S: Tell me about your work. This is a dumb question but like plankton we get smarter the farther we get from the sea.
B: (laughs) Right. I didn't start painting seriously until recently. Like many people I think I was creative when I was a little kid but school doesn't encourage creativity. When I was a teen I went in another direction. In high school my illustration consisted of doodling while bored out of my mind in math class. It wasn't until my early twenties that I started getting back into representational art. About six years ago I was living in LA and not very happy with things. My mother, who was living in South Bay at the time, got diagnosed with cancer and this was a very tumultuous time for me. I had to move from LA to the Bay Area. During that transition I wasn't working very much and this made me feel like a looser. To kill my time I hung out in bars and art galleries and just to have something to do I re-explored all the painting and drawing I did as a kid.
Checking out all the art around I discovered a couple of artists who really inspired me: Raymond Pettibone, who is best known for his Black Flag album covers and Jose Posada, the Mexican artist who was famous for his wood cuts. Before becoming aware of what they did I had this idea in my head that in order to be an artist you had to be someone from the Renaissance channeling God like Michelangelo. The sort of artists that if you looked at their work you would ask yourself how could anyone be capable of doing something like that? How could you ever do something like the Sistine Chapel? To me art was either that or, on the other end of the spectrum, really, really pretentious bullshit -- an artist who takes a shit on a canvas and jerks off to it.
S: And gets an NEA grant for it.
B: Right. But I discovered these artists who were interesting to me like Raymond Pettibone and Jose Posada. Their art was exciting because it was accessible but could still say something. I'm also inspired by music, literature and living in an urban environment. In a city there's all these random people who are not like you and not like each other but are forced to interact. Occasionally there's a riot or a fist fight but usually it's pretty interesting. I think that a majority of the time it's more interesting than not but I can't imagine not living in a city.
S: Where else have you lived?
B: Just Los Angeles and San Francisco but also small town suburbia. I'm definitely a city slicker. I work in the Tenderloin right now and that really inspires me.
S: What do you do?
B: I work for a non-profit called Project Open Hand. It's a support organization for low-income people living in the inner city. Technically I'm a case-worker and what that entails is outreach and new client intake. I have both official job duties and unofficial duties. The unofficial part is basically putting out fires. People come to us in crisis for a million different reasons, often threatening suicide. In the Tenderloin, Project Open Hand is a magnet for people who are going through a lot of pain and have no where else to go. I go through about 400 people a week. Most of these people are AIDs patients and triple diagnosed with schizophrenia, drug addiction and abusive relationships. A lot of people have hepatitis C as well. What is weird is that HIV is often low on their priority list of stuff to deal with when they have all these other bad situations. Working with these kinds of human crises is tough sometimes and can get me down. There are people who will come in starving, having just woken up in their own puke, or their pimp is beating them. Sometimes it's kind of like being a bar tender, you get to hear all these horrible stories and try to direct people to the right resources. As depressing as it can be it's also inspiring.
S: You get inspiration for your painting there?
B: Yeah the latest work I've been doing is definitely Tenderloin inspired. You see really fucked up shit. Another thing that is impressive about the Tenderloin -- impressive not necessarily in a good way -- is seeing all the lonely people in the residential hotels. Their survival skills are crazy. "The Central City Express" is a Tenderloin specific newspaper and if you read the obituary page you realize how isolated the people that died are. "Tyrone: a really cool guy who hanged out in the lobby but besides that we don't really know anything about him." This has an effect on me, these really isolated people cut off from their families for a million different reasons and spending their last days in the Tenderloin but still managing to find social networks. More often than not I've seen these weird little alliances where people help each other out.
The Tenderloin is really fascinating despite all the ugliness and stereotypes. I'm not romanticizing this but there is a lot of gallows humor to be observed. You are always seeing funny shit like a guy stealing a keg off the back of a delivery truck and then jerry rigging it with an umbrella and charging people $.50 for a beer. This temporary beer stand was only going to last five minutes but in that five minutes he got all his buddies to give him fifty cents. It's kind of like seeing people cracking open fire hydrants in New York City to play in the water. One of my clients we've nicknamed Grace With No Grace. She's a six foot-two transsexual prostitute and built like a line backer. She wears high heels but is not very good at it. You'll see her barreling down Polk Street yelling at people. She gets Johns so apparently there's somebody for everybody.
S: What kind of medium do you work in?
B: Water color that I go over with black India ink. This is an attempt to mimic the look of Posada's woodcuts since I don't know how to do actual wood cuts.
S: How do you reproduce and distribute your prints?
B: Well what I do first is buy a frame at a print store or I'll buy a really bad painting -- a clown holding balloons -- and then I'll '86 the painting in order to use the frame. It's all about working backwards. I like to make bigger paintings because they're harder to steal when you're showing them in a bar.
S: You take some of your paintings and reproduce them in smaller formats though and silk screen t-shirts. Where do you do that?
B: Well I got to Rocket Postcards for the cards. I give them a digital photograph and then they take it from there. I'm not sure about the scientific process.
This print of an old man watching the streets from a hotel lobby is also Tenderloin inspired. The lobbies of the residential hotels are full of old people just hanging out. I don't want to say waiting to die but sometimes it seems like that is what they are doing.
S: They could just be waiting for the aliens.
B: Right, right.
S: We think they're waiting to die but they're just waiting for the aliens.
B: Yeah like the Heaven's Gate/Hale Bopp people.* I was talking to some friends of mine about those guys putting money in their pockets for the Martian cab fare. Would the Martians accept American money?
S: How could all the Hale Bopp people get on the space ship if they were all dead?
B: (laughs) That's what the Nike's were for. They had all their Nikes lined up by their cots. Just do it! Advertising really pisses me off.
S: There's too much of it.
B: And every pop song you can think of has been incorporated into a car ad.
S: Well that's the problem with old rock stars. What are they going to do? Get into law? If you have bills you have to sell your old catalog.
B: Yeah. Some people have no other career opportunities but be a rock star. What else would Iggy Pop do? Be a criminal?
S: Many of your paintings are of musicians. Could you elaborate on that?
B: I love music. Besides the core of artists that I really like music is what gets me through. In terms of music and literature I like things that are rough around the edges but have elements of beauty to them. Charles Bukowski or Shane McGowan are not pretty in the conventional sense but there are times when they manage to hit that note. I like old gut bucket blues singers, RL Burnside. When it comes to literature I sometimes call myself a struggling writer who paints when he has writer's block which has now been about five years.
You can write a novel just about what goes on around my block in the Mission. Between Bryant and Treat Street you'll see amazing characters. This one guy I know is named Crazy Frank. He's a 55-year old cholo and is about 5'3". He stands on the corner and just screams at people. He clearly has some kind of mental illness but for some reason he likes me. Somewhere along the way he decided that my name was Johnny so I went with it. He would yell "Hey Johnny! I got so many fucking miseries! I got to get to Redwood City. " Very macho. He wore Walgreen's glasses and couldn't see very well. He was always getting into fights and I'd try to chill him out. "Crazy Frank! You got to be a little bit cooler to people." He would just antagonize everyone and I was one of the few people who was exonerated from this. Then one day I was in one of the residential hotels in the Tenderloin and I saw Crazy Frank hanging out. I asked him what he was doing so far away from my apartment door and he said "I live here." I asked him why he was in front of my Mission District apartment door everyday and he said "I don't like it in the TL. I just go back where I can feel good about myself." He would commute to 24th and Bryant to panhandle and talk shit all day then he'd go home back to the Tenderloin. Whenever he said he needed to go to Redwood City I'd ask him why and he'd go into this misogynistic tirade:"I gotta stick my dick into this black key hole. I gotta bitch in the Allemany Projects too." I haven't seen him for quite a while but he used to be as reliable as the fire hydrant when it came down to being on my corner.
S: Who do you like besides Bukowski?
B: I'm a big Richard Price fan. He wrote The Wanderers. Among older writers I like John Steinbeck. He's just amazing. I like people who write about the underdog. Who wants to read about the suffering of the upper classes?
S: Working with the poor might be more emotionally real than working in a sheltered corporate sector with a bunch of suburbanites who only talk about television programs they've watched and have no real experiences of their own.
B: Yeah I don't even have a TV. Not because I'm some lofty intellectual or a snob but because I have an attitude of what's the point? The job is definitely a spiritual anchor.
Whenever I leave the city I freak out. The people out there get concerned with gas prices going up. No one's going to die -- well I guess people are dying.
S: Make sure you put razors in your shoe for when the gas runs out.
B: (laughs) Right. Suburbs are disgusting to me because your whole life is insulated when you live in them. You go home to your house and living room and watch some corny TV show and get in your car to go places. In a big city you have to always deal with the fucked up nature of life and you have to interpret it. If you're on the bus and someone is screaming you just deal with it.
S: Do you do gallery shows?
S: I've got stuff hanging at Bender's Bar. I'm not opposed to galleries but I do like showing at different types of places where "gallery" people aren't going to show up. To me the best compliment I've received are from people who say "I really don't know that much about art but I really like your stuff." That's what I'm aiming for -- not following some weird pretentious thing. At galleries you can end up with these awful circle jerks.
S: There is a lot of snooty attitude around in the art scene. People will look down their nose at you if they don't think you're cool enough or, if you have a reputation, look down their noses at any friend you may happen to have with you.
B: Yeah that's a fundamental turn-off. I don't like art you have to get. It should be able to stand on its own. You shouldn't be obligated to like something because you read that nine out of ten hipsters say that it's cool. I'm an advocate of that train of thought that thinks most modern art is done by monkeys.
I went to this collaboration between Mexican and Irish artists in LA. I thought it was fascinating. It was thought-provoking in a pretty accessible way concerning the common issues in these two different cultures. They both exist in the shadows of these super powers and have the link of Roman Catholicism. I think there's also a shared drinking tradition. That Irish Catholic tradition is my culture, as I believe it's yours, and that seeps through a lot of my paintings.
S: Both of those cultures seem a lot more comfortable with death than Anglican culture. Americans try to pretend that death doesn't exist and as a result our cemeteries are like our suburbs: flat and quiet.
B: (laughs) Yeah. I was explaining to my friends who are from a more general Christian background what's different about the Catholic Church. I say look at the cross because in Catholicism they will show a Christ in agony nailed to the cross bleeding profusely while in a more generic Christian church there's just this abstract cross.
S: Well the mainstream Protestants got more and more boring. Probably the sanest Christians are the Church of England because they're the nicest, most tolerant and most liberal church. [Faking wispy English accent] "Oh dear. That may be a sin. Would you care for some tea. Murder is very rude." Everything is okay in its own way doesn't seem to inspire as much as morbidity and violence -- all the drama.
B: Yeah. That reminds me of Irish wakes. My grandfather told me a funny story. When he was a teen one of his older relatives died and they had a wake. Everyone got really drunk and decided to prop the casket up to toast the dead relative but in the process of tilting the casket up the body fell out. It sounded like the lead into a joke. How many drunk Irishmen does it take to put a dead body back into a casket? That's the kind of gallows humor that I love. There's this story I heard about a kid who broke into a morgue to steal a skull in order to make a bong out of it. Of course it's fucked up and I'm not going to condone that kind of behavior but at the same time it's hilarious.
S: If there's no sex or death it's not a good story.
B: Right. There's a story from about two years ago concerning a mortuary in SF. The person who had to open the mortuary at 8 AM went in and discovered a guy with his pants around his ankles passed out over a body. It was a homeless guy who managed to get inside while wasted. I thought about an AA meeting where the same guy raises his hand and says: "I knew I had a problem when I woke up on top of a dead body and the cops were there."
* The Heaven's Gate Group was a dot-com computer company whose members lived on a ranch near San Diego in the mid-nineties. They also functioned as a suicide cult. Believing that a space ship hidden in the tail of the Hale Bopp Comet would take them to a better world they all killed themselves when the comet swept near the earth. Heaven's Gate followers of the male persuasion had also castrated themselves and both sexes were big on athletic gear.