23 July – 17 August 2013

Leo Coyte


At the Pizzeria with Leo Coyte

The same uniformed kids can be found in small towns across Australia, easily visible and bored out of their brains they are accompanied by bikes, usually BMXs and skateboards, adorned in band t-shirts, cut-off jeans and shaggy hair. Leo Coyte was one, and I was one too. Being bored meant a variety of things, for instance getting heavily into music and showing you didn’t give a fuck about fashion, I remember that for a time my clothes shopping extended to staying up all night watching Rage and ‘borrowing’ my dad’s credit card to order band t-shirts online, waiting for the dial-up to load the pages before getting caught. On the dull days your bike gave you the freedom to travel to the next destination, which was always ripe with promise of an event, whether a friend’s house, a takeaway shop or nature reserve. Indulgence and trouble were the best events and it is from this backdrop I consider Pizzeria, a solo exhibition by Coyte layered with indulgent fantasy events sliced with specters of reality. 

On the inspection of his work, it is clear Coyte is a skilled painter, this he has reflexively undercut with recent articulations on the topic of the artist’s studio. Showing a distrust towards canonical tropes of the ‘genius’ painter seen in The Artist’s Model, the phantasmagoric scene encases feet positioned mid-sex, lying trapped under piles of paint, jokey mini-easels and paint brushes. This identity critique and exploration of the pathos lying within kitsch extends to the paintings of Pizzeria. The large scale Yolk Thinger, (all paintings are in fact the same size and square like pizza boxes) for which, before it was titled I nicknamed, Blue Face Blobby with Smiles Oozing is especially fanciful and busy. A jelly like face emerges from the background always moving, with eyes and nose that sit on top, and when we gaze beyond a layer, we see swirling smiles as one vomits a tiny vomit. As Coyte notes ‘the pizza reference relates to the layering of subject matter and paint styles much like layering a pizza the image becomes more confused or complex in terms of spatial depth creating an altered state type of effect’. 

The eponymously titled Pizzeria evokes some adult scene of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, after work you meet your family at a cheap Italian restaurant that seems to be having a party for someone, balloons in all colours blow themselves up, and when full they do not pop but dissipate quietly as more grow and sway, little red faced chefs bring pizzas to your table, and when you think you would like more olives, someone hears your wish and they fall to your pizza from the sky. The restaurateur, all toupée with a brick arch for a face brings sloppy desserts, melting ice-cream of differing colours, as a light show that started from the back room takes over making it is too difficult have a conversation, all you can do is be immersed. And then you snap back the trip has run out yet the red bricks of the restaurant and prints on the pizza boxes holding the slices you could not finish are exactly the same as they were in the town you grew up in. The toupéed man brings you the bill that in reality is a bit more than what you want to pay considering the receipt comes covered in grease. 

In Pizzeria, Coyte’s paintings are not doing one thing, they are doing too much, constantly stimulating the senses, like a party that does not want to finish. The over the top consumption theme runs strongly through the paintings, they even merge together in one’s mind when considering the exhibition as a whole, as elements of figuration and abstraction repeat, for instance the toupée and lightshow appear again in the relatively pared back Smile. Then there is the shock of something like Nostalgia, which could as equally be viewed separately but instead cuts the show with its party consequence. A raw face of difficult eyes and lips float along a nightscape, with a wig of bare bricks the only overlapping motif with the other paintings, shows the depths the artist travels to with subjects. This zombie face is the cannibal corpse of our consumption, itself a postmodern appropriation and fractured pastiche works to evoke a Deleuzo-Guattarian position that capitalism is not schizophrenic enough. Instead it puts abject or ‘base’ behaviours into a separate box, so we problematically break from recognising them as human. The familial and the libidinal being alienated imposes a capitalisation of libidinal experiences, and the figure of alienation who suffers most for Marx, is the everyday worker zombie.1 As sociological theory has speculated the zombie is the everyday monster, it is us looking back at ourselves without feeling, only drives, devoid super powers or the attractive qualities of vampires,2 Coyte’s Nostalgia is an average monster that remembers.

From his formative years in a northern New South Wales town to Sydney living his subjects are already in our houses – balloons, tomatoes, garlic, streamers, easels and olive oil – albeit reconfigured, saturated and at times made monstrous. And yet while Australian identity is a critical through-line of his subjects, stylistically Coyte’s compositions and brushstrokes speak more significantly to international painters Mark Grotjahn, Jim Nutt and Philip Guston. He is for many Sydney artists a clear favourite as the work occupies a unique space that people are eager to talk about – how his images can simultaneously be fun, immature, grotesque, and coy. For instance a friend told me how she sometimes wished to swap a painting she purchased for another because of its spooky qualities and another recalled having spent some dark moments with a work. Good things have happened over the past few years, Coyte has been hung in the Brett Whiteley among other prizes, exhibited at Gertrude Contemporary, and invited to show at the home gallery db Projects curated by residents Chris Hanrahan and Mark Feary. The painter however is a quiet guy on the scene, when you ask him what he is up to rather than any selling or cool posturing, he will say, ‘Yeah, same old, nothing crazy’, and rather go on to tell you a story of how cold the garage is to work in and the layers of trackies and beanies needed to put on before he starts working in there, indeed he has still not answered my interview questions for this essay. But this is probably all part of the attraction, that amongst a climate where network-aided self-branding is a professional norm for many artists, for Coyte the work is what speaks, and it says a lot.

Marian Tubbs

  1. Lars Bang Larsen, ‘Zombies of Immaterial Labor: The Modern Monster and the Death of Death’, in Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labour of Art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2011, p82 

  2. Ibid, p83

Photos: Docqment