Posts Tagged ‘outsider art’


‘Broken bottles and ashes’: an interview with X-8

‘Broken bottles and ashes’: an interview with X-8

The idea for an extended conversation between X-8 and myself first came up in October 2006. It was to be called “Wine and Cigarettes”. Some months went by. He wrote to me: “I figure you’re really busy or have drunk so much wine you can’t type anymore. I should have named this interview ’300 Wines and 40,000 Cigarettes’.”

Good things can’t be hurried, however, and by the time the piece was finally ready, X had renamed it again. Welcome to ‘Broken Bottles and Ashes’.

 

Indra:

You know I’ve admired your paintings for years, and am pleased to be having this conversation with you. You came up with the title for this discussion, tell me, why did you call it ‘Wine and Cigarettes’?

 

X-8:

Why ‘Wine and Cigarettes’? Well I know we both like to imbibe once in a while and I do appreciate a relaxing cigarette with friends, so I thought that evoked a properly intimate setting. I’d rather have wine and cigarettes than an SUV and cell phone.

 

Indra:

I wish I could join you in a ‘clope’ (French slang) but gave up a few months ago, still miss the aroma of fresh tobacco with coffee. As for wine, we live bang in the middle of the Cahors wine region in France. I wish you could have seen it last month. The vines were still dormant, black gnarled stumps, but in between was a carpet of yellow hawkbit.
X-8:

What is your favorite wine?

 

Indra:

Top of my list at the moment is Chateau Bovila, which is local and organically made.

 

X-8:

I’ve posted a Chateau Bovila label on GOD. I will try and find a bottle here in LA.

Indra:

I ought to send you a couple of bottles. Well, let’s suppose that we have smoked our clopes and are well into the Bovila . . . Now there are two things in my mind . . . first, the subjects of your paintings are so dark, they are about pain, loss, disgust, murder, death, yet the paintings themselves are full of light . . . the light in fact comes bursting through them. How do you explain this?

 

X-8:

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘light’. The luminosity of the paint? Or the statement of the work?

 

Indra:

I mean the luminosity of the paintings.

 

X-8:

It may be the result of my painting technique. I like to paint in a dark studio with only a 15 watt bulb. Like a cave. The paint on the canvas must reflect what little light there is to be effective. So you end up with a luminous palette of rich and contrasting colors. I also like to use ‘happy’ and vibrant colors sometimes to counterbalance the subject matter. It makes the work more digestable to the viewer.

 

Indra:

Painting in low light, near darkness . . . apparently it’s something Rembrandt also used to do.

 

X-8:

I didn’t know that.

 

Indra:

Yet these light-filled paintings are so dark, subject matter wise. One of my favourites among your work is this painting. When I first saw it I was bowled over by its beauty.

 

 

Indra (contd):

It looked to me like a human figure with bracken fronds growing out of its belly. I thought of the Green Man carvings you find in medieval churches with leaves bursting from their mouths. So here was an image of the common life shared by man and nature, a growing tree-man in an autumnal sort of coloration …Then I read the title, ‘Suicide Bomber’, and it hit me in the gut. I hadn’t been expecting that – Palestine and Baghdad, blood, horror and injustice – suddenly all this pain was in the painting that a second before had seemed so calm and beautiful. I feel that wrench whenever I see this painting and I still look at it in two ways in order to recapture the feeling I first had, then seeing its bitter politics. I wonder, did you intend it to be seen this way?

 

X-8:

I wanted the painting to be pretty and violent.

 

Indra:

Here’s another painting that at first glance looks full of life, exuberance, dancing figures, reminiscent of Matisse, only at second glance do you see bullet wounds, blood and the title and realise that these figures are not dancing, they’re sprawled in death. Or perhaps they’re both, the painting contains the before and after, the energy of the living as well as their corpses.

X-8: Sniper. Acrylic and enamel marker on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet. 2004.

 

X-8:

The painting is joyful and happy from a distance and full of death and chaos up close. I liked that effect. Instead of dancing people in the park you have a massacre in progress.

 

Indra:

Where does all this darkness and violence come from? Tell me about the things that left a mark on you. I know some of this is already on your website, where for example you talk of seeing your father’s body, shot dead in the street. I’m guessing that a lot of this stuff must be painful for you. Yet you talk of this damaging childhood with a kind of nonchalant bravado as if it didn’t matter.

 

X-8:

Thank you. It was 35 years ago. Only now have I been able to acknowledge it. I am no longer connected to it emotionally. During my 20’s, there was a game called “Punk Rock Childhood” in which you try and prove that your childhood was the worst. Whoever had the worst was the winner. Others definitely had worse. But it was a way to wear your unfortunate circumstances as a badge of honor. Kind of like a battle scar.

 

Indra:

Tell me about your childhood.

 

X-8:

I had a dysfunctional family. My father tried to kill my mother when she was pregnant with me and she went to a psychiatric facility of some sort. There are no pictures of my mother and me from that time. I saw pictures of me and various social workers. (I received prison made wallets from my father but I never saw him. Met him a couple of times.) She was released when I was 4 and we became a welfare family. Sometimes she would have medical appointments at these state facilities where the severely deformed lived. I remember a boy whose arms were shaped like corkscrews. It was all very surreal.

 

We moved every year and soon I was a content loner at home – inventing games to play on my own. We eventually settled in the city of Whittier – which is Richard Nixon’s home town.

 

She gave me some .38 caliber bullets one year and said they were meant for her. I was 9.

 

Indra:

What did she mean by the .38 bullets?

 

X-8:

From what I have pieced together, my father apparently tried to shoot her when she pregnant. I guess it was my mother’s way of showing that my father was a very bad man – he robbed banks and tried to kill her as well.

 

At the time I thought of the bullets as toys or trinkets. I used to play with them and stare at them and wonder what they were filled with. I liked the sleek silver cases and copper tips. They were pretty and shiny. I used to spin them on the ground over and over. I eventually used .38 caliber bullets for art and embedded them in wet tar in a piece I did in 1986. It hung at Al’s Bar, the local artist’s bar. until all the bullets were taken as souvenirs by patrons.

X-8: Slaughterhouse, 6 feet by 5 feet, 2005

 

Indra:

Your mother had a bad time, you grew up with her. Did you feel protective of her?

 

X-8:

We slept in a small bedroom throughout my childhood. She cried in the middle of the night. I felt sad and wondered what was wrong with her. Again, I thought all this was the norm – you’re naïve and innocent and you don’t know and you don’t ask.

 

She tried to be a good mom. I look back and have to give her credit. She did make an effort to bring me up ‘right’, even though it was extremely strict. I wasn’t allowed to have anyone visit. A lock was put on the phone so I couldn’t make calls. I would be locked out of the house if I went out for the evening and then would have to sleep in the park. I wasn’t allowed to shave.

 

I just thought it was the norm.

 

Indra:

The strictness of it seems quite extreme. For example why weren’t you allowed to shave, or don’t you know?

 

X-8:

It was simply suffocating. And as I grew up I realized how bizarre the whole thing was and I became resentful of her.

 

I look back and realize she didn’t want me to grow up. To her shaving meant I was becoming a man. She wanted me to remain a child forever. She detested me becoming independent and hanging with others besides her. She didn’t want to know or meet those who were my contacts to the outside world.

 

Toward the end when I lived with her, she tried to commit me to a mental institution because I began hanging with other people besides herself.

 

The doctor talked with me and told me not to worry. He prescribed her more pills. She was pissed. We didn’t speak to each other for a year.

 

Poet

 

 

Indra:

When did you become aware that your childhood wasn’t the norm?

 

X-8:

I think when I was forced to pull a discarded Christmas Tree from a trash dumpster on Christmas morning so we could have a tree. I was seven.

 

People with smiling faces used to deliver fruit baskets and boxes of food during holidays. I thought everyone got free food. But I found out no one did. Only the really poor.

 

I left home at 17 and never looked back. My father was eventually shot to death in front of his house.

 

Indra:

You do extraordinary things like put a picture on your website of your father covered by a blanket in the street. How did you feel about your father?

 

X-8:

I met him a couple of times. He promised me a bowling ball when I was 10 but it never arrived. I never forgave him for that and I lost trust in people.

 

When I was 15 I met him on Father’s Day and he said I didn’t look like his son.

 

He worked in a factory and glued the soles on shoes for a living. He was also an alcoholic. He asked to be dropped off at the liquor store after our Father’s Day breakfast. I never saw him again until I saw his dead body on the news.

 

I was an unwanted child. My mother told me that. So I clearly was a burden to him. Why they didn’t have an abortion I’ll never know.

 

Indra:

I think you say on your website that you were brought up by your grandparents.

 

X-8:

My grandfather and grandmother were the center of the family. We met during weekends. They lived in a barrio, which is a poor neighborhood where latins lived. It still had dirt streets.

 

My aunts and uncles partied and drank liquor while we played in the backyard playing and stealing cucumbers from my grandma’s garden. I ate like 10 cucumbers one time and got sick. To this day I can not stand cucumbers.

 

My cousins and I would drink the leftover cocktails. We would play with matches and start fires. We burned down the neighbor’s wooden shack one time and the fire department figured out it was us and found the matches.

 

Indra:

Sounds like fun.

 

X-8:

Then religion overtook the extended family. They all became born again Christians. Anyone who didn’t embrace Christianity would face eternal fire in hell. I thought they had all become mental.

X-8 Crucifixion, 6 feet by 5 feet. 2003

 

Indra:

What sort of Christianity were they reborn into?

 

X-8:

We were Catholic. When I was 5 I was taken to church in a new suit. I hated the suit and it was a Latin Mass, so I didn’t understand anything the guy up front in the white robe was saying. I threw a tantrum and I never had to go to church or wear the suit again.

 

My family was all into gangs and crime. Many of my uncles and cousins were in and out of jail. I guess one day they all decided it was best to become ‘born again Christians’ as a way to change their life.

 

They still all are part of the same Christian Fellowship but I avoided them because they were so aggressive about converting others.

 

Indra:

How aggressive?

 

X-8:

I was chased out of the parking lot of a relative’s wedding when I was 17 with a friend of the family yelling at me telling me I was going to Hell if I didn’t accept Christ as King of The World. Very psycho.

 

Indra:

What were your feelings about religion? You’d had a very rough deal.

 

X-8:

I question those who try and control people. I’ve read that religion has killed more people than all natural disasters and fatal diseases combined. I think it’s good for some people if you are weak and need a crutch to help you along. I understand for some people it’s a tradition. But I don’t think killing each other over an invisible entity is really healthy. I don’t think the values and rules they set up in the name of ‘morality’ are useful. For example I think suppressing the natural sexual drive only creates sexual deviants. Just look at all the priests who become child molesters.I was taught that sex was bad and I became a very promiscuous person.

X-8: Falling Through The Snow. Acrylic on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet. 2005.

 

Indra:

Your early life sounds like unrelieved horror. Were there any good moments?

 

X-8:

I excelled in school. It was an escape from my dreary homelife. To be involved in other creative things showed me there were other things in life. I knew that if I learned I could escape the cycle of poverty and despair.

 

Indra:

What were your favorite subjects?

 

X-8:

I liked everything. My cousins used to tease me because I got A’s and they got C’s and D’s. I liked music. I played the trumpet.

 

I hung out at the local library and pored over all the non-fiction books and foreign magazines. Der Speigel was a favorite. German magazines always had naked ladies in the back pages. It was a whole different world. An exciting world. I decided I wanted to be a journalist and write for a cool magazine. I took journalism classes and soon became an editor at my high school paper.

 

Indra:

Did you have friends among the other pupils?

 

X-8:

I had a little boy’s bowl haircut in 3rd grade and the girls used to chase me at recess screaming “Beatle! Beatle!” The Beatles were just happening at the time. They used to pin me down in the schoolyard and kiss me and then run away. I hid in the boy’s bathroom during recess after that. They used to stand by the door screaming “Beatle! Beatle!” I obviously had no clue about sex.

 

I got taught about sex by boys at school. They had dirty magazines. I couldn’t understand how a penis could fit into such a bizarre looking thing. The vagina fascinated me. It was like a strange creature.

 

Indra:

How did you get started painting?

 

X-8:

At 15, I got a skin disorder called vitiligo. It was a blessing in disguise. I withdrew from ‘normal’ society. I began to draw. I created pictures of devils, nazis, monsters and suicides.

X-8: Suicide Siva, 6 feet by 5 feet, 2001

 

I did take a design class in college one year and the teacher really liked my drawings. He pulled me aside one day and said I didn’t need school to be an artist – just go for it. He liked the splatters and drips that I left on the bottom of the drawings. He was an inspiration. Even to this day.

 

So I listened to him, quit college and moved to downtown Los Angeles after that and eventually lived in an large artist loft. It was 5000 square feet for $600 a month. I lived with two others. We had to put the toilet and sinks in ourselves. It was raw space. It was so big we used to ride a Vespa in it.

 

Indra:

Where and how did you train?

 

X-8:

I am self-taught and I support self taught music and art. Schools naturally teach technical ability. I like it when it’s crude. That’s why I liked punk. Anyone could do it. You didn’t need schooled talent. Academics were shunned. I feel the same way about art. I don’t like mainstream stuff.

 

Moving to downtown Los Angeles I did abstracts for awhile. In 1993 I began creating large figuratives and began to dig up the rotten stuff inside me and release it on giant canvases.

 

Indra:

You view your art as a catharsis.

 

X-8:

I think it’s healthy to create when you are angry or depressed. That way you don’t become a serial killer. There’s a certain magic to catharsis.

 

I see my paintings as enlightening. I am killing my internal devils through catharsis. All the paintings are essentially self-portraits. That’s the essence of exorcistic art. It’s a healthy process. I use simple imagery and universal symbols in my work so it’s no surprise that devils and angels play a prominent role.

 

I love creating alone. That’s obviously traceable to my childhood. I like the feeling of releasing secret emotions and feelings, and to do that, you create in a dark environment alone. It’s pure and peaceful.

X-8: Inside the Skull. Acrylic, latex, oilstick, urine and cigarette burns on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet. 2002

 

Indra:

You use a lot of unusual media – mud, blood, urine, if memory serves. Why? How do they make the painting better for you? A technical thing? A visceral connection with work? Transference of life force?

 

X-8:

Living in Downtown Los Angeles, I started with mud because it was natural and primitive. I mixed the mud with urine because I felt that it combined elements of both man and nature. It was also anti-academic. It was a great way to separate yourself from the college taught brainwashed artists in the neighborhood.

 

Mud had a wonderful texture too.

 

The blood and hair paintings had a more urban overtone. Blood and hair samples are major evidence in homicide cases. It was no surprise that images of serial killers soon followed.

 

Indra:

I have been following discussions on an alchemy forum with some interest (albeit little understanding) they talk of a “spiritus mundi” which alchemists through the years have tried to capture in various ways… starting with piss, shit, organic materials etc. Without this magic life force, their “work” is inert. I find the same sort of thing in writing . . .

 

X-8:

We are all DNA and stardust.

X-8: Speeding Under A Black Sun (Octopus). Acrylic on canvas. 6 feet by 4 feet. 2003.

 

Indra:

We’ve already touched briefly on them being infused with light. Of course how one views a 6 x 6 foot canvas in reality must differ from how it’s seen via the web.

 

X-8:

People are usually amazed at the size of the paintings. Viewing them on a website doesn’t give the whole effect. It’s a much more bold emotion when you see the carnage up close and life-size.

 

In regards to presentation, X-8 is a pseudonym that comes from my favorite letter and number and it remains a pen name. It is somewhat a brand name. Tony Curtis once remarked he would have been more well known if he had named himself ‘Cosmo 5000’ or something. Pseudonyms are common in the music world, so I don’t see a problem.

 

I often use the music industry as an analogy for how I approach the art world: The paintings are songs. The individual series are the albums. Using this analogy, art galleries are the record labels and clubs rolled into one. When you don’t like the labels and clubs, you start your own thing.

 

Indra:

Like you did with your music and your involvement with the LA punk scene?

 

X-8:

When I was about 16 punk began and it was all about disaffected youth from bad homes, abusive families and everything. And revolting against it. For some it was fad but I totally related and embraced the anti-social aspect of the music and the scene. It was freedom from one’s shitty childhood and you hung out with others who experienced the same hardships. There were no rules. And it was fun.

 

Coma. Acrylic, urine and colored gel on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet.2005.

 

Indra:

Do you have music on when you paint?

 

X-8:

Yes. Most of the time.

 

Indra:

What kind?

 

X-8:

I sometimes wear headphones with classical music or German industrial music playing full blast as I paint at 3 o’clock in the morning. I love the sun rising as the work dries, like a silent remnant of a nightmare or evidence of a dark horrible adventure.

 

Indra:

I am really interested in how painters use paint, as a physical substance to work with, whether with brushes, knives, whatever, the physical side of painting –

 

X-8:

I love the texture of paint. I love the smell of it. You name it- oil, latex and acrylic. I love large pieces because they seem so powerful.

 

Indra:

When looking at paintings on the internet, I miss the experience of seeing them close up. Brushstrokes and textures and nuances disappear. Nothing will ever beat standing near the picture of course, almost smelling the paint. In the website image of ‘Suicide Bomber’ one can’t really see the texture of the paint, but I’m imagining it laid on quite thick, maybe allowed to crack, and perhaps scraped off again.

 

X-8:

That one is more textural than the others. I liked the matte opaque paint I was using and laid it on thick.

 

X-8, Suicide Bomber, 6 feet by 4 feet, 2005

 

 

Suicide Bomber detail

 

 

Suicide Bomber detail 2

 

Indra:

Painting is a very physical activity and must be tiring, if you’re hours in front of a canvas. How do you work?

 

X-8:

I use sleep deprivation and psychotropics.

 

Indra:

Do you have a routine?

 

X-8:

I work on several large canvases at a time. All in various stages. Some are in a ‘ferment’ stage and are photographed after a couple of months.

 

Indra:

How many hours will you put into each painting, each stage?

 

X-8:

It depends on the work. Some take a year, some are done in 24 hours. “Reincarnation” was done in 24 hours.

 

Indra:

How do you begin?

 

X-8:

Staring at a blank canvas loaded.

 

Indra:

Do you sketch first, or go straight in and let the theme emerge?

 

X-8:

It’s mostly stream-of-consciouness. I sometimes draw but I find it undesirable.

 

Indra:

Where do the ideas come from? I was pleased that a passage in The Death of Mr. Love gave you one idea).

X-8: Drunk Or Dying, 5 feet by 6 feet. 2007

 

X-8:

I don’t know. I’ve always liked the macabre so I tend to start there.

 

Indra:

What is it that I can feel in these paintings? I don’t believe it is rage. It’s too intense to be cynicism. I know you said you were detached from the pain of your childhood, but there is something vulnerable about these pictures.

Derangement (Lost in Rivers), 6 feet by 5 feet, 2004

 

X-8:

I try and mix sorrow with anger for balance. I think that gives them a balance.

 

Indra:

I’d like to send you a copy of Animal’s People. The narrative from that crippled boy’s mouth is perhaps an analogy to your outpourings on canvas. Animal does feel rage, although not all the time, occasionally he allows himself to feel gentler emotions but despises himself for it. He is not telling his story in order to change the world although I, his surrogate author, am on record as naively saying that I would like to help shape the future. Do you have any such concerns?

 

X-8:

My interests are all subversive. (laughs)

 

Indra:

Is it ridiculous to ask how you would like people to react or respond to the paintings?

 

X-8:

I don’t think about it.

 

Indra:

Finally, I’d like to ask you to talk about two more of your paintings. This figure reminds me of Nijinsky as the faun in L’Apres Midi D’un Faune – in the costume by Bakst.

Addiction and Perversion, acrylic and latex on canvas. 6 feet by 5 feet. 2001

 

X-8:

I see your comparison. “Addiction And Perversion” is a self-portrait of my possible future. The skin disorder vertiligo slowly spreads all over the body with time. If I’m going to be a spotted man, I might as well go down in flames with drugs and sex, hence the title. It will make a great movie.

 

“End Of The World” pre-dated 9-12 but had symbols of it in it – an aircraft disaster, a dark messiah and his followers, the abuse and torture of women and a crescent moon in a mountainous desert. It was supposed to be a vision of hell.

 

At this point in the conversation the phone rang with news that Animal’s People had been long-listed for the 2007 Booker Prize.

 

X-8:

Congratulations on your Booker nomination. I’m having an incandescent experience with this interview. Given this pace, I think we’ll be done in 2013.


More work, information about the artist and information about
acquiring paintings at X-8′s website