Review: Chris Leonard at the San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum

by Kathy Bussert-Webb August 11, 2022

Chris Leonard, Now and then, Leonardski Shows Up made me laugh out loud. This playful, witty exhibition features around 114 pieces by the artist. 

Leonard — a ceramics professor at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas — displays the ceramics and paintings he has produced since 1982, many of which are on “back-alley gold,” or what he calls “someone else’s junk.” A survey of found objects in the exhibition reveals three broken skateboards painted with acrylic (Cold, Dark, and Rainy, 2007), acrylic on pressboard (The Night Time Is the Right Time, 2012), and acrylic on ratan (Speck vs. Log, 2013). In this last case, Leonard found a discarded console and used the furniture’s ratan for his substrate.

Mixed media painting of two adjoining cats

Chris Leonard, “Speck vs. Log.” Photo by Kathy Bussert-Webb

While in my own practice I embrace the idea of back-alley gold, as it makes my work weirder, I can only wish my art were as bizarre as Leonard’s. For instance, in Speck vs. Log, two orange cats are conjoined. Everyone knows cats hate wearing hats, so the oddity of a baseball cap floating above the cat on the left, while a cowboy hat hovers above the one on the right, is not lost. Since a river flows under the cat’s body, I get the sense this piece represents our U.S.-Mexico border region, or nepantla, a Nahuatl word Gloria Anzaldúa used to describe the in-betweenness of the border region of the Rio Grande Valley. The sculpture’s materials, extend over the frame, so the red soil and blue sky continue from the ratan to the frame. However, the brush marks on the ratan are smaller and more precise than the wide, wild gestures that extend on the frame.

Detail of the edge of a painting

Chris Leonard, “Speck vs. Log,” detail of what Leonard calls “back-alley gold.” Photo by Kathy Bussert-Webb.

I quickly walked around the exhibit and wanted to have a beer or laugh with Leonard, who clearly has a sense of humor that extends into his work of  bearded cats, flying rotund pigs, and a dog on a log on a hog. However, then I slowed down to look for the deeper meaning within the show. The two-headed cat was clearly about duality, e.g. the push-me, pull-me of Dr. Doolittle; the fight between two forces, the us versus them. The row of buildings in No Beer for You Here (2019) speaks to the feeling of being unwelcome imparted on people when they come from the other side of the U.S. border wall. 

Installation view with work on pedestals and the walls

Exhibition view, “Chris Leonard, Now and then, Leonardski Shows Up,” on view a the San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum. Photo by Kathy Bussert-Webb

And then there is Leonardclaus Dreams Big in the All-American City (acrylic on pressboard, 2012), with a baseball-faced man flying above a city, holding a stash of  “unlimited funds.” A blue ribbon surrounds the painting. Inside of the ribbon (at the top and bottom of the piece), Leonard painted the words: “He can buy a big screen TV! Dumb ass. He can buy a truck! He’s a poor sorry son of a bitch. All he can catch is a case of jock itch!” A baseball field and palm trees are on the ground, below the flying man, which makes me think of this painting as a critique of U.S. materialism and the American dream. Additionally, I wonder if Leonard’s own inclusion in the title is a critique of his own materialism. Leonard’s words reminded us of our constant desire for more, and in Texas, everything bigger — bigger TVs, trucks, and houses.  

Painting of a figure with the face of a baseball floating above a city-scape

Chris Leonard, “Leonardclaus Dreams Big in the All-American City.” Photo by Kathy Bussert-Webb.

Aleida Garcia Wedgeworth and Francisco Salazar beautifully curated Leonard’s fantastical show by selecting works from the artist’s storage units. While the exhibition came together seamlessly, I found myself hoping for more information regarding media, technique, and dimensions of the works themselves, especially considering Leonard’s use of found objects. Yet, at the end of the day I am not bothered by the missing information. 

Leonard shows us his mark-making, his heart, and his whimsy. He takes risks that inspire me to be brave in my own practice, to loosen up, and to bring back the joy when creating. In his own words, displayed on a bright yellow background at the entrance of the show, he states: “What I want is a smile on the face, a twinkle in the eye.” 

And that is exactly how I left the exhibition — with a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye. 


Chris Leonard, Now and then, Leonardski Shows Up is one view at the San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum at 250 Heywood Street through August 19, 2022. 


Dr. Kathy Bussert-Webb received an MFA in Studio Art from UTRGV. She is Professor Emeritus in UTRGV’s Bilingual and Literacy Studies Department. You can find her @3DbyKathy on Instagram.

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