There were about 500 people queued up along La Brea one hot Saturday afternoon in early May, the vast majority of whom had pre-ordered an expensive new book commemorating multi-platform Los Angeles artist CRAOLA's first 20 years at work. (NB: he's barely even 40 years old.) The diverse and antsy crowd had begun lining up about an hour before the doors of Merry Karnowsky Gallery were set to open. Inside, Greg "CRAOLA" Simkins and I took a moment to walk through the exhibition before the crowd rushed in, and discuss both his new work and the stylistic and personal evolution that spawned it; as well as the place of his career within the exploded supernova of Pop Surrealism -- the movement he is most generally associated with besides Street Art. It turns out that like many of his peers, he finds both terms are equally problematic -- being both too broad and too specific at once. He happily acknowledges that in both of these realms the early adoption of a moniker was helpful to both the creative community and its audiences -- providing a sheltering sky under which to gather a range of activities that shared at least some common traits. But these days Simkins, like many in the generations that came up after the pioneers of the 80s and 90s had made their proliferating headway, feels that these same labels have become constricting and ultimately counterproductive.
The term Pop Surrealism has its own Wikipedia page, which is actually informative, well-written and quite thorough, but does not really address the situation of the new generations -- aka those who grew up in a world where these once-subversive styles and approaches had always already achieved the mainstream. Maybe the problem, in my mind, is that the entire current generation eschews labels of any kind, even accurate ones. Or maybe it's just that we live inside a whole world of Pop Surrealism in our everyday commercial and media landscape; and lord knows Street Art currently lacks for nothing in terms of exposure and obsessed fans. So what's in a name anymore? Well, if nothing else, these genre-cousins form a useful comparison for art history. Pop Surrealism speaks to the affirmed legacy of narrative, symbolist, illustration- and comics-based visual culture, and Street Art in all its formats speaks to an international movement of free expression and independent adventurism. But despite his transcendence of these terms, they remain useful for understanding Simkins, because that overlapping territory is exactly where he comes from. In a way, the story of how CRAOLA began and went on to re-become Greg Simkins is the story of the entire moment at this end of the visual culture pool.
He's been CRAOLA for 20 years but increasingly merges the moniker with his real name, sometimes together, sometimes supplanting. He frequently continues to work the letters of "craola" and the occasional actual crayon into both outdoor and studio compositions. He's open about being "both," but increasingly his paintings are signed Simkins, while the flash and other ink drawings and the murals tend to stay CRAOLA. "It's an ongoing conversation," he says. "As far as the CRAOLA fans, those are my people! In the 90's there were no canvases, there were only walls, and it was my first pseudonym. There are others I use when I want to just catch a quick tag, but I can't tell you what they are." Working primarily as part of the CBS crew -- which stands for City Bomb Squad, or sometimes Children Be Scared, or Care Bear Squad ("the other guys really hate that one!"), and Greg would like you to feel free to make up a bunch more as you please -- from his first murals through to the present day, his outdoor art ethic has been about ameliorating urban blight, and the desire to put up something beautiful where before there was only a modern ruin. CBS aren't exactly hippies, but they are all about love.
Hitting some pretty hard spots in South Central, Compton, and Venice over the years, he's worked alongside underground graffiti legends -- for example PLEK, his hero for "talent, balls, longevity and wisdom" -- then later with cats like Oliver Vernon, David Choong Lee, Mars-1 and many other fearless and talented artists. And, like many -- but not all -- of those intrepid artists, "that graffiti guy is making art now." Both his outdoor and canvas work does a certain amount of mixing nostalgia with rebellion, which is why when he started making art on paper and canvas after years of brick, there was a certain amount of inevitable infusion of pop culture imagery and stylized text into the undertaking. The climate at that time was rich with the mostly West Coast population of what would become the movement: Georgeanne Deen, Manuel Ocampo, the Clayton Brothers, Aaron Smith, Van Arno, Anthony Ausgang, Gary Baseman, Charles Burns, Robert Williams, Gary Panter, Joe Coleman, Mark Ryden and the whole Juxtapoz enterprise more or less. Todd Schorr was the first show he saw at Merry Karnowsky Gallery (and mine too by the way) and right then he thought "there might be something I can do with this!" And then there's Murakami, Eric Joyner, Dave Pressler, Jeff Soto. With fore-folks like Ron English, Barry McGee and Kenny Scharf you get into the Street Art crossover more overtly, but at this point, it's all part of a single continuum.
Williams gave up trying to get people to say "Vox Populi" instead of "Lowbrow," and now refers to the movement as "cartoon-tainted abstract surrealism." Lately, Williams has begun referring to his own work as "Conceptual Realism." But as far as the enduring salience of the label Pop Surrealism, for Simkins, he says "it's an unsettled conversation. There are rules; it favors narrative, symbolism, story, and characters -- that I do like. There's a lot of meaning in how something is rendered as well as what it contains. But look at these [new] paintings [at Merry's] -- there's almost no Pop Art in them." There was a time when Pop Art made more of an appearance on his easel. To that point, the first work we talked about was a masterpiece painting from a previous show called Label Me featuring Mickey Mouse, and a Campbell's Soup can that said Craola instead. "You can't escape the Mouse. It was the first stuff I ever drew," he says.
But when asked how he would describe the art he's making now to someone who doesn't know the artspeak, he affirmatively claims this heritage. "I say Dali plus Disney -- plus Wild Kingdom plus antiques," Simkins says, "I say it's like looking at someone else's dream." Wait, what? Like, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom? Yes, just like that. Simkins finds nature programs soothing and inspirational. Just witness the Pangeaic menagerie of beasts and birds that occupy his canvases. He's always loved fantasy and old school Surrealists like Dali and de Chirico. But he's currently going through an extended "Old Master" phase and you can see that in the new work -- masters of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance have knocked both Disney and Dali out of the game. These paintings are whimsical and allegorical, expressive, and at times diaphanous and nearly abstract. Romantic and sinister, and always with stories to tell, they also hearken back to his college studio-art and illustration training, and even to his early work professional work in graphics and game design -- where "my job was to paint pretty pictures." He was at Activision (Tony Hawk, Spider Man, Vans) where he was the texture artist. "Never did the characters; I did the world."
Top Image: "A Ready Defense," acrylic on canvas. | CRAOLA.
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