On an October night back in 2008, visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art were greeted with an unusual sight. On the grass outside the museum, white-clad football players circled around a lone player in black, charging at him one by one. Part of the exhibition Hard Targets—Masculinity and Sport, they were performing a drill called “Bull in the Ring,” so dangerous that it has been banned from high school and collegiate football programs. At the center, taking the crunching hits, was Shaun El C. Leonardo.
A performance artist and painter, Shaun creates works of brutal beauty that explore cultural icons of masculinity and what it means to be a man in today’s world. His influences range from comic book superheroes to sports rituals (he played football in college) to the culture of Latino machismo in which he was raised. “Arriving at SFAI, I wanted to speak about issues of race and masculinity, but I was feeling it from a very outside perspective,” says Shaun. “It wasn’t until I understood my work through self-portraiture that I basically switched from making statements to asking questions. People like Dewey Crumpler and Tony Labat really guided me and were my mentors. It was an incredible moment for me where all these professors really cared.”
The “El C.” in Shaun’s name stands for “El Conquistador”—an alias he’s used when fighting lucha libre-style for performances—and it’s a fitting indicator of his all-the-way attitude toward art. “My approach to performance work in particular is that I never want to pretend,” says Shaun. “It is important to me to actually step into the world of these figures.” So when, for the 2009 performance Battle Royal, inspired by Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, he got into a steel cage with 19 other blindfolded wrestlers and fought for three hours until there was one man left standing—yes, that was real.
It’s this blend of mind and body—the intellect of an artist and the grit of an athlete—that fuels his work, and Shaun has already built an active career of residencies, awards, and exhibitions, including a reprise of Battle Royal at the DUMBO Arts Festival this September. And what’s next for Shaun? “I take on these roles without knowing where they will lead me,” he says. “I just jump in and see what happens.”
Visit Shaun’s website: www.elcleonardo.com