Reverend Steven Johnson Leyba

lebya5 (13K) JD: Could you elaborate on your concept of the War on Children and the way in which children are used as an excuse to censor adult minds?

SL: It is odd how American culture uses and abuses the sanctity of youth. Sometimes it is insane like the child protection devices on lighters for instance. Children are the excuse but adults are toyed with. How are they going to put child protection devices on matches for instance? Children are the excuse for almost all censorship. The only viable excuse in a so called free democracy, right? Why isn't it the parents' responsibility to protect their children? It is wrong for a young person to see naked bodies, they cannot buy a porn magazine but they can buy a Newsweek that has blown up bodies in it or see a violent movie. It is a shallow excuse and causes an interest in things the child may not have to begin with. It creates a strange pathology, this is a very Christian ideal of a taboo. Over all, an unusual focus and obsession on children is created in our culture. In a Christian culture all taboos are sexualized. Children are exploited in all ways in our youth based culture. When one sees children with lots of make up on in advertising. (I remember a "Got milk?" advertising having a baby with lipstick on) and movies and then we hear about Catholic priests raping children and the statistics of child molesting one has to look at the culture we live in and that culture is a perversion of an already perverted precept- Christianity. I remember when the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition was a big controversy all over the U.S. and curators were being arrested and everyone said "What about the children?" Which is bullshit because a kid isn't likely to go shell out 15 bucks to see some boring art exhibit. Then a year later the big book of Mapplethorpe is in Barnes and Nobles and any child can see all the fist fucking and hard-ons they want, even purchase the book if they wanted. There is a sort of "War on Children" in our culture that uses children as an excuse for all censorship and has created an unrealistic mythology we put on childhood. There is resentment older people have with the young in our ageist culture because the focus is always YOUTH and their BODIES, but your body will fail you- it will rot. My personal "War on Children" is the war on stupidity and poor excuses. Children are not dumb. They will one day grow up. They will remember.

JD: In one of your paintings there are images of a gun (snub nosed .38?) being inserted in a pair of rectums. I found it funny that the gun is wearing a condom. Was this for "real life" practical reasons or was this meant as a commentary that no sex is safe sex?

SL: Yes. Yes always a trickster's commentary on the idiocy of our society. Everyone knows that if the shit later dries in your gun and you have to use it on a burglar or a fascist, it could blow up in your face. In traditional Native American Coyote mythology Coyote would fuck himself in the ass without the gun and later have to use the gun in self- defense and he would blow himself up. But the Coyote story would also have a potential contradictory message. If the condom was on it and left on it -it may do the same thing. The Coyote mythology would have the meaning that one has to follow ones personal INSTINCT and not the routine logic of society or the tribe because in dangerous situations your instinct will be your only survival. Society will not save you. Society only exists to protect the group, the individual is not important. Also to me an American would put a condom on a gun before they fuck themselves because body filth is bad, all human fluids and substances remind them they are going to die. Europeans joke about the excessive amount of showers Americans take and the amount of disgusting perfumes are pored on. It is death we are afraid of. Death of many things like the death of the illusions others have of us, our position or class in capitalist society and the literal metaphor of the rotting human body and its odors. And of course Sex is death and sex creates potential life that reminds us of our own mortality.

JD: Blackening the eyes of your sex goblins makes for an eerie effect but why do you do this or how did you think of this?

SL: Look at the whole history of portrait painting, Rembrandt, Goya, even Picasso to a certain extent- the eyes are the most important. The eyes are it. Once you have the eyes you have the portrait. I am more interested in the essence. Like Francis Bacon I want the life in the person and am not interested in the likeness or an illustration. I wanted to show life in a face without the eyes. Several years ago I had in my hand a copy of some fashion magazine -- Vogue or Cosmopolitan and I remember looking at the close-up portraits and how the faces were sexualized. The make up around the eyes and lips were the same color of a vagina or a scrotum or an anus. I began to draw on the magazine. I blacked out the eyes creating new orifices. I later took it back to the studio and collaged pornographic images onto the faces and painted over the collage. I was making literal what has been a dirty trick of the advertiser (to sexualize everything to sell anything). I later became unsatisfied by the aversion most pornographic magazines have to close ups of the human genitals (to me the genitals are visually beautiful and under appreciated and thought ugly in art and pornography). I began taking my own close up photographs and painting oil over acrylic over collage and sewing beads and putting hair, blood and other human elements like excrement and semen in the painting. The portraits became visual lust rituals reclaiming my sexuality from the advertiser. I blacked out the eyes as a challenge. I wanted to show life and personality without the eyes.

JD: John Trudell, a leader of the American Indian Movement, once said in an obscure interview that was printed in a Xerox zine called "Nothing Sacred" that he thought it was important to be self-centered. He said he meant this not in the sense that most people would take such an attitude to mean. He meant it in a literal sense -- you have to be centered in your self to know where you are at, otherwise you'll be distracted by irrelevant things. Do you agree with this?

SL: Oh absolutely. You can't fight all the bullshit, all the media unless you live and experience things in your own life. The rest is bullshit. Everything's a lie. Empty promises like an advertising billboard. I'm sure Trudell meant you've got to be grounded. Native Americans have to have both feet on the earth.

JD: He said something in there too like there was more of what he called "predator energy" in civilization than in the natural world. He said this predator energy occurs in nature too but that it's more concentrated in civilization. Do you agree with that?

SL: Yeah absolutely because governments are set up to work for the people and be a service to the citizens but I think that people are slaves to the system now. You got to pay your taxes, you have to have great credit to get an apartment. Joseph Campbell said that's not the way it should be. As far as I'm concerned the government should be there to provide military and build roads. I remember in art school I had a teacher who said "Back in the days of the Old Masters it was easier. You just painted." You didn't have to worry about licenses or credit cards. Computers which were supposed to have made things easier have just added more tasks, more busy work.

JD: People have to work more and more whereas they were told in the 50's that the 21st century would be a leisurely utopia, where they would only have to work three or four days a week and have three months off a year. They were telling people that again in the 80's.

SL: Americans! It's just insane the amount of slave labor Americans do. They get themselves these jobs then they get into debt. We're all indentured servants. It's one thing to have your own business, to be an independent contractor or something like that, but to be a slave to a corporation that could dump you at any time -- it's just getting worse and worse. It goes back to the puritans, you work to absolve yourself of your sins and work, work, work. Go to the next level, Heaven or whatever. In Europe people don't identify themselves by what they do. Here it's everything. Materialism is not the only thing that matters in other countries like in our culture.

JD: How do you respond to Native American spokespeople who object to your association of the word "Satan" with Native American beliefs and traditions?

SL: Go to any reservation it's like stepping into the south. People are so Christian on reservations. I'm lucky I wasn't raised on a reservation in a sense -- because if you're an artist anything that you do the elders are going to say "You can't do that it's going against tradition." They try to tell me that and I'm a dislocated Indian, an urban Indian, and the thing is when they talk about "tradition" they're talking about a thing that's half-tradition and half-Christian. I'm just calling it what it is. If the forest is green it's green. For instance the Mescalero Apache traditional mountain spirit dance was called the Devil Dance by early colonists. They called all Native Americans devil worshippers because they did rituals at night and wore scary outfits and scary masks and of course they were worshipping Satan! As far as Satanists go Satan is not a deity. In the La Veyan sense Satan is an archetype and it's also a symbol of nature. Now when these Christians came in and they said these people were worshipping the sun, the river but they weren't. They were paying homage to nature. They weren't treating nature as a deity: They were animists.

JD: They were revering as opposed to worshipping.

SL: Yeah they were animists. Everything is connected. I have a force, the rock has a force, the tree has a force. Of course "Satan" is a loaded word. Go anywhere in the world and "Satan" sends this ancient archetypal hot flash through people's minds. You say "Satan" and there's many connotations. So most Indians being raised Christians are going to have a problem with that. I say well that's your problem. I never, ever said anything I do is traditional.

JD: But you incorporate traditional elements in what you do which seems to be the source of some of the objections to what you do. Some of these objections you've even quoted in your book.

SL: Yeah, I do have my enemies. The thing is a lot of the rituals were colonized and tribes froze their religion and made it into a spectacle. Like with the mountain spirit you have the four dancers and then you have the trickster spirit and the idea is trickster makes fun of complacency and order and makes fun of the four other dancers. Now this ritual was supposed to continue and challenge anything in society and it's not. It is just repetitious and it doesn't have the effect that it initially had. Hopi clowns, the Tewa clowns, some of the tricksters would fuck each other in front of people, throw shit on the audience. They were hardcore. You don't have that now.

JD: Except for stuff like GG Allin or something.

SL: Yeah, yeah.

JD: You said in the prologue to your memoirs that you grew up in Southern California.

SL: Till I was eleven yeah. Then my step dad got a job in Arkansas so I went from riding a skate board on the sidewalk to having a ranch where there were no sidewalks.

JD: So when you say "my reservation" -- the Mescalero Reservation -- that's something you had to go find. You had to find out where your family was from?

SL: My family, their generation, was like "no matter what you are you are an American, an American." My family didn't say "You're a Native American. You're purest blood is Apache. You're half-Indian." They were brought up that everyone's an American. The thing was my great-grand parents didn't tell. They left the reservation, they moved to LA, they learned Spanish and didn't tell their kids anything. My grandfather thought he was Cherokee but he was Apache. So they didn't think it was important, they thought it was a hindrance to getting ahead. A good example for me was my dad was named for his Uncle Benny, an Apache war hero from World War II, a Nazi fighter who got all these medals. There was a story about him in the LA Times. I went and looked up the article on microfilm: "Apache War Hero Gets Medals!" Then on the next page there was this article about an Indian who went into this store and got in an argument with the store-owner. The Indian walked out and the store-owner shot him in the back and killed him. The article talked about this guy who got shot in the back and said this guy was a dog, this Native American. This was back in the forties when Indian was worse than black or Mexican. My family just said they were Mexican and didn't want to know about their heritage, it was a bad thing. They didn't want to live on the reservation and they didn't want to tell people they were Indians. My dad wasn't into finding out about his heritage either.

JD: Your dad was Crazy Benny?

SL: Yeah.

JD: What does your dad do?

SL: He's a mechanic.

JD: Okay. Where did you grow up in southern California?

SL: I was born in Whittier and I lived in Walnut over by Pomona until I was about eleven.

JD: I remember you talking about soulless track homes.

SL: Yeah.

JD: So you were coming up in the seventies?

SL: Yeah. When I lived in Walnut we had a mountain right next to our house and we just got to watch it disappear over night. Just fill with houses. The wilderness was gone before my eyes.

JD: Let's get back to the clown idea. The whole idea of humor seems like a chaotic thing sometimes. Mephistopholes in Goethe's Faust has some of the most cynical and funniest lines in western literature. What's your take on humor, clowns and pranks, like the clowns fucking each other in Hopi rituals?

SL: Absolutely necessary.

JD: Do you see it as humor?

SL: Yeah but dark humor. Dark humor is frowned on to a certain extent in American culture. We don't want to deal with death. We don't want to deal with sex in a darker way. We just like light-hearted "ha, ha, ha." Because of this the trickster figure, like the clown, is the most important figure in this and other cultures too. The most spiritual person in the tribe would be the trickster. Your job is basically to point out that this society is temporary, your ideas are temporary, you got to change with nature. Things may look like they never change but they do and your governments, your societies are temporary and you have to take critique and that's a really serious fucking problem now today in America. If you do this there's no Constitution now with the Patriot Act. If someone doesn't like you, if you say something against the government, if you paint on the flag, whatever, you could be rounded up without a lawyer and disappear. The best art that Western Civilization has had, in my view, is the art that was created between World War I and II: the Surrealists, Picasso. I mean these people were going fuck you. Your logic, your Age of Reason has brought us to world war. It's crap and here we are again in America. The most important art form is minimalism. I mean what does that say? It's propaganda for nothing.

JD: Bauhaus post-modern architecture is nothing but mirrored boxes that reflect everything around them so that you just have mirrors reflecting mirrors. If you even look at architecture from the twenties and the thirties, people took time and dedication with things. You see the expression of trade skills and artisanship.

SL: Yeah it's what Robert Hughes, the art critic, calls the suppression of skill in art.

JD: It's all just cookie cutter.

SL: Yeah.

JD: We need it quick. It's got to be efficient, cost-effective and you don't have refinement where you see wood carving, hand finished wainscoting or any of that stuff that used to be put on and in buildings. At one point in America people had trade skills and that seems to be dying.

SL: It's dying. People don't like architecture. They like prototypes. That's why schools look like prisons -- in a lot of ways there's a lot of correlation between the two. With art there's a lot of talk at art schools among artists now about the Abstract Expressionists and the abstract movement where New York became the art capital after Paris. Allegedly the government promoted abstract art. It was perfect. Here you have all these radical communists or whatever and they're going to do abstract art that's apolitical. I think there's actually documentation that proves the government put in money and promoted this. Look how they built up Jackson Pollock. Here was new art that was perfect for capitalism. It was apolitical, it wasn't challenging anything. Where is America's Picasso? Where is our Guernica?

JD: Well plus it gave artistic legitimacy to America being the new ruler of the world after World War II. It was no longer Europe. They had to promote intellectual, artistic legitimacy because we didn't have a rich history of the arts with American Flemish Masters or what have you.

SL: Yeah. We have a hatred of history. We still think we're a young country and we're not. History is a bad thing. It's always got to be progress. It's always the new thing. The new thing is better.

JD: I think we lose a lot. This attitude creates a shallow culture and it means people keep making the same mistakes.

SL: Over and over.

JD: Yeah.

SL: So where is our trickster now? Where are our revolutionaries now that we need them?

JD: When did you start using body fluids and tissues in your work?

SL: Well look at a lot of indigenous art, African masks with hair and excrement -- well they didn't put excrement on masks to shock the NEA or Christians or what have you. There were ritualistic properties, magical properties. They were putting physical reality into the masks. When I was finishing up art school the whole Mapplethorpe thing was going on. My first book was My Stinking Ass and I put in excrement and hair, body fluids. It was part of an interest in indigenous magical workings and sigils used in bodily fluid and then it was also this humorous thing: performance artists always use excrement and piss! So it was kind of this love/hate thing. Karen Finly and everyone's using bodily fluids I think I can do it better. I use hair, for instance, when I'm painting. I can use blood, hair, excrement. You can't always see the excrement. The hair is there, it adds a detail, the blood adds surface right? If I paint over a photograph it has a three-dimensional surface but also I want to show the flat surface of the painting so the blood will flatten out part of it. So it would be like a Jackson Pollock right-in-your-face perspective. I've adopted something that was kind of in the culture as being "shocking." I've adopted it aesthetically as a technique in my painting and I paint oil paint over the hair and the blood -- and incorporated it to the point where it was a secondary thing. The work didn't depend on the fact that it had shit, hair or anything. That wasn't the point of the art. It was just another medium.

For the rest of the Interview with Rev. Steven Johnson Leyba look for the upcoming issue of "Species Magazine."

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