“I HAVE BOOZED MORE, FOUGHT MORE, LAID MORE girls and thrown more wild parties than anyone else on the island, but it's all good publicity and gets me talked about plenty, and that's what sells pictures,” claimed Edgar Leeteg, the “American Gauguin” who reputedly devised the ubiquitous kitsch icon the black velvet painting, and whose work is the subject of “A Rascal in Paradise,” a small retrospective at the Huntington Beach Art Center. The island was Moorea, Tahiti, and Leeteg moved there in 1933 from Sacramento when a friend offered him a job painting lobby ads for his movie house. The theater went bust, but Leeteg stayed on, reverting to his former career as a sign painter and making portraits of the natives in his spare time. He was just getting by until his friend “Aloha” Barney Davis, an ex-submarine pilot and, it would seem, something of a marketing genius, began selling Leeteg's work out of a small gallery in Honolulu. Within a few years, Leeteg's velvets were fetching upward of 10 Gs, and that weren't hay circa 1950. Leeteg built a huge villa with the profits, replete with a rotating cast of drunken, sycophantic freeloaders, and applied himself to his legend as an epic debaucher. His reprobate lifestyle of excessive chemical indulgence, fisticuffs and the bedding of the dusky wahines of Polynesian lore did not prevent Leeteg from churning out two paintings a week, often duplicates of his (or some other artist or photographer's) more popular images, until his death by misadventure, flung from the back of a Harley in 1953.
As art-world publicity goes, this is the stuff that made Jackson Pollock the popular figure he remains to this day. The parallels are uncanny: The boozing, fighting and philandering, the Kerouacian overtones of his neurotic attachment to his domineering mother (whom he perversely installed in his villa, and who proceeded to chase off his 14 Tahitian wives, including the two legal ones), and the stellar career cut short by the archetypal American automotive death add up to the same bang-not-whimper narrative that allowed Pollock to muscle Willem de Kooning out as American Painter of the Century. Although Leeteg is memorialized with a full chapter in James Michener's Rascals in Paradise (from which the HBAC show draws its name), his geographical isolation, contempt for the art establishment and deep commitment to populist images and forthright entrepreneurial capitalism ensured that he and his work would remain beneath the derision of arbiters of important culture. But while a massive public-relations campaign was set in motion to convince the skeptical Middle American hoi polloi of Pollock's legitimacy, succeeding to the point that Pollock's drips became both a staple motif of '50s design and the paradigm of far-out, with-it free expression copied in art schools, coffeehouses and kindergartens, Leeteg's legacy was performing its own stealth infiltration. By the 1960s, the black velvet tourist souvenir had traveled so far and become such an archetype of low culture that its origins were all but forgotten. For many “uncultured” peoples, for whom figuration is the sine qua non of “Art,” inexpensive pictures of Jesus, Elvis, sad clowns, old mills, lonesome beaches and increasingly cheesecake female nudes served as a refuge from the rationalistic secularism that had banished the mystery of iconographic portraiture to the cultural basement.
Much about what excommunicated Leeteg in the first place has been subsequently recanted. Andy Warhol revolutionized the art market by approaching it as Leeteg and Davis had: “Oh, you want another Marilyn? What color? I'll have Gerard get on it right away!” The division between high and low culture, while still deeply ingrained as a perceptual prejudice, has been whittled to an ideological bluntness, losing its currency as a critical position. The only thing preventing the dissolution of such categories altogether is the havoc it would wreak on the puffed up economics of the art trade. As to the content of Leeteg's work: Much critical ink was spilled in praise of the late work of Dadaist Francis Picabia when it was rediscovered in the early '80s. Apart from the use of canvas instead of velvet, and Spanish and North African motifs instead of Polynesian, the work is virtually indistinguishable from Leeteg's, and was seen as a culmination of sorts to Picabia's long and exemplary history of Fuck You aesthetics. Finally, Leeteg's rather loose observation of the rules of copyright dovetails neatly with the strategies of '90s appropriation.
Given the as-yet-unexhausted contemporary fascination with the strange hybrid of Polynesian tribal culture and American escapist fantasy at the core of the lounge revival, and the richly detailed heroic narrative that hovers around the work, the time seems ripe for a reassessment, or rather a first assessment, of the artistic and cultural significance of Leeteg's oeuvre. As academics begin to notice the lounge revival that initially swept over disgruntled ex-punks in the early '80s, we will undoubtedly see more, and more serious, exegeses of tiki lore. As a first step in this direction, A Rascal in Paradise is commendable for its good-humored restraint, its willingness to approach the artist and his work without irony or sociological or anthropological rationalizations. I have to admit that for once the inclusion of more text panels (for the benefit of those who don't have the oddly formatted and poorly proofed but otherwise excellent catalog) would have added real substance to the show. For while Leeteg's paintings are the pith of the matter, it is the stories surrounding them — of a man's attempt to live out a skewed Bohemian stereotype from a previous century while stubbornly producing work he knew would be disdained by contemporary authorities for its crass commercialism and sentimentality, and of American culture's attempt to grapple with an inferiority complex born of its European parent culture's ideologically and technologically incompatible elitism — that transform them into a fascinating and urgently contemporary cultural event.
The urgency is due to the fact that so much art today depends to such a large degree on the spiel that accompanies it. Contemporary art audiences too often rely on a buzz, a stream of theories, anecdotes and rationalizations, to afford them permission merely to enjoy an artwork. Graduate schools assess student artists less on their work than on their ability to defend it in critiques. The domination of the art world by critics and academics is widely perceived to be a poisonous but irresolvable dead end. The life and work of Edgar Leeteg, as a case in which an idiosyncratic individualist firmly positioned against such highfalutin juicelessness can come to be reborn through the textual fallout of his own obstinacy, seems as if it might point to a way out. Maybe not, but at least it's something to talk about.
Velvet Dreams, a New Zealand documentary about Edgar Leeteg and his disciple, Charlie MacFee, screens at the HBAC, Friday, March 12, at 8 p.m.
A RASCAL IN PARADISE: The Velvet Paintings of Edgar Leeteg | At Huntington Beach Art Center | 538 Main St.; (714) 374-1650 | Through April 4