Check out Leo's exhibition with OUTPUT here
Hello and welcome to OUTPUT gallery’s podcast. OUTPUT works exclusively with creatives from or based in Merseyside. We usually do in-person exhibitions but we’re currently working with artists to produce postal exhibitions instead. In this episode, we’re joined by Leo Fitzmaurice. We’re going to talk the span on his practice; the work he is sharing through OUTPUT; and his experience of the Liverpool art scene. So, welcome Leo. How are you doing?

Hi Gabrielle, I'm doing pretty well, thank you.

Good, good. We always start the podcast by asking people a very big, vague question, which is - where did your relationship with art begin?

Right yeah, that's a good one, yeah. I mean, it goes way way back to when I was at school and I was getting into punk rock and stuff like that. At school, we never went to an art gallery at all, but when I was about 17, we used to go round a lot of the record shops, particularly in Wolverhampton. One day it was pouring down with rain, we needed to escape the rain, so we popped into Wolverhampton Art Gallery. It was the oddest thing, at the time I suppose punk rock was all anarchy and destruction and chaos. I went into this gallery and there was a painting by John Salt of a caravan. Initially I was just going round the gallery and that oh, that's pretty boring. It's like a photograph of a caravan. Then when I got up close I found out that it was actually a painting. I don't know, it was almost like the inversion of punk rock, in some way. It was this completely mental process, that you'd spend months recreating a photograph. It was the opposite of anarchy, or something. It struck me, it stood out as being a very odd thing to do. I think that was the first thing that started to intrigue me, from there really.

Did that then influence your decision to study art?

Yeah, It was a funny old path, because at school, people were pushed to academic subjects. I got a C grade in art, but I got other higher grades in science so I ended up pushed in that direction. But I always loved art, and we had a great art teacher, we used to just hang out in the art room. Because I wasn't doing the qualification I could just let myself go and try stuff out. So we used to just hang out in the evenings, a group of us, and do our own thing. So that was kind of, very influential. It was almost the only thing I'd done at school that was self-directed.

What type of stuff were you making back then, do you remember?

I wish I'd kept them really, as a 17-year-old lad, I was obsessed with trying to get the effect of chrome. I remember doing a coffee percolator, realising obviously that chrome was a mirror but you got distorted reflections. So it's like surreal, influenced by Salvador Dali or stuff like that. Weirdly, it was something about the everyday nature of this chrome coffee percolator thing.

You were trying to paint that?

I was trying to paint that but in a very odd scale, so it looked like it was a building, I seem to remember. It was an everyday object that was twisted in some way, to become quite fantastical. I think that was some sort of connection with what I'm doing.

And you studied a BA at Liverpool when it was the polytechnic, that's right, isn't it?

Yeah, to be honest, again there was a bit of a circuitous route. I dropped out of an engineering degree in Leicester and then I did a foundation in art, which was quite difficult to get into because I hadn't done art O-level. Well I got a bad O-level and then I hadn't done A-level at all. So it was tricky, but I sort of bullied my way in, in the end, and got on the foundation in Leicester and then yeah, went to Liverpool.

What was that degree like?

It was old style, 60s-style lecturers, very little structure. We were thrown it and it was completely, almost like, here's a room for three years and we'll see what you come up with. If you want a tutorial, just come down the Cracke and we'll buy you a few pints. So it was definitely pre-sort of, modular, and stuff like that.

What did you come up with, what was the result?

I suppose there was a bit of concern or pressure, the degree seemed to end up- most people seemed to produce a series of things that were versions, like a version of one thing. So you'd be studying a certain type of painting and you'd do 7 or 8 different versions of it and stick it on the wall. It confused me because I wanted to take in all of this stuff around me, so everything I did was different. It was sort of painting, but then it was assemblage. I ended up coming up with these things, like bits of found objects and painting and these structures that bolted together. So there was a forerunner to what I'm doing now really but it was it was broadly speaking, painting.

Yeah yeah. I've been looking over your work to try and prepare for this interview but it does seem like you have your fingers in all the pies.

(laughter) Yeah, I just don't want to miss anything! I start with trying to be in the world and allow things to impact and then I think, if I come up with something, how is it going to- what's the output? Which is quite nice, in relation to the gallery, really. It's a great name, that. It's only decided by the initial impulse and how it develops.

Do you feel like you haven't missed out on anything, then, because you've tried so many different mediums and subjects?

In a way. In some ways there is a focus to the things that I've become interested in but I never set that up, from the start. The start was like, you can do what you want, this is it, it might as well be because that's what you're going to do your best at. What I've done is allowed myself to find the shape, so it's slightly buddhist or something - allow the water to flow in the direction it wants to flow. Then it tells you about yourself, so it kind of feeds back and I can think - why do I look at this stuff, and why is it focused on particular things? It's only by allowing that complete openness at the beginning that I can find out about myself in some way.

Definitely. Over the year then, what do you think it is you care about? What does your art... what are you attracted to?

I'm attracted to all this stuff that's around us, particularly in a physical world, purely designed to make us make particular decisions and take us in certain directions, and attract us to purchase it or... it's kind of designed around what gets into our heads, so it's very powerful stuff, but it's designed to push us in a particular direction. I wanted to disarm it. Because it is so powerful I wanted to investigate that, and also, so there's this kind of love / hate relationship, I love the effort and time and design and beauty of it, but I don't like the way in manipulates us. It's that border line, I guess it might be authoritarian, my delinquent approach, it's probably going back to punk rock. That may have, I don't know, kicking back and making things my own...

Painting the caravan?

The painting the caravan yeah, that was an inversion, in some way that was the opposite, it was kicking back against punk rock, so that's the thing that surprised me. Yeah, there's kicking and counter-kicking, or something, but yeah. Whenever something up-ends your expectation, it suddenly becomes fresh, a new thing, you experience it for the first time. They were going in different directions those things, but in many ways they were doing that same refreshing of the world around us, which is surprising.

Yeah - that leads us on nicely to the project you've done with OUTPUT, or the project you were already doing that we're able to distribute through OUTPUT. Do you want to tell the audience about Circus Goes Around 2020?

Yeah, absolutely. Like a lot of things, it started with a simple observation, and then it was recorded through a photograph, this initial observation. It was a little circus poster display that I found in Bebington on the side of a newsagent. The side of this newsagent had a series of cabinets and old frames, and there was about 9 of these circus posters arranged on this meter cupboard, electricity generator cupboard, in these frames on the side wall of the newsagent. But they kind of... it was just really funny, the way they were arranged reminded me of a circus troupe or series of acrobats or something like that. At the time it was a single photograph but then I started to think that every time I saw a set of these circus posters they'd been displayed in different ways, in quite fun and physical ways that made you think about activity. So I just started photographing and collecting them, and the more I looked, the more I found this amusing. I realised this is different companies, in competition with each other, trying to come up with more and more extreme ways of attracting potential customers attention and doing these mad displays and arrangements in these often disused shops, or just hoardings and shutters and stuff. So yeah, I just collected them, I'll just go on and on like a lot of things and see what happens. Then I got to the point where I got maybe 100 of them and I thought, what's the output of this? Thinking it would actually be nice as a slideshow, then the idea came to me of music, because there is a sense of dance and activity. I thought well adding music, well, what music? Inevitably I came up with the classic circus tune which is very loud and very active and it seemed to completely relate to these images. Then it was really just a case of editing and putting the two things together. Then thinking about the music and the way it builds towards the crescendo, and thinking about timing the images so that they slowly build, then at the end it crashes away to nothing. So it's got this weird connection between all of this imagery, and the fact that some are quite quiet, they feel quite stationary, but then others are incredibly active. Then also there's this cycle of this thing expanding and collapsing away at the end, that connected up with the imagery, which is all these old shops that are quite often shut up. It has this weird relationship with the marketplace and capitalism, these cycles. That's what I liked, that's why the title is Circus Goes Around, I wanted to capture this cyclical nature of violence, all these things started to come together and produce what I hoped would be a rich output. That's kind of how it all came together, really.

It's really interesting to see the amount that you've been able to find - over what period of time were you taking these images?

About 10 years, possibly a bit more. I think the first one was probably about 10 years ago, so yeah, they're all over the place. I should mention that the ones in the final output - I keep saying output - are basically we've got Leicester, Wrexham, we've got Birkenhead crops up a lot or just the Wirral, Liverpool, wherever I visit, really. Places I'm familiar with enough to go for walks around the streets.

It's amazing to condense to condense those 10 years into a video that's like, 2 and a half minutes.

Yeah, it's time and space isn't it, compressed into this short time. It's quite rich in that respect.

Definitely. I should say as well, to the audience, that we'll be sending a postal exhibition out with one of the images that Leo has taken and on the flipside of the a3 poster there'll be information, a press release, as well as a link to be able to view the work online. But it's not just people who receive the postal exhibition who will be able to view it, we'll be putting it on our website for you to watch it as well. Do you enjoy the circus?

No, I can't even really remember, I think I might have gone when I was very very young and blanked it from my memory. I find it... I guess they don't use animals as much or at all, possibly, but I think if I did have a memory as a 4 or 5 year old it's just the smell, really. I don't like a lot of noise, so it was my worst possible nightmare in some ways. I mean, a lot of things I've worked with are things I don't really like. In some ways you understand things that you don't like more than the things that you do.

I completely agree.

You have to focus on them a lot more and deal with it, because that helps you get through your life, in some ways. Obviously it wasn't that tragic but yeah, you end up focusing on the negative and trying to turn it around in some way.

Yeah, you were talking about looking at commercial advertorial design and bringing that into your art as a way to disarm it. Do you feel like you've done something similar here?

Yeah, you can enjoy it with the information, the information is still there in this case. A lot of the time I blank the information, I sort of fold things or cut information out or eradicate it or something. With this the information's still there but because of the way it's arranged you're thinking about how this stuff bounces and jumps around our visual landscape rather than reading it as information that's encouraging you to go to something. So yeah, it's kind of been disarmed by quantity rather than reduction. Almost like if you show more and more of it, you don't notice the individual things. Like a mantra, or something.

Especially because a lot of the images in the film, it's not just a single poster, it's as you say, six alongside each other, on the inside of an empty shop front. It's never just one, on it's own.

Also the place around it becomes at least as interesting and the way the posters, if you like, have solved the problem of how to deal with this and how to maximise this opportunity. There's something I quite like about their creativity. In a way all my stuff is about other people's creativity. You've got the poster design which is designed to get into your head in terms of colour and text. These guys out there probably don't  think of themselves as being creative but they are being incredibly creative, in the street.

What do you think about the design of the work themselves? I know you're talking about the creativity of how these things are placed and displayed but the circus poster design itself is quite recognisable, isn't it?

Yeah, and it has been kept the same, it's almost become a really solid thing even though they're all slightly different, you know, oh that's advertising a circus. You couldn't think of it as advertising anything else. So there is that aspect but within that, there is something that must have attracted our eye. So there's two things, one is that if it works, then it must be affecting us. We're always party to the things around us, if they didn't attract the eye, nobody would go to the circus, or they wouldn't be reading these posters. So it's a double-edged things. With the circus posters I've got to say, the design is basically just someone copying someone's earlier design. So yeah, maybe the first designs, you'd have respect for as design. But generally in the things I work with I do absolutely respect the work of the designer. It's really almost like you're trying to promote that, the visual richness of it, and then blank off the original meaning. It's like a power relationship, the people in charge of these companies or businesses might be manipulating us but they're employing these really talented designers to actually work, and I'm just sort of freeing that design, so we can enjoy it for its own sake, rather than being at the beck and call of money making in some way.

Have you ever taken a poster?

Yeah, I've got a few of them.

I don't know why I asked that - I feel like if I'd been photographing them for 10 years then I'd want a memento.

Yeah, I've taken them, I was thinking about doing something- they tape them on in various ways that makes it difficult, they do a glue cross on the back so it's rare to get one that you can pull off, but I have got ones where i've scalpelled off the sellotape. The interesting thing is they sellotape them in all different patterns as well. And when they get weathered, the bits that haven't got sellotape on fall off, so you end up with these other things which are like a poster that's say a cross, or lines, and then a border of sellotape that holds the design and everything else goes. They're beautiful objects as well, I've been meaning to start collecting those, that's another piece of work.

Definitely. I'm very interested in how different artists have experienced lockdown - has your process changed, how have you been able to carry on being an artist, essentially?

It's a disturbingly small amount of change for me, to be honest. There's shows that have been put back, I've got a show coming up at Humber St gallery which has been put back at least a year. So that was not so good, and there's other things that have been put off, so- but I did get some financial help so that kind of made up for it, and I just had a lot more time. So I spent a lot of time walking round and looking at stuff, just in my own head. I've got a backlog of things I need to work on, which tends to be just a big box with bits of paper with ideas on and stuff like that. So I keep combing through it and thinking oh that could be adjusted or added to, that connects up with that. All that stuff can go on anyway. I'm disturbingly cut off from the world in some ways, but it's going to be strange in some ways going back to the openings and things like that. They are important, but also a lot of the thing that happens in my head is, a lightbulb moment or whatever, they happen anywhere. It's frustrating, they can happen when I'm rolling out of bed or on a bus or just going for a walk. So that aspect, going on a bus was not too good, but most of it has been not business as usual, but it's not affected me as much as I'm sure it has affected a lot of other people.

Have you been tempted at all to make work about what's happened?

No, I haven't at all, in any way. I was thinking, that's quite interesting and thinking back to, it's nothing like a war but I'm wondering if there'd been a big war like happened when my parents or grandparents were alive, WW1, WW2, whether I'd make work about those things. I don't know if I would. It's a very difficult thing to make work about for me. Part of my work has been something developing for 25, 30 years and it's tied into my thinking, personality in lots of different ways, and it didn't get affected much, as I've just said. I would be making something that I wouldn't really understand. I think for artists that have been affected by it, or people that have been, I'd be very interested to see what those effects might be. But I think it would be a bit erroneous of me to attempt it really.

Yeah. It's just I was speaking to Donal Moloney on the second to last podcast to this episode, and he teaches at Hope University, and he was saying a fair amount of the students, their practice or the piece that they were due to make for the final degree show shifted course and ended up responding to the pandemic. I'm just wondering whether after this, are we going to have exhibitions of work made about the pandemic, or through it, or digesting it, or whatever?

I think it's very different for a younger artist, because they haven't necessarily found something they've been working on for many years. This may set them on a course and it may fundamentally change their work. But for me, I kept on hoping and it looks like it could be a sort of blip. For young people it's a formative experience, it's going to be a totally different thing. I'm sure things will come out of it.

Definitely, we'll see. Speaking of young people and I know I've asked this question on the back of the press release and the print that's going out, but it may be worth bringing it back up here. You have been working as part of the Liverpool art scene for a fair amount of time. Is there advice you would give to people who are just about to enter it, or people who are moving into the area? Advice you would give them as an artist that has had a fair amount of success?

Well the simple answer is no, because I just feel that things have changed so radically since I was in a formative stage of career, if you like. I didn't realise it but at the time I was quite privileged. I wouldn't say I came from a privileged background in terms of money but I realised that you know, we had full grants paid, and we had the dole would pay us out for the Summer, and we'd get accomodation paid, so when you left home you left home and that was it. I did a little bit of maths on that, actually. My grant was 1700 and I didn't have to pay it back. Beer was 30p a pint, at the student union. You think well, beer's 3 a pint now, so that would work out as 17,000. We were very well off. I didn't get into any debt. Then I left that and went into a world that wasn't awash with money, but there was always arts council money and institutions like the Biennial and the Bluecoat had a lot more projects on. I mean, the Bluecoat did 12 shows a year. So there was always shows that local artists would be woven into, and now it's sometimes 3 or 4. That's just the Bluecoat but you look at every institution, their programme has been really cut back. So the opportunities for young artists... God, this is not sounding good. The opportunities for young artists is absolutely, it's terrible. I'd say local artists but all artists are local at some point. So how do we help, how do we get that step up from artist-led to institution? I don't know, I think that's something that needs to be addressed. I'd say, yeah, it's very very difficult. Advice for a younger artist... it may just come down to people, I think people in institutions like curators and gallerists, once they develop a connection they will want to understand your position. If you don't have direct contact with them you sort of become disconnected, I don't know.

This is a bit of a loaded question but do you think it is possible to be an artist in this city that stays and works in this city, or do you think that artists must connect with places like London and places like Glasgow etc in order to you know, have a successful salary?

At the moment probably not, but there's been things that have almost happened that needed to be part of the ecology. You've got the gravitational pull of London or Glasgow, both ends have got big commercial elements, a brilliant one in Scotland with the Modern Institute. There are other good commercial galleries, so it's not the be all and end all, but it is part of that thing. We had Ceri Hand Gallery. She's doing very well but obviously not necessarily financially, that takes a long long time. You have to be in for the long haul and I think the arts council need to support that. They did in Scotland, with Modern Institute - the story I heard was they were given 10 years guaranteed support, so they could build a reputation and take risks, and that's what gave them the edge in the art world because they weren't playing to the market from day one. There need to be some long term, ambitious thing like that in Liverpool - something that said we're not building for this year or next year, we're building for the next 10 years and we're going to back you. It's got to be Liverpool or Manchester, it's kind of like a second city, this region, the North-West. It's much bigger than Scotland, probably. In terms of population it's probably way bigger, I'm guessing. So not to have a centre here, there are a few things but they've always gone away. What was the one in Manchester by Piccadilly Station?

I've no idea, sorry.

Terry O'Brien ran it I think.

We're missing those mid-tier galleries in Liverpool I think.

There's definitely that. What you've got is a very top-heavy institutional offer, with Biennial and the Tate. The Tate are starting to try and connect up. But all of these things, if we can squeeze the most out of everything that happens in the city like potentially getting international curators, artists turning up. Every time they turn up in the city if they could each have one studio visit, spread it around. I'm sure when you go to other cities you want to see what's going on there. So it works both ways, if they had a little bit of budget to pay those connections they would take that knowledge away to somewhere else. Those are things that I think could work. Otherwise it's the artist-led going round in this circuit that never transcends it in some way.

It's a dead end.

Showing to each other, yeah.

I agree, I think we need some way to bridge that gap and also a new way to disseminate the type of work that's going on here, and bring new conversations into the city. I've had conversations before, and I wrote a giant proposal not to the arts council but someone else, to try and set OUTPUT gallery up as this new franchise that would be OUTPUT and INPUT. So OUTPUT gallery would show the local artists and INPUT gallery would bring non-local artists into the city, but you could have an OUTPUT / INPUT gallery in Liverpool and another one in Nottingham for example, and it meant that the Liverpool OUTPUT artists could then show at the Nottingham INPUT space. I've just got this dream of having a gallery that is literally two rooms alongside each other, so that you could go between the works. But it was unsuccessful! But we'll see, the idea is there.

It's really nice, great that you're doing it. Many years ago I was involved in a project called LMN and it was like, Liverpool Manchester Newcastle. We just all rotated around and it was absolutely brilliant. We need to make those connections.

Definitely, definitely. Well, thank you so much for speaking to me. This episode will go up the same day that the postal exhibition is launched so if you're listening, make sure you go to www.outputgallery.com in order to sign up for a free print and also to watch Circus Goes Around, Leo's new film. Is there anywhere online that people can view your work, or social media that you want to share?

Yes - there's @leo.fitzmaurice, that's instagram, and then there's @post.match, that's instagram. Then there's leofitzmaurice.com, that's my website and then The Sunday Painter gallery who represent me, they've got a lot of biographical information on their site.

Yeah, I was having a nose at that before! OK, thank you so much for listening and we'll see you on the next episode. Bye bye!

Thank you very much, bye bye!