Review: Leo Coyte Exhaust

Amber McCulloch

Leo Coyte-1_1880pxLeo Coyte Exhaust (Installation view) (2011)

Encountering Leo Coyte’s Exhaust (fittingly staged at db project, a residential space in Sydney’s inner-east) was like walking into the final hours of a messed-up house party. Among the balloons and streamers, bright colours and polka dots, a few worse-for-wear stragglers flanked the walls, eyeing off the beer in my hand … who invited those guys anyway?

With lumpy heads and distorted features, the ‘figures’ in Coyte’s paintings are born from the artist’s sub-conscious, brought to life in a Frankensteinian project of construction, featuring ‘two-dollar shop’ party favours, cheap Halloween costumes and other bits of junk found in the artist’s home. Once completed, the resulting objects become the subjects for Coyte’s unconventional portraits, but they never quite make it to sculpture status. Like so many of the good Doctor F’s prototypes, they’re thrown in the trash soon after creation.

It’s this singularity of purpose that exemplifies Coyte’s practice—it’s about painting, primarily, the process, action and history of putting paint to canvas. An accomplished formal painter, Coyte draws various stylistic references into his work, hat-tipping the looseness of contemporaries Richard Dawkins and George Condo, while at the same time observing the restraint and rigour of the Dutch Masters.

Thematically, Coyte’s art practice is inextricably linked to his experience as a gigging musician. Coyte—who has played and toured in bands for the past two decades—allows the lines between his music and art to bleed so that his works become album covers, merchandise and sets for his band; conversely, the physical trappings of rock (leads, guitar amps and earplugs) become subject matter for his creations. Coyte admits to always ‘thinking of the next album cover’ when making work, which ensures that his aesthetic stays firmly anchored to his musical style.

Ever the reluctant ‘rock star’, Coyte prefers to share the dubious role of front man in his established outfit, Further. It’s this role he lampoons with his awkward constructed figures, posing them as the would-be stars of his paintings, as compelling as they are ridiculous.

Furthering the metaphor, Coyte’s painting technique displays the virtuosity of a James Hetfield guitar solo and the stylistic mimicry and playful insouciance of psychedelic prog-rockers Ween. Like the band members Gene and Dean, Coyte displays a nonchalant, self-effacement that belies the skill, effort and critical intent embedded in his output. Indeed, the works that made up Exhaust ARE exhaustive—mutli-layered, cross-referential and HUGE. It comes as no surprise that, for all their swagger, these pieces have been in the making for some time.

Leo Coyte-10_1880px Leo Coyte Exhaust (2011)

Leo Coyte-6_1880pxLeo Coyte Exhaust (Installation view) (2011)

Cosmic Sneeze (2011) is the most arresting of the three paintings exhibited, its thickly layered background fighting for precedence against the ghoulish figure in the foreground (goofily grinning and coincidentally trailing some kind of gravity-defying mystical booger). This painting constitutes the most successful example of Coyte’s recent foray into Abstract Expressionism-as-wallpaper. What’s most telling is the artist’s treatment of what could be described as the most ‘rock’n’roll of all painting styles. Unlike his macho, alcho-artistic forebears, Coyte isn’t happy to let his gestures speak—he continually over-paints them so that his expressionism takes on a neurotic bill-poster-effect.

Insomnia (2011) and Toxic Spectrum (2011) continue on in slightly giddy party mode. The garish balloon-shapes and chaotic bright colours bust out from the frames, in the latter, joined by a cluster of geometric shapes that parallel the current ‘youth’ fashion seen on t-shirts and fliers and all over General Pants Co. stock. It’s a cynical take on the assimilation of rock music culture into the mainstream, again taking swings at the clichéd posturing that surrounds the genre. Indeed, the integrity with which Coyte presents these tropes heightens the schism between the authentic and the slavishly posed.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, the eponymous Exhaust (2011), is a lumpy clay conglomeration, piled unceremoniously on the floor. What appears to be a stack of sweet meringues is, on closer inspection, a number of lovingly-crafted turds, heaped on top of each other, white-washed and decorated with festive dots. A rainbow of coloured blobs is anchored in said poop. Unlike the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, in Coyte’s world all things inevitably turn to shit.

It’s all a little bit Paul McCarthy in terms of its celebration of mess and the detritus of fun, but again, this is no haphazard fall-out. This is carefully wrought crap. For all of its incongruous elements, its weirdness and complexities, Exhaust constituted Coyte’s most cohesive exhibition to date.


Leo Coyte Exhaust was held at db project, 29 August – 4 September, 2011.


Amber McCulloch is a writer, editor and arts administrator, whose experience spans both publishing and the arts, with occasional happy crossovers. Amber has worked as...


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