It took 35-year-old painter Jeremy Cross about four or five attempts before he was able to break free of Bakersfield.
"I ran away several times—first when I was 15," the Long Beach resident says. "But it's like a black vortex that keeps sucking you back in."
After finally escaping the dusty town more than a decade ago, Cross bopped around Southern California and landed in Los Angeles, where he was picked up by Bill Shafer, owner of the culty-cool, underground, dark-art gallery Hyaena in Burbank. That's when things changed for Cross, and he credits his relationship with Shafer and the gallery as the catalysts that pushed him over the edge into serious—and seriously macabre—art.
Cross' creepy creativity—which might give a few folks an initial spook—is the unusual result of a rather-typical '80s childhood spent sketching characters from Transformers and GI Joe comic books. In his teen years, that obsession gave way to monsters, particularly the one Frankenstein built. "I use classic creatures as allegories in my work," Cross says. "The sad, brokenhearted, misunderstood monster that horrifies everyone. There's a lot of pathos there, and it's beautiful."
His love of fictional ferocities feeds directly into his views of authentic human perils and tragedies. Take his series "Common Monsters," in which he painted the homeless, addicts, downtrodden and abused, adding third eyes, horns and stitches, among other defamations. "I wanted to take their grotesquery to a more obvious level," he says. "Show how we disdain these fellow human beings because they're on the fringes or because they have issues."
Religious iconography also plays a large role in Cross' work—"I was inundated with the hypocrisy of the [Catholic] Church as a kid," he says—and in December, he'll exhibit an "I told you so" piece at Sacred Gallery in New York for a show celebrating the Mayan apocalypse. Ironically, even with these myriad cultural criticisms, Cross comes off as one of the cheeriest guys you could hope to meet, and though his art can tend toward the gruesome, it's equal parts provocative and amusing.
"I try to keep a comical edge and not make things too horrific," he says with a laugh. "I come from the Charles Adams school of spooky. It's dark and macabre but kind of adorable. I'm probably excising a lot of demons."
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• "Every couple of months, my wife and I just go to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, then get some gumbo and leave. It's a wonderful place." 1313 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 781-7290; disneyland.disney.go.com.
• The Santa Ana Art Walk "is a great mixture of folk art and pop surrealist stuff," he says, "and it's a good place to mix and get ideas." Along Second Street, between Broadway Avenue and Spurgeon Street, Santa Ana; santaanaartwalk.com.
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• "I love watching people singing karaoke surrounded by tikis and drinking zombies all afternoon," Cross says of Don the Beachcomber. "I've done a number of monster tiki paintings, in fact." 16278 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (562) 592-1321; donthebeachcomer.com.
• "Joe Jost's has been around since 1926 and hasn't changed a bit. It's just a bunch of old bastards hanging out, sippin' beer, eatin' pickled eggs and playing shuffleboard." 2803 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 439-5446; joejosts.com.
• Gallery Sev Ven: "It's a new gallery that's getting a lot of attention in an area that does not have a strong art scene. Caution: there are no dolphin paintings here. 7573 Slater, Ste. J, Huntington Beach; gallerysevven.com.
• "I do watercolors at a booth at Long Beach Art Walk for $25. Last month, this lady walked up with her adorable 9-month-old baby and asked if I'd do a portrait of her son—but make him a really terrifying, bloody zombie. So I did," he recounts. "She loved it." On Linden Avenue between First and Broadway streets, Long Beach; artwalklb.com.