“If there’s one thing the world needs, it’s more homoerotic centaur art.”

Posted on March 18, 2008 – 7:20 PM | by OldManFoster
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skinnerEyeing Skinner’s frenetic landscapes of destruction, torment and ecstasy, it is easy to imagine the artist as a force of nature—some sort of magic human hurricane of focused intensity. Actually, the image isn’t far from the truth.

“I paint every single day.”

Painting large intricate scenes, heavy with monsters, mythic figures, symbols and patterns is what Skinner does best. One has to be careful when referring to his paintings as ‘canvases’ because they are as likely to be on plywood, a stucco wall or a dismantled cardboard box as they are on traditional cotton or linen. His murals adorn buildings in four cities, and smaller works may be executed on second-hand clothes, leather jackets or purses. Or anything, really. Even Skinner’s van features a bright panorama of hairy fiends, gods and warriors. It’s as though he paints whatever gets in his way. His work glows with the spark of someone who loves the process of painting. He often invites friends over to paint with him, but they rarely show up. Watching him as he methodically devastates a canvas I think, ‘can you blame them?’

‘Skinner’, aka Warren Davis III, is Sacramento’s pre-eminent ‘lowbrow’ artist. Regularly showing—and selling—work in galleries across the US, he is also one of the most successful. Not content to simply paint, he also curates shows for other artists, produces clothing designs, plays guitar in a heavy metal band, and found the time to build his own house in Sacramento’s Surreal Estates artists’ community. And then of course there’s his ‘regular’ job, working with developmentally disabled adults at the Short Center North. “I just get excited about getting shit done.”

‘Getting shit done’ doesn’t explain the half of it. Spend a few hours with Skinner and you may come away convinced that he has gained access to some other dimension with an altogether different time scale. I couldn’t have guessed his age (29) despite obvious clues like his repeated references to the 1982 film Beastmaster. He exudes so much energy—not in a nervous, fidgety way, but in a series of sustained enthusiastic explosions (“Jack Kirby!” “Clash of the Titans!” “Berni Wrightson!”) that it seems amazing that he sits down long enough to paint as much as he does. Skinner has channeled that energy into a very efficient system for producing art. Proud of his blue-collar origins, Skinner works at his art in the most traditional sense of the term. Preparing for his very first show, at the Toy Room Gallery in 2001, he produced 190 paintings in less than four months. I asked how much time he spends making art. “Fifteen hours a week,” he suggested. Standing slack-jawed in his studio, surrounded by scores of his recent paintings, I clearly registered shock. “Maybe twenty?” he added, helpfully.

Skinner is preparing for his October 13 Open House at his Surreal Estates home studio. The Open House event is pinch-hitting for Skinner’s recently cancelled solo show at the Fools Foundation, which was suddenly shuttered for code infractions. Rather than skip the show, he simply relocated it. This solo show is a homecoming of sorts; lately Skinner’s focus has moved outside Sacramento, finding the larger urban art centers more receptive to his work. Earlier this year, the artist had art in five concurrent shows: in Sacramento, San Diego, Portland, New York and San Francisco. The Sacramento show sold the least. Skinner claims that most of his Sacto artist pals have had the same experience. Despite the comparatively lackluster response, Skinner is determined to stay connected to his hometown scene—hence the Open House.

While Sacramento’s sometimes tepid support of the arts strikes a rare minor chord, Skinner is excited about a lot of things these days: art, comic books, his girlfriend Kristie, his band Iguanadon, a toy deal he recently struck, pre-Columbian Aztec imagery, the students he works with at the Short Center (“That kind of inherent rule-breaking is good for me to be around,”) riding bikes with his friends… actually the list is nearly endless. ‘Enthusiasm’ would probably be the keyword when discussing Skinner. His friends universally marvel at his boundless wellspring of positive energy, and his excitement for everything from monster movies to vegan cooking boils out of practically every pore. At some point, the question becomes obvious: if this guy is so upbeat, why is the art so dark, strange, violent and perverse?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in what Skinner defines as a major turning point in his life: the moment (age seven) when his Dad showed him a Vodka ad in a Playboy magazine featuring an armor clad Red Sonja-type female warrior lounging provocatively against a dragon. The key is not in the imagery of the ad, which would likely find cache with most seven year old boys, but in the family dynamic that made it OK to share a Playboy with a seven year old. That dynamic played itself out in familiar ways: random violence, alcohol abuse, constant tension and a disrupted family.

In an erratic and unstable household, Skinner turned to the one thing that he could wholly control. “Art was one of the only things I could depend on,” Skinner says of those days. “They’d break shit and I’d go into my room and draw Brontosaurus and Conan. They couldn’t take that away.” The more volatile his home life became, the more Skinner escaped into comic books and fantasy. Where other kids read comics as entertainment, Skinner absorbed them as a vastly preferable reality. What other kids saw as stories, Skinner took in as mythology, as valid as the dogma of any church. To this day he cites the lessons learned from superhero comics as his fundamentals: be fair, treat other people with respect, be honest, do your best.

The jumping off point for Skinner’s art is clearly rooted in his childhood obsessions, and one influence stands foremost: Jack Kirby. Skinner is plainly, loudly and emphatically in awe of this classic comic artist, creator of much of the so-called ‘Marvel Universe’. Kirby’s style, especially his wildly idiosyncratic seventies work, is echoed throughout Skinner’s canon. And while Skinner borrows props from the master’s closet—the massive headdresses, the dinosaurs, the energy fields—he also borrows Kirby’s cosmos itself. Kirby’s rendering is anything but lifelike, but his ethos is so consistent, so complete, that he seems to be depicting an actual universe that exists just parallel to our own. A long list of contemporary artists from Roy Lichtenstein to Raymond Pettibon owe a debt to Kirby’s linework, but this wholeness of vision is what Skinner clearly works to emulate.

The brightness of the comic book and fantasy imagery is in constant tension with the darker forces from both Heavy Metal culture and, one assumes, the artist’s own life. Regular ‘characters’ frequent Skinner’s work, and none is more common than a thin and jagged ‘hairy man’. The character bears more than a passing resemblance to Bigfoot, the terrifying mythological beastie reputed to live in the northern California stomping grounds of Skinner’s youth. The image appears over and over in the artist’s work. While more creepy than scary, one might be tempted to presume that the character is perhaps a stand-in for the father that sometimes terrified the artist’s childhood—except that that stand-in exists in an even clearer form.

Netherworld Conquistador; Killer of Worlds! is a recent picture, dominated by a mystical many-eyed, many-tusked creature cradled by the ‘Netherworld Conquistador’—a hulking figure in vivid costume and huge Kirby-meets-Aztec headdress. The conquistador seems to be threatening three smaller figures— humanlike rodents brandishing simple weapons. The theme endlessly repeats in Skinner’s work: a large threatening, over-arching figure being challenged by smaller beings. Skinner sees a vague anti-imperial political idea as the inspiration for these scenes, but it is not hard to see a deeper and much more personal root.

Skinner would probably be the first to admit that he is out to remake the world, or at least his world, into his own combination of comic book, Ray Harryhausen movie and heavy metal LP cover. It is telling that Skinner, almost alone among the current crop of lowbrow artists, eschews hot rod imagery. Where most of the Juxtapoz art crew seize on the age of teenage rebellion, Skinner hones in on an earlier period—the more impressionable and infinitely more vulnerable period of early childhood. At its best, Skinner’s art touches on both this vulnerability and the childhood sense of wonder. He knows it. “Monsters are an extension of the youth I’m trying to preserve.”

There is a reason that Skinner piles up work like Charon stacking the dead. To focus too much on any single piece is to miss the point. Each painting is just one more soldier marching off to fight in Skinner’s battle against adulthood. Though no one short of Peter Pan can retain their childhood, Skinner sees this as no reason not to try. When he decided to show up for his photo shoot with a fog machine, sword, bejeweled loincloth, medallion, and barbarian wig, it seemed somehow natural. “Everybody can be the Beastmaster if they try hard enough.”
Open House at Skinner’s studio: Saturday, October 13, 6-10 PM, 2321 Oakmont Street, Sacramento CA 95815

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