A True Rip-Off Artist

In 2009, I moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to New York City to “make it” as a photographer. I was broke, lonely, and desperate for work, when out of the blue I was contacted on Twitter by someone who went by the name C. S. Leigh.

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Jan 3 2014, 12:00am

Illustration by Allison Bruns

In 2009, I moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to New York City to “make it” as a photographer, a process that involved living in an apartment the size of a hallway with a view of a brick wall. I was broke, lonely, and desperate for work, when out of the blue I was contacted on Twitter by someone who went by the name C. S. Leigh.

Through the omniscient and infallible knowledge database that is Google, I learned that C. S. Leigh was a film director and a curator. An image search revealed photos of a balding, almost spherical man with black-rimmed glasses and a double chin. He told me he liked my stuff, and before long, I had agreed to take some photos for an art magazine he was putting out.

It seemed like the best thing that had ever happened to me. I did a fashion shoot featuring models in clothes from threeASFOUR and Chado Ralph Rucci and portraits of world-renowned perfumer Frédéric Malle and artist Meredyth Sparks. There was talk of my going to Paris and London for the Frieze Art Fair and Fashion Week, or perhaps attending Coachella to photograph bands for his magazine. It was as if C. S. had opened a door to the exclusive world of art and fashion and quietly slipped me into the front seat.

Except the plane tickets to exotic locales never came. Neither did the checks reimbursing me for my expenses, or payments he had promised to the stylists, models, assistants, and hair and makeup artists who had worked on my shoots. More than a hundred emails later, he continued to insist that he would wire the money, but nothing ever came.

Seven months after my first correspondence with C. S., a big box showed up on my doorstep containing about 20 copies of Syntax #2: Too Much Night, the thick, glossy magazine he had finally published. It contained a lot of my photography, and I showed it off proudly to my friends and prospective employers. I still had received no money for my work, of course, and still haven’t to this day. After months of repeated pleas for payment, I gave up. I even emailed C. S. to say I was grateful for the opportunities he had given me and that I would forgive his debts to me if he would give me more work and a chance to expand my portfolio.

It’s almost comically easy to exploit young freelance artists and photographers, many of whom are desperate for opportunities and attention, will work without contracts, and have no leverage when it comes to demanding that their invoices get paid. My story isn’t unusual in any way—except that C. S. has been pulling exactly the same kinds of tricks for decades while achieving a level of success that most artists envy. And his name isn’t really C. S.

Here’s what was known about “C. S.” before I started digging into the minutiae of his decades of shady dealings: Christian Leigh, as he called himself, appeared on the New York art scene in the mid-80s, “charming dealers and artists alike with his smarts, conspiratorial humor, and intimations of financial largesse,” according to a 2003 profile of him by Alexi Worth in Artforum. He curated sprawling shows, threw lavish parties, and even briefly worked as the reviews editor for Artforum, while simultaneously developing a reputation as a flake who often didn’t or couldn’t pay what he owed. By the early 90s, Alexi wrote, “Dealers were warning their artists not to work with him.”

If you don’t know the art world, it might seem strange that an obvious phony would have survived in its environs for so long. But charm and appearances go a long way in such circles, and many were generous enough to interpret his lying as an odd personality trait—or rich enough to forgive him when he went over budget on a show.

“The ethical and financial stuff, [people] tended to brush off, including those who lost fair amounts of money,” Alexi told me when I called him recently. “People have a sort of wistful, nostalgic feeling about that time, and he is kind of an avatar of… 80s excess.”

Christian was forced to reinvent himself after organizing an enormous exhibit at the 1993 Venice Biennale that resulted in $150,000 worth of unpaid bills. He fled New York for Europe, with most of the exhibit’s pieces impounded and dealers and artists negotiating with creditors on his behalf. Meanwhile, New York gallery owners became aware of Christian’s ruses thanks to a 1983 article from People magazine that was eventually faxed to just about anyone in the art world who mattered, making it apparent that this wasn’t the first time Christian had gotten caught in an unsustainable hustle.

That People story featured a precocious 18-year-old fashion designer named Kristian Leigh who made the dress Meryl Streep wore to the 1982 Academy Awards. Thing is, a year after that article appeared, Kristian’s budding business closed because of unpaid debts to suppliers and, according to Alexi’s article, Streep had never heard of the kid. It was shortly after that mess that Christian—né Kristian—Leigh charmed his way into a career as a curator.

A rare copy of Syntax #2: Too Much Night, edited by C. S. Leigh and featuring photography by the author.

Similarly, after a group of collectors and artists settled with Leigh’s Italian creditors in 1998, he reemerged as C. S. Leigh. If you believe IMDb and Wikipedia, this latest incarnation is a “British film director” who has made movies starring Marianne Faithful and featuring music from John Cale. It’s difficult to find any concrete information about these movies online, however, and every time I researched one of C. S.’s projects, I was instead inundated with stories of him screwing someone over.

Everyone I talked to who had done work for C. S. sang the same tune: the guy was a brilliant, charismatic, and driven eccentric who sold people on grandiose projects but never (or at least hardly ever) delivered on promises of payment.

Johannes Ekholm, the art director for the issue of Syntax I worked on, told me that he is still owed 3,500 euros ($4,700) by C. S. and partially blames the episode for ruining his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. “He pulled the right strings of my neurotic character,” Johannes said, adding that C. S. “hypnotized” him. “I think he’s a sociopath, but maybe somehow he fills a place on this earth, and has some mad vision that justifies this.”

Marick Baars, the creative director for weaponofchoice, the design firm that created the first issue of Syntax (and, like Johannes, never received payment), told me in an email that “Christian never sleeps longer than one hour [a night] and drinks about seven (large) bottles of cola a day. He only eats once a day and has so much energy it’s hard to believe until you’ve seen it.”

Roli Rivelino worked as an editor on C. S.’s documentary on fashion designer Ralph Rucci, A Quiet American, in 2011. Like me, Roli was relatively inexperienced in his field and hungry for work. He told me that in the end he was paid around $1,000, only a fraction of what he was owed for ten days of labor. After that, Roli said, C. S. “got more and more difficult to get hold of, until one day I did what I should have done after our first meeting and googled him, and the first thing that came up was an article that documented some of his fraudulent past in New York, Paris, and London.” The documentary was completed by another editor, after Roli quit the project in disgust; IMDb says it came out in 2012, though it seems to have been shown at only a couple of screenings in New York and London.

It was at this point that I reached out to C. S. via email to offer him a chance to explain himself. After lots of badgering, he agreed to speak with me over the phone for a short time—“as little as possible.” When I confronted him on the phone about his habit of not paying his collaborators (myself included), he claimed that many of the people who said he owed them were “lunatics” but admitted he wasn’t great with money.

“Yes, I’ve had unpaid debts in the past,” he said. “It’s occasionally, I’d even say often, a problem.” I pressured him on why this had been a “problem” for so many years, and he replied, “I guess it’s a problem with ambitious projects and not having enough of a budget to do them. But I wouldn’t agree that’s been true of every project I’ve ever worked on, it’s just been true of a lot of them.”

It’s unlikely that C. S. (or whatever his name is—even Kristian is probably a pseudonym) will be remembered for his art. The shows he curated in the 80s and 90s attracted media coverage at the time, but were criticized for lacking a clear theme or purpose, while his films seem to have gone more or less completely unseen.

The man’s natural medium is charm, or excuses, or simply bullshitting—his true work isn’t exhibitions or films, but the convoluted, unethical process by which he produces them. (Or doesn’t produce them, since as I’ve discovered it’s often very hard to verify which of his projects have actually come to fruition.)

Some people he’s crossed paths with have realized this, like the owners of castillo/corrales, a Parisian gallery that in 2011 created an exhibition called Notorious (Christian Leigh) devoted to his twisted path of a life, or photographer Laurence Ellis, who put out a book called No Show documenting his own experience with C. S.

The fact that C. S. is talented at something is evident from the way he keeps getting defended and even praised by those in the art world. Last spring, Liverpool’s Exhibition Research Centre put on a career-spanning exhibition of his work, which included performances at the Tate Modern, Britain’s premier national modern art gallery. I emailed the ERC to ask if they knew about his habit of lying and spending other people’s money, and Antony Hudek, who put together the show with C. S.’s help, replied, “I am aware of the trail of mystery and acrimony that follows C.S., but, regardless of his past deeds, I am convinced that he is an extraordinary curator and a courageous, erudite filmmaker,” he wrote. “In my opinion, the world needs more C. S. (even if the world probably couldn’t cope with more).”

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