Chicken Babies, Bondage Nights and Severed Monkey Heads

True-life adventures with Richard Johnson, art provocateur

This location is the third for the gallery since Johnson opened on the Balboa Peninsula in 1997. In Balboa, he lasted less than a year, Johnson says, thanks to his next-door neighbor, aging Marilyn Monroe-era film starlet Mamie Van Doren. Van Doren hated the gallery from the first time she almost entered, but refused to pay the $1 fee, Johnson says. She made it no secret she wanted them out, calling the landlord, the cops and the city council; an art gallery with late hours, loud parties and punk music wasn't her idea of a good time. Then Johnson and some cohorts recorded a song under the name "Piss Daddy and the Trick Babies." He doesn't remember the whole song, only that it began "Mamie Van Doren is a whore!/Mamie Van Doren lives next door!" He doesn't know how, but Van Doren got her hands on a copy.

Then the Newport Beach Police got a copy. Then the city council. Then he was asked to leave.

Newport Beach city officials suggested Johnson move to a more secluded area near John Wayne Airport. He did, and it lasted until 2000, when the building was razed to become a parking lot. To this day, gallery members often ridicule Van Doren by mockingly reading passages from her 1987 autobiography, Playing the Field, in which she details her sexual encounters with famous people.

When the gallery moved to Anaheim seven years ago, Johnson once again had to fight opposition. After months of Anaheim City Council meetings, the gallery finally gained approval. It was difficult to pitch AAA's particular brand of art--punk and crazy, Johnson says, because "Anaheim is a cultural wasteland."

Johnson successfully lobbied for a conditional-use permit. However, the permit stipulated that the venue had to be all-ages and forbid alcohol, smoking, nudity and fires--all staples of the gallery's first two incarnations. Johnson mostly credits former councilman Thomas Tait and current Councilwoman Lucille Kring for even being allowed to operate. Kring, he says, actually came to the gallery earlier this year, stood in front of an limbless mannequin with bloody tits and accepted an award.

Inside the gallery entrance, visitors are greeted by a small, dusty monkey skull with hair still on it encased in a glass jar. Like most of the objects in the gallery, the monkey has a story. Johnson launches into it.

A friend bought the severed head in Africa, sneaked it through customs, and presented it at a birthday party for one of AAA's members, Johnson says. "He reaches in his bag, and he hands me a crumpled up newspaper. It's all wrapped up in duct tape. And I think, 'This crazy fool brought me a great big giant lump of hash from Africa!' So I tear into this thing, and there's a fucking monkey head in there. The stench envelops the room, and--I kid you not--the gallery cleared quicker than if it was on fire.

"And he covered up the head in talcum powder so it wouldn't stink when he was trying to get it through customs, and for some reason, someone blew the monkey dust all over the birthday cake. And later on, people who came late were like, 'Ooh, cake!' and people ate the fucking cake, man!"

AAA Electra 99's front desk is scattered with various papers. A 10-inch-diameter ashtray full of snuffed-out butts sits on top of a book.

Johnson, who sometimes appears smaller than his 6-foot-2 frame because of a tendency to slouch--tells tales from the gallery's Newport infancy with delight. Always looking for new events to draw in more people, they once decided to have a "bondage night."

"[Bondage Night] was great for a while. We'd hand out fliers to cute girls at the pier, and they'd stop by, and let us tie them up and spank them," he says. "But what happens is, eventually, real bondage people show up. And real bondage people just fucking creeped us out. It's all on video. It's the funniest thing. This big, fat guy with these big leather overalls on, and he's got his big, fat disgusting girlfriend, and she's spanking him with a paddle. He's all, 'Thank you mistress.' We're all going, 'Eewww!'"

Then Johnson launches into a carnival-style, step-right-up presentation of some of the pieces in AAA Electra 99's eclectic collection, such as a passenger door he stole from a taxi he drove, as retribution on quitting day. (He claims to later have mailed a former boss a box of live crickets). Above the taxi door are black-and-white photos Sudweeks took of abject, desperate and drunken passengers--part of a book project Johnson and Sudweeks planned but never had a chance to complete.

On the wall is a lacquered chicken carcass with a Kewpie-doll head, fat baby arms jutting out. The chicken baby has been part of the gallery since it opened and, as a wall splattered with articles about the gallery shows, gets mentioned every time the place is written about.

The "any art accepted" mantra saturates the space with dubious artistic choices: There's a filthy, naked baby doll with a nail through its eye sockets; countless iffy reinterpretations of Jesus, such as one with two heads that is, as Johnson points out, uncircumcised; and custom picture frames with razor blades, cigarette butts, hypodermic needles and prescription bottles embedded in them.

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