The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it. – Paul-Muad’Dib Atreides
In 1993, my friend Tom Hazelmyer contacted me about providing an image for a line of custom Zippo lighters. The company was called Smoke King, (later re-named Flamerite) and I was to be one of the first five artists in the line. In about 30 minutes, I whipped up an image of a grinning devil smoking a big cigar. I was in such a hurry to get that art to Tom, (this was before I could simply email the art as an attachment) I just stuck the original in a manila folder and sent it off to Minneapolis.
I was just beginning to dip my toe into merchandising at this point, and I quickly saw that the smoking devil I had drawn for Tom was a potent image. I began to print the image on stickers and t-shirts. They sold like those proverbial hotcakes that everybody mentions at times such as this. Eventually, the devil image ended up on just about any item that I could print it on. The Smoking Devil (as we named him) made his way into the world.
He quickly gained a life of his own. Lots of cars, trucks and skateboards, tool boxes, laptops, etc. ended up plastered with a Smoking Devil sticker. I started to meet people with the Smoking Devil tattooed on their body. It was at this point that I started to realize that I had, pretty much by accident, created something powerful. However those lines and forms came together, it had a power all its own. It was becoming something more than a piece of art or merchandise. It had become a symbol of something, a little talisman that people used to signify something about themselves and their lives. Pretty heady stuff for a dumb hillbilly such as myself.
As is often the case when an image reaches this level of recognition, it started to become bigger, something that was beyond my control. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, the creation often thwarted the will of its creator. The Smoking Devil started to pop up in places where I never intended it to be. It was knocked off as merchandise, used without permission to adorn bars and businesses. I began to understand how Nagel must have felt the first time he saw one of those hideous paintings in the window of a nail salon. (That’s probably what killed him.)
I tried to accept this philosophically. I understood how all this worked, how our culture takes popular art and fucks with it, remixes it, makes the mass-produced personal. After all, my favorite artists and musicians do it every day, right? But it still gnawed at me sometimes.
Around 2003, I decided to return to painting. I spent a long time thinking about why I wanted to paint again, and what I could do that would be interesting and challenging to me, what direction would force me to grow and change as an artist. I began to formulate a plan of attack, a direction that incorporated my influences with my developing ideas about what art should do and not do.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Pop Art, and that became a major influence on what I was going to try to do, I began to think about the stuff I loved, the way Pop Art took the low culture we took for granted, recontextualized it, and presented it as art, worthy of attention and affection. The conventional wisdom is that this was purely an exercise in irony, a criticism of the base nature of consumer culture, but I have always read more into it than that. To me, artists like Warhol or Rosenquist were ambivalent about the culture they mined, and saw it as both beautiful and crass, often simultaneously. As someone attempting to straddle both sides of the fence, I could dig that.
So, when I started to paint, I realized what I needed to do is use this method on my own work, on the images that I had created and released into the wild years ago. They had (mostly) thrived in this uncontrolled environment, changing and evolving outside of my control. Now it was time to drag them back into the lab, dissect ‘em and see what wild mutations had affected their DNA.
I spent the next six months painting Parts with Appeal, a 78-foot-long multipanel painting that was my first try at using the theories that I had been messing around with. An obvious tribute to Rosenquist’s F-111, it was my own meditation on the role of innovation in the history of drag racing from 1955 to 1970, as well as an attempt to engage in the kind of large-scale painting I had always wanted to try. Best of all, somebody actually bought it.
So the experiment continued. I started to drag in more and more elements and techniques into the format I had created for myself, figuring it out as I went along. I had another show in 2006, Brand Recognition, that addressed my ambivalence about my own fascination with corporate logos and the art of graphic design in service of commerce.
Since then I’ve continued to paint, documenting it all here on the blog. Painting has become a very satisfying pursuit, the process becoming an often-exhausting ritual that consistently fulfills me like nothing else.
For this most recent painting, I decided to pull together all the elements that I have been working on, and put them to the task of assaulting the thing I have become most known for, the Smoking Devil.
As I said before, he had become something bigger than me, and had developed a life of his own. I wanted to attack the Smoking Devil, break him apart, smash him into atoms, and once again assert my will over the monster I had created.
I started as I always do, developing the composition by collaging elements in Photoshop, combining and changing images until a direction presents itself. Then the image is broken down into elements that can be transferred to the canvas, step by step. I started by painting a straightahead version of the Smoking Devil, much as he appears on all those stickers and lunchboxes.
I almost chickened out at this point. I realized that I could just clean up the linework, present the painting as it was, and it would be sold quickly. However, I did not succumb to temptation (see how that works?) and continued with my plan.
Next, I took the line art, reversed and enlarged it, painting it on top of everything else. That was the second devil. I had already decided by this point that there would be thirteen devils incorporated into the painting by the time I was finished.
Next, I took the painting down from the wall, laid it on the floor, and using a hand-cut stencil, painted nine more devils in an alternating grid. I used cans of metallic gold and orange metalflake paint that I had purchased at Pep Boys.
Again, I was tempted at this point to stop. The gold and orange looked so good against the purple and orange, the metallic gleam contrasting with the shiny acrylic paint.
I continued, painting the black line of the original devil on top of the newer elements, to reassert the authority of the original image.
Then, I used Photoshop to create a halftone image of the original line art, and painted this in magenta on top of everything else, then repainted the black line work again, to clean everything up. This was the twelfth devil. Then, I painted the thirteen and final devil, and I was finished.
So, did I accomplish the task I set out fo myself? I’m not really sure. I’m happy with the painting, but I’ll probably never successfully take back the image for my own. I won the battle, but I think I will eventually lose the war.
Oh, and the thirteenth devil? That’s secret. you’ll have to wait for the show to discover that one for yourself.
Full set of in progress photos here.