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Movie Review: Unspeakable

DVD cover with photograph of artist Steven Johnson Leyba

In an old interview I heard with comic book artist/writer Art Spiegelman, he says that prior to starting his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel Maus, he felt that his artistic style had become so esoteric that he’d be better off not publishing his work and just stick his comic strips on a wall somewhere and if people were interested, they’d have to go visit that wall to check out his work.

Which, I guess, is the definition of a painting, but outsider artist Steven Johnson Leyba takes this one step further. If you want to check out his paintings, you have to go hang out with him. Leyba doesn’t paint on canvas to be hung on walls. He stitches his artwork into books — one is about the size of Gary Coleman — that he travels around with. He’s made five books in ten years, at least at the time Unspeakable, directed by Marc Rokoff, was made. By the end of the film, I kind of thought that confining his paintings to books was a shame because his artwork is really pretty beautiful and should be hung and raising hell in galleries all over the world. And yes that’s even with the art that includes his wife’s used tampons and his own shit. And the ones that he “pees” blood all over.

Leyba dedicates his art to his Native American heritage, which is why he uses so many “natural” elements in his art. One of Leyba’s statements is that he wants to confront people with the bodily fluids society tries to hide away in shame. When covered with preserving gels, then those bodily fluids just become another pigment in his paintings. Artwork with bodily fluids and solids isn’t totally unique to Leyba. Andy Warhol did a series of abstract oxidation paintings that involved his peeing on canvas and Chris Ofili got famous for using elephant dung in his work, including a portrait of the Virgin Mary. I think Warhol did it just to be badass while Ofili uses the dung to honor his Nigerian heritage.

In addition to being part-Native American, Leyba is a proud Satanist and tags most of his artwork (if not all) with the official Church of Satan symbol, the Sigil of Baphomet, which is a goat inside a pentagram inside a circle. This tag also appears all over Leyba’s body since he’s a performance artist as well as a painter. Using his flesh as a canvas, Leyba has a woman carve the Sigil, sans goat, into his back then pees all over him. Then she takes out a bottle of Jim Beam and fucks him in the ass with it. Ok, that last part is more about Leyba’s Native Americanism than his Satanism, but still kind of shocking to see.

Oh yes, Rokoff doesn’t skimp on the outrageous scenes from Leyba’s public performances and private rituals. I would like to say something like, “OMG, you have to see the scene where Leslie sticks a pin into the head of Steven’s penis and he squirts blood all over his artwork!” But I had to turn my head during that scene. The back-carving scene? Surprisingly ok with it. Pin in the penis? I couldn’t take it. I listened. No fast-forwarding for me. But watch? No.

However, the film isn’t all grotesqueries. Steven and Leslie are very good on camera and entertaining to listen to as they make their art. But my favorite parts of the film are when Rokoff interviews Leyba’s family extensively. His mom and dad, now divorced, appear in the film extensively. Leyba’s father is very candid about his struggle with alcoholism and how he feels that affected Steven growing up; and we get a lot of shocked responses from Leyba’s mom, e.g. “Steven, you shouldn’t let her pee on your back.” The parents, while seeming to not “get” what their son is up to, otherwise do seem supportive of him, which is nice because I can’t imagine most parents would handle it well if their son came home and said he was a Satanist. Other family members are more discouraging. A yuppie-looking brother regrets that Steven’s artwork now isn’t as interesting as it was when he was a teenager. And an uncle says he doesn’t want to have anything to do with Steven’s art since it is Satanic in nature — although the dirty little secret is that Satanism isn’t so much about Satan as one might think. But it was this real personal angle in which I thought the film really shined.

There are obvious broader political and social issues that Leyba’s art brings up that the film doesn’t get into. There are a few experts on hand to discuss whether what Leyba does is actually art or not and the Satanists seem to really support him. But we don’t get to hear the Native American reaction to Leyba speaking up for and honoring them, which I doubt they would much appreciate his efforts. There’s also a scene in which we find out about Leyba’s performance at a major San Francisco political party, which is a funny story, but we never learn what the actual political fallout was from the event.

Rokoff decides to keep things intimate instead, keeping the action centered mostly on Leyba’s family and close associates. I would have liked a little broader outlook, since Leyba’s art is political in nature. But, I think being such an outsider artist and hearing about how he creates his work, the documentary does a great job in answering the first question that comes to mind: “What would make somebody do those kinds of things?”

Watch the Unspeakable movie trailer:


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