With Nothing Shall Be Pleased: The Art and Eyes of Leo Egger

Art by Leo Egger

“Don’t publish me saying anything really stupid,” Leo tells me. I laugh. He cradles his brayer with ink-stained fingers and returns once more to the linoleum. I rack my brain for my next question and hope, as I’ve been hoping for the past half hour, that it won’t come off as offensively asinine adjacent Leo’s far more thoughtful response. He’s self-assured but not incurious, and it’s hard to imagine him saying something stupid. Nevertheless, he worries.

“It’s hard to talk about your own work,” he says. “You know that.” I do; moreover, I imagine that difficulty is intensified if, as is the case for Trumbull junior Leo Egger, the word “work” means so many different things. When I arrive at Leo’s house for our interview—one to which he’s only reluctantly agreed—he’s in the middle of making a linoleum print, a process he first picked up in the spring of 2020. He’d been interested in the medium long beforehand, but spent high school and the beginning of college devoting most of his extracurricular energy to directing live theatre, even forming his own theatre company in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina. When the coronavirus pandemic rendered such things impossible, a need arose for more solitary creation; Leo spent much of his gap semester in a Pawtucket art studio, sweating over linoleum blocks. (When he wasn’t there, he was working on a flower farm, an experience, he says, not too dissimilar from printmaking: both are concerned with “seeing something emerge, seeing something grow, come to be.”) Most recently, he’s turned to oil painting; as a kid, it was papier-mâché masks. He’s a true jack of all trades, and, if you ask him, a master of none.

“I have no technical training,” he tells me. I look down at the print he’s vigorously bathing with ink; it’s a surreal, playful piece called Ducks in the Street: The Day of Joy Has Arrived At Last. It’s affecting, impressive, and alive with detail; “technical training” seems of little importance. Leo isn’t wholly opposed to imperfection, either, doubtful as he can sometimes be. One of his favorite prints, and the cover art for his show, is an early work called Snow in Boston. “It’s not very clean,” he says of the now year-old piece, before pointing out its numerous flaws: jagged edges, erratic color, white shining through where it shouldn’t. “I think it’s one of my best works.”

Process trumps product every step of the way for Leo. No matter the genre, the act of wringing a tangible thing from an intangible vision is more than rewarding—it’s revelatory. A directorial dream for a play necessarily mutates in the mouths and bodies of its actors; carving a lino print and later inking that print can prompt completely different realizations; oil painting demands patience—the dialogue between painter and canvas never stops, even if you do have to “wait a week ’til the fucker dries” before you can return to it. “It’s an incredible feeling to build up a canvas over weeks, to fight with it and watch something slowly come through,” Leo says. As for whether there’s ever an end to that process: “No, no. But the gift of art: you just have to stop at some point and say ‘Fuck it.’ This work is never done, but you have to stop at some point and show people. And people have to experience it. But it’s never gonna be what I want.”

 

To move so constantly and concentratedly toward a final product that will always be in some way incomplete may strike some as the very definition of insanity; for Leo, it’s a way of seeing. From the inception of a piece to that moment of deciding it’s done, the slow unfurling of questions, answers, and images breeds new knowledge and better understanding. “I’m trying to explore a different world of myself,” he tells me. His first proper attempt at self-portraiture—and biggest canvas yet—is a painting called Breathe, and it’s noticeably uncrowded relative to his other works: just him, or a figure who could be him, floating blissfully in a river. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it’s a piece that’s given him more trouble than most—a reminder that looking in the mirror, no matter the medium, is never easy.

Necessarily, though, the communal abounds in Leo’s work, too. His theatrical background is reiterated in his visual art as a thematic preoccupation with performance. More than one of his paintings is set in an actual theatre, while others investigate subtler venues of voyeurism: cafés, museums, street corners. Even the title of the show, And By And By, comes from Shakespeare’s Richard II. For Leo, the line between authentic existence and artificial performance is a blurred one, if there is a line at all. And By And By “explores the experience of what it is to watch and be watched,” and “what we are when we’re stripped of the vestiges that define us,” forced to sit in and with our nakedness, together.

At the same time, Leo’s largely uninterested in the pinning down of themes. “To explain it all under some guise of thematic wholeness seems a little false,” he says. “If I had a thesis, I would’ve written an essay.” Most important is the experience. From the first brushstroke or nick of the linoleum cutter to the final set of eyes scanning the walls of the Trumbull gallery, the art is made art by the bodies that move for, around, and with it. Solitary as it may be to wrestle for hours with an ink roller or nurse a headache induced by paint fumes, Leo’s show is, at its core, an invitation to collaboration. “I hope that people see something maybe I can’t even articulate about it,” he says. “That would be a real gift.” And if they don’t? “C’est la vie.” The seeing, at least, has been done; the space and the colors have been shared. When I ask him the somewhat daunting question of what he’d produce if he could only make one more piece for the rest of his life, he says, “It’s gotta be a print. I could give one to everyone I know.” Beyond that, it’s impossible to say.

Throughout the course of our interview, Leo crumples or completely rips in half three versions of Ducks in the Street that, to me, look perfectly fine. “Fuck,” he mutters. “I’m so bad at this. I’m literally so bad at this. Let me just try one more time to do this right.” It’s baffling to watch someone work so intensely on so beautiful a piece only to be completely dissatisfied with the result. But it’s clear Leo sees something I don’t. The next day, he sends me photos of two more copies of Ducks in the Street that he’d finished after I left. “Now these,” he says, “are actually clean prints.” And he’s right. They do look much better.

No matter the kinds of art you make, or your investment in art at all, there is something compelling about Leo’s desire to see clearly, to watch closely, to look at others while they look at you. His products and, moreover, his process are reminders that no one, nothing, is ever really unnoticed.

In his earliest printmaking days, Leo tells me, he would accidentally cut himself all the time while carving the linoleum; the smallest distraction, the slightest shift in focus, and the knife would slip. “I have scars still,” he says. “But it felt good, in a way, to do something that was sharp. You’re doing something with sharp implements. It’s real.” Seeing, creating, performing: it’s dangerous work. “You ought to pay attention.”

Leo Egger’s inaugural art exhibition, And By And By, is open November 12th to 17th, from 6PM to 9PM, in the Trumbull Gallery.

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