"Sun Beneath the Soil: L.E.O. at Tips on Failing"
Tucked behind bustling Mississippi Ave, is a warehouse-come-event-space-come-art-gallery. Positioned on the corner of Failing St and N Michigan Ave, Tips on Failing has been operating in plain sight behind a facade of striking murals on the buildings exterior. The murals, part of the art space’s public programming, are only the first glimpse into this space’s potential. Beyond the roll-up door that grants visitors entry into the space, the industrial bare walls, exposed beams, and breadth of artist studios in the back offer a trove of potential for co-founders Gage Hamilton and Matt Wagner.
— by Lusi Lukova
Beginning in 2013, Hamilton and Wagner founded for Forest for the Trees (FFTT) a not for profit public art project offering space to community arts organizations, social activists, artists, musicians, and other creatives. Since its conception and its goal of making art more accessible in public spaces, they have overseen over 90 murals painted throughout the city of Portland by both local and international artists. Hamilton shares with me that, “Part of the idea is to bring the visual reality of Portland more in line with its reputation as a creative city, and partly to make sure that we continue to value the role of the artist here as the soul and landscape [of the city] continue to change.” Their current location on Failing street became the home base and studios for FFTT in 2017 where they offered the space for free to local creative groups such as Deep Underground, YGB, and Gabriela, with a focus on community or social causes.
The space did not have a name until December 2018, until the conception of co-curator Hamilton’s offshoot project, Tips on Failing, its tongue-in-cheek name toying with the idea of giving advice for an art career. After years of curating public art projects, Tips on Failing is his effort to curate immersive experiences indoors as well, affording a more in-depth focus on each individual artist they work with by hosting bi-monthly art exhibitions. Currently, the project space is converted into an art gallery alongside the first event of the reprogrammed FFTT, a mural by L.E.O. and another by Axel Void, both on the exterior of the Tips on Failing building.
Inside the space, “Sun Beneath The Soil” is the debut solo exhibition of the Florida-based muralist and painter Reginald O’Neal, L.E.O, and his first appearance in the Portland arts scene. This new body of work was painted exclusively for this exhibition and touches on themes L.E.O. incorporates into his larger scale productions. Hung, these ten paintings impressively span the extent of the exhibition space, varying in size and in gravity. Under the guise of his pseudonym “Love Each Other”, L.E.O.’s works are arresting. Painted in dark tones and with emotive gestures, they provide an intimate glimpse into the artists world. On one wall My Little Brother’s Casket (2019) shares a wall with Zipper (2019), a close-in image of an individual’s knife scar on their torso. On the following wall, the portrait Jeff (2019) and My Father (2019), an image of the artist’s father in prison blues, continue the weighted narrative very openly. Painted in the traditional format of oil on canvas, and incorporating contemporary struggles of beauty, community and influence, these paintings are as much a snapshot of L.E.O.’s upbringing as they are a larger comment on a greater socio-cultural existence.
The namesake painting of the exhibition, Sun Beneath The Soil (2019), features a glimpse into a private moment between two individuals. The younger figure locks eyes with the viewer in a steely gaze as his head is slightly tipped back by the older individual on the right. Tilting his chin so, the seemingly older figure appears to be offering a moment of encouragement to the youth, while their other arm drapes around him protectively. The shadows bring into focus from the depths of the dark oil paint only the side of the child’s face as he considers what he is being told and the whites of both of their t-shirts. The remainder of the large canvas is purposefully kept in the shadows, imbuing the work with a mysterious, though not ominous, energy.
Also a poet, L.E.O.’s accompanying poetic narrative to this exhibition stands in as a lyrical interpretation of his works on canvas. Prior to painting, he tells me that he has done rap music and that RAP is an acronym for Rhythm and Poetry - “I take my lyrical content very serious. And I realized that when I detach the music from my words, the word can stand on its own and be considered poetry.” As a result, when a viewer stands in front of the piece Sun Beneath the Soil and reads the accompanying text printed to the right of the wall, “I can feel the amount of strength you used to force me into the ground. / I bet your hands burn. / The darkness provides enough water, and it’s obvious I don’t need light,” the correlation between the two is chilling. One can feel the emotional weight of the words being read and, like a phantom sense, almost feel as if their own chin, as in the piece, is being held and lifted up with a similarly strong grip.
The murals outside of the building play into the heavier mood L.E.O. has created with his paintings inside. Touching on similar symbolism, L.E.O. has created a tender portrait of his sister holding her daughter, accompanied by a smaller image of her while she was incarcerated during her pregnancy on the bottom right. He plays into those contrasting settings all the more by painting the larger, more intimate portrait in grayscale, while using stark, bright blues to portray her in the lower corner. On the other side of the building, muralist Axel Void has painted an old photo of a family and neighborhood block party gathered on the porch of Annie Isabell Jennings, who recently passed away after living in her home for nearly 70 years. Her grandson, Donovan Smith (of Gentrification Is Weird) brought Axel into the family home to look at hundreds of family photos before deciding on this image depicting a warm community pivotal to the Mississippi neighborhood.
Growing up in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, originally called “Colored Town”, during the Jim Crow era of the 19th and mid-20th centuries, L.E.O. melds this history with his own upbringing into his painterly practice to narrate stories of loss, trauma, and community. In pulling on these varied experiences and their impact on his present experience, he attempts to demonstrate the way in which these seemingly opposing forces are inextricably tied together. The bluntness of his works and the lack of color are intentional, his palate guided by the image he is painting and the feeling he is attempting to evoke from the audience, urging them to create their own interpretation. As his poem reads: “I don’t have sight to see myself, to know my worth. / In due time, I’ll develop a pair of my own bifocals to focus on detail, / But from the looks of it I’m in the soil, beneath hell. / When I grown I’ll be fine.” Elsa’s Black Angel (2019), the smallest canvas and the only work not for sale, seems to me to take on the role of protective totem, watching over the heaviness in the gallery and serving as a guiding light. Underneath his use of darkened browns and blacks and earth tones, L.E.O. depicts a vibrant culture, his own community and upbringing, that in the face of hardship grows in strength and affection. He paints the beauty in confusion, the strength in perceiving and nurturing one’s self-worth.
The next installment of Forest for the Trees will be a series of murals coming in July 2019, one in downtown Portland and one on Hawthorne blvd., curated by Hamilton and Wagner (of Hellion Gallery.) As for future programming for Tips on Failing, Hamilton wishes to continue bringing in artists that have a strong voice and are creating work that resonates with viewers and our current cultural climate. Above all else, he wants each exhibit feels very human and to demand to be experienced in person.
Contact Tips on Failing at email@example.com to experience any of L.E.O.’s works in person. Their next show is set for mid-July, and will feature installation artist Drew Merritt, of Clovis, New Mexico, who currently resides in LA. Images courtesy of Anthony Taylor and Tips on Failing.