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Life Behind The Concrete Curtain;
Growing Up In The Sex-Fear Based Economy
“The artist is the opposite of the politically minded individual, the opposite of the reformer, the opposite of the idealist. The artist does not tinker with the universe, he recreates it out of his own experience and understanding of life.”
I was born 1966 in Whittier California. What was once a beautiful orange grove later became the land of brick walls, ivy and Richard Nixon. It was too close to Disneyland and Hollywood and too far from any real truth. I was born into a nation obsessed with cartoons and convenience and Mcdonald’s. For every forgotten dream there was an ugly shopping plaza that held the promise of an easier- effortless way , shielded by a curtain of concrete and lies.
The first American words I can remember that had a lasting effect on me were the two words “speak up!” In the years from five to seventeen my father helped give me the confidence to express myself by telling me over and over to “speak up!”. For the first time I thought maybe I might matter or have something to say. Everyone in my life seemed to adopt those same words. Even bisexual rock singers and people on T.V.. From the Vietnam protesters to trashy red white and blue Bicentennial 76 logos and slogans. Speaking up was your duty as a citizen of the land of the free. I could not and would not talk much. It seemed the whole world was obsessed and offended by my silence. Up until then I was confused about my place in the world so I tried to ignore the world, because I felt I was too unusual or weird or worse...... wrong, always wrong. I didn’t yearn to be someone else, I have always wanted to be myself, it was never a problem. Shame was not my problem. The problem was other people and the punishments they instill to the un-conforming. I remember the first terror I felt. That terror was interacting with other people. People made me nervous and I often would shit my pants . They where loud, silly, emotional, contradictory and violent. I drew pictures of people as monsters and that was my voice. People wondered how such a quite kid could depict such horror and fear with simple crayon, pencil, marker and paper. If I was a kid today I would be put on Ritalin , put into therapy or taken away by the state. People were shocked by my art. I was outraged by their ignorance.
Terror is our culture. We are terrorized by what or who wants to kill us this week or by what we don’t have, can never have or will never be. So it makes sense our nation would want to call other people terrorists (the witch, red skin, nigger, rapist, murderer, Satanist, lesbian, faggot, communist is gonna get ya). Sometimes an inferiority complex can turn into a superiority complex. I wish I could say I was always right about people and things, but it is never, ever that simple is it? when all is said and done at least I can say I was Steven Johnson Leyba even if I was born Steven Edward Johnson. The only truth I can realy speak of is the truth I have lived and experienced. I am simply an artist.
Why the fuck would I choose to be a painter in a movie star, rock star, cock star world? A consumer world designed for 25 and younger, Why? Why do I look for personal truths when I can get a pat on the ass by mass stupidity and it’s corporate sponsors if only I dumb it down liked Andy Warhol wanted? Make the art appeal to the masses. Well I won’t because, I have searched for depth in a shallow country out of a personnel choice. Freedom of choice. Call it romantic, idealistic, futile, whatever, I call it being realistic in an unrealistic culture. I have looked for answers all my life, my answers, my self expression. I have never understood the controversies surrounding the shock my art has supposedly caused. Allright, I have understood ‘why’ but have been disappointed in the level of self deception your average American lives with. It has been an odd awakening to realize that my art has often threatened (in some way)our media made reality. It has made me joyous to have affected the lives of people that have affected mine. I have heard all my life that visual art was over and painting and art were dead. I am flattered when someone is shocked. This is not my absolute intention and I feel that there shock is a cop out. People get pissed off at something and they don’t know why (often times only because they are told to). I know why I get pissed off and I express it in my art. If an individual expresses themselves in an individualistic culture how can that be shocking? Why is some contemporary art “shocking”? Just because it shocks doesn’t mean it is good art or even good business. America loves to control everything even it’s villains. All my life I have found America as a whole shocking. All the simplistic kitschy things like cowboys and Indians, advertising, our dumb christian mania, our get rich-quick-sports monkeys, political corporate slaves and talentless superstars. How is anyone suppose to take anything seriously in the U.S.A.? How can the rest of the world take us seriously? How can any of us take ourselves seriously? Is it the ‘lie for lie’ sake aesthetic? Perhaps true democracy is mediocrity, perhaps praise and glory of the worthless-made- valuable is the great contribution to humanity America has really made (never mind television, the pet rock or the man on the moon). In this sense the truly talented and intelligent are terrorists that one wants to ask any questions one can feel a little bit outraged and obligated to ask more questions. If you ask the wrong questions with art they threaten mediocrity and its heroes. Men and women of momentum and mavericks are the truly inept and sick in need of the latest psychiatric drug, anger management counseling, post traumatic therapy, a lengthy prison sentence or extradition. Hey if you don’t like the country then get the fuck out! Right? Well half my ancestors where American Indians and the other half criminals from Europe. Maybe that is why I am half in and half out. Half in and half out is how any artist of any era should be. In a time when no say it isn’t art. How convienent and shallow things have been for too long. “You are just trying to get attention by being shocking or controversial”, they say. It is as if I am the great deceiver offending good folk while laughing all the way to the bank? Why is it that ‘who the artist offends’ is always more important than who the fuck America is bombing this week?
I am repulsed and shocked by the lowly un-arts of the so called “popular culture” that pull me down rather than bring me up. Commercial culture is at odds with the self- exploring individual. Why is one artist accepted, one ignored and one vilified? Who decides what’s art? If an artist is a slave to the critic or culture it is not art. It becomes the business of entertainment.
As a child I was never satisfied with commercial culture. I felt a magic in their promise and a great disappointment in the delivery. Mediocre products of the late twentieth century gave us their undramatic anti-climaxes. Even the great computer let us down. The promise of no more labor or paperwork has produced more. In order to appeal to the masses a culture has to be banal and imaginativeless and I think this is were my alienation came from. I have grown more sick of the bullshit factory. America taught me the material worth of fear, and I have been terrorized all my life, terrorized by the advertisers’ insane desperation to sell me on idiotic ideas and unrealistic fears.
Maybe your hoping I was tortured in my youth, that I was sexually abused as a child. It isn’t true. I was sexually neglected as a child. I never got what was my ‘consumer right’. The promise of extraordinary sexuality in advertising and movies left me always disappointed. Even when I could afford what they said I needed to be (that sexual acrobat) it wasn’t what they said it would be. Not to say sex was a disappointment when I was younger. I got some but it wasn't the super sex they promised. It wasn’t the answer to all my problems, like they said. But I won’t call myself a victim for that, since I am no more a victim of my time or country than any artist in any time. I have tried to reflect the times with my art in the language of the times and with my personal visual vocabulary. That vocabulary has included images of a sexually graphic nature, Why? Well because, I can recall the abject horror of seeing a big titted blonde on every other billboard and candy wrapper when I was a child. Selling me on the idea that I want her and IT, whatever product it was and it was just about every product. To a child of five a billboard of a half naked woman larger than life isn’t happiness or even sex, it is terror. Lets drop the bullshit American lie of the sacredness of childhood’s sexless utopia, sanctity of youth or whatever. It is a lie. Children have their own sexuality. Nothing was left to my imagination or rather everything in my youth pointed to the great spiritual and material conquest of sexual perfection. It never happened, it isn’t real. The sexual vocabulary of America is crude. The language I speak in my art is the language I was taught. America’s self -proclaimed supernatural power promises everything and delivers nothing but silly products. It was never like they said it would be when I bought what they said I should. By the time I was fifteen I wanted an uncorrupted sexual image. I looked to pornography for some sort of truth about sex that had nothing to do with selling cars or soap or the repressed sex religion. I understand how some porn could give men a false sense of reality, but to me, if I remember correctly, pornography was just sex between two adults. I wondered why not between people my age, why was I deprived? Why was I suppose to be satisfied bouncing or tossing a ball around in a gymnasium?. From what I remember porn was just graphic sex without power images (cars, big houses, etc.). To me pornography was wonderful and magical. I didn't like any bondage stuff (thought it was silly unbelievable role playing games) what really disturbed me as a kid was the sexual propaganda in advertising. What does a big breasted women have to do with tooth paste and toilet paper ? Advertising is everywhere and I hate it, it is terrorism, it is my enemy. It didn't have to be explicit to be intimidating. While my personal life can be very satisfying, life in the public remains a disappointment created by unfulfilled promises of consumer culture. The truth is I don’t need it, or at least I don’t need to be told what IT is. I am afraid I have been lied to and refuse to lie to myself. One of the only honest things this nation has ever marketed was pornography, for pornography has it’s great myths, but has given us what it has always promised: sex. Has art always given the enlightenment it promised? I cannot say anything else in our culture has given what it promised. Despite its great aspects porn is a half ass mediocre American endeavor. Porn can’t live up to my imagination. Pornography to me is an undeveloped resource. So I adopted pornography's honest literalness to express myself in a culture of blatant lies.
No one can tell me that American people are not the most material people in the world and that it hasn't creeped into our interpersonal relationships. The use of the sexual image in an exploitive way is a corner stone of our culture. When I was a child sex in advertising was sinister and made no sense. Today I find it sinister as well as idiotic and lame. I use to think I was immune to that blonde monster untill a couple of years ago. I was in the men's room of a restaurant taking a shit and minding my own fucking business and looked up to find her on the stall door looking me straight in the eyes. It was psychic rape. Sexual imagery is everywhere all the time. They say it is safe for kids but as soon as sexuality heads towards the bedroom it is wrong. Any use of the sexual image by an artist is some sort of theft (sex taken out of cultural context) or some immoral misdemeanor against the christian judicial system. Obscenity laws are based on community standards but those standards are dictated by the corporate media.
As usual some will want to kill this messenger for the message. I know it is easier that way for most thoughtless Americans. You don’t have to look at my art everywhere and you don’t have to buy this book. My art has been called crude and lacking in depth. To me most of American culture is seedy and crude and base without depth. I've traveled the world and know this is where I want to be, because I’d rather fight than run. I believe things can change. I am not my culture. All this is part of the reason why I use sexual images in my art. I am reclaiming my sexuality. When I was a kid It seemed to me that sexuality was something I might not be able to afford unless I made a lot of money and bought the latest commercial products. Not that I am against capitalism, it is fine as long as it stays out of my pants.
While most kids were worried about the monster under their bed I was hung up on the big blonde monsters in broad daylight all over the place. The fifty foot big tit billboard blonde monsters left me feeling sexually disappointed and turned me off big boobs and most blondes. I was made promises that were never fulfilled. Maybe it wasn’t a completely negative experience because it helped to develop my imagination as a defense. But in no way have I ever lowered my expectations of my art and it’s possibilities for my self expression. However inane or insane the sex in media it forever created in me possibility rather than inadequacy. America may have given me the fear that I may never be satisfied with the extraordinary product or lifestyle, but I will always have the imagination. With it I will always overcome the lame insipid lies of the fear based economy of the mediocre material empire. I hope my art can in some way lift others out of the social sewers.
Here I am only 36 and like a truly arrogant and self absorbed American I write my memoirs ( I am not even a rock star.... ). I thought it might mean something to someone else somewhere or some future painter or an activist that cannot see the optimism in a U.S. world empire. Wouldn’t a U.S. Empire be called something else? U.S. II? U.C.S.W. - United Capitalist States of the World ? or maybe just the Empire Strikes Back or something equally unoriginal and banal?
Since the rest of the world hears only lies and silence coming out from behind America’s concrete curtain I thought I’d say a few things about how I have lived. I thought a few words from the last American painter wouldn’t make the nation crumble. I figure if I express my opinion, however obscure or indecipherable it may seem to a country that cannot comprehend I have at least made use of the right of free speech. That freedom they said I could have.
Ever since 9-11 those two American words my father gave me have been taken away from me. Two other words have taken their place, “SHUT UP!”. Please tell me why after all these years I am suppose to “SHUT UP!” instead of “SPEAK UP !” all of a sudden? Why am I suppose to refrain from criticism of our leaders and exhibiting my art? Why is it that in the culture of individualism I am suppose to forget all my individual bad habits and privileges? While everyone is running around proclaiming “I’m Free!” “America’s the freest country!” I am asking “why?” or “What do you mean?, “care to elaborate?”, “can you be more specific?” and all I can think about is the cheesy used car salesman saying “trust me.” Maybe if I believed in Jesus or Britney Spears or the government “protect you” agency or “terrorist of the week” I’d be a better American. Whatever the truth or lies of America, whether history defines me as friend or foe, answer or solution , piece of the problem or just another artist born of the over encouraged generation I will say what Is important to me whatever the reaction of others might be. I will not relinquish my personal freedoms for those of the corporate state. Don’t tread on me!
I just wanted to say a few things before I am villified any futher, before I am obscurified, banished or vanquished, before I am sentenced at my untelevised tribunal. I am Steven Johnson Leyba and here is my life as I have seen and felt it. I am just a painter. O.K. I am not just a painter. I am an unorthodox activist, a whiskey fucken Satanist born in the United States of America. If something I have said or done has revoked my American membership and has made me Un-American then they have changed our constitution and it is no longer America, it’s New America. Call me what you want, but blood is thicker than any world coporate empire or national bureacracy. So one thing will always remain the same. I am Apache and Apache means enemy.
REVEREND STEVEN JOHNSON LEYBA,
Founder of the SEXPRESSIONIST Movement
Summer Solstice 2003, Berkeley California,
United States of America