When she is playing her artist self, which seems to be most of the time, Leanne Rodriguez goes by the name "Elrod." According to her artist bio, she is from Southern California, but in her early twenties she left for Colombia, where she befriended a female drug lord named Cha Cha Blanco who taught her the "loyal and merciless ways of the cartel underworld." Subsequently, she moved to the Bay Area, where she formed 3XL, or "Tres Xrazy Locas," an "underground fellowship of chubby female Hispanic gangsters." Now, she resides at the top of a mountain overlooking the bay, where she makes art and conducts mischief.
While Elrod is, in fact, from Southern California, and does currently live high in the Berkeley hills, none of that other stuff is true. Still, her bio reveals more about who she is than a strictly true account of her life events would. It shows her deep appreciation for the formation of eccentric personas, and her boredom with conventionality and traditional notions of authenticity.
Elrod's art is no exception to her life rule that everything should shimmer. She primarily paints portraits of glamorous women that she admires, decked out with lofty hairdos and unapologetically dolled-up faces. She airbrushes their perfect complexions, resin casts layers of glitter behind them, then adds on plastic gems, metallic paper, and any other cheap, shiny material that catches her eye. Her artistic practice also involves long hours of bedazzling — a process of gluing plastic gems to the surface of an object, popular within DIY circles. So far, she has bedazzled a collection of bad-ass lady accessories, including a skateboard, an Olde English 40oz beer bottle, a bottle of Aqua Net, and a pair of retro roller skates.
For the past few months, she has been putting the finishing gems on work for her first solo show, VaVa Vroom! (A Glittering Shrine to Kustom Kulture and the Big Haired Beauties Who Love It), soon to go up at Betti Ono Gallery (1427 Broadway, Oakland). The show celebrates the ladies' role in custom car culture — a heavily male-dominated community — through dazzling mixed media works that pay homage to the indulgent aesthetic of car customization, and the women who self-customize in a similar way.
Much of Elrod's interest in working around custom car culture lies in spotlighting how women are the underappreciated queens of the scene. She pointed out in an interview that at car shows, many women are seen as "hood ornaments," merely appreciated for their scantily clad bodies. She hopes to highlight the woman's perspective, and draw correlations between the ways that people customize their cars and the ways that fierce women customize their looks through hair styling and makeup. She sees each of her paintings as a mini-shrine to a woman she worships for putting so much care into her look, and yet not caring what anyone else thinks of it. "Being fearless is what I love to do, so when I see other girls like that it just strikes a note in me," she said, sporting a massive bouffant.
Elrod initially became interested in custom car culture when she was an assistant to artist Mark Tennant, the former director of the masters in painting program at Academy of Art San Francisco. Tennant spent most of his time teaching students how to paint, but the rest of the time he was teaching Elrod about his other passion: custom cars. Elrod became enamored with his unabashed love for over-the-top beauty, and realized that even though she wasn't directly involved in car culture, she felt a personal connection to it. "These cars are kind of like me. They're tacky, they're loud, they're bright, they make you smile, they make you say, 'Damn!'" she said.
Elrod was particularly inspired by "candy" car paint jobs, in which metal flakes are covered with a clear layer of paint to create a shimmering effect. She knew she couldn't recreate it exactly, so she came up with her own method, one that enabled her to candy-coat anything she wanted. Her process involves a lot of glitter, resin, plastic gems, and transparent airbrush paint. The innovation has allowed her to claim the process as her own, applying the paint jobs that are normally reserved for "boys' toys" to whatever girly surfaces she desires. She even hosts glitter workshops, inviting others to learn and perform the process in a few hours. One of these "Glitter 101" sessions will take place at Betti Ono in July.
Elrod realizes that many people may not take her work seriously, but that doesn't bother her — she cares as much about the expectations of fine art as she does about not fabricating her artist bio. Through celebrating kitsch, she's subtly discarding the elitist, artistic hierarchy that underlies the art market, and which ultimately finds its roots in classism and racism. To her, being refined, coy, and quietly feminine is utterly boring. She would rather fantasize about being a cutthroat mob boss — and although those dreams of mischief are largely unrealized, she is part of another kind of cartel.
Elrod works closely with Emily "Femily" Howe and Christina Bohn, a publicity duo that operates under the name Femme Cartel, and focuses on supporting emerging female artists. The two have been working with Elrod from the get-go, and took the name on after Elrod suggested it. Femme Cartel puts on group shows, as well as represents individual artists. The Cartel is hoping to put some female weight on the unequal gender balance in the Bay Area art scene. "People are able to still use the excuse that they don't know any female artists," said Howe in reference to group shows with unequal gender ratios. "That's not okay."
Elrod and Howe are working together to plan an opening reception for VaVa Vroom! on July 4 that they hope will cause some ladylike ruckus, celebrating women who are louder than people may want them to be. Each attendee will receive a "glitter bomb" — a bag of glitter with Elrod's life motto on the back: "Life is short, be sparkly." In addition, DJ Soulera will be spinning old school, all-female vocals, and a gaggle of exquisitely dressed drag queens and pin-up girls will be providing some additional eye candy. Of the closing, she hinted at the production of a living installation that involves towering wig sculptures being worn by live models.
Underneath all the sparkle, Elrod's work reaffirms that makeup doesn't have to be thought of as an objectifying tool for conforming to beauty standards. Rather, eccentric beautification can be used as a tool for celebrating the self through DIY customization. As Elrod put it, "Life is short. You gotta put it out there and go out with a bang."