Zoey Taylor and David Connelly are not only the two artists behind the Dosshaus collective — and a ubiquitous, fast-rising art-star couple on the national scene — they are also chameleonic, inescapably endearing characters who often show up, Zelig-like, at the center of their own work.
The L.A. artists like to reimagine classic tableaux and imagery by René Magritte and Marc Chagall, or reinvent themselves as rock stars such as Patti Smith and David Bowie posing glamorously and studiously as the subjects of iconic album covers and photos. But what they do goes beyond mere homage or parody.
Dosshaus' exhibition at Gallery 30 South in Pasadena last May, “In the Country of Marvels,” was ostensibly a playful salute to Magritte, James Ensor and other Belgian surrealists, but the pair's assemblage of lovingly “sculpted vignettes” — including a piano, an artist's easel, marionettes, a bookshelf and, suspended from the ceiling, a chair — was arrayed with clever visual allusions to Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat and André Breton and demonstrated the couple's mastery of presentation.
In December, Dosshaus revealed their most puzzling work yet, “Paper-Thin Hotel,” a limited-edition double 7-inch single on the notorious underground-music label Sympathy for the Record Industry. It's a curious art piece that unfolds with an extravagant gatefold sleeve of Dosshaus' whimsical photos of various rock & roll icons yet contains no actual music. “Paper-Thin Hotel” is also the name of Dosshaus' next solo exhibition of new work, an ambitious monthlong installation in which Taylor and Connelly will take over Corey Helford Gallery, beginning with an opening reception on Saturday, April 7.
All the duo's art — which encompasses sculpture, painting, photography, video and fashion design — is layered with icinglike, monochromatic gray embellishments streaked with Dosshaus' own instantly recognizable style. That means Connelly, 32, and Taylor, 25, aren't commenting on classic imagery of the past so much as they are incorporating it into their own self-contained and almost cartoonlike universe.
And that self-described “highly idealized” universe is constructed primarily out of one of the most prosaic and ordinary materials around: cardboard.
“The idea of cardboard being mundane appealed to us,” Connelly says over the phone in a joint interview with Taylor. “What if you could take cardboard and make it anything but cardboard … make something beautiful out of it?”
Connelly, who was raised in a SoCal town that “I left the minute I could,” moved to Los Angeles in 2010; there he met and began collaborating with Taylor, a native of Taos, New Mexico. According to Taylor, the two were working together on a video with cardboard art and stop-motion animation when “one of us said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could live in this world?'”
“When we got into cardboard, it gave us the ability to do everything,” Connelly says. “We were painting and didn't have any more canvas, so Zoey went out in the street and got cardboard. The pieces started falling in place, and we started making rudimentary clothes.”
Those rudimentary clothes evolved into elaborate cardboard costumes that the duo have worn in tribute to their favorite style icons, musicians, fashion designers and photographers: Jane Birkin with Serge Gainsbourg, a cardboard cigarette dangling from his lips; The Burrito Brothers' Gram Parsons in a Nudie suit; The Sex Pistols sneering in Vivienne Westwood punk regalia; Bob Dylan recording Blonde on Blonde; Patti Smith as photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe; Andy Warhol with the Velvet Underground; and David Bowie sporting fantastic designs by Kansai Yamamoto.
Is it difficult to wear cardboard clothes?
“Yes,” Taylor says.
“Next to impossible!” Connelly agrees. “At the L.A. Art Show [where Dosshaus was included in a January 2017 exhibition], Zoey was able to do it for the entire day.”
What if it rains? “We don't wear the cardboard shoes outside,” Connelly admits.
“It's not masculine. It's not feminine. It's both at once,” he adds about the Dosshaus aesthetic. “We are two unique people, but we are trying to make one singular expression.”
When asked if the pair ever have artistic disagreements, Taylor says, “We really do not argue. When we're working on a new project, if one of us has a problem, the other party knows this isn't going in the right direction.”
“If we are not both immediately passionate, we move on,” Connelly says.
Dosshaus have taken part in more than a dozen group art exhibitions in L.A., New York and Miami; they staged their first solo exhibition at Gregorio Escalante Gallery in Chinatown in February 2016. Their public installations and other art have included a life-size telephone booth in the desert, a small sedan, various masks, clocks, motion-picture cameras, an artist's studio, and an entire rehearsal room with a guitar, amplifier, bass and drum set — all of it rendered in recycled cardboard, acrylic paint, glue and paper.
“When working together, we have a similar musical language,” Connelly says of Taylor. “Before we met, both of us were huge music fans and vinyl collectors.” But, as its title track implies, Dosshaus' “Paper-Thin Hotel” single is made of cardboard instead of vinyl.
“We're not musicians,” Connelly emphasizes. He explains that the idea for making a single came from John Edward Mermis, aka Long Gone John, the impresario behind Sympathy for the Record Industry (The Detroit Cobras, Roky Erickson, Gun Club, The White Stripes). He only rarely releases new records after relocating a few years ago to Washington state from his longtime home in Long Beach.
“We met John through Greg Escalante, and we knew and loved his work,” Connelly says. “He wondered if we would do a record with him. … He wanted to release a glorious object. … It quickly became a way to wrap ourselves in the packaging of the music world.”
“It is pop art, a celebration of the music and imagery of the music business,” Taylor says. Dosshaus even filmed a promotional video in which the couple are dressed in black, their blank, expressionless faces hidden behind black sunglasses, as they give curt, archly bored, one-word answers to an unseen interviewer. “That interview is actually referencing an interview with Andy Warhol in 1965,” Connelly says. “His answers were not too different from ours.”
The two 7-inch discs in “Paper-Thin Hotel” are indeed made out of perfectly round cardboard, but the record includes a link (dosshaus.com/sympathy) and password (paper-thin) to download the four tracks, which are listed as “Paper-Thin Hotel,” “Trash,” “Images” and “(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures” in tribute, respectively, to the Leonard Cohen, The New York Dolls, Lou Reed and John Cale, and Rezillos songs that share the same titles. The tracks are not actual cover songs, but the titles were chosen as allusions to cardboard (“Trash”) and as a nod to their influences (Reed and Cale's “Images” is a song about Warhol).
Each track clocks in at the same length as its namesake inspiration, but there are no melodies or even music instruments — all you hear are strange, ambient noises.
“We set up a microphone in our studio,” Connelly says.
“It is the sound of our studio,” Taylor explains.
“There's silence, footsteps, cutting cardboard,” Connelly says.
“I like track No. 4,” Taylor says. “Track one is too mellow for me.”
“I like No. 1, but she's right,” Connelly says. “No. 4 is more action-packed.”
Are they worried that people who buy the single will return it once they find out there's no real music on it? Connelly says, “We hope they will realize, when they look at the art, that any music they can imagine is going to be better than any music we could have possibly played.”
If the single “Paper-Thin Hotel” is a kind of conceptual-art lark, the upcoming exhibition that shares its name is a much more monumental undertaking.
“In our art, we've always been ourselves,” Taylor explains.
“There's always been a Zoey character and a David character,” Connelly says. “The single was a chance to slip into the skin of different musicians.”
In April, Taylor and Connelly will transform downtown L.A.'s Corey Helford Gallery into a flophouse — Dosshaus is a British term for flophouse — with its own lobby and several guest rooms. One room will feature the duo in character as famous rock musicians, while the other rooms will be populated by such fictional characters as the Countess (“an eccentric woman surrounded by items from her past,” Taylor says), two young Bonnie & Clyde–style lovers on the run from the law, and a traveling salesman patterned after Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
“They're archetypes, images of Americana that don't exist anymore,” Connelly says. “They're sort of these paper-thin illusions.”
Connelly studied photography and filmmaking at NYU but says that he has “no formal training other than doing art my entire life.” Taylor was introduced to the visual arts as a member of Taos' thriving art scene, where “the artists there took me under their wing.”
Although Connelly and Taylor are aware of past artists who've employed cardboard as a medium — they cite such examples as Frank Gehry's cardboard furniture, Claes Oldenburg's cardboard sculptures and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings on cardboard — Dosshaus aren't consciously influenced by them.
After being included in Lori Zimmer's 2015 anthology, The Art of Cardboard (Rockport Publishers), the two got to know other modern artists who utilize cardboard in their work.
“In the cardboard-artist community, everybody uses cardboard in a different way,” Taylor says. “We are all faced with the challenge of forcing cardboard to do what cardboard doesn't want to do.”
“We experimented for years with different mediums” before deciding on cardboard, Connelly says.
“There's a spirit in every box that we bring into our studio. How to transform the cardboard — it's a very satisfying challenge,” Taylor says.
“There is a glorious religion of cardboard,” Connelly adds. “We are zealots.”
“When we are driving and see a TV box by the side of the roadway, we will veer off and get it. We are definitely hooked,” Taylor says.
The several years that Taylor and Connelly spent privately developing their own style finally paid off when the influential lowbrow-art patron and gallery owner Greg Escalante began championing their work. He challenged them to create a public-art installation outside his Gregorio Escalante Gallery in Chinatown, and in three weeks they quickly constructed The Car, a fanciful, life-size, gray European-style sedan they parked along Chung King Road.
“The Car was the first time Greg saw our work in person,” Taylor says. “Everything clicked. Everything began for us that night.”
Recalling Escalante's reaction, Connelly says, “I think there was a little bit of surprise — 'Wow, they pulled it off!'”
That led to Dosshaus' debut solo exhibition — about 75 pieces, including elaborate cardboard watches, clocks, musical instruments and faux furniture — in February 2016 at the Gregorio Escalante Gallery.
“He loved giving artists who were just starting out an opportunity,” Taylor says of Escalante, the co-founder of Juxtapoz magazine.
“His life itself was an art form — his clothes, the scene he created and continued to foster, the people he surrounded himself with, the food he ate,” Connelly says.
Before Escalante died in September last year, he connected Dosshaus with luminaries in the local art community as well as Long Gone John. “Greg Escalante introduced us to everyone we know in the art world and really made it feel like a family,” Taylor says.
“The hole that has been left by Greg's passing is never going to be filled,” Connelly says. “What he left behind is so important for so many artists. All we can do is trudge on.”