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Self Optimization and Pop Culture

For Leonie Specht, the face presents a playground with an array of seemingly endless opportunities to enhance, distort, and deform. With her oil paintings and works on paper, the artist puts the face and facial expressions center stage, exploring everything from plastic surgery on celebrities to the anthropomorphization of animals and toy dolls.

Blurring the line between humans and animals, exploring the topic of self-optimization, and creating a microcosm between reality and fantasy, Specht's paintings present a place where the commonplace and the strange can coexist.

In conversation with Nora Partl, Head of Content & Communication, Leonie Specht discusses her journey as an artist, the magic that painting radiates, the balancing act between the beautiful and uncanny, and self-optimization in the age of social media.

Portrait of Leonie Specht (c) Peter Wolff.

Nora Partl: Leonie Specht, when did you know you were an artist?

Leonie Specht: I have painted and drawn my whole childhood, and it never really changed. The actual decision to professionalize as an artist came after high school. I applied for art school, but only design school would accept me at 18 years old, so that’s what I did instead. I got a fair bit of training in creating a proper concept, visual training, and just a lot of theoretical foundations, but these were courses that did not resonate with what I actually wanted to do, which was to draw and paint figuratively. I got into art school in 2018 and even studied fine art abroad twice.

Moving a brush or pencil around, visualizing thoughts, doing research about different topics, going down rabbit holes and documenting my process is just a big part of what I like to do.

NP: Originally from Frankfurt, Germany, you went to study art in Milan as well as in Seoul. What were the most important lessons you learned while studying art?

LS: My time at Seoul National University was all about teaching myself discipline. I learned to paint for several hours a day without too much distraction. At SNU I had great professors who put a lot of effort into getting to know me and my artistic aspirations, and I really profited off of that exchange. In addition to that, I worked on large-scale paintings for the first time due to a very nice studio space on campus. It's an unforgettable experience.

At Accademia di Belle arti di Brera I got the chance to develop technical skills from scratch all over again! The building feels like a castle in the middle of the city. It houses the Pinacoteca di Brera and a beautiful botanical garden. The course plan is quite strict and the general approach of teaching rather traditional. It was a game changer for me to surrender and just do what was asked of me: dozens of anatomy sketches a week, painting without black pigment, learning among others the traditional trois-crayons technique, drawing our nude model over and over again during the semester. I developed a double life where I did my own artistic work at home after university. A whole (unshown) watercolor series emerged from it.

NP: How have you as an artist evolved over the past few years?

LS: I specified what my work is essentially about and learned to always listen to my intuition in every aspect of my practice. Making the mediums I want to be very comfortable with my second nature is another beautiful aspect of progress. Especially doing hundreds, if not thousands, of portraiture sketches has been such a big part of my journey. I never get tired of looking at faces in my surroundings and thinking about what makes them unique and how I would transfer the proportions I see on paper. If I don’t paint or draw, I still pretty much think about it.

NP: Your work explores the relationship between humans and animals and depicts facial expressions as well as the humanization of animals—all of that is marked with a certain perversion. How did you develop your visual language?

LS: I remember that one time when my kindergarten teacher gave me an outline drawing of the Pokémon Glumanda for me to colour. I was so mesmerized by the drawing! Not only the finished sheet excited me, but also the experience of her having that skill and sharing it with me. As early as then, my visual language started to emerge. I always knew that figuration was my field of work. Emphasizing the quality of the chosen medium is something that has developed more recently. Rougher brushstrokes or graphite lines that are not perfectly rendered are a way to break an otherwise even style. Usually, I work quite closely around the subject and let loose a bit in the corners and background of the artwork. As a millennial, I am heavily influenced by pop culture aesthetics. However, I aim to give my paintings a rather timeless aura, especially in terms of technique.

NP: Your paintings merge references from literature and social media, as well as from your own surroundings. What impact does art history have on your practice?

LS: I think it is so random, funny, and beautiful at the same time to be able to get so emotionally overwhelmed by pigments that are distributed on a canvas in a certain way. Paintings of all eras, mostly in museums, have made me cry several times in my life, and without fail, I never saw it coming; the emotions just took over spontaneously. I always have a selection of books on my desk when working. I pick them randomly, just based on what feels relevant to me in that moment. Some of my favorite books are by Leonardo, Ambera Wellmann, Caravaggio, Cecily Brown, Issy Wood, Somaya Critchlow, John Currin, Jenny Saville, Xinyi Cheng, Artemisia Gentileschi, Marlene Dumas, Chloe Wise, Cy Twombly, and Henry Taylor. I would not say those are all immediate influences for my own practice, but they are positions that I feel emotionally connected with. Their presence is like a silent emotional support system for me in the studio.

NP: You have chosen the traditional medium of oil painting to bring an analogue exaggeration of a technically advanced present to life. What charms you about the medium of paint?

LS: The process of painting remains, after all these years, such a mystery to me. In his book "The Courage to Create," psychologist Rollo May describes the act of painting as if there's "something holy going on," and I very much relate to how he put it. It’s something that I can’t fully understand or control, no matter how much time I spend practicing the craft. It is one of the very unpredictable elements in my life that I long to give some structure to, but I fail greatly at it every time my desire to control it kicks in. Every day is different, and every painting is different. There’s nothing quite like the messy relationship I have with my painting practice.

NP: The topic of self-optimization is a recurring one in your practice, which you visualize by depicting the facial expressions of celebrities, faces enhanced by plastic surgery, painting toy dolls, and humanizing animals. What do you find fascinating about the topic of self-optimization?

LS: I think self-optimization can be an obsession and, for some, an addiction, but it does not always deliver the desired outcome. It is also a telling symptom of the consumerist culture we live in. What makes plastic surgery such a captivating field for me is that it has only been around for a short amount of time, and making it accessible to a larger group of people is a very recent phenomenon. The meaning of the face and its significance in society amaze me on many levels.

NP: Of course, self-optimization is omnipresent in the age of social media and digitalization. Do you view your work as a critique of contemporary society and the way we use and consume social media?

LS: Making people question what they see is a more suitable definition of my goal than critique per se. I dive into many topics at once in my practice, and curiosity is the driving force. The concept of "confirmation bias" (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories) to me is so telling about the way we consume information in general, and I think it is the same with interpreting art that we see. In the spirit of Walter Benjamin, the way mankind went from magic frescoes and mosaics to memes and ads on portable screens is such a massive shift, for sure! The question is, can and should we forever keep up the steep hierarchy that is traditionally embedded in the idea of a certain image based on its function? What are the advantages and disadvantages of drawing those distinctions?

FLUFFY, 2023.

NP: With your works FLUFFY and PLUSHIE, you are part of the group exhibition THE CUTE SHOW. Both paintings show cute animal-esque toy dolls with exaggerated facial expressions, creating a certain tipping point into the uncanny. What are the stories behind those works?

LS: The oil paintings reference vintage toy dolls from the last century. To me, the way they are designed feels very contemporary. I love the combination of animal and human facial features. They have a weird merge paired with an obvious emotional expression on their faces, which makes them so easy to read for us humans. Creating an uncanny feeling through size, composition, expression, and proportions is something that I work with a lot. It is subtle, but is it present. In those specific paintings, I left out some distinctive features, such as lashes and whiskers. Manipulating the image like that makes it harder to define exactly what it is about a painting that feels off.

NP: A new meaning of the term cute is being developed, with some arguing that the unpleasant or even ugly aspect of something makes it cute. Do you agree?

LS: Prefacing my answer with a law of the universe, "as above, so below," I can’t think of anything that is not the flip side of the same coin. In Umberto Eco's "Storia de la Brutezza," he describes brilliantly that even something as profound as the idea of ugliness is based on trends throughout the centuries. Of course, there are things that are instinctively repellent to the collective. But even a strong concept such as "beauty" is something very subjective, so a definite agreement cannot be fully reached, especially throughout different cultures and different centuries. What I love about the definition by Sianne Ngai that goes back to the attributes "zany" "cute, and "interesting" is that the theory is very much tied to the reality of late capitalism, therefore being even more relatable and contemporary.

PLUSHIE, 2023.

NP: What would you like your audience to take away from your work?

LS: At best, I can evoke an ambivalence of feelings in the viewer, ranging from confusion and repulsion to a certain magnetism that makes you want to look longer. Looking at art is something so personal that I do not want to anticipate too much of what someone "should" see in my work. I love having people share what they think it is about or what they feel and see. This direct exchange means a lot to me.

NP: Where do you see your practice evolving in the near future?

LS: When Anika Meier invited me to participate in THE CUTE SHOW she specifically asked for oil paintings. I had not painted in almost 11 months as I spent the whole last year drawing and working with watercolour, so it was a real comeback for me to oil-paint for the EXPANDED.ART exhibition. I feel like my brushwork has changed a lot. Moving forward, I am excited to work on bigger oil paintings and, of course, continue with portraiture. I’d love to work in the field of face lifts and nose jobs, but I don’t have enough context yet to make everything come together in a meaningful way.

Leonie Specht's work mirrors self-optimization, cuteness, and pop culture, among others, inviting the viewer to be a part of a narrow microcosm between reality and fantasy.

A subtle perversion that no longer seems suspicious is manifested in her paintings and works on paper. In her recent practice, the face and facial expressions have become a central theme—from celebrities and plastic surgery to toy dolls and the humanization of animals. Her wide research ranges from the metaphysical world to the mundane. In her work, Specht is looking for common ground where the ordinary and the uncanny merge.