About ten days before Christmas in 1991, a friend of mine asked me if I would take a look at the paintings of a friend of his, a request every art dealer gets often. My response must have betrayed my lack of enthusiasm, so a description was offered as further inducement. The paintings were portraits of people, some of them famous. Wow, I thought, more Marilyn paintings. Maybe even Elvis. It was therefore under the curse of sheer obligation to friendship that I dragged through the door of Mikel Alatza's studio for my first visit.
What I saw blew my mind. Inside the one room studio and living space, some sixty paintings of faces contorted themselves in a full-tilt, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall assault. They were literally coming off the wall in shards of panels, with an energy that seemed barely able to contain itself.
The source of that explosive energy is an artist of tremendous talent, who, like his paintings, has no problem letting his rough edges show. Alatza has been a well-known part of the Venice art scene for the last ten years and has developed a strong and loyal following. As anyone who knows Mikel knows, he is a completely unique, irresistible, and somewhat volatile mix of ingredients: funny, strange, gifted, driven, and unabashedly honest. Unorthodox, to say the least. It is in that unorthodox spirit that Venice allowed me to break a few rules in order to do this interview.
You had a somewhat unusual beginning as a painter. In your biography, it states that you began painting on May 15, 1988, after talking with your psychiatrist.
A whacked-out Hollywood psychiatrist.
How did that come about?
It was after what basically resembled a nervous breakdown. I guess I should say first that I wrote songs for most of my life up to that point. I came to LA to be a songwriter except I wasn't into rock & roll so that sort of killed that one.
What were you into?
My idols, unfortunately, were Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and Michel Legrand, so I wasn't even in tune with my generation. I found out very quickly that I couldn't make a living in music. So I started my own businesses. I was basically going into businesses with my girlfriends, which was really a stupid move, but that's what I did.
Were you still writing songs?
I kept doing this until eventually I realized that I was in terrible debt and that I had to get a job. Someone told me about this hip new restaurant that was opening up-the West Beach Café-and that's where I sort of paid my debt for past transgressions.
How did this lead to your becoming a painter?
It got to the point where one day, I sort of woke up, in the bathtub, and I freaked. I went nuts. For two weeks, I couldn't sleep. I didn't eat. That's when I went to the psychiatrist, and he tells me that my songs suck and that I should sell my piano.
So you were in therapy and your shrink was reviewing your song writing?
Yeah. I brought tapes. He told me, 'this is not going to work. You're beating your head against the wall.' And, of course, that broke my heart. Music to me was masturbatory, I really didn't want anyone else to hear it. I was ready to explode and I didn't know what to do. A friend of mine suggested painting for therapy. He knew that my father was an illustrator and that maybe some of that had rubbed off. So I gave it a shot. I sold my piano and started painting every day. Seven days a week. I kept painting and painting, and I was amazed. Everything I painted, though, looked like shit. It looked awful, but it was an exit to what was going on.
So it worked?
It worked. It was a direction that I had never even considered. You would think that maybe because my father did something like that, that maybe...but not once, from the time I was a young boy until then, did I even think about doing this. But as I painted, I realized that my father and I had something in common, and I would call him and talk to him about how to paint. It was an interesting thing that happened. And I've never stopped.
So didn't you draw or paint growing up?
No. Never. When I was seeing that shrink, he asked me, 'What makes you happy? What do you like to do when you're not forced to do anything?' and I remember as a child going down to the basement and getting a piece of wood and a nail and knocking a nail in the piece of wood and tying a piece of string around two nails--making things that had no point. I did it all the time, even as I got older, and I used to think to myself, 'What are you doing?' But I never put two and two together to realize that that's what it was, it was making things that had absolutely no point.
Your first exhibition was in 1991, and you were still working at the restaurant.
I was the maitre d'---the doormat at the front.
And the subjects of that exhibition were portraits of well-know figures?
I was pulling off a major ego scam. That's what I was doing.
The title of the show was 'Stolen Portraits' and a lot of the people that you were painting---
Were sort of pissed off. They had no idea that I was doing paintings of them.
How did you do their portraits without their knowing?
I bought a camera basically. I was painting every night, but I was directionless. Then I realized that I could paint portraits of people. It was more of a scam than an artistic endeavor. I was picking out rich, egocentric people--carefully planned out--and I was throwing them up against the wall when they came in to the restaurant and saying, 'I need to take your picture.' They didn't know what it was for, and every week I knocked out one of these multifaceted portraits.
How did that come about? The multidimensional aspect of them?
You've always said that it was a perspective thing, like a variation on cubism, but really it was about layering up of one bad painting on top of another--it was covering up what I felt insecure about underneath. It was chaos. Most were so bad, so embarrassing, but a couple of them...
There were 45 paintings in that exhibition.
Some people were really upset that I put them in such a precarious position. I put them in a position where they were sort of forced to buy them. They didn't even come to the opening. But once they got wind of my devious scam...
Well, in spite of that, most of the pieces in the first exhibition sold.
Most of them. Basically because they still wanted a table in the restaurant where I worked. They weren't going to get their food unless, they bought a painting, so most of them were paying me off.
Five years elapsed from your initial exhibition and your last one, 'Low Down, No Interest,' in 1996. What went on during that five-year period? You had a very successful opening exhibition and then five years without a show.
Yeah. I worked so hard on that next show but in between each piece, I had to do one or two portraits just to make ends meet.
You had a lot of portrait commissions.
Yes. It was a slow process. I didn't want to do portraits again. This whole phenomenon in Los Angeles--I don't know, maybe it's everywhere--doing the same thing over and over and over again. I don't understand it. To me, it's the antithesis of being an artist. In the beginning I thought that maybe something was wrong with me because I was so new to all of this. But I never got it.
Do you mean that successful artists have developed a certain style?
I don't want to name names, but every one of them paints the same thing over and over again. And here I am bad mouthing them, when I'm doing it myself. I'm stuck in the multifaceted portraiture. I tried to make it work in other paintings, but it didn't work. It was a forced thing. I wasn't coming from a good aesthetic point of view, I was coming from not knowing anything, not knowing anything about art. Period. It made my art different. I'm not really interested in beauty in the normal sense. I do like to see pleasant things, but wherever I set out to consciously create beautiful things, I seem to have to fuck them up. A lot of the things that I make might seem rather mean spirited to some, but actually that's not where I'm coming from. I just want to make things of this time. I want to make what's now, what's relevant--not just pretty things.
What are the things that drive you? What are the ideas behind your work?
When I was first starting I was trying to make people upset. I was going for attention. I've calmed down a little. I realized that it wasn't an honest way to do it. It was because I was naïve and I was learning. I'm still learning, I'm nowhere near what I'd like to be. I'm like a sign painter now. I can paint a decent sign and somehow combine my feelings about society.
A lot of your paintings seem to have a social/political commentary to them. I know you think about social and political issues a lot. Would you describe your work as being politically grounded?
I am not a nice guy. My demeanor is not what most people expect of an artist in our society. I want my painting to be of its own time. I'm not looking to replicate something that's already been done. To me, that's the one value that I've learned, and I learned that from a fellow that I painted while I was working at the West Beach. I met this very strange German fellow who would sit at the bar and get snookered everyday.
What was his name?
Martin Kippenberger. He asked me to paint for him and I said, 'What do you mean paint for you?' He said, 'Well, I want to buy paintings from you.' I didn't understand it. I knew he was an artist but I didn't understand why he wanted to buy paintings from me. I found out that, basically, he wanted to buy my paintings, fuck them up, and pay me for them. I asked Dennis Hopper, who used to come to West Beach all the time. 'Have you ever heard of t his guy? Is this for real?' He thought that it was insane too, but when the money started to come in. I thought the guy was for real. One day, a girl from LA Louver gallery brought over a copy of Art News and showed it to me. 'Isn't that one of your paintings? It was in an article about Martin Kippenberger and it was my painting but with frogs and beer bottles painted all over it. There was a local gallery that represented him and I was curious, so I called the gallery and acted like I was interested in buying one of the paintings I'd seen in Art News. The guy said, "I am sorry that one's sold.' He told me that it sold for $50,000 and my jaw hit the floor. Kippenberger had paid me five hundred bucks for that painting, not that I was pissed, but I was shocked. I didn't hear from him again. But I always remembered several things he said. He told me about what you should paint and what was art and it changed my whole opinion on what art was. It could be anything. Another was that whatever you paint, no matter how screwed up it is, you can always make it right. There's an answer to every painting.
What other artists have inspired you?
Believe it or not, the most interesting paintings that I've seen are Mexican. Or South American. Of the artists who show here in L.A. Llyn Foulkes, Robbie Conal, Tony Bevan, Ed Ruscha--I like what he does--he's so subtle. I'm a hammer.
I hit people over the head with a hammer, but that's because as an artist I am young. I'm learning and I hope I'll be a little more subtle as I age.
Tell me about the idea behind this show entitled "Buy Products."
I was eating an orange and I noticed this little label that we always see---usually it tells you what you're eating. But this one also had an advertisement for some cartoon movie, and I said, 'What the hell is this?' I couldn't believe it. I'm looking at an advertisement that's 3/16 " wide and thinking, we're over the top now, I can't even read the advertisement it's so small, but I'm being forced to. The show sort of came out of that, I realized when I was doing that, I was actually more interested in panting the label than I was the fruit. I really don't think that the world needs another fruit painting, or another still-life. So I started painting the fruit with these labels and using the fruit to hold the label.
Tell me about the skulls. You go from these lush, bright, vibrant, sensuous, alive-looking renderings of fruit to these very real and dead skulls of horses, cows, and even a human skull-How did that come about?
I bought the skulls at a garage sale and they were sitting around my studio for a year next to where I was painting. I couldn't figure out what to do with them and suddenly, I'm looking at the animals one night--particularly the horse--I was staring them down and realizing, all these animals managed to miss the glue factory.
One of them had bullet holes in it, and I was wondering how and where they died, and it occurred to me that all these animals were lucky that their skulls still remained. I sort of grew up around a slaughterhouse and I knew what they did to everything. They grind everything up. And I starting thinking that all these poor beasts are nothing more than remnants of 'The Big Sell.' They're lucky to even be skulls still. Apples and oranges are one thing, but these were living beasts. I'm not vegetarian, but they really made me think about how little I think about it. I mean it's just so sterile in the supermarket--all cut up nice and straight. They have no mourning, no wake, no obituaries, so I mounted them and ceremoniously branded them with an appropriate logo to show where their contributions went to benefit society.
You said that this body of work is about---
The Big Sell. The fact that everything is for sale. That's what interests me now, that every one of the arts are somehow bought and paid for by the advertiser, by this commercialism, which has been completely exploited. And I plan on doing that. I think Andy Warhol, to some extent, indicated the direction that it was going, even though there were a lot of guys hanging around painting blank canvas, still thinking it's going it's going some other place, but that's not where I think it's going. I think Lincoln Boulevard--those ugly streets in LA--that's where it's going. It's not going to get any better. There is something attractive about all that gaudiness and all that ugliness. In LA you hate it, it's a sinkhole, but still there's something attractive about it, it's subliminal life. And it sure ain't a blank canvas.