Skot Armstrong

A long and harrowing account of how and where the artist grew up

Having arrived at the decision of college a year early, I started Golden West College at the tender age of 16. While attending Golden West, I founded an art movement called Science Holiday. We made movies and published Dada chapbooks. When we needed a city location for a film, we used the Santora Building in downtown Santa Ana where an artist colony was living in the basement.

During this period, a pair of guys from Orange Coast College put on a series of underground films. While attending one of these shows, I saw my first copy of File magazine that included an artist image bank in which people could list themes that interested them and request images. It was through File that I met Genesis P-Orridge, the Residents, Pat Fish (now a famous tattoo artist), as well as securing addresses of most of the people practicing mail art.

In 1974, I started my course at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. I had chosen this college mostly because I wanted to live in Hollywood. I discovered it because of a large public artwork created by the students there for South Coast Plaza. An added bonus was that Sister Corita Kent (the most famous alumna) was famous for making art with words. I had just discovered William Burroughs and had decided to somehow work his language ideas into my art.

4. When assigned as a crew leader for the 1980 Census to enumerate the most dangerous neighborhood in Hollywood, I staffed the crew entirely with punk rock kids. The crew was lauded for outstanding productivity.

It was my good fortune at the time to find for rent a quarter of an old mansion. It had actual secret rooms and an eight-foot-high working fireplace. A whole room was dedicated to costumes, and I hosted nightly salons in which people would do tableaux and performances. A few films of these survive. I made very few friends in college, preferring to cultivate a weird mix of Hollywood scenesters and people I met doing mail art.

In January 1976, I graduated college early, with no apparent job skills. I traded the big house for a third-floor walk-up on Sunset Boulevard, where I lived until 1983. It was intended to be an eventual tear-down, so the rent never went higher than $85 per month. My new home away from home was a leather bar called the One Way, which I fondly think of as finishing school. I managed there to hook up with all sorts of people who worked in Hollywood. I was an extra and a day laborer on more movie sets than I can count. I was friends with the DJ, who would always keep me introduced to anybody I should meet for job-hunting purposes. (He later founded the famous underground club Theoretical in that same leather bar.) During this period, I hosted regular salons featuring a who's-who of LA punk and visiting punks—the more art-damaged the better—and we would often load a car with costumes and props and perform a spontaneous act of guerrilla theater and installation art.

Lacking interest in the fame I saw people around me experiencing, my covert stance was immortalized by the Plugz in the song "Skot's Anonymous."

In 1980, I was hired as a crew leader for the U.S. Census and proceeded to hire all of my punk rock friends to account for the scariest neighborhood in Hollywood. One night, Tomata du Plenty brought the most amazing character to one of my salons and announced that he needed a job. "Hired," I said. "Well," said the friend, "don't you want to know about my qualifications?" What more was there to know about this six-foot, portly cherub with waist-length blond hair? Deciding not to waste the moment, he added, "I know Leo Castelli, and I can introduce you." It turned out that Leo Castelli was actually supporting the lad and was so grateful that I had hired him that he offered me a show.

5. I was the first person to portray the painter Francis Bacon on film. I got the job because the casting director collects my art.

Until this point, it had never occurred to me that I was anything but an outsider artist. If you went to art school in the '70s, it was impolite to talk about money or making art objects or (gasp) a career. My mail art was in shows all over the world. I had landed a full page in a catalog of emerging British artists at the Hayward Gallery. I was making paintings and giving them to thrift stores just to see if people would buy them. But this was a period when painting was taboo. So the idea of having a show at Leo Castelli Gallery didn't really compute, on the one hand. On the other hand, it raised the bar for me about what to expect if I did decide to go that route. (It was quite soon after this that Leo and Mary Boone started crowing that the art dealers had become more important than artists. That led to some funny art. But for the rest of his life, I knew that I had direct access to Leo Castelli.)

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