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Movie Review: Ghost Dance

Steven Johnson Leyba looks at paintings in a museum

Filmmakers Dionysos Andronis and Ca Ca Ca add another idiosyncratic portrait of an artist to their ever-growing collection with their latest documentary Ghost Dance about Steven Johnson Leyba, the most controversial American artist you may have never heard of.

The word “idiosyncratic” can be used to describe both the subjects of the filmmakers’ docs as well as their approach to film documentation. Leyba has been the subject of a documentary before, Marc Rokoff‘s Unspeakable, which is a fairly straight-forwardly structured film. We get to see Leyba produce some of his art, he answers questions about his life and work asked by the filmmaker, we meet his family, etc. Therefore, by the end of the film, then, we have a pretty complete picture of the subject.

On the other end of the spectrum, Andronis and Ca Ca Ca are content to just follow behind Leyba during a trip to Europe. The filmmakers don’t interact with their subject for the most part, although sometimes he’ll address the camera to make a point. We learn about him through conversations with people, see one of his spoken word performances and listen to some voiceover while the camera scans samples of his paintings hanging in a gallery. In this fashion, we don’t get a full, complete portrait of the artist, but instead get to absorb his essence.

Both approaches are satisfying in their own way. From Ghost Dance, we don’t learn that Leyba has been known to paint with his own bodily fluids and feces. Nor do we get to see the massively thick books of art that he’s created over the years. And we don’t get to see him urinate blood on one of those books, like we did in Unspeakable.

In its own way, though, Ghost Dance is almost a more intimate portrait of Leyba. In this film, he’s allowed to be way more philosophical and political, especially when he’s chatting with his peers. We truly get to understand that this is a man whose art is all encompassing of his life, that all of his actions and beliefs are fuel for the art project that is Steven Johnson Leyba.

Perhaps the most touching moments of the film are the ones where Leyba is filmed as he wanders around the Musée national Gustave Moreau in Paris. Leyba is in awe of the power and technique of Moreau, the ancient master, as is expected.

But, in Leyba’s case, it’s totally unexpected, particularly when these classical masterpieces are contrasted with the few examples of Leyba’s paintings that we get to see. His artwork is crude and primitive, globby little portraits that look like they’ve been painted on paper plates. That’s not to say that his artwork isn’t appealing and beautiful in its revelry of ugliness — because it is.

This is an artist who makes great hay about challenging the system. He’s a practicing Satanist — although he’s a bit on the outs with the direction the church has been going — because it challenges the established religious doctrines. His spoken word performances challenge established political beliefs.

What Leyba doesn’t challenge is the notion of art. He does complain about how artists have allowed institutions, such as museums and galleries, to take control of their language and dialogue. But it’s clear, even if he doesn’t say it outright, that there is nothing more sacred in this world than art, whether that art is his own or the work of a French symbolist painter in the 1800s. He will defend that art with his own integrity and conviction to the death.

Leyba appears much more mature here since Unspeakable. While he comes across as being very thoughtful in both films, it’s as if the strength of his convictions have completely settled in as a heavy weight on his shoulders. He’s a bit more somber, more serious, growing into a role of an elder statesman from his angrier, more anarchic days.

Ghost Dance is labeled as a “Part One,” although it’s unclear from the end title cards whether or not future parts will just be about Leyba or will include more outsider artists collected by Andronis and Ca Ca Ca. If this is a series specifically just on Leyba, there is obviously much more to learn about this enigmatic figure, even after one has seen both docs in which he stars.

To learn more about Steven Johnson Leyba, please visit his official website.

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