Catalog essay by Meg Linton, Director of Exhibitions and Galleries
OTIS Ben Maltz Gallery, for the exhibition Phantasmagoria at Otis College of Art and Design in 2008.
The essence of drawing is the line exploring space. –Andy Goldsworthy
Drawing is deception. –M.C. Escher
Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic. –Keith Haring
Mark Dean Veca is a purveyor of prehistoric magic: creating space on a two-dimensional plane with a few lines of charcoal, ink, or paint. He draws on paper, canvas or walls and uses simple black lines to manifest volume, space, and depth. He shares his illusionary worlds and characters to express the internal and external tension of the human condition as he experiences it. His work is visceral, carnal, with its depictions of organs and orifices and writhing tendons, arteries, and intestines. It is comic and unnerving with strong contrasting palettes and patterns and odd juxtapositions of historical and popular iconography often abbreviated, disfigured, or exposed. Whether large or small the work is intentionally spectacular and the artist wholeheartedly embraces his constructive affliction of horror vacui. (1)
Veca was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1963 and grew up in the bedroom community of Livermore, California. (2) The suburb is 40 miles east of San Francisco, the epicenter of the Summer of Love, and a hotbed of underground comics during the late sixties and seventies. Publications like Zap!, Slow Death Funnies, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were being published out of the Bay Area and made their way into the hands of teenagers and young adults across America along with Mad Magazine out of New York. Comic books (under or above ground), newspaper comics, animated cartoons, feature films, and advertising have long inspired young people to seek out the visual arts, and Veca was no exception. He was compelled to draw and at an early age knew he wanted to be an artist.
In 1981, Veca arrived in Los Angeles to attend Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). His plan was to be an illustrator but he was quickly persuaded by his professor, artist Jill Geigerich, to pursue the Fine Arts track and study painting. His teachers included Jim Morphesis, John Mandel, Arnold Mesches, Mike Kelly, Roy Dowell, Scott Greiger and Kent Twitchell. Ultimately, it was Twitchell’s drawing class that profoundly shaped the direction of Veca’s work. Apprenticing on an actual mural, Freeway Artists Running Team (1983-84), located on the Hollywood Freeway—a precursor to those commissioned for the 1984 Olympics—Twitchell taught a select group of four students how to break down a photographic image by hand, enlarge it and transfer it to a wall.
After graduating in 1985, Veca worked in Los Angeles for a few years and then decided to make his way East to New York City. To support himself, he started a successful candle making business. This allowed him the flexibility to build a strong portfolio of drawings and paintings that eventually led to a pivotal project at the Drawing Center entitled Wall Drawing ’96 featuring artists Tania Mouraud, Barry McGee and Mark Dean Veca. Director Ann Philbin asked each artist to create a temporary mural to be painted directly on the gallery’s walls. Veca, thankful for the time he spent with Twitchell painting on the side of the Hollywood Freeway, knew exactly what to do.
Veca has a deep-rooted fascination with the depression-era character Popeye. Originally created in 1929 by E.C. Seegar for the New York Journal’s Thimble Theater, the Sailor is an all American icon that represents a gruff, scrappy, working man, who knows when he is wrong, right, and when to fight. For the Drawing Center, Veca appropriated, detached, and reanimated Popeye’s signature muscled arm and iconic sailor’s cap to create a new protagonist for his epic mural Canto III (1996). According to Sarah Schmerler for Time Out New York, “In Canto III, wave upon wave of what looks like Popeye’s disembodied forearm and fist (wearing his hat) march over a blasted plain to meet arch-enemy Bluto’s teeth, likewise disconnected and endlessly repeated. Out of this latter mass, forked tongues flicker here and there, underscoring a primordial cartoon battle between good and evil.” (3) This representation of warring parties, opposites, or opposing motion, action or energy, set up a persistent duality in Veca’s oeuvre.
With Canto III, Veca found his way of working beyond the confines of a canvas and went on to create more explosive wall murals for a variety of art institutions with titles like Grovel in the Hovel (1997), El Gloominator (1998), Son of Gummi Grotto (1998), and Funky Jungle (1999). Each project presented its own architectural challenges, time constraints, saturated palettes, and all-encompassing cyclical imagery with energy more akin to a Tiepolo ceiling—swirling action into the heavens and difficult to pinpoint beginnings and endings (4). The work is constant motion; a fluctuating dance between foreground and background.
In 2000, Veca was given an entire room—walls, ceilings and floors—to create Boogey Fervor, a site-specific painting installation for P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center/Museum of Modern Art Affiliate in Long Island, New York. He transformed a relatively bland room into a grand, elegant space that acts as a portal from the pristine white side of the hall into a brash yellow, psychedelic, boogeyman infested lounge complete with purple bean bag chairs and school room chandeliers. He used the “found” soft sculpture chairs to activate the space from formal to social. Viewers sunk down into comfort while being stared at by the boogeymen lining the room. This was the first appearance of this festering character and it showed up about the same time his son, Luca, was born in December 1999. According to the artist’s statement for the installation, Boogey Fervor was “a shrine to the beast in me.” It is a type of self portrait of the beast he needed to shed/restrain as he embraced fatherhood and his role as a mentor.
The early 2000s was a time of transition for many with the advent of 9/11 and for Veca it was no different. He was always drawing and painting in the studio, however he realized the majority of his work was ephemeral and only existed as documentary photographs. One day, while visiting his mother-in-law he discovered the patterned wall paper in the bathroom. It was green/white toile de jouy—an 18th century French textile design. Traditionally, this monochromatic printed pattern appears in blue, red, or black, on cream and depicts idyllic scenes from the French or English countryside, Greco/Roman mythology, and exotic settings from China or the newly formed Americas. Veca wasn’t interested in the scenes, what he saw was a repeating armature—a structure for him to hang his improvised, spontaneous Rick Griffin/Jacques Callot inspired tableaux. (5) This platform offered him a way to structure his free-flowing imagination and let his drawing run wild across the page or canvas. These quintessential grotesques combine opposing elements of horror and glee, the divine and perverse, and the biological and the mechanical. (6) The resulting body of work was a series of black ink drawings on white paper with titles like The Quiet Beatle (2001), Toile de Joey (2001), and Klusterfuck (2002) and a series of large garish paintings using art historical tropes with pop references to Science Fiction and Western movies, Rock n’ Roll, pornography, and cartoons.
Veca incorporated this toile structural motif into several of his mural installations including Debacle (2003) at Bloomberg SPACE in London ; Imbroglio (2007), at Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York; and Phantasmagoria (2008) at the Ben Maltz Gallery in Los Angeles. He also softened the edges of the patterning so the background had a more painterly feel than the hard outlined edges of other murals like Harum Scarum (2000), Pulsation (2004) or The Strangler (2006), and he chose not to outline every mark or painted shape. This gives the imagery a little breathing room and animation. It emphasizes a state of becoming as if the imagery is evolving and developing right before the viewer’s eyes. For Imbroglio, he approached the gallery space a little differently by painting a large organic structure on the wall that served as a frame for his 17 blue/green toile paintings on Sintra, a type of PVC foam panel. This strategy allowed Veca to place highly rendered work made in the studio over a year period against the broad sweeping gestures of a site-specific spontaneous mural created in a short time frame of 5-7 days.
Phantasmagoria has an orange/red/white schematic with black outlines and a large breaching wave-block of gray paint rolling through the 3500 square foot gallery that took a year of planning and 17 days to create on site. On each of the four walls, Veca sprayed a flat coat of bright orange and modulated it with brushy red-orange and yellow-orange paint before working in the red toile armature for his imagery to drape over or emerge from. The imagery was painted in two parts. A few months prior to the installation, the artist made a series of 7 highly stylized, extremely detailed paintings on Sintra that were seamlessly inserted into the site-specific installation and also produced the vinyl graphic decals for the floor. On site, he worked directly on the wall with a brush and black paint to call forth his graphic boogey men and foster his undulating, organic, gastric forms.
Veca further heightened the tension of opposing styles (rendered versus graphic) in the mural by juxtaposing high and low art references from Eastern and Western cultures by flanking a portrait of the popular Hindu deity Ganesh with Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker (1902) and KAWS’ vinyl sculpture Companion ’99 directly facing a rendition of Abraham Lincoln (1920) sculpted by Daniel Chester French sidled with Jeff Koons’ Rabbit (1986) and David Gonzelez’s vinyl toy Homies. The other paintings include references to Buddha bordered by the Oscar and Statue of Liberty reflecting the East/West Coast rival in the United States; and Michelanglo’s La Pietá (1499) sandwiched between Popeye and 1960s American advertising icon Charlie the Tuna. Veca consistently contrasts the spiritual and religious with crass commercialism and lowbrow entertainment. Further accentuating the duality of existence, Veca placed two portraits, one of the armless Greek Venus de Milo (130-100 B.C.) and Italian artist Michelangelo’s David (1501-04), directly opposite of each other. The polarity of gender, geography and politics are timeless subjects for artists depicting our primal drive for sex, power, and money.
The focal point of the installation is a detailed painting of a skull centered high on the north wall of the gallery. It just touches the whiteness of the ceiling suggesting a cloud covered sky. It is a direct reference to Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull entitled For the Love of God (2007) – considered to be the most expensive artwork yet made. Veca’s portrait of the object is fleshy and in place of Hirst’s pear-shaped pink diamond covering the third eye (often associated with enlightenment and higher consciousness) is Veca’s upside down boogey man—a carnal demon at the gates of the imagination. He has also enlarged one of the skull’s eye sockets and inserted an infinite spiral pattern that recedes into the center of the brain cavity. The skull itself is flanked on both sides by a disembodied floating eyeball with long tendril muscles emphasizing retinal vision over the other senses and access to unfettered fantasy.
The skull surveys the entire gallery to witness a tide of grey arching waves overlaid on the orange and black mural. The outline of the waves is taken from Katsushika Hokusai’s famous print The Great Wave of Kanagawa (c. 1820s). The ocean is often used as a metaphor for the subconscious and to tap into the nether regions of his mind, Veca uses automatic painting or drawing favored by the surrealists for all of the black line work in the installation. It’s a type of improvisation that takes place on site and is not predetermined by the artist. This process allows for a balance between spontaneity and thoughtful consideration—again the equalizing of two opposing actions. Veca’s Phantasmagoria installation is a collection of fantastic forms “such as may be experienced in a dream or fevered state.” (7) He has conjured a fleeting spectacle where Death and Imagination (represented by the skull at one of the end of the gallery), face off with an oversized stylized sphincter consumed by two opposing grey waves on the opposite south end of the gallery. The baseness of our daily existence is counterbalanced against the ability of the mind, and all is recycled, regurgitated, and made new.
According to Salvador Dali, “You have to systematically create confusion, it sets creativity free. Everything that is contradictory creates life.” Veca has placed contradiction at the center of his practice. He works with the monumentality of mural making to produce grand ephemeral gestures. The murals only last for several weeks during the exhibition and then are painted over—they become a sedimentary layer in the institution’s history along with the visual memories of the viewers. He merges disparate philosophies and motivations into conversation by weaving high/low, multicultural visual references into his work rendered in bold colors and patterns that excite the viewer’s imagination. And yet, what remains at the core of all this activity, is the basic pleasure and magic of the simple human act of drawing.
Drawing is the honesty of the art. –Salvador Dali
I never draw except with brush and paint. –Claude Monet
Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality. –Edgar Degas
(1) horror vacui: the dislike of leaving empty spaces, e.g. in an artistic composition. (Oxford English Dictionary/Oxford University Press)
(2) Livermore, California is the subject of photographer Bill Owens famous book Suburbia (1972). Owens often photographed Mark Dean Veca’s parents’ parties.
(3) Schmerler, Sarah. “Wall Drawings ’96: The Drawing Center,” Time Out New York, January 31-February 7, 1996, Issue 19.
(4) Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Italian/Venetian painter. In particular two ceiling frescoes: Allegory of the Planets and Continents (1752) for the New Residenz palace in Würzburg commissioned by Prince Bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau; and Apotheosis of Spain commissioned by Charles III for the Palace of Madrid in Spain in 1761.
(5) Richard (Rick) Alden Griffin (1944-1911), American illustrator/artist known for his psychedelic posters, underground comics, and work with the Grateful Dead. For more information about this artist see Heart & Torch: Rick Griffin’s Transcendence, (2007), published by the Laguna Art Museum with essays by Susan Anderson and Doug Harvey. Jacques Callot (1592-1635), printmaker and draughtsman from Nancy in the province of Lorraine, now part of France. In particular, the Gobbi series of 21 plates from 1616; and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1634).
(6) Barasch, Frances K. “Introduction: The Meaning of the Grotesque,” New York, 1967: p. lvi from Wright, Thomas. A History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art, New York, 1968. (Original text is reprinted from the London edition of 1865 from a copy in the collection of the New York Public Library.). “[Thomas] Wright’s “grotesque” refers to fantastic invention which combines horror and glee. He describes grotesque images as monstrously ludicrous, gleefully malicious (p.54), or fantastically comic (p. 298). He points out that the grotesque is revealed in ugly and startling images (pp. 28, 54), that the medieval grotesque produced an effect of ludicrous horror (p.148), and that it often drew its fantastic subjects from popular demonology (p.288). Wright also employs “grotesque for another kind of fantastic invention: the animal, human, or mechanical imagery which symbolized human evil, folly, and sin in popular satires of the Middle Ages. A fox in monk’s garb, animal musicians, and the like were comic inventions which employed distortion and incongruous juxtapositions. These comic inventions contain less horror than disgust at man’s vicious nature. But horror and disgust are surely closely akin.”
(7) phantasmagoria: 1.a. An exhibition of optical illusions produced chiefly by the use of a magic lantern, first exhibited in London in 1802 (now hist.); any optical exhibition, esp. one in which preternatural phenomena are represented using artificial light; an apparatus for creating such illusions. b. A phantasmagoric figure. Obs. rare. 2. (A vision of) a rapidly transforming collection or series of imaginary (and usually fantastic) forms, such as may be experienced in a dream or fevered state, or evoked by literary description. 3. A shifting and changing scene consisting of many elements, esp. one that is startling or extraordinary, or resembling or reminiscent of a dream, hallucination, etc. 4. The conjuration by preternatural means of a vision, ghost, etc.; an apparition. Obs. (Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press)