For his first solo show at Hyaena, the Burbank gallery that champions dark and subversive art, artist Rick “Dienzo” Blanco looked towards a favorite subject of his youth, vampires, for inspiration. In Vampyrically Speaking, his mostly female creatures of the night combine the glamour of black-and-white Hollywood photos with the eccentricity of lowbrow art. This is a new generation of vampires influenced by a deathly romantic past far more seductive and threatening than anything seen in Twilight, but set in a pop surrealist present. Dienzo's latest crop of characters is a fashionable lot too. Several of the pieces in this new collection are collaborations between the artist and fashion designer La Carmina, whose self-titled blog has become required reading for followers of gothic-influenced Japanese street fashion and club culture.
Dienzo, who is also the Creative Director of Product Development for The Cartoon Network and paints Cuban-themed, neo-expressionist pieces as Rick Blanco, spoke to L.A. Weekly by phone prior to the opening to discuss what went into creating this fiendishly cute brigade.
What inspired Vampyrically Speaking?
When I took my first painting course or art course in college, my sophomore year, I was painting vampires at that time. We're talking '88, '89. People thought it was cool but didn't see a huge market for it. That's when I transitioned into the Cuban art. So, now that the lowbrow movement has gained momentum and become much more accessible, it was an homage to that, to be able to go back to painting vampires. I've always been a huge lover of horror movies and Halloween and all things dark. I've found a whole community of people who share my interests. It's a little vindication to be able to do an entire show based on vampires and have people enjoy it.
Who do you see as being the quintessential vampire?
I don't think that there is just one. I think that the art in this show nods to several themes of vampires. I love the Universal monsters. I love the Hammer films from the '70s. I love even the '80s Lost Boys type of thing and the gory, slasher-type films, but, I wanted to get an influence of nostalgia, so the choice of subject matter for my characters is influenced by '30s, '40s and '50s sort of vampire movies, everything from Nosferatu— which was actually 1922, I believe– to like the '31 Dracula and a movie from the '80s called The Hunger with David Bowie, which I don't know if too many people saw. Not to have the stereotypical count with the cape, but to have a sort of romanticized version of vampires and create sort of a vernacular in the eyes and the positioning and the lighting that give suggestions of different times. One of my pieces is kind of influenced by more of the Lily Munster type thing. There's kind of a '30s type feel, which is more like The Brides of Dracula with the long gowns and that whole styling from the '30s. I looked at a lot of classic Hollywood portraits from photographers like George Hurrell and Don English, photographs of Marlene Dietrich, Lupita Tovar, Dolores del Rio and all these astounding artists. The impact of that photography becomes so iconic that it becomes natural to meld those things together. And then, to make it more contemporary, I'm also significantly influenced by current trends.
I think MySpace has been a great source of reference and inspiration for me because there is such a diverse offering of people and the people that respond to my work. I've actually painted components, if not literally, the people that are my friends on MySpace. For example, there's a woman, she goes by Wednesday Mourning, who has a great goth sensibility. More obviously, La Carmina, who I have been tracking and following for some time now, I had a great collaboration with her. She's been looking at a lot of the same things, trends from that whole Japanese weird sensibility and gothic Lolita, how it's been moving. There's a great book by Masayuki Yoshinaga, who does all the photography of people out on the streets in Japan, that's been out for a couple of years and is another motherload of reference for me in terms of apparel and art. La Carmina had a lot of that on her page. The fact that she's not only finding the trends but designs fashions herself, I thought that this was great. I reached out to her some time ago and recently the timing was kismet in that she said, let's work on something together. I painted some of her fashions. I have a piece called “Angeline Presenting” that is a black winged, almost dark angel type of vampire and it's considered one of her punk fashions, it's a black outfit with chains on it and things. Then there is one of her in an almost Victorian-esque blouse.
Are there any cartoons that have influenced your style?
I don't think there's one cartoon, I like the range of offerings. I think what's appealing to me is being in licensing, I'm able to work on a number of different things. There are different artists and creators that have a great feel. One of our more successful shows is called Ben 10 and that has a couple of incarnations, the one currently being established is by Glen Murakami, who worked on Teen Titans and Batman. It's an action show with a nice aesthetic. There's a show we have called Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. That was Craig McKracken who also did The Powerpuff Girls. That show was a great example of influence. Not only was it a funny show that won Emmy Awards and everything, but the visual had this sort of neo-Victorian feel. It's a great example of a trend influencing product as well because we did some toys and merchandise for kids, but we had quite a bit of success doing sort of tween positioning for girls at Hot Topic purely based on the aesthetic. A lot of consumers were responding to the look and feel even if they hadn't watched the show. I think that is really indicative of what is happening in the pop surrealist and lowbrow movement, to be able to cross those lines and say “This is art that belongs in a gallery.” In the past, you would never think of a t-shirt based on fine art. That was blasphemy. Now it's like that T-shirt is actually going to increase the value of your art because there are so many aspects of influence to it.
At one point in time, something that was cute would automatically be considered childish. Now, it's more fluid. You can have something that is kind of cute and kind of creepy at the same time and something that is cute, but totally meant for adults.
Cute and creepy is my thing. It's almost a tagline, but the idea is to intrigue, entice and cause a little bit of anxiety. The way to do that is the juxtaposition of something cute and cuddly with something a little more sinister. I think a lot of people have a darkside. You may not want to recognize it or give into it. Somebody is not necessarily going to want to put a very graphic and gory thing on their wall, although some people do. There are a lot of fantastic artists that are producing that work. There is a way to do it that makes it accessible to a broader range of people. That's what I'm striving for anyway.
Your bio mentions the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Do you remember the first time you went in it?
The first time that I can recall, I was probably ten. That's back in the days when you had E tickets and B tickets and you had to plan on where you were going to go based on what tickets you had. I think I can honestly say that it scared the crap out of me at ten. We weren't as jaded back then. Spooky stuff was really pretty spooky. When you had The Addams Family and The Munsters as your horror influences, the Haunted Mansion was really creepy. I definitely thought that there was something so cool about it. Not only for the theme, but for the magic of it. I think that's what captivated me.
I was fortunate to work as an Imagineer for a while. I worked on Disney's California Adventure. While I worked on that park– I was doing large graphics and signage and stuff– the biggest perk of that job was wandering around and looking at all of the historic memorabilia and going into the fabrication shop and seeing the molds of stuff that you remember from your childhood. That was amazing to me. I loved the concept that not only was this a cool place, but somebody thought enough to engineer it, put it together and share it with somebody. That's what's been great about the Haunted Mansion for me. The visuals are so iconic and memorable, but I have a great deal of respect for the amount of creativity and imagination it took to make it happen.