Of all the major holidays, Halloween is my least favorite. Since I was a kid, I've had a love/hate relationship with horror movies, I'm scared of the dark, and I've had a few ghostly encounters. Yes, I am "that" friend. But for the artist known as Neck Face, "Halloween is better than Christmas."
Just before the Halloween opening of Neck Face's show, Into Darkness, at the temporary O.H.W.O.W. Gallery on La Brea, my friend Alanna Navitski, took me over for a sneak peek and a chance to interview the artist. When we arrived, I was met with a few surprises. First, Neck Face was not at all what I expected after seeing the masked wild-eyed images of him on the internet, and second, I had to walk through a haunted house before actually reaching the main hub of the gallery where the art was located. I was none too thrilled with the latter. In fact at one point, I ended up running out of the haunted house in a panic when I ventured in alone to shoot some photos, completely convinced that the dead baby in the corner moved. I'm pretty certain it did.
In the heart of gallery, Neck Face was busy constructing the last remaining elements of his large wooden panel collages, mixing 2-D and 3-D features. There are three of these, four large patterned panel pieces, and 13 watercolors, a total of 20 pieces for the show. "I'm almost done. I slept here last night to work on the stuff, could you tell?" he inquisitively asks. No, I couldn't.
Into Darkness marks the second Halloween art show that Neck Face has done with O.H.W.O.W. The first was last year at their gallery in Miami. He gives me a quick tour and briefly explains the various components of his work. Does the show's title or the fact that it opens on Halloween have anything to do with the satanic theme? According to him there is no theme. "I just wanted to do something fun. Art, booze, a skate ramp, my friends and family, a haunted house, these are things I love in one space. Maybe that's the theme?" What about his drawings of Satan? "I don't think people are repping hard enough for Satan so I'm taking it upon myself to do it," he deadpans. "I think he's proud of me."
We move over to a bench located in the room to begin our interview. As I pull out my notepad, he inquires if we're going to "talk serious," and as soon as I nod my head, he quickly leaves, only to return skating back on his skateboard with a Coors light in his hand. "I'm ready," he announces, and for a second, I don't know where to begin.
It's hard to believe that the 26-year old, slightly disheveled person in front of me had his first solo sold-out show seven years ago. He doesn't seem to take anything seriously, let alone art, but during the course of our conversation, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. His charm catches you completely off guard.
Originally from what Neck Face describes as "the armpit of California," he grew up hanging out at the local Wal-Mart also known as the "Midnight Mall" with friends. "There was nothing to do there, nowhere to hang out, it sucked." But the boredom helped ignite his creativity. "I just wanted to get out of there and I couldn't," he explains, "so I started creating my own world through my art. I was still in town, but not no longer stuck."
Graffiti was something he was always interested in. His brothers owned a graffiti shop where he spent a lot of his time. "When I was 7 or 8, my mom would drop us off there and we'd just hang out. I had four brothers and no sisters, so I learned about graffiti from being around them." From there he went to his father's tire shop, where he practiced drawing all over the vacant walls. And while he honed this craft, Neck Face picked up some other very needed skills at the same time by playing ding-dong ditch and creeping around town. "I didn't realize it at the time, but everything I did as a kid turned into a job," he laughs. "All that was training. Hiding, jumping, remaining unseen was what I needed in my adult life. I'm basically a street ninja." He goes on to explain that he's trained himself to be a bad kid and now, a bad adult and pauses. "Well, not that bad. I get into trouble, but it's fun. I was that kid that your mom didn't want you hanging out with. I was bad just to be bad, but now I catch myself and say, 'What are you doing?'" He stops to take a swig of his beer. "I guess this means I'm mature now."
During his sophomore year in high school, after what he describes as a "complication thought process of elimination," he decided upon the graffiti tag, Neck Face. Why that name? "In graffiti, finding an original name is complicated," he explains with a very serious look on his face. "Not only did I have to consider other towns, I had to consider other states and countries. What if I chose 'Star'? Well there could be two in Texas and one in Arizona, and I didn't want that to happen." He then recalls someone named Freddie that moved into his neighborhood when he was a kid. "We were really into Van Damme and karate movies and here comes this kid who's the same age as us, teaching us about girls and stuff. He was really bad." We both pause to note the irony and laugh. "He was bad!" he exclaims. "And he'd always talk about punching someone in the neck. Neck this, neck that, so it stuck. I thought Neck Face was just dumb enough that no one else would have it."
Like most people in small towns, Neck Face assumed his fate was already sealed. He barely graduated, figuring he'd work at his father's tire shop after high school. "My brothers all went to work with my dad, so I thought, so will I. That's why I didn't care about high school." But one day, his brother's girlfriend told him about art college. "Art College? I didn't even know they existed." She helped him get his portfolio together and they found two colleges to apply to. One was Cal Arts in Valencia, California, and the other was in New York. Why only two? "Because those were the only schools where SAT scores didn't matter," he says bluntly. "Those test don't tell you how smart you are, and they're bad. It's not like standardized testing can help you make a living. You learn more by living and you can't score that on a test. Shit, I can't even remember how to multiply and look at me."
In the end, Neck Face moved to New York City to attend "the worst art school ever." He won't mention the school's name not only out of sheer hatred, but because it might influence someone else to go there. "That school sucks. I don't even want to say the name because kids will read this article and think it was a good school, but it wasn't. I hated it. I dropped out after two years." For someone who barely graduated high school, and readily admits that he can't multiply, you can't help but wonder if Neck Face just dislikes the idea of school. And as if he was reading my mind, he quickly pointed out that he likes school and would be willing to go back. "I'd go back to school to study graphic design. That's something useful. I'd go back for that." What he couldn't cope with was the robot like mentality he faced every day in art school. "The people, the school, the assignments were all crap. Just going through the motions, working only on what was assigned and that's it. I chose to use the school instead of letting the school use me. I chose to learn what I wanted to learn for me." He began focusing on things he wanted learn rather than what was being taught. "School didn't teach the right things and my mind would shutdown on its own. So I'd go to the library and study on my own. I would make my own art and people would be like 'What assignment is that for?' No assignment, it was mine, and they looked at me like I was crazy."
For the first year and a half in New York City, Neck Face was alone. His mother was worried that he didn't have friends, but he wasn't. "I had my skateboard. That's all I needed," he says as he gestures to the board under his feet. "I went around and drew on everything." We pause for a minute as Neck Face skates off to retrieve another beer. He's thirsty. By the time he finally started meeting people, they already knew who he was. "Nothing felt forced, it was all organic from skating around New York and tagging on everything in sight, it snowballed." From there he met several key people who would play a big part in his career. Artist Rich Jacobs was one of them. Jacobs and Neck Face met just hanging around the NYC street scene and became fast friends. He soon introduced Neck Face to Marsea Goldberg, owner of New Image Art in Los Angeles, whom Jacobs had been working with for some years. And with Jacobs' encouragement, Goldberg agreed to host his first show.
And at the tender age of 19, Neck Face had a solo sold out show at New Image Art. "I guess I didn't do too bad," he laughs. "That show was all profit. I stole almost everything I used in it except the paper." When asked about Neck Face Goldberg readily sings his praises. "No one is wittier and can catch an entire city off guard. No one can come close to his amazingly raw and precise style of drawing and ridiculous humor. He is in a class all by himself." And he's more than happy to return the favor. "Marsea knows what she's doing. She's smart. I would say '$100', and Marsea would say 'No, $450'. I looked at her like she was crazy. I wouldn't even pay $450 for it," he replies. "But they did, and she knew they would. She's amazing."
With a penchant for five-finger discounts, it's surprising that Neck Face has never been arrested for stealing. But he has had several run-ins with the law. This last trip to Miami led to some jail time due to trespassing. "Miami was by far the worst jail, but I always look back on all these experiences and walk away learning something." What did he learn this time? "They brought a guy in while I was there, super drunk and just stunk. I asked him what he liked to drink and he said 'Beer when it's near, wine when it's fine, brandy when it's handy, and liquor cause it's quicker. I don't discriminate'" he says laughing. "I have a comic coming out based on that quote."
With two books out, Satan's Bride which was put out by fellow graffiti artist KAWS, and The Devil Made Me Do It, with O.H.W.O.W., an upcoming winter group show with New Image Art in Miami during Art Basel, very loud whispers that he's being considered to be involved in the MOCA Street Art Show this coming April curated by Jeffrey Deitch, and shows in Europe and possibly Mexico later next year, NeckFace's plate is pretty full. But he doesn't want to think about it, he'd rather be skating. "Normally what I like to do is have a show, sell a bunch of shit, make money up to here (he gestures to over his head), blow through it all and then when the money is gone, I do it all over again. I usually go to Australia for three or four months." What's he planning to do once this show is done? "I'm sticking around for a month to go skating with my friends," he states. "I'd rather be skating than working, but without it (art) who knows where I'd be, so I'm just enjoying it." Anything else? "I haven't had a girlfriend in four years so that's on my list of things to do." Ladies, you heard the man.
If you haven't seen the show, I recommend you stop by this week before it closes.
Neck Face's Into Darkness
Closing on November 11th, 2011
101 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036