Never Cruel

Photo by James BunoanSanta Barbara is one of the most tasteful cities anywhere. Its mission and Victorians are charming and well-kept. State Street is understated and neon-free. Nobody here is tacky, but its municipal aesthetic is Laguna Beach oil—sun/sky/sea on the Sunday promenade.

Against the backdrop of such charm, Santa Barbara photographer Bob DeBris (ne Bob DeSlob) is a freak. DeBris isn't caged by the seaside city's velvety elegance and well-appointed whiteness. He takes to the roads: to visit the carnies, the ancient orgiasts, the Canadians.

His "Twenty Years of DeBris: A Wrecktrospective" exhibit begins in Canada in the late '70s. Generous old folks wash their gigantic cars and doff their hats at the same time. A big-bouffanted lady holds the front paws of her small, ridiculous, besweatered dog so that its weenus shows; I'm sure it never occurred to her. A Banff tourist with a stoop and breasts to her waist stands in front of a dangerous-looking car—a Monte Carlo, maybe? Her hose wrinkle at her thick ankles, and it looks as if she and that car could do some serious damage sideswiping mailboxes and Volkswagens.

But DeBris' oddball subjects aren't targets of hipster ridicule. He will go on for two decades; his photos will become clearer and more saturated with vivid color, but his lens will never become cruel.

While DeBris hits the biggies in American lower-class life—Graceland, Roswell and other such overexposed destinations—the smaller delights are more interesting. Tastiest is probably Exotic World, where senior citizens have sexy beauty contests. His "Palace of Love" series takes place in a grotesque magenta boudoir; patrons loll among tulle and cherubs. There's a Mexican family; the little boy between his parents is clearly stuffed with cheese like a chile relleno—he smiles like a natural politician. A Japanese tourist with a Bettie Page hairdo wears only her undies. Mitzi from Miami is clothed in fishnets, a boa, rhinestones and wrinkles. An old custodian from the center at which the Palace of Love was parked—did I mention the palace is a small silver trailer?—is decked out in furs, beads and lam. He's as serene as the Dalai Lama.

There's not a beauty anywhere in DeBris' photos, with the slim exception of a series called "Girls In My Pants," in which girls wear his pants. Though they're almost architectural in shape and composition, these photos lack the goofy, daily reality of his other portraits. And it's his other portraits—of fat children rolling back their eyelids while wearing stunning combinations of lime green and stripes, of old people whose creases are badges of full living, of a naked fat dude with Botticelli curls covering himself like Venus on the half-shell—that are juicy and bitchen. There are Shriners in tiny cars and a small, pretty, lively girl with badly hacked hair holding a Satanic-looking cat that she is no doubt going to torture and kill.

And like the people in it, DeBris shows an American landscape that's homely and tasteless—in the best way, of course. Concrete dinosaurs threaten to flatten Andy Gump. Fat putti cavort in the "Precious Moments" fountain—you know Precious Moments, beloved and reviled by Jeanketeers everywhere. The "Child of the Corn" kid stands in Dublin, Ohio, before huge ear-o'-corn statues similar to Cal State Fullerton's loopy, giant ice cream cone. There's Carhenge—an automotive Stonehenge—pointing druidically to the Nebraska sky and golfers in Dayton, Ohio, with rolls of fat shining sturdily through their polo shirts.

DeBris seems to be channeling John Waters' love of low-class trash and circus freaks—John Waters, who, in the underappreciated Pecker, makes clear he never meant to hold his "stars" up to ridicule; he found them beautiful in their grotesqueries and (to put it mildly) idiosyncrasies. DeBris doesn't confuse us by throwing fecalphiliacs into the equation. This is humanity, unkempt but humane.



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