Nobody Doesnt Know Tyler Stallings

But nobody really knows him, either

 


In a Row, High School Boys, 1996
By Tyler Stallings

Who is Tyler Stallings? I've heard his name dropped—as the timeless Randy Newman song growls—from the South Bay to the Valley. Hipsters with expensive eyeglass frames and really shiny haircuts smoking cigarettes outside Beverly Hills galleries; photographers clad in ill-matching black and living in pristine lofts whose rooftop parking lots are filled with their neighbors' foreign sports cars amid the human effluvia of downtown; industry types who went to CalArts with him and now sun themselves on the sands of Hermosa; the young and poor with knobby skin who go to gallery openings for the free box wine—I've heard the words "Tyler" and "Stallings" on all their lips. One friend actually moved to Orange County because—though she'd never met him personally —she figured if Stallings was here, OC must not be so bad.

Nobody doesn't know Tyler Stallings. But nobody really knows him either. I've orbited him for five years and interviewed him extensively—he answering my questions in a frank and warm manner —and I can't say I actually know him more than glancingly. I wonder if anyone does, with the possible exception of Osline, who lives with him.

I don't know if he even knows himself.

Let's say everyone knows his name. It's curious, to put it mildly, for a curator to have such Q ratings. Curating is not a sexy job. It involves things like insurance, writing wall labels and, um, insurance. A curator is like the narrator in a novel, pulling together art that might seem unrelated, creating a relationship between the various works and their creators, and inviting the public to come see. Sure, there's a sense of stewardship, of caring for things created by others. Its main perceived attribute is starched efficiency, and efficiency isn't sexy. If it were, Al Gore would be in the White House, the midnight rides of the Supreme Court notwithstanding.

I can tell you what Stallings looks like: he looks as square as any 1950s corporate dad. He is not darkly dangerous or gay (though for years I assumed he was) or elegantly debauched. Is he pretty? No, he is not. Where he used to be slight and sandy, love has fattened him up nicely. He's less angular, better rounded. He still looks like an awkward young boy but one who happens to be 35 years old. He bears a sweet resemblance to a chipmunk or a squirrel or one of those other rodents that people really like even though there are constant warnings that someone in the Angeles National Forest was bitten by one and contracted rabies.

I can tell you how he talks. He stammers shyly, with loads of ums, so even when he's being open, I feel as though I'm prying. And he uses big words like "contextual," and he uses them correctly. He is neither glib nor schmoozy.

He seems almost desperately shy. Only once, at a Santa Ana opening, have I seen him unself-conscious. A projector was on but no film was running. The people milling about began making shadow puppets. Stallings waggled his finger between his thighs, making a little shadow penis. I was stunned.

But maybe that's who Stallings is: a smart guy obsessed with the stuff that makes up our lives, like shadow puppets, surfboards and . . . well, look at this story in our sister paper, LA Weekly, about a man obsessed like Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho with Ferragamo labels, python skin, and Dolce and Gabbana coats who turns his fetish for little tiny purses into a Freudian obsession with a disco dolly's womb. Who? Tyler?

Stallings is an artist whose work is justly famed, but he established himself as a curator whose most interesting exhibitions deal with identity, a matter of infinite concern in an age in which we do most of our interfacing over e-mail or Instant Messaging.

With Stallings, it's tempting to play Doctor Freud. So let's. First and most obviously, his dad was a mean drunk who died of alcoholism when Stallings was 15. While it might be overstating the case to say Stallings is glad his father is dead, it would be entirely accurate to state that Stallings doesn't want to turn out like him.

When he was 22, his mother died of cancer.

In his art, you might detect rudderlessness; a lack of history can be inferred if you're trying to piece together the man from what he makes. One memorable piece features a group portrait of a bunch of schoolboys in ties. Over their innocent faces, corroding them like acid, a brown blotch seems to spread.

And in his own art, there's an arrested boy's fascination with goopy sex and outsized phalluses. Sculptural reliefs that showed at the Giardina Annex in Santa Ana looked like nothing so much as placentas and big clots of bloody, liposuctioned fat. And a bizarre spaceman suit in orange—like a costume a small child would sew from remnant cloth—included what must be a 10-foot dick sticking out of the chest. I doubt it's the kind of thing Stallings would talk about in public, but then, I've never asked him. As interested as he is in identity, Stallings is somewhat unknowable because, you know, he's shy.

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