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Rollin Leonard Talks 'Crash Kisses,' Raindrop Selfies, and Mugs on Mugs

The digital artist from LA by-way-of Maine illuminates his multimedia practice.

by DJ Pangburn
Apr 15 2017, 12:05pm

Images courtesy the artist

The photographic image, whether still or in motion, is a truly pliable medium for artist Rollin Leonard. Whether through digital manipulation, camera effects, or some combination thereof, in Leonard's mind, photography can undergo nearly infinite distortion and re-imagining. His projects are many, and he is constantly evolving, but recent works have included isometric folding paper portraits and gigantic printed bodies, as well as looping and rotating 360° photographic portraits.

The artist, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Maine, is currently in the midst of another series of projects and artistic evolutions. One of these projects, his first solo LA show, expands on his "mug portraits," an ongoing series begun in 2012 in which he 3D maps human faces onto coffee mugs. For this show, Leonard is planning on making a wall of ceramic faces that will be accompanied by flat prints of the mugs. Leonard tells Creators that these flattened faces range from life-size to the "super fucking huge" quilt he recently exhibited at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

While Leonard is known for his web-based photographic experiments, he also does quite a bit of animation, resin wall sculptures, and print work. He says his chosen mediums serve different purposes, with each medium informing his ideas to the point where he feels instructed by it.

"I start with materials," Leonard explains. "It is a non-verbal way of starting a project. I can have a big idea for months or years, but I can't say much about it even when hundreds of hours have been logged."

What Leonard can say is that the concepts and motifs he likes exploring are swimming, kissing, decomposition, replication, folding, refraction, and fluid dynamics. Kissing recently popped up in the piece Crash Kiss: Tad Talking to a Flame, a collaboration with Leonard's brother Tad.

"I moved one row of pixels at a time to produce a single still image," he explains. "Later, we developed it into a program that instantly 'crashes' subjects into each other in a photo booth... The interest for me is in seeing an unsympathetic, granular disassembly of the subjects fighting for their humanity."

Leonard originated the effect on Photoshop by selecting and moving single pixel rows one pixel inward per frame from both directions until flesh met flesh. The process takes about 100 hours per photo.

"The idea was to simultaneously project the profile of each person onto one another," Leonard says. "In a perfect match, the entire signal is canceled out, and the center line is flat. With varied faces you get expressions of the difference in that line."


Together, Rollin and Tad have developed their own program that crashes faces at 30 frames-per-second at 1080p. The latest version will be a live video experience, for which the two plan to crash 8K liquid in slow motion with a variety of color effects.

In another recent project, Carrot Juice, Leonard creates an animation purely with practical effects, forcing liquefied carrot into the shape of a rabbit on the run. To do this, Leonard used a variety of materials, like oil, stencils cut from plastic, and Aerogel, an ultra-light, water-repellant material.

"Here I used a spray form of Aerogel and clear vinyl," says Leonard. "I am still looking for a material that can achieve finer and smoother lines. Despite being less technical, peanut oil has been a pretty good material for these liquid refraction pictures. The more precise method has been to pull a thin layer of oil over a surface (usually low iron glass) with a screen printing squeegee and then to remove the mask material."

Another of Leonard's ongoing photography projects is his Water Portrait Series. Started in 2015, the series is photographs of people through drops of water. To make them, Leonard places a plate of glass above the subject's head, puts a few drops of water on the glass, then focuses on the water with a macro lens. The subject's portrait refracts within each drop of water.

"To shoot through the water I use a technique called 'focus stacking,' since the optics of a drop of water aren't tuned for 2D capture like a Nikon or iPhone lens," says Leonard. "Focus stacking means the point of focus is bracketed—it moves through the drop until everything is sharp(ish). It is always a race against evaporation, and I have to work quickly."

Alongside his continued work on the "mugs" series, Leonard is also working a lot with GIFs, which regularly pop up on his Instagram feed. For Lorna Mills' Ways of Something project, which was part of this year's Dreamlands show at the Whitney, Leonard contributed a one-minute GIF sequence titled Jupiter Water Drop, in which Jupiter's tumultuous atmosphere is mapped onto a drop of water. He's also still making work in which he takes multiple photographs of torsos and other body parts and maps them onto abstract shapes.

"The originals were rough and lo-fi and done with a punk immediacy," Leonard says. "Now that I have a firmer grasp on the craft of image-making, I'd have to make a deliberate choice to introduce noise or rough lines. My idea about returning to that will be to set up conditions that will force the craft to break down rather than intentionally shooting like I did in my early 20s."

Click here to see more of Rollin Leonard's past work, and here to follow his latest experiments on Instagram.

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