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Where's the frame

Maribelle Bierens

November 24, 2023 1:40 PM


‍Leo Teste is an executive in the cinema industry who grew up with a passion for collecting things. From vintage toys and robots as a child, he later collected hundreds of DVDs and art books. After completing his degree at the Courtauld Institute, he invested his first salary in art. 

Leo’s passion for art was sparked during his high school years when he saw a painting by Balthus in the Met in New York. He had moved to the city to attend high school and lived by himself in a small studio within a stone's throw of The Met. 

Referring to a recent controversy about the painter, he said, Balthus is a problematic painter to say the least, one of many we could mention in a wider conversation on the male gaze.’ The painting that captivated him was not the most contentious one. But, ‘It's the picture of Thérèse, one of his frequent subjects, lounging in an armchair, her barefooted leg crossed, gazing past us with a somewhat irreverent indifference. And for some reason, I was obsessed with this painting. I would go all the time to the Met and just sit in front of that painting for countless hours wondering where her mind had drifted off to.’

After finishing high school, he went back to France to study international security at Sciences Po in Paris, and afterwards, moved to London to pursue a postgrad degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. There, he studied documentary work under Professor Julian Stallabrass, specifically looking at the representation of violence in war imagery, citing the works of Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Richard Mosse, and Harun Farocki, as instrumental in his understanding of the power and ethics of image making. 

(Left) Kenta Cobayashi 'Orange Blind #Smudge' / (Right) Takashi Kawashima 'Moltus 003'

After graduating from the Courtauld, he went to Japan to do research on the contemporary art scene post Fukushima, later returning to Paris where he got his first job in the cinema industry. ‘As soon as I got my first salary, I put it all  on art.’ The first piece he bought was a photograph by the Japanese photographer Kenta CobayashiI immediately connected with his practice, pushing the boundaries of digital art and photography.’

He then acquired works by Takashi Kawashima and Todd Hido, before turning his focus to painting. 

He explains that his approach changed when he started to collect art, as opposed to the items he was collecting before. ‘I don't necessarily collect art because I like the idea of ownership. It's really not about that anymore, if it ever was. For me, it's always about the art, but it's perhaps even more about the artists. I really want to champion artists. It makes me happy and proud when I'm able to use what money I make to help support, at my level,the work of artists that resonate with me. And although I am not one of those that think art can solve the world’s problems, I do believe that we would be doomed if we lost the voices of artists. This has become the main and most important thing for me as an art collector, along with the responsibilities of caring and preserving for the works themselves of course.’

As is often the case with dedicated collectors, collecting becomes an almost all-consuming kind of love. They spend a lot of time looking for exciting artists to engage with and support. ‘I became obsessed.. Sometimes it feels like it’s reached the point where I should see a therapist. I spend a significant amount of my energy and time researching art, attending shows, speaking to galleries, reading reviews of exhibitions I cannot attend, browsing the immensity of the web.... It's at the centre of everything in my life.’ 

He currently resides in Marseille, in the south of France. Moving out of the big cities where he spent most of his life and no longer being close to the leading museums and galleries was not an easy decision. ‘I love London, but I would rather spend my money elsewhere than solely on rent. Obviously the art scene in London & Paris is much more rooted than in Marseille — some of my favourite galleries like Semiose, Derouillon, Massimo de Carlo, Stems, Taymour Grahne Projects to name a few are in those cities, and inevitably I will miss out on some shows. The art scene in those cities is also burgeoning with younger galleries with truly inclusive practices like Exo Exo and Galerie Chloé Salgado in Paris, or Guts and Hew Hood Gallery in London to name just a few, that always keep the conversations diverse, fresh and exciting. So leaving this behind was not easy but to put it bluntly, I thought fuck it, quality of life might be more important.’ He also mentions how around the South of France, there are many private collections, residency programs and institutions. ‘There is an art ecosystem present. It is more laidback of course but there are still some great galleries like Double V for example, which always has an exciting line-up, and some interesting spaces like La Friche de la Belle de Mai, a modern multi-disciplinary space that offers an art residency program and organises regular events implicating the local community.’ 

George Rouy 'Tearing of the Savage Breast'

It doesn’t necessarily matter where you are these days. Through Instagram, it’s possible to keep up to date with what artists and galleries are doing, although the art market isn’t as accessible as it may seem. When collectors are starting out, galleries don’t necessarily give access to the artworks you would like to collect. Before he gets into detail, Leo stresses that ‘First of all, I'm in a situation where I'm extremely privileged, in many regards. But all the money I make goes back into art, and all things considered, given the current state of the art market, that’s not a lot of money to begin with.

(Left) Szawel Plociennik 'Rosemary 68' / (Right) George Rouy 'Keeping It For Myself'

As a young collector, I understand why some gallerists would be hesitant to work with me, and would rather prioritise collectors they’ve worked with before. But it can sometimes be difficult just to get my hands on a PDF preview of a show. I get that there is a hierarchy to some degree, but the way it’s done can be frustrating. When they say they’ll prioritize collectors they've worked with before, I understand that. But it’s a catch-22. When am I going to be able to work with you if I never get access? That’s also why I decided to create an instagram page dedicated to my collection, not as a way to self promote but as a tool to easily show galleries that I am serious about collecting.”  

Another response is a thing he takes issue with. Some galleries ask collectors to buy works from other artists on their roster before they get access to other artists.  ‘Which I have a little bit of a bigger problem with…. If I like the artist, I can consider it. But if their practice doesn’t speak to me? If you’re not going to enjoy it? I think it's to the detriment of the artist and the collector. You want the works of your artists to be in the hands of people that are going to love it and care for it, right?’

(Left) Ralf Kokke 'Cenobite Tales XVI' / (Right) Heesoo Kim 'Untitled'

He continues ‘Of course that’s just one side of the business and I’m very fortunate to have met some incredible people along the way who understood immediately my motivations and the long-term ambitions behind this passion. Thom Oosterhof of Thom Osterhof Projects is one of them. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him a number of times, he’s been incredibly generous with his time and a great sounding board, and I value his opinion dearly.

Xie Lei 'Still Life XV & XVI' and Anastasia Bay 'Arlequin I'

Moving on to discussing what kind of artists he likes to support, he says: ‘mostly ultra-contemporary artists, starting with those of my generation; the 80s and 90s ‘kids’, their approach feels organic to me because I feel like I understand it fully. Recent examples include works by Xie Lei, Anastasia Bay, Laurent Proux, Rowley Haynes and Heesoo Kim.’ 

Laurent Proux 'Le Baiser'

Portraits and distortion are two topics and genres he’s particularly drawn to. ‘There's something about portraits that captivates me, perhaps the sense of familiarity they evoke. Some of my friends joke that I like to live as a recluse but surround myself with still faces on walls to keep me company … maybe another thing to discuss in therapy!’ 

But what might fascinate me the most is the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human. After centuries of presenting the white male body as the presumed centre of the universe, it was time we moved on to something else.’

He explains that he likes certain ‘portraits that possess an otherworldly quality, almost alien in nature, where gender is not confined to traditional norms. These artworks present distorted forms and shapes, diverging from the typical representations of bodies we encounter on the street and maybe moving away altogether from a domineering vision of anthropocentrism. They exist on a different plane, transcending humanity, allowing me to infuse them with immense depth and emotion. Take, for example Théo Viardin, a French painter represented by L21 Gallery that subverts the heritage of classical painting with a post-humanistic practice. The bodies that Théo paints are removed from any notion of gender or race yet you connect with them immediately at first glance. The same thing applies to the practice of Polish painter Szaweł Płóciennik, who deforms humanoid shapes to create these wonderful non-binary bodies, and whose work I’m delighted to support.’ The very fact that they are not human intensifies the emotional impact for him. There's an abundance of emotions to explore and connect with on a profound level, extending beyond mere interpretation.

Asking if there is such a thing as regret in collecting a specific artwork he says that he doesn’t get that. ‘It's such a fascinating archive. Of course my taste evolves, and sometimes I may think “Would I buy this piece again now?” The answer might be no, but that piece has meaning because I bought it loving it in the first place, and also at a modest level, having been able to support and be a part of the artist’s journey.”

You can follow Leo on instagram.

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