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Artist Spotlight: Leo Costelloe

Leo Costelloe (@leocostelloe) is an Irish-Australian artist living and working in London. Their work in glass, metal and silversmithing explores the transient and sentimental nature of objects. Drawing inspiration from popular culture, spiritual practice and personal experience, Costelloe creates sculptural works that situate themselves in a liminal space somewhere between beauty and banality. 

Costelloe is one of the three artists featured in the current STUDIO WEST Exhibition, The Blush Upon Her Cheek. Drawing from Restoration Court painter Sir Peter Lely’s Windsor Beauties (1660s), a set of eleven portraits depicting ladies of the court of King Charles II, the exhibition sees a trio of contemporary artists examine the problematics entrenched in the cultivation and appreciation of beauty. To find more information on the exhibition, which will be running until the 22nd February 2024, click here

We sat down with Leo to discuss the exhibition, hopes for the future of the arts and more…

Where did your journey as an artist start? 

I went to a high school that specialised in arts, but it was like a government-funded project - I grew up in Australia. You’d have to audition or apply for it and I got into a film and television programme from like about 12 or 13. Then I moved to the UK when I was 19 and when I graduated high school, I did six months in college doing fashion design and saved loads of money. My dad is Irish so I have an Irish passport. And then I got an internship with a stylist who was working for Harper's Bazaar at the time.

I was working like five days a week doing the internship, and then like five nights a week in the cafe, or like six nights a week in the cafe/restaurant - that was really horrible. I then got a job as a florist, because the cafe owner owned a florist and I did flowers for a really long time. But I'd always sort of maintained a creative practice alongside that. And I did drag - I was in East London and my friends are queer or performers or DJs or drag queens, so I was doing a lot of drag. And then I went back to school and studied jewellery design whilst I was assisting Simone Gooch, who's like a very prominent floral artist, as I suppose you’d describe her. 

The type of floristry that I was doing was very much sculpture-based work. And it's also very spatially driven, in terms of the way that Simone works. She works considering space and it's a very minimalist approach. So naturally when it came to jewellery design, I was working in a sculptural context. Then I just started engaging with different materials. I did a glass residency as soon as I finished uni. I got a grant from Swarovski and went to Northern Ireland to study glass with Andrea Spencer and it all just just kicked off from there. 

What initially drew you to floristry? 

I grew up in a rural setting - my dad was a ranger in rural Australia. So I grew up around a lot of nature and my auntie was a florist, my older cousin was a florist, my sister-in-law is a florist. There's a lot of florists in the family. We always had flowers in the house, though not in the context that I worked with them later. But my mum would always pick flowers and put them in the house so it was just always part of my upbringing. And then when we lived more in the city, my mum would bring home sunflowers or whatever, so I’ve always had a relationship to flowers. 

I hated working at the restaurant - I was working nights and I really wanted to quit the interning because it's really thankless. I mean it was for me at the time. The owner of the restaurant owned a florist in Spitalfields and she offered me a job there rather than at the restaurant. So I took it, and then I just worked my way into a more lucrative position. I've done a lot of large-scale, high-octane events. I worked on Chloe Sevigny’s wedding and those sorts of big, big jobs. It was a natural way to monetize my creativity at the time, I think. 

So many people experience that unpaid interning cycle which is why it’s so difficult for young creatives to get into the industry without backing from, most likely, their parents. In the same vein, is there anything you’d like to see changed about the art/creative industry as a whole going into 2024? 

There are loads of things I'd like to see. For one thing, I think there needs to be more monetary opportunities to develop practice, and also probably a wider focus on craft. Part of the reason why I chose to study jewellery design is because I had so many friends study fine art and a lot of institutions obviously encourage wide practices, and get a lot of people in to expand their creativity. A lot of my friends who came out of fine art school had all this really great conceptual knowledge and were really excited but then had no resources, or were totally stripped of the resources they had had to make their work. They were left in a situation where they're like, I have no idea how to further pursue this career, because they [now] don’t have a full-time technician and were totally unprepared to make the work that they had been making. 

So I think there needs to be more of a focus on craft perhaps, or keeping craft alive as a means of artistic expression. There's always been such a divide, at least I recognise, between art and craft in a lot of ways and I think there needs to be more of a marriage.  QUEST is doing some really interesting things like promoting grants and skill sharing, giving artisans opportunities to employ interns with hourly wages - like actually with money - and providing skill sharing because there are a lot of dying skills going on. 

So yeah, I would like to see a wider focus on craft as an aspect of producing fine art because so much of it is externalised and there’s a lot of artists I know who don't really understand how the work gets made. And I think that’s nepotism in the art world… There are so many people producing work that they don’t actually know the processes in which it’s being produced. I think there needs to be more education and knowledge around craft so that people at least understand how the things they're making are being made. I would like to see that change from a personal perspective alongside a lot of other things that we don't really have time for.

Looking towards your current exhibition, I’d love to know where you draw inspiration from for your current work.

It’s interesting. A lot of the work that I have been making probably over the last three years is gaining a lot of traction on social media. And it's work that I've been making since like 2018 or 2019. The new work is probably work that people have never seen. There's this weird divide between what is visible at the moment and then what is coming in the future because a lot of the work that I think people are familiar with is work that I’ve stepped away from in a big way. 

The work always comes from a very personal place, I think the bows in particular. I’ve been on a press junket and I’ve spoken about bows so much in the last 10 days! A lot of it was engaging with material in order to express these subversive ideas around masculinity and femininity, my own gender experience, and my experience of being on a queer scene, or my community and things like that. I was sort of trying to create tangible objects, which encapsulated these feelings of liminality, dysphoria or discomfort. So having these material conversations with like, glass or metal and creating these almost textile-based works using those materials - I was trying to sort of have that conversation. I was also engaging a lot with motifs in order to subvert those ideas, like using bows and then also playing with ideas of function. I studied jewellery design so function has always sat at the bottom of the pile for me, but it always plays into the work just because I think it's how I've been taught to engage with material. It’s like in uni, it always came back to the body. And that's something that I've found when I'm working is that I often have to play with ideas of function to feel like something is successful. 

In terms of inspiration, I didn't know - it's so wide and so personal. I've watched a lot of TikTok hair tutorials, watch a lot of anime and read a lot of manga. Those are all things that obviously feed into what I'm creating, but I think the work for the most part comes from a more complex personal space than those things - they all feed into the same area. 

What kind of work or what elements of your “known work”, the work that's done really well on social media, are you moving away from and what's your current/future work moving towards?

With the motif work, the bow work, I'm trying to disengage from it, simply because I feel like there's such an oversaturation. The complexity that was that I was applying to the motif and the material play and stuff like that has been like recontextualized in like a broader cultural zeitgeist, which I think is great and interesting in itself, but it's also something that like, hey, in order to continue the practice, I need to move away from because my work often gets positioned in places that aren’t necessarily where I imagined them to be when I was making them. Which I think is what art is about, it’s about engaging with audiences on lots of different levels. 

I work in a very liminal way - I make jewellery so there’s often a fashion element to a lot of the work. But then I make these sort of non-functional completely abstracted sculptures, so there's like multitude of levels on which the work is being accessed. But I don't necessarily want to keep it in one context, like, I don't want to be making bows forever. 

And also I’m always trying to engage with new materials and new ways of working. I was speaking to someone recently about this, who said “Oh, you work with so many different materials, and in so many different ways”. I’ve been doing a lot of film and photography. They asked “Why is that”, and I think it’s genuinely because I have a short attention span and I get bored. It’s also nice to work in different ways. I feel like with film and photography, it's so much more observational, it's nice to step away from myself, in terms of otherwise, it's working with your own hands, directly with a material to produce something. It’s nice to have a distance sometimes. 

I’m moving towards different materials and I’m working on a larger scale at the moment as well, which is something I've never really done before. Like I'm making larger base sculpture work which is a new interesting venture. I've always worked on a very small scale so the last couple of months I've been working bigger, which is very, very different.

What kind of themes in Sir Peter Lely’s portraits does your work in this exhibition look to tackle or address?

It’s interesting because Bella put us together - it was a brilliant orchestration on her behalf. I was familiar with Ki’s work, and Florence is based in Edinburgh so I hadn’t really seen a lot of her work before. Bella brought us together in this under the umbrella of Peter Lely’s Winsor Beauties. I only started learning about the Winsor Beauties when Bella put me in the show. I think the connections drawn were more to do with the use of motifs and loaded symbolism. And obviously, the story of the Winsor Beauties is that they were painted by different people and he [Sir Peter Lely] painted their faces and hands and the rest was filled in, and how no one really looked like how they looked and stuff like that. 

I explore a lot of subliminal symbolism in my work and I think it did tie in quite nicely. Some of them are holding things like ribbons and it's supposed to represent this like feminine chastity. There are all of these old symbols which recur and to be honest, still recur in a lot of contemporary works and they just contextalise in different ways. I think that’s where my work really feeds in. 

I also explore a lot of femininity and gender constructs through the work and through different material conversations and I think there's obviously a thread there, which connects to those older works. It was interesting for me because I don't really engage with a lot of that type of painting. But I do see the connections to Rococo and Baroque in my own practice.

It’s weird because in those works about these women, the narrative is very, what’s the word? I don't want to say shallow, but you know, it was painting beauty for the sake of beauty. So there's this exploration of beauty, which is, I suppose something that I explore through my work but I think I have a very different relationship to what I think beauty is. I didn’t necessarily see the connection in the exploration of those works and in my own work, but I can see it a bit more now. 

When coming to the exhibition, what do you want people to take away from your work?

I think there's a lot of nice connections - or there's a lot of nice narrative going on. I think the curation is really good in terms of the relationship between Florence, Ki’s and my work. I think that there are these overarching ideas of softness and femininity and I want people to appreciate that. I think in a lot of my works, I'm trying to use mesh or hardness or a sense of discomfort or danger. And I think that they will offer that alternative reading in a way. I mean, Ki and Florence's work is so beautiful in the sense of like, it's really tactile, visually, if that makes sense. That sounds like such an oxymoron. You can sort of look at it and feel the textures and I think that's like an ode to their painting. I think with my work, it has a different type of physicality, maybe. And I think that makes a really beautiful contrast. My work’s sculpture as well. So there’s this really nice exploration of different themes in different materials and modes.

I think I would like everyone to have their own reading of it and interpretation, but I think if you can take away a multitude of different readings of femininity or gender expression or something like that out of the works then that would be good. 

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