Ignoring society’s hunger for hidden meanings in works of art, Léonard Combier creates pieces that celebrate humor and spontaneity. His highly detailed pieces incorporate labyrinthine graphics, sexual imagery, and irreverent quotes to create an imaginative world saturated with playfully dark humor.
These chaotic landscapes of tribal patterns, absurd characters, and high-contrast colors beckon the viewer closer to examine hidden details easily overlooked from a distance. Taking a closer look at the fine designs beyond the bold, wide-open eyeballs that are often Combier’s starting point for new work, the viewer discovers a provocative and compelling array of Imagery.
Born and raised in Paris, Combier developed an early connection to artistic pursuits. As a child, he always had a pen in hand, covering his school books and journals with drawings. He continued to make art independently, and in 2012 he was given the opportunity to exhibit at Galerie Alexandre Cadain.. Following this initial presentation, he has enjoyed moderate success with additional expositions in Paris. During the year he lived in Berlin—widely considered the hotbed of the contemporary art world—he succeeded in arranging only one exposition.
“Berlin and Paris are so different. They’re both great places for art, but without contacts, it’s hard to get noticed. There are so many people struggling to show their work in Berlin, and I knew no one. In Paris, I know which galleries to approach.”
A devotee of the Art Brut movement, Combier finds himself inspired by work displayed at Paris’s Halle Saint Pierre. Clinging to the base of the Butte Montmartre, this independent arts venue frequently hosts temporary exhibitions of Folk and Outsider Art. Rather than spending time at the city’s high profile venues like the Centre Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo, or Musée d’Art Moderne, Combier prefers the experience of viewing an Art Brut exposition.
“These days, Art Brut is having more and more success, and I hope it will continue,” Combier said. “I think that it can be very interesting for artists to present impressive pieces that can be enjoyed without complicated and questionable explanations. When I go to Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, I see people looking closely at the paintings, examining the details, but when I attend contemporary art exhibitions, I see people reading the explanations with an expression of ‘Ah, ok…’ I want my work to be in the first category—accessible, funny, impressive, and intricate!”
Without question, the artist’s own drawings fit into this school of thought. When beginning a new piece, he sets to work without a set plan of what he will be creating, relying instead on spontaneous inspiration. His intuitive method probably accounts for the variety of patterns and characters across his body of work. The tribal patterns, vivid colors, and black comedy of Combier’s drawings become more intricate through patient consideration, but any attempt to seek out stories and themes in his work is likely to be in vain.
“I wouldn’t say that I have a particular source of inspiration. On the contrary, when I draw, I don’t really think about what I’m drawing,” Combier said. “Instead, I would say I allow things to pop into my head the same way I would if I were just walking through the streets.”
His constant shifting between black and white drawings with ink on paper and colorful canvas pieces using Posca markers makes for a varied body of work. Rather than choosing between the two, he prefers to continue working with both to achieve different visual effects.
“Black and white makes it possible for me to draw almost as fast as I think. When I work in color, there is a period when I have to add a lot of different colors after having drawn the initial image. Sometimes it can take hours to add the color, but the result is good, so it’s worth the time.”
While his current work is transitioning away from smaller-scale pieces, it is his playful passport illustrations that typify his point of view as an artist. While many artists dabble in unconventional materials, few use valid government-issued passports. Finding himself bored during a class lecture and out of paper, Combier asked a friend if he could draw in his passport. The finished result was undeniably eye-catching. The inky design placed against tribal-style backgrounds, winding their way around entrance and exit stamps, visas, and identification information, imbue the object’s functional purpose with aesthetic value.
Federal law prohibits the “forgery, alteration, etc., of passports or the use of or furnishing to another of a forged, altered, void, etc., passport or purported passport, [which] applies to instruments issued or purportedly issued by foreign governments as well as by the United States.” Yet strangers started mailing Combier their passports in the hopes of owning one of his designs. Contrary to expectations, no one has experienced a problem using their freshly illustrated passports, despite the sometimes provocative captions.
“When I’m drawing, I imagine what a customs official might find funny to read. I’ll write things like ‘Arrest me please—I want to go to jail,’ or ‘I’m very deceptive’ right under a visa photograph,” he said. “I prefer to work on larger scale drawings now, but I still draw in passports if I get an unusual request.”
Transitioning from a hobbyist to a full-time working artist, Combier devotes himself to pushing the boundaries of his work, sometimes spending months on a single painting. His newest series—expected to be finished in early 2016—is composed of nine separate square canvases. The entire piece, which measures 820’ x 492’, takes his intricate work to a new level. With each canvas designed to be interchangeable with every other, this dynamic large-scale piece will be constantly shifting, revealing new ways of engaging with the same work.
Like many of his fellow artists, Combier sees his lack of formal training as the ultimate creative freedom. With no rules or techniques to shape his point of view, his artistic skills have flourished, unrestrained by established aesthetic judgments.
“I prefer Art Brut. Often, by not studying art, people push themselves to create very detailed and intricate drawings full of powerful expression.”