Less than a decade ago, local boy Dani Tull seemed on the verge of international art stardom. Barely out of Stanford’s graduate art program, he had a string of breaks — solo shows at hot galleries like Kim Light, Blum & Poe and Jessica Fredericks, inclusion in the art annex of Lollapalooza, the only straight male chosen for Marsha Tucker’s post-feminist “Bad Girls” exhibit at the New Museum in New York, and coverage in everything from Artforum and Art in America to Newsweek and the L.A. Weekly. With work veering from near-pornographic paintings derived from Victorian children’s-book illustration to an ambitious multimedia investigation of the persuasive aesthetics of planned-community model-home design, he may have been a little too inconsistent for easy art-world consumption. Or maybe he just got sick of it all. In any case, after a 1997 solo show at the short-lived Special K Gallery dominated by a variation on Richard Serra’s famous Tilted Arc sculpture made from stacks of failed screenplays, Tull effectively vanished from the local scene except for the occasional Chinatown sighting.
Just in the last year, however, Tull’s been popping his head up in odd places — first at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman as one of the standout prodigies in Richard Torchia’s juvenilia omnibus “Very Early Pictures,” in which photos of the 5-year-old Tull making gestural abstractions with a feather duster revealed his history as a guinea pig for his grandmother Clare Cherry’s experiments in developmental creativity. Then, in October, he provided the startlingly accomplished glam-metal riffage for Marnie Weber’s fab performance-art rock opera The Spirit Girls: Songs That Never Die while decked out as a dead adolescent girl. Last week, 4-F Gallery in Chinatown — the northernmost gallery along Chung King Road — opened “Odd Ark,” an out-of-the-blue bombshell retrospective of Tull: The Missing Years that is a chunk of recent unsuspected L.A. art history of remarkable currency — and one of the most complex and entertaining gallery shows in recent memory.
I saw Tull for the first time since Spirit Girls in his Eagle Rock home studio as he was preparing to install “Odd Ark.” It turns out there’s no big mystery about his low profile. “The gap of time, that’s really only a matter of perception, I guess,” laughs Tull, who looks considerably more comfortable in studio clothes than in suicide-girl drag. “It was really just sort of life — getting married, having a family, buying a house. More importantly, there were two things that led me astray, so to speak. One is income. I got to a point where I really had to figure out a consistent income, and got involved in a line of work that turned out to be very much more demanding than I thought it would be, which is production design. It wound up taking a lot more of my time and energy than I ever imagined.”
The other distraction was his involvement with Eric Avery’s band Polar Bear, by far the most interesting fallout project from Jane’s Addiction, which Tull saw through its death throes as one of two lead guitarists. “It was a band that had huge potential, and it turned out to be a huge commitment; we rehearsed five days a week, then we’d play a show. We put out a couple of CDs on our own, and we were getting wined and dined by record companies. We were about to sign with Slash Records, but they went under, closed down shop, and that was kind of the end of that project. The thing was that during that time — which was probably a span of four or five years that I was really concentrating on the music — all I could think about was making art.”
It shows. In spite of the multitasking, all evidence suggests that Tull’s fallow period produced more actual artworks than the average artist’s most prolific phase: Just counting the pieces laid out for possible inclusion in “Odd Ark,” there are a dozen more or less distinct bodies of work that have never previously been exhibited. There are groups of photo-and-ink collages with horror-movie themes, and digitally altered photographic prints based on his grandmother’s archive of child-art research, arranged, explains Tull, in “a loose narrative that I’ve been putting together for a film, because I also have 16mm films of all this stuff and they’re black-and-white and they have this weird, spooky feel to them. The title at the moment is Motivation Is a Spooky Tambourine.” There’s a series of stellar large canvases that “will probably never be shown,” each depicting a tiny, meticulously rendered tall ship perched on the surface of an almost overwhelming “ocean” of abstract-expressionist paint, mostly applied with a shaving brush. There are purplish ink drawings on 50-year-old art paper and the back of vintage wallpaper, depicting heavy-lidded underground-cartoonish stoners — figures that crop up again on several cover mockups for a (so far) nonexistent magazine titled My Fluorescent Beatitude.
There’s an entire series of gouache landscapes depicting the remarkably little-known “Subterranean River Canyons of Los Angeles,” many of which are reproduced — alongside brief essays, frightening poetry, apocryphal historical anecdotes and a CD’s worth of soundscape compositions by Brad Laner — in a limited-edition book self-published to coincide with the exhibit. And there’s an array of sculptural objects consisting of brushes and pencils strapped onto heavy bricks. “They’re called Devices for Regressive Hand/Eye Coordination,” says Tull. “It’s sort of an experimental device to regress my drawing skills, my ability to render something. Usually I would pick up one of these brick Devices and paint or draw with it for as long as I possibly could, until my arm just couldn’t hold it anymore. Then I’d pick up a smaller brush and my arm would sort of float up and draw on its own. I like them as objects too.”
Other variations on the concept of functionality include several examples of cargo-cult technology — pieced-together microscopes and film projectors that resemble their models, even mimic some of their actions, but don’t finally serve their ostensible purpose. Conversely, one actually functioning cassette-deck sculpture plays a looped recording of one of Tull’s grandmother’s raucous proto-Happening creativity seminars. There are other sculptures, too — a whole nautical sequence including a collection of pathetically rendered Old Spice bottles; a cluster of blobby Latin-themed . . . er . . . entities, one of which plays a soundtrack of Tull’s grandfather singing “Mexicali Rose”; an electronic circuit-bent megaphone box, a voluptuously proportioned Elegy for Marlon Brando, and on and on.
“I wouldn’t call it autobiographical,” insists Tull; yet, in spite of this reluctance, much of the art derives from his position on the shoulders of a long line of California bohemians. The title of his show (and a large part of his thrift-store aesthetic) derives from Aardvark’s Odd Ark, the still-thriving vintage-clothes store his painter-parents co-founded in the ’70s. His studio is crammed with ephemera from his grandmother’s research, his grandfather Sam’s photography, his great-uncle Herman Cherry’s painting, and scads of Beat Generation detritus, including a box of drunken living-room rants by one of Tull’s formative childhood influences, Charles Bukowski. “One of the things that’s happened,” says Tull, “is that a lot of these boxes of stuff ended up being stored in my studio for a number of years and it just somehow mingled with my art-making practice. I don’t consider them to be that personal. The source material and the physical material both come from there, but I think of them as being more about other issues — creating a narrative that’s my own.”
It may seem that simple from inside this maelstrom of personal and pop-cultural reference, but to an outside viewer, Tull’s lost decade seems to constitute nothing less than the missing link between Mike Kelley’s and Jim Shaw’s curdled Pop and that of the emerging Los Angeles neo-psychedelic school. Combining a lifetime’s accumulation of formal chops and unquenchable creativity with an unholy hybrid of introspective archival obsessiveness and smart-ass pop-cultural glossolalia, Tull has produced an orgy of interpenetrating bodies of work that are as superficially entertaining as they are emotionally and structurally challenging. Let’s hope it won’t be another 10 years until his next show, but you should check out “Odd Ark” just in case — if there’s one thing Tull hasn’t learned in his wanderings in the cultural desert, it’s how to dumb it down and repeat himself for the marketplace. Dude must be thick or something.?
DANI TULL: ODD ARK | 4-F Gallery, 977 Chung King Road, Chinatown, (213) 617-4948 | Through May 20