It's just a few days before Saturday's opening of "Scars and Stripes," British artist D*Face's biggest solo show to date, and the finishing piece is still lying on the floor of the pop-up gallery at 315 S. Robertson Blvd., a former American Apparel outpost. Large chunks of D*Dog, a round-faced pooch with ears that resemble wings, lay in a cluster on the floor waiting for assembly. Soon, this will be wedged into a police car as part of a massive installation in the adjacent parking lot on the corner of Robertson and 3rd.
The rest of the show is already in place and D*Face (Dean Stockton) is pointing out some of the highlights. Right now, we're looking at desks.
Up until a couple years ago, these aged slabs of wood were housed in British classrooms, where they lived for decades. There are holes where students would keep pots of ink and grooves for pens. Each one is covered in the scratchy graffiti of teenagers. There are years of marks on these desks — one boasts scrawls dated 1983 and 2005. The band names scribbled against the surface — the Sisters of Mercy, Wu-Tang Clan, the Libertines— are a testament to late 20th and early 21st century youth culture.
On one desk, a student proclaims the superiority of Vespas. On another, someone draws Bart Simpson. That small cartoon figure makes an impression on D*Face. "That's a really good one," he says. Short, gossipy messages are crammed between doodles, some of which veer towards the profane.
On top of some of this graffiti, D*Face has engraved portraits of celebrities who died before the age of 30. There is Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., who was shot less than a mile away from this venue. He was 24. Jim Morrison, James Dean and Sid Vicious are here too. On the walls surrounding us are depictions of Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and others.
D*Face's "Dead by 30" series looks at people whose lives were filled with struggle but are, in death, icons of youth. That some of these portraits are made on school desks is significant. "They [the graffiti] kind of sit amongst that body of work [the desktop pieces] quite comfortably in my mind because it's all about the sort of dreams and doodlings of a teenager," says D*Face.
He points out that an image of James Dean is engraved on a desktop where, years before, a student wrote his name. I'm reminded of the nights when my friend and I would sit in a dorm room obsessing over Joy Division, whose singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide at the age of 23. Death gives a sort of godlike immortality to the stars who will never grow old. Their albums, their old photos, become sacramentals to the young people who continue to worship them, generation after generation. It's morbid, but that's what happens and that is what D*Face explores in this series.
"Scars and Stripes" is a sprawling collection — 62 works total — that include paintings, sculptures and screen prints. There are works made on wood and a couple painted on metal. There are collages and found objects, like vintage helmets and those old desktops, that have been turned into canvases. It's an eclectic show.
D*Face points out a skateboard in a glass case hung on a wall. It's also made from a desk and it's one of the more personal pieces here. "The skateboard basically changed my life when I was a kid in school," he says. When the artist was just an 11-year-old kid in London, he saw Back to the Future and was captivated by Marty McFly's skateboard. He convinced his parents to get him one. He picked up copies of Thrasher magazine. "From that point onwards, skateboarding ruined my life and, subsequently, I failed in my school exams," he says.
D*Face writes about the impact skateboarding had on his life and how it led to his career as an artist in his monograph The Art of D*Face: One Man and His Dog. Today, he still has the look of a skater, with his shaved head, loose-fitting clothing and a touch of a sunburn.
D*Face got his start with spray paint and stickers applied to walls. Even in the gallery, the influence of the streets is apparent. There's the mural on the outside wall of the building, a large, comic book-style image of a woman sobbing, "You're dead to me." The mural almost didn't happen; it took some convincing to get the building's owner to agree to the project.
Inside, there are paintings layered on top of old posters and stencils and tags, weathered to give capture the essence of street art. "It's very hard to make it look real," he says. Contrasting with this style is the slick, desert drive scene in Rear View, its lacquer finish meant to resemble the glossy look of custom cars. D*Face says that this painting is actually the basis for an upcoming animated clip for a band whose name he can't disclose.
Death is often close at hand in "Scars and Stripes." Even outside of the celebrity portraits, D*Face's paintings frequently present situations where some sort of loss occurs. He leaves the interpretations up to the viewer, often saying that situation could involve a literal death, or a loved one who is no longer part of the character's life.
During the interview, D*Face mentions the word "ephemeral" a few times. He likes street art because it isn't permanent. It can, and usually will, become part of something else. That's part of what he appreciated about the school desk graffiti. Maybe on some sort of level, that's what D*Face is handling in "Scar and Stripes" overall. It's a pop-up show, so the gallery only exists for the duration of the event. The recurring themes of death and loss point to fact that life is only temporary. The legacies, though, linger after death, with stories layered on top of one another like the tags in a Hollywood alley.
"Scars and Stripes" is on view through October 12 at 315 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Grove.
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