Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jeff Soto's Apocalyptic Nostalgia

The ominous, volatile yet playful work of Jeff Soto reaches for a glimmer of hope in the wake of overwhelming destruction. Fundamentally bound to his hometown of Riverside, California, Jeff hews to the everyday visuals of SoCal suburban life — big-box stores, telephone poles, weird plants, children's toys and graffiti. Staying ahead of his imitators, he continues to evolve his imagery while addressing his core obsessions — nature vs. humanity, birth vs. death, futurism vs. nostalgia, beauty vs. decay.

"Nature's Splendor"

Last summer, while I was working on the material for the forthcoming Heroes & Villains book, Jeff was kind enough to give me some of his time and a great interview. Since the book can't be a thousand pages long — unfortunately — I thought I'd share it in its entirety as a little Christmas treat for everyone.


Erratic Phenomena: Tell me about your childhood, growing up with three brothers in a blue-collar family in the Los Angeles suburbs of Fullerton and Riverside. You've said you used to draw with your father, on the back side of sheets of newsprint he would bring home from work. Did becoming an artist seem distant and unattainable when you were a kid, or were there people in your life who encouraged your artistic impulse at an early age?

Jeff Soto: My parents both dabbled in art and were artistic people. They still are today, even though they never took an artistic path in their careers. I think they liked that I had an early fascination with drawing and painting. They let me have fun with it, and were supportive when I began to grow into adulthood. As a kid, I made art about my family and what I was watching on TV, mostly. So it was a lot of cartoons, pop culture, stuff like that. I also made drawings of things like "the perfect day," or "the most radical car," just fun stuff, exploring my world and figuring it all out. I never really knew what "being an artist" meant — I was not exposed to any working artists and had no clue what to do or how to go about pursuing it as a career as I got older. I had to figure it out on my own and in college.

"The Corruption of Mankind"

EP: You grew up steeped in your father's science fiction collection, and particularly loved Ray Bradbury's classic tales of mankind's atomic folly, The Martian Chronicles. Growing up near March Air Reserve Base as the Cold War wound down, you were haunted by the specter of nuclear destruction. You've often cited Swan Song — novelist Robert McCammon's epic 1988 novel about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust — as a major influence on your development. What did you find most compelling about those books? How do you think the constant dread of those years impacted your outlook on life as an adult?

Jeff: I read Swan Song when I was 11 or 12, and it was the first 1000+ page book I finished. It was like a grown-up Wizard of Oz — it was quite an adventure, but with sex and violence and nuclear mutations. I took my time reading it one summer, and it blew my mind. It brought up so many of my fears, and really opened my eyes up to what was going on politically with our nuclear arsenal. Then I dove into more factual books about nuclear war and politics, and it just scared the shit out of me.

"Sun and the Moon"

EP: You often speak of your beloved childhood hangout, an abandoned lot called Twin Palms, where you and your friends skated and painted to your hearts' content. Do you think unsupervised creative/destructive activity like that is a valuable experience for kids? Will today's ultra-protected and hyper-scheduled children be missing out on a vital source of creative growth?

Jeff: Things do seem a little different these days — kids really don't seem to be out as much. When I was in high school in the early ‘90s, I remember kids and teenagers were always outside, playing in the streets, skating, playing basketball. No one had computers yet in the home and TV sucked, so you'd have to get out and do things in your neighborhood. We were always looking for something to do, getting into trouble, getting into adventures. We definitely destroyed some things — as a teenager I did some stuff I'm not very proud of — but we were also out in the world, experiencing things, and having a great time with our friends.

Today, kids are way more sheltered. In most homes, both parents work, so these kids are coming home from school and getting on their computers and cell phones. Maybe the world is not as safe, or maybe nothing has really changed — all I know is that I was surrounded by some pretty smart and creative kids, some of whom also liked to destroy shit, and yeah, I think it did somehow add to my creativity and ideas about art. But I think the kids who search will find their own version of Twin Palms.


EP: In late 1989 — your sophomore year in high school — you created both your first graffiti piece and your first oil painting. Though you painted graffiti — as Trek and sometimes Kilo — all over the Southland, you became disillusioned with it after a while, and in fact you did your last piece about a decade ago, in 2000. When you began, did the worlds of graffiti and fine art seem very distinct from one another?

Jeff: The first graffiti I saw was a Jim Phillips skateboard graphic, the one he did for Jeff Kendall. It's kinda funny, because he was trying to make authentic-looking graffiti and I copied what he was doing, so I was really copying from a copy. I also saw some graffiti in movies and skateboard magazines and was intrigued. I didn't see any N.Y.C. or L.A. graffiti until I'd been painting a few months, and those pieces blew my mind and gave me an idea of the "correct" way to be painting. There was no previous history of hip-hop style graffiti in Riverside, and when I started in 1989, I was the only writer. There were taggers and gang writers, but no one was working large-scale with colors. It was fun — we didn't know what the fuck we were doing, and we were oblivious to the well-developed graf scene happening in L.A.

Early on, I knew more about graf than fine art — I didn't really know a fine art world existed, I just liked to paint. When I started learning about galleries that were showing graffiti, I had mixed opinions. At first I was more of a graffiti purist, I felt it had no place in galleries — it should be out on the street only. As I got older, I started to see things differently. I painted for about 11 years and then quit in 2000. I think I was burnt out, and I was going on to other things, in particular exploring painting further. Back then writers were very strict, experimentation was not very big, it was all about bright colors, clean can control and tradition. I was also fed up with writers’ squabbles and thug mentality. Things started changing after I quit — and yeah, it's been a decade, and I'm slowly getting back into painting walls now. I'm not going to call it graffiti though — more like "art on walls."

NYC mural 2010

EP: When you were young, your family lost its home in Riverside to the first Bush recession. You've said that you look back on that house as "a sacred place full of memories," and you painted it recently, for your exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum, surrounded by the apocalyptic storm clouds that have become a hallmark of your work. You are clearly deeply attached to your home turf — both the places you have lived and played, and to the gritty yet colorful subculture indigenous to the Inland Empire. Tell me a bit about what ties you to this place.

Jeff: Well, nostalgia is a big part of my work, and that show in particular dealt with my younger years, growing up in Riverside. That house is where I fell in love with my wife Jennifer. I did most of my growing up there, it's where I decided to try and make art as a career. I have tons of fond memories of the place, but it was also hard times. My dad got laid off — he was on unemployment, and my brother and I were working minimum wage jobs, but eventually my parents lost the house. It was really tough on them, and as the oldest, it was tough on me, as well. We got through it all, and maybe it made us stronger.

I'm not sure why we still live here. Maybe I was lazy or afraid of change earlier in my life. Maybe I was always too poor to move away. Now we have two kids, and all their cousins live out here, so we want to stay put. It's like anywhere, really — it's got its good and bad points. There are things I don't like and things I love out here.

"Riverside Lifer Totem"

EP: The raincross bell – originally designed by the eccentric Frank Miller, who built the Mission Inn in Riverside – appears throughout your body of work. Is that symbol simply another way of saying "Riversider" for you, or does it hold a deeper meaning?

Jeff: I guess I'm kinda making fun of the place I live. People have such Riverside pride — you see the raincross all over town. I actually like the way it looks, too.

"Crying Is Alright"

EP: You abruptly walked away from your immensely popular robot series because you began to feel that your collectors weren't really understanding what you were trying to say, because they were distracted by their fascination with your iconography. Was there something in particular that prompted to you to make this bold decision?

Jeff: I've always been the type of artist who likes a challenge, and painting the same thing or the same character has never really kept me feeling fulfilled in my work. It was probably a bad decision monetarily, but I started to feel like "the robot guy," and I felt that I had more to offer. I like to keep myself open and free, and I think my fans know and understand that I like to change things up a bit from show to show.

"Don't Grow Up Too Fast"

EP: In 2006, your palette suddenly brightened, incorporating cartoony rainbows and cobalt blues that hadn't been seen before. At the same time, textures became lusher and softer, and a ray of hope began to peek through the clouds. You've attributed this shift to the birth of your first daughter — which introduced brightly colored toys and fuzzy stuffed animals into your environment, and changed your perspective on the state of the world.

Jeff: It was a powerful moment when we had our first daughter, Shannon. Really, everything changed on the spot, and I realized I was a grownup with heavy grownup responsibilities. Anytime there is such a big life-changing event, it's bound to affect an artist's work. I took things more seriously and felt some dread, knowing my girl was going to inherit this messed-up world. By the time we had our second daughter last year, I was feeling more optimistic — or maybe I just don't give a shit about all the world's problems anymore. There's enough we have to worry about, just raising our two kids.

"Fly Away"

EP: Do you think it might be possible for art to influence the path humanity takes into the future?

Jeff: I think mass media art, like movies and music, does influence humanity all the time. Paintings, maybe not — they aren't very accessible to earth's population. Though things are pretty easy to find on the internet nowadays. Still, paintings don't move you to emotion as easily as a well-made movie.

"Rusty Swingset"

EP: You often speak of a sense of nostalgia for the ephemera of your past — your old toys, boyhood drawings and family photographs. Do you think a longing for the lost wonder and innocence of childhood — as symbolized by a fascination with things like cartoons, retro toys and the swiftly-disappearing natural world — is a hallmark of the art movement in which you find yourself? Some in the "fine art" world dismiss nostalgic art as mere kitsch, but can anything that impacts the emotions so profoundly truly be less valuable than the shallow intellectual conceits of conceptual art?

Jeff: For the most part, I don't worry about what the "fine art" world thinks of my work. It's a non-issue to me. Most artists my age were heavily inspired by things in pop culture — MTV, skateboarding, hip-hop, etc. — and nostalgia is a big part of that. I love to reminisce, I love to think back and revel in how simple things were in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Of course, my parents wouldn't say it was simple! I like to make art about whatever I want. I don't really set out rules. And I think some in the fine art world do write some of this off as kitsch, but there are many that are starting to look at this movement seriously.


EP: You often reference Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the 1984 post-apocalyptic animated film that began Hayao Miyazaki's storied directing career. Some of your figures remind me a bit of elements in that film — the giant helmet that Nausicaä emerges from when she leaves the insects' forest, the Ohmu's tentacles and convex glowing eyes, the melting God Soldier which destroys itself in its malevolent rage. When did you first see the film, and what impression did it make on you then? How has your relationship with the ideas in the film developed over time?

Jeff: I saw Nausicaä in 1986, when I was eleven years old, only it was the English-dubbed version called Warriors of the Wind. I loved the art, but the story didn't make much sense. Still, we had it on VHS and I watched it all the time. Years later, when I was like 30, I finally got to see the original, and I felt it was one of the most beautiful stories I'd ever seen. It is in my top five movies, and I still get teary-eyed at the end. Miyazaki definitely influenced my young mind!

"Floating in the Garden"

EP: What's on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Jeff: I just came off a crazy year, and I'm trying to take things a little slower. For the first time in years, I don't know what the future holds, and I'm okay with that.

Miami mural 2009


matt said...

awesome interview, thanks for sharing Amanda.

Lizzy Love said...

Hi I just wanted to drop by and let you know that I have an award for you and you can pick it up at
Have a fantastic day!

Anonymous said...

jeff is the man. you are the woman.