The compass, the sphere, the millstone, the hammer, the scales, and the straightedge, which the melancholic project has emptied of their habitual meaning and transformed into images of its own mourning, have no other significance than the space they weave during the epiphany of the unattainable. Since the lesson of melancholy is that only what is ungraspable can truly be grasped, the melancholic alone is at his leisure among these ambiguous emblematic spoils. As the relics of a past on which is written the Edenic cipher of infancy, these objects have captured forever a gleam of that which can be possessed only with the provision that it be lost forever.
Giorgio Agamben, “The Toy Fairy,” Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture
Kharakhan war wagon: “A team of twelve land lizards or ogriphants (shown here), arranged in three rows of four across, provide impetus for the war wagon. A wooden mantlet studded with spikes protects the beasts from above; the side-walls (exposed here to show the ogriphants) are enclosed in dragon hide, wood slats, or hammered metal plates.” For scale, the wheels average 6 ft diameter. (Cyclopedia Talislanta, Bard Games, 1988)
Cali Thornhill Dewitt is a creative monster. He has been consistently putting out work for years — running label Teenage Teardrops, making zines and art with his WSSF/ZMFTW squad, collaborating with fashion brands like Colette and Off-White, and more recently participating in major art fairs and being exhibited internationally. If you pay attention to the art scene, chances are you’re familiar with his bold text-based posters or Cholo-influenced sweatshirts with dedications to deceased cultural icons in Old English text. I caught up with Cali at his downtown Los Angeles studio to see what’s new.
What have you been working on lately?
CTD: I had a few shows all in a row so I was working on those and that was working with deadlines, which is cool but there was sort of too many of them in a row and I couldn’t really like…it wasn’t giving me time to experiment that much or expand on stuff. So I was doing stuff I like but now that I’m home and past that, I’m just kind of experimenting on different text things and ways to do them just to see what works with no pressure. I really like the idea of trying to paint text on images that make it look like a machine did it. That’s kind of what I’m doing right here while we’re sitting here (laughs).
That’s kind of like the Warhol mentality right? He wanted to be a machine—or he would say that in interviews.
CTD: Yea, I don’t know, machines are cool, it’d be cool to be a machine (laughs). I don’t dislike the way things look when they’re handmade, it’s the opposite—I like the way things look when they’re handmade but I want to try to make things look like a machine.
How has the internet and being exposed to so many images influenced your work? You grew up in a time when that shit was not around, but now it’s everywhere and images are available instantly.
CTD: Um, I like it. I think a lot of people my age don’t understand it or don’t really know how to use the internet, you know? I like both. I like when it was harder to find images and I like it when it’s easier. I mean, I’m not sure in the long term how it effects me but I think all of us see 100 images or more in the first hour we’re awake. So I just think it’s important to figure out a way to digest them. So I guess that’s cool and that’s what I subconsciously try to do, digest everything. I remember what it was like when there was no real internet but that doesn’t really matter, you know what I mean?
Yea, it’s here and there’s no point in comparing the two [time periods].
CTD: Yea, It doesn’t matter to me that I was there for a different time…it rarely matters to me that I was there. I guess it’s interesting to see what images you are more assaulted with now, you know?
Like if you thought that that picture of Marilyn Monroe was famous before (points to the piece he is working on), the one in the middle of this board, now it’s so famous. It’s interesting to see the unconscious hive of people latch onto [images], like that frog meme (laughs). It’s interesting to see what people get into as a herd, like the thing that everyone can agree on. Like it seems that everyone can agree on Bart Simpson, which I don’t dislike Bart Simpson but the popularity of him on the internet makes me never want to watch The Simpsons again.
(Laughs) Yea, that’s the thing with the internet, when things go viral, it happens so quick and can make things played out quicker I guess.
CTD: Yea, the shelf life of things can be much quicker, absolutely. And that’s something people should maybe keep in mind. Know that your shit can get played out real fast if you hammer it home too much.
The scale of your work has grown increasingly larger, and you install pieces to take up entire walls. Is this meant to overwhelm the viewer?
CTD: Yea, I like that immersion thing. So If I’m given the opportunity I like to do that for sure. It’s fun to make it something you walk into and are assaulted by—or try to do that. At the same time I don’t want to only make large things because there’s not that much space in the world for just large things. But I think naturally I do like to make bigger things, or more assaulting and immersive things.
A lot of your work seems heavily influenced by city life. You got married in the LA river, some of your pieces are printed at the swap meet, and the sweatshirts you make are influenced by gang culture. What does Los Angeles mean to you and your work?
CTD: Oh I mean everything, in the way that it’s my home. So everything around me here…almost everything here that I make is somehow right downstairs, so I like that. I like it here more than I’ve ever liked it before. I continue to love it here and I guess you couldn’t really predict that would happen, you know? But yea I think it means everything. I ride my bike around and I love it and my relationship with it gets deeper. It’s what I see, what I like to see. It’s like a living animal to me.
Some of your recent pieces have incorporated American flags. What are you trying to say about the American experience?
CTD: I don’t really know (laughs). It’s just funny. It makes me happy to work with something that’s supposed to be sacred and something that represents fear and oppression in the rest of the world. And it’s funny to work with something that you’re supposed to hold sacred just because. I also really like the American flag, I like the way it looks. I think it’s an image that everybody knows and I’m fascinated by the reach of certain images like that image, and how it can mean something to so many people. You know, here it means… I don’t know, it’s supposed to be this thing you’re really proud of, hold close to your heart. And in other places of the world it’s this thing people want to step on and burn. It’s this really loaded image that you’re not supposed to do anything with, so of course it appeals to me, like well..what if I do something with it? And just on an aesthetic note I do like the way it looks.
You recently went to Hong Kong for Art Basel and to Tokyo with the WSSF/8-Ball crew, among other places. How has traveling been for you? How have the reactions to your work been in other parts of the world?
CTD: Traveling is awesome. I love to go and I want to see everywhere but I also kind of want to extend the family. So that’s the goal with traveling, have people in everywhere you go that you can call a friend and they can come to LA and stay with me, and I think that’s probably the best part of it. The reaction has been surprisingly good. I mean I didn’t expect that it would be bad I just didn’t expect it would be anything. My expectations are low so when people come and are into it that makes me really happy. None of it seems too crazy—
Just everyone pretty stoked on it?
CTD: Yea and some people aren’t and that’s good too. If everyone thinks it’s great or everyone thinks it’s pretty good then it’s probably nothing (laughs). It’s better to have some kind of polarizing reaction. The one conversation I keep thinking of is one in Paris, which really had nothing to do with [this], but there was a guy who liked the show, but he wanted to know if it was true that I was a drug addict who essentially became braindead (laughs) and that I fought my way back to sanity. And I was like “Umm, sure. Yea that’s true!” It was the way he was saying it that was so funny, like I was Robert De Niro in Awakenings. But it’s been good. I feel so lucky that I get to go somewhere else and have an art show. I feel so lucky that I get to have one here. I feel so lucky that it’s Tuesday and you and me are sitting here, you know? I really do feel so happy about stuff like that. Anything else is like that feeling elevated, like I get to go to this thing in Honk Kong, or Long Beach, or wherever. I feel that there’s nothing I should complain about being a white male in America as it is. So all this other stuff is so dope, and such a blessing. That’s just the overriding feeling, that I feel lucky that I got to go to all those places. Lucky that I got to meet all these people this year, and lucky that most of them were really awesome.
You made some “Desert Island Drinks” shirts a while back. What’s your favorite beverage?
CTD: Well when we made those, it was me and James Rockin. When we made those, those were our favorite beverages (Tampico, Arizona, Jarritos). I was on an Arizona Iced Tea thing, but if I have to pick favorite beverages it’s three: it’s Canada Dry ginger ale in a can, it’s Coke in a can, and it’s coffee. The runners up are Topo Chico mineral water, and Mineragua mineral water. Those are the best drinks. And I feel like the rest of the world that I’m super into that sparkling LaCroix water right now. Especially the coconut one. Coconut LaCroix, it’s like coconut and sparkling water.
What do you have planned for the rest of 2015?
CTD: Well, I’m gonna stay home until August and work on new stuff. And then I’m gonna spend August with Jenna in New York cause she has summer vacation so we’ll go out there and probably work on stuff there too but be somewhere else. Then in September is the New York Art Book Fair and then after that I have no idea. I have nothing else planned, except for I’ll go to the beach as much as I can once it get’s hotter, hopefully in a couple weeks.
Any shout outs?
CTD: Just shout to the squad, you know who you are.
Follow Cali Thornhill DeWitt on Instagram: @caramelbobby Follow Funeral on Instagram: @funeralpress
“Jackson Overland-Frost” A judge barked, his voice loud and clear with the authority of the American Judicial System on his side, “You are found guilty of: One count avoiding arrest, one count criminal trespassing, and one count destruction of private property. You are to be sentenced for no longer than two years in a low-security minimum correctional facility.”
North and Tooth, Jack’s parents were looking distraught. Their only son was going to spend two years in jail.
“However…” The judge barked out.
“Because this is your first offense, and a misdemeanor at that, I will be giving you another option. For one year, you will work at as a ranch hand at an institute for rehabilitating youth like yourself. Should you choose this option, make no mistake that you will be watched much like in a correctional institute, but you will learn life skills and earn knowledge and gain experience in a work force that will further you experience in life.” The judge offered. “Sentencing will be carried out a week from today, you decision will be made then. Until that point, the defendant will be released to the custody of is parents until that time.” The judge ordered, slamming down his hammer.