Don't ask Steven Daily what his art means. Don't ask him to explain it, put it into context or even talk about it. Not unless you want your own perspective shot all to hell.
Case in point: Daily's piece Burnt Yard (Toys on Parade), which, like 15 of his other mixed-media paintings, is currently hanging in the lobby of Stages Theatre in Fullerton. It's a color-drenched, surreal piece that, to these Marvel Comics-conditioned eyes, resembles a hideously grotesque version of Captain America's archnemesis, the Red Skull, wearing a green sweater and white-collared shirt with a huge eye where the heart should be, and walking through a blasted field of some sort. Directly in front of this figure is a smaller suited skull figure with hands pressed against its temples in apparent frustration. Behind, a small fire burns. In the background there's a freight train and a water tower. In the foreground, a frog wears a crown.
I look at this and my mind starts wandering into Art Spiegelman territory. Monstrous Nazis awaiting feverishly as Jews, stuffed into freight cars, roll into a concentration camp. Not sure what the frog means but it has to be something equally horrific.
Turns out, the explanation is way different. It's a metaphor of sorts for the kind of art that helped shape Daily's identity, preserved his sanity and has helped sustain him through many lean, hungry years of trying to make it as an artist.
"The figures in this one are inexperienced taggers. They don't know where or when to tag," says Daily, an Inland Empire native who cut his artistic chops bombing freight cars and throwing up on freeways in the 909. "There's a secret code of the street, a street etiquette, and a lot of kids nowadays don't know it. That's why graffiti's got such a bad rap. They'll get in there, break windows, tag everything, burn bushes, leave paint cans. They have no respect for the art."
Uh, okay, so I was wrong. Way wrong. What about the frog with the crown?
"The frog is the king, the guy who gets in, tags in a couple of minutes and his stuff was always the best, and then he'd get out."
I still like my explanation better, but who can argue with the guy who created it?
Though Daily long swore off tagging as his primary mode of expression (two arrests will do that to you, as will the hard reality of having to make enough money to pay rent), his graffiti roots show in both his paintings and his murals. The explosive use of color, the exaggerated figures and bombastic images. There's also an undeniable air of spontaneity and freedom to Daily's work, not so strange considering this is an artist who literally learned to create on the street.
"I don't really fit in anywhere," Daily says of his work and of his process, which he likens to the way one of his idols, Jack Kerouac, wrote: "Whatever comes out, comes out. That's why I'm glad I never went to formal school. If I had, I would have come out painting a particular style. I've learned my own over time."
There is something utterly unpretentious and almost naive about Daily that belies both his age (he's over 30) and his life experience. You see that in the way he embraces art as his personal salvation and as a way of life. Then there's his choice to never work for pay unless it's somehow connected to his art, whether it's painting a mural for the ceiling of a video arcade or designing a rave flyer. He believes that if you're an artist and you're not living like one, which means suffering your ass off, you're living a lie.
"I've got nothing wrong with someone using mommy's credit card and doing their art, but you're not going to live that Bohemian style where you're pushed to create whatever comes out of you," he says. "Whatever you paint is going to be class-oriented."
He's not playing the part of the stereotypical starving artist. In the early days, after putting down the spray can and picking up the paintbrush, he lived in downtown Riverside in a $200-a-month dump with no hot water, no heat, one light bulb and paint supplies that his friend stole for him.
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Fortunately, it's not so hardscrabble these days. He now resides in Fullerton, has his work currently on display at Stages, is exhibiting at two San Francisco shows and now has people lining up to commission murals by him.
Although his paintings vary wildly in composition, shape, material, choice of canvas and subject matter—he paints everything from odes to boyhood friends who turned into junkies and wound up sliced into pieces in an LA dumpster, to Sunday school wet dreams where children desperately pray to God for a new Transformer, to ironic commentaries on his disdain for the lowbrow art movement—all his pieces support Jackson Pollock's assertion that every good artist paints what he is.
"All of my paintings are glimpses into me or my experiences," he said. "But I don't expect people to pick that up. I want them to get what they want for it. I paint alla prima, whatever comes out of the brush, and I put my meaning on it afterwards. It's instinctual, and that's how people should respond to them."
Steven Daily shows "Work In The Physical World" indefinitely at Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. For a cyber look, visit www.stevendaily.com.