Skot Armstrong

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

Behind the beige paint, each of the identical housing tracts throughout our county houses freaks and lovers. Take the one in Buena Park where Skot Armstrong lives—near an electrical-generating station and the Wax Museum. Even though we've been friendly for some years now, Armstrong, a pathologically shy artist, wanted to conduct our interview about his extraordinary art and life by e-mail. Once his replies began pouring in, a Q&A seemed as unnecessary as an appendix or the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

You may find Armstrong, with his companion, Jim Fallon, sitting silently on the couch at a party with members of Throbbing Gristle. You might spot him, out of the corner of your eye, skulking at a number of art openings here and to the north. If you are ever at the most cosmopolitan kind of party in the hills of Altadena, expect Armstrong to be holding down a corner of the Zen garden. He will be silent, among random figures of 1970s greatness and Melissa Manchester's tour manager. He is greatly loved, and he is everywhere. But very, very quietly.

Here, for us, Skot Armstrong becomes verbose.

A Long and Harrowing Account of How and Where I Grew Up

I was born in Montgomery, West Virginia, on Sept. 16, 1955, two months after Disneyland first opened. My mother was a nurse, and my father was an electrical engineer. Both came from rural West Virginia. Although they were not inclined toward art or literature, I was taught to read by the time I was three, and they bought a set of encyclopedias the moment I could. (I was included in a UCLA study of gifted children because of this the following year.) I am an only child, if you don't count the sister who lived 36 hours.

1. I play a voyeur in a famous Madonna video. The director "discovered" me at an Andy Warhol art opening.

In 1958, my dad landed an aerospace job in California. We moved to Santa Monica, where my mom landed a job at California Rehabilitation Center (CRC). This was a palatial and beautiful building on the beach in Santa Monica. Many of the patients were rich, though when we took them on outings, people would point and stare because they were burn victims or something else that was visually unacceptable. This was my first exposure to big money, and it made for a strange juxtaposition. On the one hand, when we would visit these people at home, they would have elevators in their homes and private hair-dressing salons. On the other hand, when I was pushing them in their wheelchairs, people would recoil.

CRC was just a stone's throw from Pacific Ocean Park (POP). Back in those days, it was relatively inexpensive to visit, and it became my regular Friday night activity with my mom. POP was on a pier over the ocean and had about it a genuine air of menace. The scary, dark rides were really scary, and the pier was usually full of sailors on leave and other sorts of people who might not qualify as "family-friendly."

When I was four, we moved to a slightly better apartment. A photograph of me taken there bears this caption:

Scott. We had been shopping. Scott has records, OF COURSE.

My best friend at the time boasted an uncle who was an astronaut and a single mother (unheard of then) who hung around with the beatniks who lived on the Santa Monica Pier. (The apartments over the merry-go-round featured a colony of actual beatniks who became famous.)

In kindergarten, my mother was called in for an emergency meeting with my teacher because I was too polite. She said I would never survive in the world unless I became less polite.

In 1962 (just in time for second grade), we moved to a house in Culver City. This was the year I first visited Disneyland. I thought at the time that compared to POP, it was very lame. POP had been scary and dangerous; by contrast, Disneyland seemed too safe. The example I remember most vividly was that POP had a sky ride that took you over the ocean; at Disneyland, the sky ride seemed tame.

In 1963, we moved again to Mar Vista. It is worth noting that each time we moved, I had to switch schools and make new friends. As an only child of parents from rural West Virginia (who were themselves quite overwhelmed to be living in the "big city"), I didn't have ongoing friends to compare notes with about what was and wasn't normal. So, in a sort of a vacuum and with only my imagination to guide me, I developed a very unique worldview. Another factor about this place and the place before was that I had a separate "clubhouse" space in the garage. By some fluke of luck, both rentals included a room within the garage that I could call my own and in which I set about to re-create the scary, dark rides of POP. Puppets were a huge obsession with me, and I became an accomplished puppeteer. My current photographic work has very deep roots in this period.

It was also my good fortune that same year to encounter Mrs. Kerrick. As both of my parents worked and I had no siblings, there had always been a scramble to find some arrangement for keeping me supervised by an adult while I was home and they weren't. Mrs. Kerrick was an old friend of my mother's from her days at CRC. She had been a society wife in Texas and Mexico, but her husband hadn't left her that well-off when he met his maker. So Mrs. Kerrick joined our household as a sort of nanny/housekeeper/cook. I credit her with instilling in me values that transcended my rural West Virginia roots. It was at her urging that I was first taken to visit an art museum.

2. Leo Castelli made Jasper Johns sign my baseball.

In 1965, we moved to Huntington Beach. The house we landed in was actually purchased, so I wouldn't have to keep changing schools. Or so I thought. More on that anon.

It is perhaps useful to note here that although I was an only child growing up in California, my parents had huge families in West Virginia. They have 15 siblings between them. Because of this, every vacation we ever took was either to visit these families or to host their California visits.

This often provided me with a big bolt of culture shock. In West Virginia, I got to use outhouses, bathe in creeks or metal tubs, and eat things that I had been friendly with the day before. (I am a confirmed vegan now.) My grandfather on my father's side owned a farm and a sizable forest. His wife was a schoolteacher with a love of great books. Much of my early exposure to literary books is thanks to her. They also attended church every day. Notable features of my early visits to see them included a section of forest straight out of a children's book (aptly named Playhouse Rock) and endless attempts on my part to build amusement parks for the crawdads, including a sky ride, a Ferris Wheel and a roller coaster. My grandparents on my mother's side lived in a house that included a former store. It was filled with the most absurd things. When I first saw the artist Joseph Cornell, I was immediately reminded of the time I had spent rooting through that abandoned store. I continued this pattern of visitation about every other year until 1973.

Because we had moved to Huntington Beach in the middle of a school year, my first months were a bit rocky. I was tested and qualified for a gifted program, but my parents feared I might be tainted by such an experience. Once again, I was an only child left to the devices of my imagination. Among the things this produced was a lemonade stand manned by a ventriloquist's dummy.

A longstanding family tradition of my having a place to create my amusement-park experiments led my dad to build me a "clubhouse" in the back yard, where I had the advantage of a free-standing building in which to conduct my entertainment research. I think this had as much to do with maintaining their sanity as it did anything else. I was a 10-year-old P.T. Barnum.

In 1967, at the strong urging of many school officials, I was placed in an experimental program of the Ocean View School District for gifted kids. This had a profound impact on my life. Huntington Beach was just springing out of swamps and bean fields. Everybody who moved there had come from somewhere else. This created an interesting effect in that none of us was actually from Huntington Beach. Thus, everybody was not only a "new kid" in the neighborhood, but was a geek, as well. I still have many friends from that period.

In 1969, I started attending Marina High School. After two years of isolation from the general populace, we were dropped back into the general population. It was this year that I adopted the spelling "Skot."

Because I avidly hated everything about high school, I made it a point to graduate in three years. Three high school stories bear telling. In 1970, I started an Apathy Club at my school; the petition drive was so successful that we had the largest club on campus. The student activities director became so alarmed by me that he nicknamed me Charlie Manson because of the scary girl gang I had assembled. When I grew tired of being picked last for everything in gym class, I volunteered to be a team captain and picked all of the geeks. We dubbed ourselves the City of Hope Team and managed to get a geek picked as team captain in every sport. We refused to compete with the other kids and drove them quite mad.

3. I spent the Reagan years working for the IRS as a staff artist at a training center in Beverly Hills. I had a 17th-floor corner office with a northeast view that included the Hollywood sign.

During this period, I would go on long bike rides to Disneyland and the Long Beach Pike. I also took to hitchhiking up and down Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Beach.

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.)

Following my work on the census, I was hired by the Small Business Administration (SBA). I worked in the file room, where I got a real education in how businesses work. Then I was transferred to the front desk to face the bitter and disappointed people who were getting their first taste of the Reagan Years. At night, I performed, made mail art, held salons and parties, and painted outsider art.

By 1982, my artwork had become well-known around the SBA, and several people brought me a job posting for an illustrator for an IRS Training Center. (I later got the job title changed to "staff artist.") I had a 17th-floor corner office on Wilshire Boulevard that overlooked the Hollywood sign. The downside of this job was that I was using open containers of magic marker ink in an unventilated room. Eventually, I imploded (in November 1987) from the cumulative effects and landed in a mental hospital. While I was in there, most of my archives went to auction in an abandoned storage space.

Since 1988, I have mostly lived in Orange County. I moved back to Hollywood for a while in 1990 but found that the quality of life in the city had changed. I have lived with my better half in Buena Park since 1994. I love the quality of life here.

Wide roads!

Parking!

Room to live.

6. My mother wrote and recorded for Industrial Records a song called "I Could Never Be Andy Warhol's Mother." The British bootleg of it is a pricey collector's item.

After getting out of the mental hospital in 1988, I was invited back to live with my parents in Huntington Beach. The culture shock of moving back to Orange County was almost as abrupt as my visits to West Virginia. Although I had led forays of LA punks to pillage the OC thrift stores, I hadn't actually engaged with the culture that had developed in Orange County since the early '70s. And those changes were abrupt. The open land that I had associated with my youth was being developed at such a pace that my parents had lost their ocean breeze. Everything that represented anything charming was being bulldozed and rebuilt into a bland Stepford sameness.

I noticed at this time that The Gong Show had come back on TV, and I recruited a group of rather extreme performance artists from Hollywood to join me in a troupe that appeared on a regular basis as a losing act. An important factor was that we could never appear to be the same people, so I immediately latched onto an excuse to rebuild my arsenal of props and costumes. One of my acts in particular was cited by the original producer of the show as the act that he had hoped to see when he first suggested the show.

The Act

The act was called Hypno and Pavlova—me and a girl who looked like Glenda Jackson. She sat in a chair, appearing to be hypnotized while I waved a series of wands in front of her face with different colored balls on the ends of them. If the ball was red, she screamed; blue, she made orgasmic sounds; green, she laughed uncontrollably. She was an excellent actress and could combine moods. So when I held up two or three balls at once, she was really scary—especially since she could do all this and still look hypnotized. The panel had been advised to gong us but was so dumbfounded that they forgot; if we won the show, we couldn't get our American Federation of Television and Radio Artists paychecks. They brought in a last-minute emergency act, and we lost. Thankfully.

In 1989, I moved into the house of a friend's mother, whom I had known since 1967. By a weird coincidence, two of my best friends from the gifted program had also landed back at their parents' houses in Huntington Beach. I began to regularly make art again and was included in a few performance-art events in Hollywood. In a benefit for free-speech causes, I appeared as Nick Charles (The Thin Man) with a delightfully wacky woman as Nora. People told me that ours was the only performance in the whole series that wasn't shrill or hamfisted.

In early 1990, I moved back to Hollywood. A new dynamic for me was that I had always had a lot of luck finding affordable housing that didn't require a roommate. (In 1985, I had lived in Tom Selleck's pre-fame house in Beverly Glen on an IRS salary.) This was no longer the case in the Hollywood of the 1990s. Rather than commit to a single living situation, I bounced around as a paying roommate, occasionally landing a deluxe house-sitting gig.

In 1991, I performed as a part of the 75th anniversary of Dada show at Al's Bar.

That same year, I received a call from a friend who had just inherited a bizarre property/situation in Ojai, California. It seems that a Finnish woman and her son had lived on a huge section of Ojai real estate since the 1920s. She was a Theosophist who brought Finnish health regimes to the U.S., and he was a trained architect and sea captain. As houses near them became vacant, they would tear them down and proceed on a project that might compare to the Watts Towers or Bottle Village. Because many of their sculptures involved living plants (cactus, mostly), a lot of their work was in ruins, as the plants had begun to reclaim the ground the sculptures were on. The mother had been a dedicated packrat since the '20s, often arriving at yard sales at the end of the day and paying a dollar for everything that was left. Which was duly carted back to the lot in a wheelbarrow. The friend, who had a keen appreciation of my take on modern archeology, asked me to come live in one of the extreme houses that had resulted and to help with decisions on the restoration of the site.

Later that year, I was contacted by my parents about returning to live in their five-bedroom house so I could keep an eye on things while they traveled. When they weren't travelling, I managed to become a highly sought-after house sitter.

7. In 1979, I was included in a show of young emerging British artists at the Hayward Gallery. I have never been to England.

In 1994, I met James Tallon and eventually began to cohabit with him. It is interesting to note that I am approaching, in this cohabitation, my longest time spent ever in a single location.

In 1996, I began contributing to the Amok dispatch, a sort of Whole Earthof extreme literature.

In 1997, I got my first digital camera and began to produce tableaux photography. I had my first show of these at DiRT Gallery [sic] in 1999.

In 1998, I began to draw up a business plan for a company called Museum of Fun. My ulterior motive had been to create a company that specifically designed museums as art installations. The first project was to be a toy museum that was an actual tourist attraction. A funny aspect to the times in which I had decided to do this was that despite a solid reality-based business plan, most venture capitalists showed no interest in an old-style brick-and-mortar business. As I pursued the options for funding this, I found that the expectations of those who were willing to get involved were not those of people I wanted to be beholden to.

In the meantime, Museum of Fun had taken on a new life. I had previously used Science Holiday as a sort of corporate identity. I had learned early on that most artists of note had huge support staffs. I was not comfortable with the idea of claiming a group effort as a Skot Armstrong Production. But the idea of a group effort having a corporate identity did not cause me any similar problems. Andy Warhol claimed that he had a Factory and that he was trying to be Walt Disney. My idea was to take things a step further and make it a corporation. One thing that had always proved problematic was that Science Holiday was meant as an entity not connected to moneymaking enterprises. Museum of Fun was another matter. Having started its life as a commercial enterprise, it was a logical leap to retool the business plan to make it an entity that was specifically for the purpose of producing large-scale artworks.

I am currently in the process of seeking to capitalize my art corporation. I consider this a long-term investment with loads of cachet for whoever is credited with funding it. Because of this, I am being very particular about where I get the money for this.

8. A famous Los Angeles punk rock band wrote a song about me called "Skot's Anonymous." It is about whatLA Weekly called my "high-profile obscurity."

In the meantime, I see the production of art as a biological urge. I have spent the time at Catbutt's house producing prototype artworks that I can expand into a variety of shows once I am in demand.

Themes of My Personal Art

The concept of modern archeology is a huge and ongoing theme in my artwork. This manifests itself as both artifacts that appear to be old with modern motifs and things that look modern but are contextualized to look as if they are relics. Just as a temple from Egypt was reconstructed whole within the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is my eventual goal to create art installations that look as if a section was torn from the Met and landed in the context of a modern-art museum. The "art" of this will be that the actual displays will be of an irrational nature or will tell fictional stories of events and people using objects.

My other main motif involves the concept of masculinity. My exploration of this subject involves the changing nature of the masculine ideal, icons of hypermasculinity (including superheroes) and an examination of masculinity as a fetish.

Museum of Fun: An Art Corporation

I am a product of '60s idealism. Collectives and collaborations in this context seemed like the next logical step in evolution. As I began to discover the Dadaists and the Surrealists, I was enchanted by the idea of artists working as a "movement" to achieve a certain end. As I read more about these artist collaborations, I noticed that they frequently ended in acrimony.

"How," I wondered, "could artists work together and remain amicable?"

About the time I was pondering this, I chanced to hear a very basic explanation of how corporations are formed and what their advantages are. This formula, reduced to a sort of algebra, might also apply to artist collaborations. In the late '70s, I set out on a long-term project titled "Art Imitates Business." The goal of this project was to create an entity that would facilitate artist collaborations.

9. Thanks to Scottish Tartans, my entire name can be spelled in plaid.

I have always characterized Science Holiday as an art movement (dedicated to artist collaborations) that was to remain pure of commercial considerations. This art movement was meant to focus more on the spiritual side of the creative act. A lot of emphasis was placed on the William Burroughs concept of a Third Mind that occurs when two minds meet.

Practical concerns required a commercial entity to facilitate the realization of works of art. To this end, I formed a company called Museum of Fun. This entity is modeled to some extent on a Hollywood business plan. It has direct parallels to what a production company does on a film. It also borrows a model from Hollywood of how to assign credit for projects.

As corporations have become increasingly a part of the global landscape, it occurred to me that it might be fun to create an art entity whose logo was as familiar as the Golden Arches worldwide but confounded every notion of what the goal of a corporation should be.

And applying my life-is-art spin to the equation, it is essential to this whole enterprise that it be documented as a sort of performance piece. This will include a whole exploration of the recent phenomena of a corporate "culture," where language and ritual are used to create a sense of a tribe or family.

And since it is a corporation, I would like to create a model that people of conscience could point to as a good example of corporate behavior. I would like to create jobs, scholarships, think tanks, development labs, libraries, museums and venues. And provide resources for worthy causes.

It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

10. There is a plant species named after an art movement I started in the 1970s.
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