better photos here and here
Down a back alley across the street from a Starbucks and a Subway in West Hollywood is the entrance to the Dem Passwords art gallery. LA is such a silent city that it was no surprise when I walked back into the gloom behind the building to nothing. No big blaring music, no hum of voices, no fine water-slick young things stapled to the outside walls smoking. Just the tone of quiet, and a shaft of yellow light rising off a stairway cut into the pavement, going down. As signposts go it was a pretty good one.
Frank Santoro was inside, cool as a cucumber in some conversation with some kid who had bright scarlet hair, and we said a quick hello before I moved further in to look at his paintings. Dem Passwords is a slap in the face of a space -- a long, low, stripped-bare silo type of room that goes back and back in one smooth rectangle. Golden light, white walls. There was a devotional aspect to looking at the paintings in this particular setting. In the quiet uncrowded gallery it almost felt like a pilgrimage, or at least the end of one. Under the earth and surrounded by light, descending into something step by step. The paintings lined the left wall, curved around at the very back of the long room, and then took me back to the front along the right. It was perfect; each image another layer of sensation, expression, of the fully grounded but feather-light energy in their every misty airbrush line. I walked along a row of pictures, deeper with every one, and then they were taking me back, and I clapped eyes on the last, surfacing.
"New Values" is the name of the show. It's nineteen color airbrush paintings on gold parchment. The pictures are of ancient, mainly Roman gods and goddesses in various forms; some are idealized human figures, some are stoic, archetypal animals, some are landscapes or knots of abstract shapes. In a way they are pictures of everything. "It's a different way of engaging content," Frank told me. "The symbols can work as narrative in and of themselves. The symbol is charged by the way you present it, you can use those things to propel narratives or associations... it can just be lines, but it can also stand for wisdom, or Minerva, or you name it." Instant meaning, just like in comics, but the layers of meaning in these images governed the lives of entire civilizations once upon a time. They hit harder, they carry more.
"You're not going to believe this," I said to Frank once I had come back from my trip through the paintings, "but last night in a dream I saw that exact image of the two hexagons intersecting." I gestured at the vermillion-pink abstraction. "It's a temple shape," he said.
THE CITY AT NIGHT
I was lucky to have gotten there early. After half an hour or so the faces started trickling in, some of which were also names that comics people know. A random assortment of guys and the same little wave of cute semihipster girls I seem to see at every single "cultural event" I go to. A few of us were outside smoking when a stone killer of a black car (maybe a Jaguar or a Porsche or even a black Peregrino -- I didn't see) pulled into the alley and parked in the space right in front of the stairs leading down into the gallery, scattering us to either side. Its owner got out, the kind of imposing and perfectly preserved old guy you only see in LA, bright red sweater and bright white hair, accompanied by a big slab of bodyguard name of Pablito. "You know who that is?" asked Sebastien, one of Dem Passwords' owners. "That's Jerry Heller, he used to manage NWA... Bone Thugs-n-Harmony... he brought Kraftwerk to America..."
"That's Los Angeles," Frank said, laughing about it later. "That just put the cherry on top of the cake for me."
"New Values" is an achingly beautiful show. The bold airbrush lines and assured, nearly brash colored pencil marks that form the paintings share in the undiluted purity of the best comics color, but also swim with a subtlety that the printed object is incapable of capturing. Every spray of ink is a radiation, a build. Lightly saturated, almost invisible mists of tone at the edges tighten up into full, clean strokes at the centers, the power of the lines diffusing off into an ambient haze. These are largely one- or two-color paintings -- three at most -- but the variations in thickness the airbrush allows gives each picture a thousand gradations of the hues that anchor it. The effect is riveting, a strikingly real play of light and shadow imposed onto the basic strength of cartoon forms, fusing into something far beyond the look of the everyday but too tangible to be pure fantasy.
"It's a different kind of line than I've ever made," Frank said. "I think it's easier to control than a spray can, but because it's water-based it's blowing out the paper, like wrinkling it. So you have really one go. You can't go back and fix anything... it's like fresco or watercolor where it's just fast. And the vibrancy of the colors is great, because you can get these crazy fluorescent water-based airbrush colors now, and they're just... they're awesome. If you can get it in the gesture... you're not getting a brushstroke. If you make a painting that's really wacked out it's not going to look like a Basquiat or anything because he's not using an airbrush; but you can get it to look like a science fiction paperback cover..."
So somewhere between the density of Richard Corben and the simplicity of graffiti tags, then; but there's a solid quality to Frank's pure-color, near-luminous paintings that only the space between the two more traditional modes of sprayed art can provide. The lines are few, and they are certain, and they possess an almost magic grace -- minimal patterns that state themselves with the clarity of a spot-on musical phrasing. In one sense they are timeless. But in the spontaneity of their sprayed-on lines and the restraint that charges their instantly recognizable forms, they are also art of the moments that produced them, of certainty, of action without hesitation. "I wanted a new value for myself," Frank said when I asked him about the show's title. "How do you harness just the raging fucking torrent of madness inside yourself? How do you find a filter? I like limiting my palette, limiting my tools."
Frank is given to using musical terms when discussing his art. At the opening I saw him school a kid named Lazer on how to read his comics work. The panel transitions are like beats, and the colors are like tones. The backgrounds are like the bass, and then the linework up front is... he mimed a guitar solo. "This is like pure tone," he said, pointing to a color-only sequence. "But it's always got that beat going underneath it." He slapped his fingers on each panel in rhythm. When he speaks to the paintings it's jazz-cat talk, harmonics and melody, freed up from the pounding throb of comics' panel-by-panel linearity. "I'm trying to find the notes on the page, the harmonic points on the page. They're all in the same harmonic scale, rhythm scale... they just, they fit together. There's not gonna be a friction with them architecturally. Even though the subject matter might change they're bound." When I asked him about what went into the way the paintings are sequenced, he went deeper: "It's really a matter of beat matching, color matching. Making harmonies and figuring out how the scale's gonna go. It has a different rhythm based on the light in the space..."
The particularity of this approach makes for an incredibly elegant sequence, lines and shapes creating a symmetry between the paintings, an interconnecting web of form that links the images together in a distinct whole. The shifts in color and outline from painting to painting are big ones -- hot pink gives way to seafoam green, purple and gold to black and orange, minimal shapes to fully rendered figures -- but they never jar, always subsumed into the larger structure of the show as a single unit. When you step back and take in "New Values" as one solid thing, a sum of its parts, the effect is immense. Total. Every shade on the color wheel sings out at you from all directions, the clouds and barbs of their different tones surging at different speeds, a body in perfect harmony with itself. It's like hearing a full-blown orchestra coming to life; a cornucopia of sound, beautifully melodic passages interweaving, unified.
It's bigger than the comics page, and the public event of it had an element of grandeur missing from the experience of reading a book. But Frank is a cartoonist making paintings, and there are comics in this work -- the sequence, the iconic impact, the bright color and simplicity of form -- as much as anything else. This opening is hardly the only intersection of comics and the fine-art world over the past little while; Ben Jones and Mat Brinkman have exhibited recently, Gary Panter's at least close to being as much of a painter as he is a cartoonist, and no less a patron saint of comics than R. Crumb took over the Hammer Museum a few miles down Santa Monica with his Genesis pages just a year ago. These worlds are colliding, or at least getting closer. "I don't think it's a very different thing," Frank said. But even a slight difference is bound to make a change. "Art fairs... the gallery circuit... it's like you sort of have to meet them halfway. You make different kinds of work specifically for the gallery, it's not what you do for your comics and for your zines and stuff."
I thought about how I was talking to the critic who coined the term "fusion comics" last year just as much as the painter who'd done the mind-blowing work that surrounded us, and how maybe this thing of his -- undeniably a fine-art show, unabashedly a part of the art-gallery world -- was comics too. "New Values" has the sequence-derived narrative, the accretionary power, the understated grace of individual units native to comics, and damn if Frank's renditions of Mercury and Rhea don't look like they stepped out of some undiscovered issue of Jack Kirby's Thor. The real excitement, the feeling that this is an important thing happening at this moment in this basement, comes from the intersection, the way the paintings don't feel like one thing or the other thing but both. Like without either side of the equation, painting and comics, classical and contemporary, iconic and iconoclastic, LA today or Rome circa 79 AD, none of it could be what it is.
"I'm trying to inject it with..." he trails off. "Finding the essence there and just pulling that out. Just really working at that and being sincere in one's attempt to speak well and truly, and just... report. And witness. And I'm purposely speaking in like, missionary talk, because I'm just shocked at how devoid most people are of that understanding. Specifically in artistic, pictorial terms, there's such a rich history and it's all right there and everyone just can't fucking see it. In comics it's like -- for 20 years I've been hearing "Comics can be anything! They are this, they are that!" But that's for a handful of us. Everybody else is still wrapping their head around the fact that there's just such a thing called fuckin' comics! Beyond just meeting them halfway, you have to provide different avenues of getting the conversation going."
"The Etruscans would make these tomb paintings for a funeral -- and then they'd seal up the tomb and that was it," Frank mused in the gallery the morning after the show, empty of its audience now, the paintings precisely placed where they had been the night before, beams of light drifting in through the front windows before being swallowed by the deep gloom of the Dem Passwords silo. What had felt like something given birth and come to life last night now felt somber, elegiac, the cold of sun through glass settled over it. We were the only ones in the gallery, everything still. "So it was these awesome paintings that everyone would see for like a few hours and then that was it."
"I'm trying to... it's not harsh," he said. "It's melodious, it's pretty. Especially in comics there's just this desire to be... discordant, and everything's harsh, and like... extreme!... and it just doesn't need to be. That's my new value. I make no apologies for wanting to make an elegant drawing. This is me trying to catch up to an education that I wanted to have. I feel like I'm starting over."
HEREWITH THE AUDIO
The quotes above are mostly taken from an interview I recorded with Frank the morning after the show opened. It's a fairly long talk that breaks down into random chit chat a few times, but it's interesting enough that I thought I'd post it in its entirety too. Frank is a downright rousing talker, and if you haven't listened to him before you really should now. Do it here!
The photos that accompany this article look really weak, I know. My camera situation is not, shall we say, the most satisfactory. If and when someone else posts some more real pictures you've got to go look at them because the show was just so amazing and these snapshots simply don't do it justice in the least.
GO SEE IT
"New Values" will be open until February 18th. Dem Passwords is located at 7914B Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood (enter through the alley half a block south). Their phone number is 772.202.2733, call it for hours. Seriously, if you have any chance whatsoever to go see this show, do so. It's good.