by Eva Glettner
Both an artist and an art director, Michael Leon never strays far from the tenacity and enthusiasm he picked up as a skateboarder in the late '80s. He blends a DIY attitude with finely honed skills perfectly, and the results are always something special—especially when you're working in the unusual medium of flags. He first introduced "Vexhall" (a word coined by Leon from the term "vexillology," the study of flags) in a Berlin exhibition in 2010. Now, Leon is teaming up with Malibu, CA-based indie art magazine and longtime collaborators Arkitip (who he has worked with for 15 years) once again to explore and evolve his "Vexhall" series even further.
Flags, as universal symbols, have fascinated Leon since he was a child and was first exposed to the stars and stripes. “'Vexhall' is one project that I’ve learned to love. That is, selecting something to use as a canvas and then working within its limitations to create a series,” he says. Limits or not, Leon manages to work within strict boundaries, but still intrigues and delights his viewers—while also manipulating and challenging their understanding of overt meaning and subversive context.
I asked a seven and 10-year-old to paint the American flag from memory. It was amazing to hear them debate and decide on how many stars and stripes.
Leon’s flags are both a tactile and visual experience. Of his process, he says “I’m always making something, but I think it’s special when you can combine the thinking and the hands-on process... Usually the idea will attach itself to an obvious material or print process.” Some of his flags are photographic images that Leon chose to print digitally in order to get the highest possible resolution.
His USA flag, however, is hand-dyed and hand-embroidered to achieve the "labored" appearance Leon wanted. He says, of this piece's incredible process, "With this flag, I asked a seven and 10-year-old to paint the American flag from memory. It was amazing to hear them debate and decide on how many stars and stripes."
While Leon plans ahead, he also isn't afraid to start all over if he isn't thrilled by the end result. "I plan them out a few at a time usually in similar groups. For instance I decide that five of them will be tie-dyed with screen-printing and I go through my notebook to find ideas that compliment those applications. Or flip that and the idea comes first. That way I can execute them all at once. Of course many of them fail and either become something else or get trashed."
Creating flags has been something that Leon has never really veered from—whether in reality or in his mind. Now, the goal is to broaden Leon’s audience to a global market—certainly logical considering flags speak to an international community. Leon's next project is going to be designing surfboards, reaffirming that no canvas is off limits.
Michael Leon's limited edition flags are available online for $395 from Arkitip; some only come in an edition of 1.
Images courtesy of Michael Leon