'Not So in Your Face . . .'

Jeff Soto, I Play Gangsta Rap Only


At 30, artist Jeff Soto is just old enough to have lived the kind of hazy, sun-spotted Orange County childhood sometimes glimpsed in blurred Polaroids of kids in pajamas playing with Transformers. He's seen the T-handled Panasonic eight-track player that looks like the dynamite detonator, and the Mego robot with an eight-track player in its belly, and both make veiled appearances on his canvases. They're also woven into his excellent new book, Potato Stamp Dreams, which he signed recently at Subject Matter Gallery in Costa Mesa. But robots are an easy read; they're only half of it.

"I kind of didn't want to give the whole story," he says on the phone from Riverside, where the family moved from Anaheim when he was 5 or 6, and where he still lives with his wife and infant daughter. "We wanted the reader to kind of look and get an idea where I'm coming from with my work. Not so in your face, this is what my work is about."

So his robots have happy faces—and tubby bodies strongly reminiscent of the Gundam mobile suit guardian series from 1974—and they turn up often. But they're invariably wielding things like paint rollers—a nod to his pre-Art Center past as graffiti artist—and spiky penis-like appendages that are downright sinister. They're set against sunny backdrops of ruined, still-smoldering skyscrapers and juxtaposed with things like flowers with orifices and faded women from '70s-era magazines like Oui.On one canvas, something resembling a police baton is on fire, in front of the legend "Los Angeles"—all of which means only one thing to any adult who was here in 1992.

"A lot of what I've been painting about lately has to do with having a baby," says Soto, whose work is hot enough that delivery-room pictures of his daughter made the back pages of Juxtapoz magazine recently, alongside images of people like Camille Rose Garcia. "A lot of it is kind of nostalgic from my youth: growing up watching things like Robotech on TV and Transformers. I think, a lot of times, I'm pulling that imagery out." Being able to flash back serves him well, says Subject Matter Gallery owner Dana Jazyeri.

"There are a lot of elements in his work, and because of that it speaks to a lot of different people," Jazyeri says. "It speaks to where he's from and how he's grown up. As a graffiti writer, he was working in these train yards with train cars and cactus and palm trees, and [his work] is a mixture of that background, what he sees."

Which would seem to explain the paint rollers and the spiky appendages: painting over someone else's tags is often what you do before adding your own mural, and Soto is a self-described recovering cactus addict. Yet a darker side remains.

"I think about things a lot differently now I have a baby," Soto continues, warily, "how we as humans are running things, and how we kind of like changed the earth—maybe for better, maybe for worse. Humans' impact on the natural world: I've been thinking about what kind of world are we leaving for our children and our children's children." It lends a duality to his work; the paint rollers, he told the website Crimes Against Art, can be destructive or creative—making something look better or worse.

Phrases like the title of his book, which makes one think of Shrinky Dinks and, maybe, Silly Putty, are just as precarious. "I was thinking of man's mechanization of nature—taking something like a potato and making it into something that's a repetitive process," he says. Until he chose the title, it had been decades since Soto had actually made a potato stamp—halved the spud, carved it out and inked the stamp—and when he tried it again, he was distinctly underwhelmed. "I did one recently to test it out, but it wasn't as cool as I remembered," he says. The same, he worries, might be true of the world he'll one day leave behind.

"I'm not a really big environmentalist. I think a lot of times, I'm kind of wishy-washy. But I'm trying to bring it out in my work to make people think about it, and about what we can do to make things better." And that brings us to the flowers and butterflies that dot his work. "That's one thing I always try to put in the work," he says of their periodic presence. "Even if it seems dark and depressing, there's always this hope that things can get better. You can probably sum it up by saying a lot of it is man versus nature—which is weird 'cause man is nature." And that is heavy—but you're stuck with it.

"I like a viewer to leave my show with something to think about," Soto says. "I don't think anyone can single-handedly change anything, but if enough people change things . . ."


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