Leigh Cooney’s extensive portfolio includes both oil and acrylic paintings, influenced by cartooning, pop-culture, surrealism, religious themes, and folk art. The Irish-born Canadian artist is self-taught and found success with a quasi-realistic style. Although this developed style gained him success, it meant abandoning his original “cartoon-like” painting style. Feeling pigeonholed by this artistic reputation as an oil-painter, he returned to his original acrylic paintings, but under the guise of his “twin brother,” Rolo. In this interview he discusses his artistic methods, the range of themes behind the art, as well as the extent of Rolo’s artistic career.
What’s your painting method? Are there a lot of changes between the idea and the final image?
I never have a clear idea of how the final image will turn out. I have a rough idea in my head of what I want and how it will be laid out. Then I sit down in the morning and start sketching directly on the canvas. This sketch is the only one I do and once I see it come to life I make many insignificant changes, but plenty of significant ones as well. Like my folk heroes I try not to dwell too much on making things perfect and I allow for plenty of surprises that reveal themselves as the sketch unfolds. As in every other aspect of my work, I approach the sketch viscerally. I work quickly, and if something doesn’t feel right I rethink it then and there.
Once the sketch is done I waste no time in starting on the colour. I work from the primary colours only and from there I mix a colour until my gut says it’s what is necessary. Often a few hours or a day or two later I’ll decide the colour no longer works with the direction the painting is going in and I will mix a new one. I have a debilitating lack of patience for sitting still to ponder a new colour. Sometimes this is as drastic as a jump to a complimentary colour, but most often it is only a subtle difference in shade. Sometimes a particular area can have a dozen or more coats of paint before I settle on the one that was needed all along.
Despite the fact that I may have sat on this composition mentally for months, the final image is often far different then what I originally intended.
From where do you draw inspiration?
Everything. I found that once I had been painting every day for a couple of years, almost every single experience I have in a day gets filtered through a certain part of the brain where it is filed away for some potential future piece of art. The best thing that ever happened to me was the invention of the smart phone. Where I used to have thousands of scraps of paper lying around the house in drawers, folders, pockets, wallets, etc. Now I just have a phone with lists of potential ideas for paintings. I haven’t scrolled to the bottom of that list in a very long time. Let’s just say it’s long. Sometimes I’ll come across an old idea and think, what the hell does “technicoloured log cabin” mean?
What themes do you focus on in your work?
There are several motifs that I revisit time and again. My Attention Deficit Disorder, as well as human sexuality, moral ambiguity, politics, fear, and especially the strict Irish Catholicism that both helped and hindered my childhood growth and through the muddied lens of which I still occasionally perceive my surroundings.
What’s the story behind Rolo?
When I began painting several years ago, I went into it with the deliberate approach of absolute simplicity, bordering on naiveté. However I’ve never been one to stick with anything for long, so eventually I started challenging myself to blend that folk simplicity with a little self-taught realism. I got to a peak a few years ago when I was preparing for a show at a gallery in Toronto. Once the paintings were finished, I was impressed by what I perceived as my technical growth as an artist, but I was disappointed by the length of time each painting took (I had gone from doing hundreds of paintings in a year, to roughly 15) and I was unhappy with the slick look I had built. I missed the days when painting felt spontaneous and loose. I bought some quick drying acrylic paints and spent the last few weeks doing really simple illustrative works on canvas. I borrowed inspiration from Mexican votive art, and minimalist movie posters and did one short series for each.
I knew I couldn’t introduce these as an extension of my other work, because at that point I still thought I may want respect from the art world, and most gallerists and critics agree that artists must arbitrarily stick to themes and styles in order to be taken “seriously.” Clearly there are no gallerists or critics with ADHD.
Since the majority of my paintings at that point dealt on some level with dual personalities (the you that you know yourself to be, and the “you” that you carefully present yourself as to the world) I figured why not take that a step further, and introduce these paintings as two separate sides of my personality. I signed the acrylic paintings Roland “Rolo” Cooney, and introduced him to the world as my twin brother. For the exhibit I wrote an artist statement for Rolo on a postit note, and stuck it on the wall next to my own, and I renamed the show “The Cooney Brothers: A Solo Show.”
How long did that go on?
I did several shows over the next few years, explaining away Rolo’s absence as the result of a debilitating case of ochlophobia (an extreme or irrational phobia of crowds.) Ochlophobia is not something I suffer from, but I do have a borderline debilitating fear of groups of people, so this felt like a natural extension of that.
Over the next few years I photoshopped images of myself together to appear as though Rolo and I were two different people, a few times going as far as growing my hair longer, taking a photo, then shaving my head, and taking another picture to carry the illusion that we were indeed two separate people.
Why did you decide to put an end to Rolo’s “career?”
Eventually this bizarre double-life got too complicated, and I began feeling a little deceptive when letters started to arrive for Rolo and I had to make the decision to respond as him or not. I “killed him off” soon after, but I continued in the style I had created with the persona… Eventually my style became a blend of both Leigh and Rolo, but I have never touched an oil paint since that exhibit, and now I don’t bother trying to impress anyone with my skills. I basically shut out the art world and got back to my roots.
…although I got a letter in the mail the other day that simply stated “Rolo lives!!!” The package
also contained a crude picture (even by his standards,) of what appears to be goat stabbing a goat
herder. I’m not sure what that means, but there’s a chance he’s still out there somewhere, ready to
make more trouble for me.