Author Archives: Jonny Coleman
The first time I worked with Nomad, he had mortally wounded a canvas after running into the street in an affluent neighborhood in West Berlin.
The artist had not slept much the night prior and was picking up a piece for the Joint Custody Project, a collaborative experimentation where each artist worked on a piece, back-and-forth, without meeting or verbally communicating. Nomad had just picked up the work and was clearly not pleased with his partner’s first round of work on the canvas. He caused a row and brought the canvas into the street and sliced the canvas down the middle. The piece eventually mutated into a box of canvas pieces before finally taking the form of a photograph.
I wish I had been there that afternoon to witness the outburst.
“I’m basically just a guy reacting to situations,” he would later admit, unrelated to this specific piece of work.
The artist has recently arrived in LA, a place he hasn’t visited since he fled here after abandoning high school in Germany. He is currently reacting to these familiar surroundings by forging brand new work for an exhibition at Found in December, in what will be his first solo U.S. exhibition. In the fourteen years gap between LA visits, the artist has merited his moniker, having exhibited in Austria, Japan, Switzerland, Italy, Iceland, Germany, England, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, and Belgium.
LA, the First Trip
Whereas now the artist has developed a following, mostly in Europe, the young punk street artist that originally landed here in the mid 90s was living a much more marooned version of city life. Nomad was surrounded by people, but largely disconnected from engaging with them because of his status: young, foreign, broke, and partially mad.
The young man was inspired by the skate culture, fresh produce, and climate the Southland offers.
“Skateboarding became my life. I finished school when I was 19. I left the day I finished my last test and never got my diploma and ended up in San Francisco. That’s where I met two Germans that brought me on a trip. They bought a car and were going to drive down to Mexico. I convinced them to stop by the skateboard companies I had wanted to actually meet. Las Osos, San Louis Ibispo, Small Room –I had contacted some of these skate guys when I was a kid, sending them photos and artwork. The Germans dropped me off in LA, and that’s where I stayed for a while.”
Homeless, the self-taught artist found himself ratting around North Hollywood, painting, and getting into trouble. It was here that he developed his ‘Ninja sleep abilities,’ living on the streets, asleep, but also totally aware if anyone tries to “steal your shoes” or worse. Nomad would often have to steal bits of food from Ralph’s, and a basic burrito was the main meal of the day, as he explains, “It was a really hot summer. I lived in a car that had broken down in North Hollywood. It was a Ford van. Everyday, ‘hustling it’. Building water bongs and selling them to rich hippies.” The artist would spend his days painting, intuiting basic painting skills through graffiti, the only medium he could afford.
A fellow hustler recruited Nomad to attend openings, claiming, “I was simply in there for the free food and drinks and fucks because I was homeless and had to pretend I was interested or an artist myself…and nothing has changed. I’m still pretending to be an artist and I’m just there for the free food and fucks and drinks – but the difference is this time it’s my opening.
Despite the fact that the artist has changed considerably as an artist and as a human being, he believes that the intangible soul of the city has not, even though it’s an oversized turn style of people, trends, and ideologies. “The attitude, the vibe, whatever you want to call it is basically the same as I remember it,” he muses. He embraces the concept of private space that can exist in hidden pockets throughout the greater area and the nature of LA to hold secrets, both nefarious and charmingly intimate. One such secret pleasure of his was to visit an uninhabited plot of land in the Hollywood Hills, a property which was huge and secluded with a cloak of trees and wildlife. He wouldn’t disturb the empty house but would simply walk around and relax in this hidden sanctuary. Occasionally, he would bury himself in dirt and marvel at the coyotes, hummingbirds, lizards, and the other cast of creatures. It evoked that Wild West spirit that never seems to want to die.
Time to Leave
After several months in America, his parents notified him that the German government was looking for the young man, because he abandoned his mandatory two years of military service. He had kept no contact with home and had no idea how adamant the Germans were to lasso the youth back to the motherland. He chose to fly back to cut his loses.
“Either I would have to stay away from Germany for eight years or go to jail for two years. At the end, I went to the recruitment office, and I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about. They got me into some juvenile detention center for eight months, and then I had to do additional community service for seven months, which was quite the bummer, having lived your dream on the beach in California, to waking up in a six meter square room and having to do stupid work everyday, building furniture.”
The detention time, however, gave birth to his music obsession. He became so dependent on music, everything from the avante-garde, to crazy eighties Throbbing Gristle, wave, rock, hip-hop, and electro. Music would become part of his visual vocabulary as it would fill him “with visions.”
Nomad would later, albeit inconsistent with his name, drop anchor in Berlin, a city that had everything he needed for the first time in his life: cheap rent, open public space, and burgeoning subcultures. For the majority of twenty/thirty-somethings who were not independently wealthy, Berlin was a realistic place to live without having to get a full time job as in London, Paris, New York, etc. Nevertheless, Berlin “was not as good for skateboarding as California, not as much concrete…and the winter kills you,” mourns Nomad.
The late 90s ushered in a boom of street art in Berlin and Europe at large. Graffiti was such an attractive medium for Nomad and so many others because the materials were so cheap, and, further, because a graffiti artist did not ask for the approval of a curator to create and display work. Walls were taken, not proposed and approved. Berlin, the poor but sexy metropolis, had little resources to halt the graffiti boom.
As such, Nomad made his name in the streets, the public clinging to his graphic, often humorous characters. His growing public awareness generated invitations to group shows and outdoor installations throughout Europe and Japan. Concurrently, Nomad began working in design and producing records for Berlin underground labels like B-Pitch Control, Meteo Sounds, and Discos Capablanca. The cultural soup of art, design, making and playing music cemented Nomad as a fixture in the general sceniness of Berlin, becoming a favorite of many of its nightlife ghouls and goblins.
Nomad and his work has grown and evolved since his first tour of the city, almost two decades ago. His new work has grown outside of the street label. Though he has recently installed more conceptual sculptures in public spaces, his recent paintings are not made for the street and have eschewed the hyper-graphic, clean lines and strokes.
“What I’m doing now is not that different from 15 years ago, in attitude. When I paint, when I sketch, every single stroke counts, although I’ve multiplied the amount of strokes. Expression lies in the purpose – it’s in every single stroke that someone performs…The work is getting more detailed, but it’s not fragile. It’s still raw and has the same attitude of the early street work.”
Maintaining that seedy rawness, he is creating all of his LA work in LA, referencing the disposability of tabloids, billboards, and literal garbage. Nomad sees the work in between the gutter and the walk of fame, as “the walk of fame actually is the gutter and super-stardom. People living the dream between the gutter and the stars.” Nomad fancies himself a conduit between the haves and have nots, creating a room as “a collection of famous faces, mixed with nobodies, random people, the majority of people really.”
So, while the street aesthetic is not as literally applied as in his earlier years, one can read the concept of the street being a populist common ground for millionaires and mugwumps alike. Nomad is the court marshal and jester.
“I am still street based; that’s where I’m coming from. That basically gave me everything: a job, a mission, all of that.”
Because of MOCA’s Alan Kaprow revival-style exhibition this Spring, everyone seems caught up in the decades old zeitgeist of happenings and treating art as life. Droves of young artists are making good re-imagining seminal projects of his, using pastiche as a cultural resuscitator ultimately to market a canonized artist’s new museum show. While this excitement is all fine and good, the whole movement still reminds me of a rehash of too much of contemporary art history classes, a wax museum with a faint pulse. On the other hand, Lilli Muller is a self-anointed Downtown Queen, a disciple of Louise Bourgeois, an ex-member of that post-hippie Laguna scene, and spending some time in her live/work space gave me a stronger, more tangible example of living in/through/around art.
The first thing you need to know about Lilli Muller is that her art does not wait for a gallery or museum. Her loft space is tidily crammed with art, wall space covered in pieces of all sorts from the past several decades, human-shaped sculptures orgiastically stacked in surprisingly non-offensive flesh towers. As it should be, Lilli believes that an artist should make art regardless if he/she has a formal space to put it. “You can’t make art only when you have a place to show….it’s ridiculous,” the artist proudly claims. As your average artist these days is certainly more marketing-savvy than ever, Muller’s perspective on art production rings refreshing in a climate where artists are more business-minded than ever.
Tea Time with Louise Bourgeois
Unfortunately, most of us are not born with such confidence and conviction and have to earn opportunity, respect, and a disciplined approach over a lifetime. Muller was raised in Coburg, Germany, an “East German no man’s land,” within earshot of the Iron Curtain. She studied at the Kunstakademie before eventually moving to the States in 1980, fleeing a problematic region still a decade removed from reinvention.
It was then that Muller became aware of Louise Bourgeois, an artist then on the cusp of international acclaim and legend status. Muller appreciated Bourgeois’ interdependence of artistic vision and personal character. In a way, Muller saw a geriatric version of herself in the elderly Bourgeois. Muller reflects, “It was like reading about myself as a ninety year old.” Like any good fanboy, Muller eventually tracked down Bourgeois and insisted on meeting her, and she flew all the way to Europe to have tea and show the future mentor her work.
Again, though, approaching Bourgeois was not as easy as that. Muller arrived, nervous, pacing around with her portfolio, not even knowing what she would say. Muller imagined being interrogated with questions like “Who are you? Why do you think I’d want to meet you? What do you want from me?” and she inhaled five pounds of bananas because she would frequently hyperventilate. Sensing the young artist’s apparent anxiety, Bourgeois insisted that she “go outside and talk to the birds” while she reviewed Muller’s portfolio. After the initially awkward blind date, Muller and Bourgeois became fast friends, and Muller goes back at least once a year for tea, which has grown into up to a dozen accomplished international artists gathering informally to play show and tell with their artwork.
During the decade that refuses to go quietly into that good night, Muller spent the ‘80s in wild fashion and sandwiched herself into a very radical clique of hippies that were growing up, kind of. The twenty-something artist added an extra D to her repertoire when she moved to Laguna Beach, shifting from two dimensional work to three dimensional. Muller “hooked up with the old time hippies from the old days like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters…that lived all up on the hill.” Like our modern revivalists, Muller and company were involved in regular happenings of the Dionysian sort. She “used to stage [them] three days, nonstop, 24-7. Bring booze. Bring art materials. Friday night through Sunday night.” She still has eight years of footage of these events that she is in the middle of editing.
It was then that the artist started to experiment with taking casts of the human body, a form she is still exploring today. During these art events, Muller remembers, “people got naked for the cast. Whoever shows up gets naked. I have footage of these naked girls with paint and plaster hanging all over themselves, practicing their standup comedy routine….there was a painter who thought he was Yves Klein, with naked guys and girls rolling over the canvas, then showering in order to model for me. It was nonstop. Lots of wine. Lots of Vaseline.”
Bringing Up Baby
Eventually, however, this bohemian party in the middle of conservative California grew tiresome for Muller. Put simply, Muller vents, “If I see one more seashell, one more crashing wave, one more fucking seagull….I can’t take it….sunsets….ugh.” She is not talking about getting bored with sunsets, because everyone loves sunsets, just not in art. After a decade she had to ask herself, “Where do we go from there?”, and the quick answer was Downtown LA.
Because of her European rearing, Lilli was attracted to downtown’s texture and relatively richer history versus, for example, Irvine. The population here is clearly more diverse, too, a one-stop shop for all your ethnic diversity. Muller finds comfort in the fact that “you have every culture you need in a five mile radius.” It was in downtown during the ‘90s that Muller seemed to evolve into a disciplined, confident, and community-oriented artistic leader.
The major catalyst for her artistic maturity was forced when she gave birth to her daughter, now a talented teen enrolled at performing arts high school. Lilli reflects, “My daughter saved my life in that I wouldn’t go off the deep end.” Further, Lilli had to raise her daughter as a single mother, making the demands of balancing career and motherhood even more difficult. Maybe it is the German in her or the fact that she did not have a choice but to rear her daughter along, but, regardless, Lilli grew into a disciplined but still playful and improvisational adult. She had to use every nugget of spare time wisely, doing forty-five minutes of research here, squeezing in a quick layer of plaster there, using every possible opportunity to make art and stretch the aesthetic muscles. Muller still spends at least an hour a day, no matter what, producing artwork in some form or another. And while many artists claim to always be making art, I actually believe her because I’ve seen her loft.
The Queen Steps Down
Muller has spent the last decade exhibiting work in many environments and contexts, all over downtown and Southern California. Her work was featured twice in the Autumn Lights Installation as well as MOCA, and she often finds herself in the role of curator for special projects. She finds it essential for artists or anyone for that matter to participate in “two or three little projects a year for the community.” Especially with the interaction boundary native to our Angeleno car culture, artists with such intentions are invaluable, forcing a community to interact with itself.
However, she has exhausted a lot of her sweat equity and needs to take a break from all the coordinating, fundraising, and art-related-activities-that-aren’t-really-art-making. Muller’s craving to go back into full swing production mode is forcing her to step back from the scene and hole up again for a while. She plans to move to Berlin, a thriving beacon for all the creatives out there, when her daughter departs for college in a few years. In the meantime, she is constantly creating, working on several ambitious projects simultaneously.
While details of exhibition place and time for most of these endeavors have not fully solidified, it doesn’t matter. It never has. If all the museums and galleries in town suddenly closed their doors, she would not bat so much as an eyelash. Instead, Muller forges ahead with the cool confidence of a tank. Next stop? Berlin.
If you find yourself occasionally down on 6th St. unloading some rounds at the LA indoor shooting range during a lunch break, then you’ve probably walked by an unassuming studio, dismissing it for another industrial concrete storage room. Inside, however, you’d likely encounter a team of low-rider junkies customizing an Impala in the garage downstairs or tattoo superstar Mr. Cartoon writing ink in the parlor upstairs. Or maybe you would interrupt a photographer and his team working on an unreasonable amount of magazine, book, film, or video game projects upstairs. Most likely, though, all of these projects would be taking place on any given day. Behind all of this activity is an LA native, Estevan Oriol, who has effortlessly smudged boundaries of commercial portraiture and documentary realism, street and celebrity culture, businessman and fine artist, old school Angeleno and new school multi-tasker.
Oriol has crafted a style out of his intimate access to his subjects. He rarely shows the viewer a culture, place, or person that is foreign to him. Instead, he is refracting imagery from the world of his subjects, which he knows well. His firsthand perspective renders him less of a voyeur and more of an inside correspondent.
Originally a Westsider, Oriol grew up surrounded by trouble and less than favorable economic situations, forcing him to avoid trouble and graduate from high school in San Diego. By day, working several dead end construction jobs out of high school, and by night, Oriol began working at several hip-hop clubs in LA, gradually befriending Cypress Hill and other crews as the early 90s West Coast hip-hop scene blossomed. Soon after, he was asked to tour manage the newly-formed House of Pain. Oriol would return to the States with hundreds of backstage passes, passport covered in stamps, and it was his father, absent for much of his childhood and a modest fashion photographer, who urged him to document his experiences. Oriol soon realized that he had been exposed to so many exotic places that most LA Chicanos with no college degree have not had the luxury of exploring first-hand.
Oriol began photographing years before DIY described every other artist’s background, and according to all of his friends, he was a natural. Photos of life on tour quickly led to label-commissioned press photographs. All of a sudden, Oriol began directing music videos (he’s helmed about 35 by now) and, simultaneously, his career photographing for magazines exploded, landing him in what seems like every cool young publication ever. Why not? It all makes sense. Oriol inhales and exhales low-riders, hip-hop, street fashion, gritty downtown life, club culture, tour life, and pure LA. Why hasn’t anyone else photographed the Boo Ya Tribe?
Judging by his cover, Oriol is intimidating, a tall, thick frame, definitely a physical presence in any room. However, while his appearance earns cred, his demeanor has always been textbook laid back, his voice confident and disarming. This cool confidence has translated into a trademark of his portraiture.
Ask First, Shoot Later [but always be shooting]
In February, Oriol celebrated the release of his second book, ‘1979,’ a meditation on street ball life, in downtown with 1,000 of his closest friends and fans, his popularity and influence never more evident. The project began instinctually, without any targeted product as the end point, instead, just a passion project. To balance out all of his commercial photography, Oriol is always taking ‘personal’ photos when he is inspired. In this case, he found himself impelled to capture people of all ages that love pick up basketball. Themes started to emerge. Narratives began to surface. Through his lens, the stakes were larger than any throwaway game for bragging rights, but Oriol’s perspective is subtler than the tried-and-true athletes-as-gladiators cliché.
Oriol’s typical approach to photographing everyday people has always been to ask for permission first and then to take photos second. Despite the fact that the subject may turn self-aware, the insult of acting as an intrusive photographer is the opposite of his style. Oriol views photographing without permission as a tacky blend of paparazzism and tourism.
The only time he ever shoots without asking is when the decisive moment is happening immediately. For example, he caught a neighborhood homeless man with no legs trying to cross the street without his wheelchair late at night. Fearing for his safety, nearby policemen tried to escort him across, yet he yelled at officer to leave him alone. All of this was taking place as the threat of an eighteen wheeler coming off the freeway loomed, in the middle of the night, in that exact moment. Across the street, Oriol had no time to ask for permission.
Clearly, much of his personal projects focus on more marginalized populations, more corners of everyday local life. While in New Orleans filming a C-Murda music video in 2006, Oriol was stirred by dilapidated neighborhoods, and, as is his custom, he spends his last day in a new environment photographing whatever he wants to photograph.
It is unclear what formats his personal projects will eventually assume, but the steady flow of clear cut commercial work allows him the financial luxury of not needing to hurry these decisions. Oriol explains, “It’s great, because you don’t have to force anything.” He gradually develops these projects until they are ready to go to print or display.
More Famous, Less Time
As he has now been photographing seriously for almost twenty years, Oriol’s stature and fame have grown and so have the pedigree of his subjects. However, Oriol has found as the size of the star increases, the pay and time to work are indirectly proportional. Most recently, Oriol recalls waiting two days on set to snap a few portraits of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, two colossal actors in mainstream culture but also iconic gods in hip-hop and street culture.
Finally receiving his opportunity to get the two alone for five minutes, Oriol had the misfortune of having two of his cameras jam. Luckily, his old trusty Pentax was working, and he had a roll of film for each actor, under less than ideal circumstances. “My camera is loud, it’s like a cannon…or gun, a hammer’s cocking…a real bassy sound,” muses Oriol. He laughs as De Niro “started mimicking the sound of the camera…CLACK.” And suddenly, “he starts making noises…while I’m trying to take pictures of him…its low light…you can’t have that much movement.” The experience was like trying to capture an unpredictable creature. Next thing he knew it was over. He had his limited window to capture these over-photographed actors in an innovative or different way, and the job was a volunteer one at that. So while it seems as if things could never be better for him, these hidden challenges never seem to cease.
Downtown and the Future
Although he was born in Santa Monica, Oriol has spent his life downtown: living there at different stages, working in clubs and at his studios, showing in Chinatown and elsewhere, and photographing the denizens. For now, Oriol lives in San Gabriel with his wife and four children, but he has spent many years living and/or working downtown. He and Mr. Cartoon originally moved to Santa Fe and 7th over ten years ago “because [they] didn’t want to be in a stuffy apartment in Hollywood…we wanted something a little grimier,” basically a place to work and play that is less than perfect. While trying to fend off the disadvantages of his block’s gentrification like the demolition of some of the cities few older buildings, he plans to stay downtown for a while.
Although the area around his studio is being bought up, demolished, and in general gentrified, Oriol mourns the loss of history versus complaining about the block becoming whitewashed. However, Downtown will always seem to maintain an heir of seediness and lawlessness. Coming back from a late dinner, Oriol caught two vagrants in an act of fellatio right outside his studio doors. They demanded money; he asked to take their picture. They complied. The resulting photograph is hidden somewhere in Oriol’s office, a visual reminder that it’s hard to imagine downtown completely getting cleaned up despite all this money.
Moving forward, after a couple month long hiccup of the WGA strike, his film projects such as “Ink” (a collaboration with Cartoon) have now fortunately resumed development. In addition to releasing his second book, he has also shown glossy portraits at the ArcLight, an addition to his long list of over thirty different exhibitions of photography in various parts of the world in different showcasing environments. A few more local exhibitions are gestating as well, but nothing concrete is planned of yet. Since he built the more personal side of his career on waiting for opportunities to emerge out of his real life connection to a subject, now would be an uncharacteristic time for Estevan Oriol to rush into making a wrong move.