I was into painting, drawing, skateboarding, punk music and all the other normal and mischievous stuff that teenagers might get into. No doubt, experiences from my formative years have had an influence on who I am today and have found their way into my art practice.

VK: Can you describe how you work?

LC: Intuitively, mostly, but also considered. I like the push and pull between the two ways of working. It’s still a bit of a mystery to me how the end result materializes; I think that’s partly what keeps me interested.

VK: You’ve mentioned that you’ll often purchase props from two-dollar stores. What draws you to these objects?

LC: I think it’s because they are so readily accessible and everyone knows these objects, so everyone can relate to them in their own personal way. To me they have an unsettling quality in their cheapness, like a B-grade movie.

VK: There are sometimes unnerving or disrupting elements in your paintings, such as pareidolia. Do you somewhat enjoy messing with the viewer?

LC: I don’t think I’m doing it intentionally to mess with the viewer in the way a surrealist artist might.

I think I get a kick out of imbuing inanimate objects with human qualities.

It’s a way of presenting another type of portraiture. I’m also interested in the potential animism that occurs when you combine a group of unrelated objects together in the right way.

Leo Coyte, Under the Arches #7 (detail), 2014-15, mixed media on paper, 56 x 76 cm.

VK: You touched on the ’potential in animism’ when unrelated objects are drawn together. Can you explain the idea further? That kind of ’spirit’ seems to inhabit your paintings.

LC: I guess it comes down to intuition and being open to using the stuff or junk of your immediate surroundings. Being able to see the potential in it all beyond its intended use. Drawing together unrelated objects helps to form unexpected outcomes that promote new ideas or characters, giving new life to the otherwise ordinary debris from our lives. This relates to a kind of ad hoc or arte povera approach I adopt for doing what I can, when I can, with what I’ve got. I think that keeps my painting honest.

VK: Your work in the group show Solid Gold Easy Action II at Galerie Pompom was a little more subdued than previous works. Why did you decide to pull the reins in for that series?

LC: I think it’s because the work is looking less inward this time. With these paintings I was referencing recent historical art/painting movements, such as minimalism, abstraction and colour field painting. I wanted to turn something seen as quite serious or even ’high-brow’ into something a little more goofy. I used a subdued palette to counteract the slightly anxious expressions on the faces in the works. I used colours that might work well in a domestic setting and hung them on a diagonal like those ceramic flying ducks people hang at home.

I think I was commenting on how those previously mentioned art movements have often become a little cheapened, perhaps by interior-decorating trends.

VK: How do you balance creativity with being commercially successful?

LC: I rely on my day job for a steady income, which means I have the freedom to paint what I want – but not necessarily when I want.

VK: What are you working towards at the moment?

LC: Upcoming solo shows at Galerie Pompom and Nicholas Thompson Gallery.

VK: What has been a highlight of yours as an artist?

LC: Getting to show alongside other artists I admire.

VK: Who are the artists you hold in high regard?

LC: There are so many artists I admire for di erent rea- sons and aspects of their practice, but the ones I keep going back to lately would be Tal R, Dana Schutz, Armen Eloyan, Manuel Ocampo, André Butzer, Philip Guston and Mamma Karin Andersson.

VK: What qualities do you admire in their work?

LC: All of these artists share a kind of fearless freedom to make honest paintings that really push the enve- lope in terms of subject matter, the application of paint, and the use of colour, composition and scale.

VK: What is something that you have seen or read recently that has left a lasting impression on you?

LC: I’m reading Watership Down by Richard Adams with my son and it’s got me thinking again about the current plight of refugees from all around the world.

Interview Words by