On an otherwise completely unremarkable residential side street at the base of a Pasadena foothill sits the most unusual, densely overgrown, heavily mosaic-covered sculpture garden you can imagine. The sidewalk is fronted by walls and benches embedded with broken tea cups and sea glass. The "path" to the front porch is partially blocked by creeping vines, impressive cobwebs, and metal chandeliers; a stone walkway is partly demarcated by ceramic totems and large-scale mixed media assemblages. This wonderful anomaly is the home and studio of the hyper-creative and big-hearted painter, sculptor, art-festival headliner, scavenger and installation artist known as Shrine. The lawn is the result of several years of both intentionally deployed and supposedly temporary storage-space accumulations of objects, materials, and unbridled nature. It's glorious. It's intimidating. It's an Outsider Art masterpiece. "Thanks, yeah," says the artist. "This lawn. It's about death and abandonment. It's a graveyard. The neighbors hate it."
Okay, in fairness, I could see the neighborhood flipping out a little. The rest of the small houses on the block are the kind of soulless suburban boxes where folks cook meth or grow forests of weed in spare bedrooms; they seem dedicated to calling as little attention to themselves as possible. And now that he mentions it, there is a sort of graveyard quality to his lawn and to the glimpses of the ramshackle home at the far end of these 40 feet of wilderness, in a Druids-meet-Edward Gorey kind of way. But it's a graveyard where things come back to life. And in that sense, the property itself is Shrine's first, greatest, and most personal work of art. His entire art practice is about making the dead and discarded objects of the ordinary world live whole new lives as fresh-faced stars of a new visual culture. He calls it that visual culture the Empire of Love, and if it had a slogan, it would be "Art from Trash," advocating ambitious dumpster-diving as a serious form of design for a legitimately sustainable society.
Repurposing and redeeming the otherwise lost has been an element of Shrine's creativity for a long time, but after nearly dying in a brutal head-on collision on a desert highway not too long ago, the idea of privileging the lovingly salvaged has taken on a whole new dimension of meaning. For Shrine and his global network of fans and colleagues, visionary is not just an adjective, it's a progressive, spiritual and social stance and a momentous art movement. In spreading the word about the possibilities of a path forward to the Empire of Love through art and music, he calls himself an "Assassin of Love." Considering all the globetrotting he does, I do sort of wish he'd stop saying that in front of police and TSA agents. He won't though, he likes to provoke.
The trickster contrarian in him is partly explains why he likes to much to call pretty much everything he builds a "shack," even though some of those shacks are the most lovely, breezy, magical, exotic, futuristic structures an artist could build. Wildly popular crowd-pleasers on circuits from Coachella to Europe to the San Francisco stage, there's even a "shack" that's going to Art Basel in December of this year. The house itself is full to the rafters with rugs, chandeliers, shack-walls, and any and all manner of recollection brought home from everywhere he's been. It's like a one-person recycling plant for the world. Call it the Home Shack if you will, and besides all the stuff, there's also loads of brightly colored folksy pattern-painting on the walls, framed paintings and drawings by Shrine and others, a remarkable confection of a kitchen, a pink, room-sizes altar of a tea room off its side, and his daughter's fully functioning art and design studio in the back. It seems change really does begins at home.
Of course, the state of the house and garden are also in large part due to Shrine's intense travel schedule, which doesn't leave much time for putting things away tidily, much less proper gardening. This was his calendar on the day I visited Pasadena: He had gone to build the Reckless & Love Shack (everything is a shack, remember) at a festival somewhere in Nevada, flown to Lightning in a Bottle in Santa Barbara, then to Barcelona for another festival, during which time he had also done a giant piece of collaborating temple-building on a beach in Portugal, gotten back, been home for six hours, driven to San Francisco for that play with the shack-set. He had a mosaic commission to fulfill, which he had either just finished or was working on, and he was packing for Ecuador, where he was on his way to art-direct a festival, which was the only reason he missed Burning Man this year, and when he was done with Ecuador, he'd be heading to NYC for a pair of mural commissions in Brooklyn and Albany, and then something intriguing about a gallery show in Palm Springs, after which, trips to Australia, India, and finally, Art Basel in Miami in early December. In Ecuador, he'll be art directing the public installations for the Festival de Arte en la Calle (street art). At the Secret Garden Party, he spent ten days at what you might call an Information Shack making fictional phone calls in costume. "Without drugs or dancing, what else is there to do at a festival? Plus remember, at a festival, 30,000 people will see your art, not 300 in a gallery, so you've got to take that into account. This is just how I work: I give them a budget and I get total freedom. Back in Portugal, I saw the location, saw the old stage they had, sketched out a tower, got some new wood... and scavenged for the rest. We were three hours from Lisbon, but we found some old gym lockers, oil drums, and just made it happen. Artists and architects, they come along and help and it raises itself, my art always attracts collaborators."
Top image: Courtesy of Shana Nys Dambrot.
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