step inside cali thornhill dewitt’s underground art world
The cult artist welcomes i-D into his LA studio to talk about downtown’s 90s feel, the music that makes him create and the art of collaboration.
Cali Thornhill DeWitt is the ultimate multi-tasker. The 40-something runs the experimental LA radio show and record label, Teenage Teardrops, which counts Lucky Dragons, Nick deWitt and Infinite Body amongst its artists. Before that he was the founder and head curator at the legendarily hip Hope Gallery in Echo Park; he founded art collective WSSF (Wall Street Sex Freaks); and back in the early 90s he was even Frances Bean Cobain's nanny, appearing in drag on the CD of Nirvana's final album, In Utero.
The Canadian-born, LA-raised artist has a gift for collaboration and has grown a cult underground following through his lo-fi Cali, skate-punk and slogan-heavy books, photographs, zines, music videos and sweatshirts. His latest work to get people talking was the mural he unveiled at the LA Art Book Fair, which depicted the phrase "Crying At The Orgy", alongside a new tome he released with Printed Matter (the non-profit New York bookstore that promotes print) called Adult Books. i-D headed to his Skid Row studio to see what makes him tick.
Would your work be any different if your studio wasn't right here in the middle of the hustle and bustle, the grime and the beauty of downtown Los Angeles?
I'm sure. Environment is always a huge influence. Almost everything I make in my studio is made up of pieces and ideas that happen within a mile of its location.
You told me before that night-time is your favourite time to be working in the studio. Why is that?
I like the energy. There is an eerie silence broken up by the sound of sirens and helicopters. The area feels like it's still in the 90s, in a way. Now that big cities all over the world have become playgrounds for the rich, it's nice to be somewhere that has retained its teeth. So far anyway.
What do you listen to when you work?
Everything. Rinse FM, reggae, DJ Screw.
You're working on a book at the moment. What can you tell me about that?
It's a book being published by the wonderful Farewell Books in Austin, Texas. It will be released on 12th December to coincide with an exhibition I'm doing there called This Magic Moment. I love what Farewell are doing, so it is an honour for me to work with them.
It seems like you are a big believer in collaborations. How easy is it for you to let go and let someone else have an input into the work?
When collaborations work, they are one of my favourite things. For me friendship sort of comes first and then you see what you can do together. If collaborative projects don't work it's usually only ego that fucks it up. You have to share.
Is there anyone that you haven't worked with before and would have liked to?
Of course. There's too many to list, really… Black Randy, Bette Davis, Leigh Bowery, Peter Hujar, Lynette Fromme.
You've just got back from Europe, both curating and showing in a group show at V1 gallery in Denmark and another show with Misha Hollenbach at Slam Jam in Milan. How was that for you?
Wonderful. There are very few things I like more than going to new cities and expanding my friendships and family, and I of course love to explore new cities and cultures.
You cycle everywhere and you surf when you can. What do you get out of it?
I love biking everywhere, it's my favourite way to see the city and interact with it. I also like to explode the myth that you need to drive to live in LA. And being in the ocean is one of the best things anyone can do for themselves. I want an active life - sitting still sucks.
Your work is like modern day visual poetry to many. How does it feel when people's interpretation is different from your idea of it? Would you say that all of your work is directly about you and your experiences, or is some of it just pure fiction?
For me it's all somehow direct and personal, and it is open for interpretation. I like hearing other people's take on things.
If you could make anything, what would you make?
I would love to make a mainstream comedy someday, to go for total cultural penetration.
You spend a lot of time in Tokyo. Do you feel that your work is received differently there to here?
I think everything about Japan is different to anywhere else! I love Tokyo and I consider it my second home. I'm also doing a show at Kodama Gallery in Tokyo in mid February, which I'm looking forward to.
Does fashion matter to you?
Of course. What you wear and how you present yourself is one of the only things you can control. It's one of the best ways to step outside and be whoever you are on any given day.
Text and photography Inbar Levi
- cali thornhill dewitt