KALYNN CAMPBELL SITS in his hilltop Roulette Studios lair, which doubles as home for the artist and his lovely lawyer wife Fran, chawing on a red pepper and expounding on the virtues of the XXX-rated Mayan version of a habañero hot sauce found only in a certain Hollywood market.
"The check-out clerk looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'Even my husband can't handle that one!'" No idle passion, Campbell hauls out the latest issue of Chile Pepper and declares, "I would love to be the visual spokesman for this magazine." Time spent in New Orleans kindled Campbell's love of all things hot and fiery, and each year he bottles hot sauce from peppers he has grown in his Silver Lake garden.
The sauce ain't all that's hot and fiery in this house. The small studio is where Campbell creates some of the most blazing graphic images and paintings around. Grinning devils eye comly hula chicks; Peanuts' Linus looks up Sally's dress on the latest R-rated cover of The Realist (the artist has drawn every cover of Paul Krassner's irreverent, satirical magazine since its reincarnation in 1984); turbaned swamis predict a frightening future; and pin-up girls cohabit with a dizzying array of cocktail gasses, hypodermic syringes, skulls, dragsters, and dice.
Born in 1960 in West Palm Beach, Florida to two artists, Campbell's career began when he was hospitalized for a tonsillectomy at age 10. "A friend of my mom's brought me a whole stack of underground comics--Crumb, Williams, Griffin--I had never seen anything like that before. It really opened up a whole new world for me, and I started drawing my own."
By the time Campbell was 14, he was selling Roth-inspired hot rod art at festivals in local parks. "I was really excited that people were enthusiastic about what I was doing at such a young age. I loved the whole idea of being creative and having people want what you create." His talent soon led to painting gas tanks for the local chapter of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, an activity that his folks looked upon less than favorably. "My dad was appalled that these bikers would come to the house to pick up and drop off their tanks. The biggest project they had was this show bike called 'Black Snow.' It was funded with cocaine money, and I did the show placard for that when it toured the country." Also during this time, Campbell photographed rock shows for a local publication and a radio station, capturing images of such '70s arena-rock notables as the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Campbell started attending film school in South Florida after graduating from high school but was thrown out for a variety of little pranks, like tossing water baloons full of paint onto fraternity symbols printed on the sidewalks. Obsessed with California and what life would be like out West, Campbell ended up in Berkeley in 1981 thanks to his parents, who sprang for a one-way ticket.
Campbell's self-published 'zines caught the eye of Robert Triptow, the publisher and editor of Gay Comics, who lived down the street. When one of Triptow's cover artists flaked out at the last minute, Campbell was pressed into service. He remembers asking Triptow if it would bother anyone that he was not gay, but Campbell could not have foreseen what would happen next. From people who were oblivious to the Southern flavor of Campbell's first name, Triptow received a deluge of letters that all said essentially the same thing: "It's about time you let a lesbian do the cover!"
When Robert Williams was coming to town to show and discuss his latest Zombie Mystery paintings, Campbell knew he had to be there. "The paintings just blew my mind.... They communicated to me both artistically and intellectually. That's when I knew I had to try to do art that had the same visual orgasm."
Campbell began to experiment with his now-signature game art style and decided to go to school for it. He was thrown out of the illustration department of the San Francisco Academy of Art by department head Baron Story, who announced that Campbell "didn't have a fingertip's worth of illustrative talent" (this from a guy who did most of the T.V. Guide illustrations in the '80s).
If it hadn't been for fine art instructor Carl Laffler, who also ran San Francisco's preeminent underground performance space ArtCom, Campbell's art schooling might have ended right there. Instead, the pair hit it off, and Campbell became embroiled in the vibrant performance scene. Turned on to dada, the futurists, and pop art by his mentor, Campbell ate up the modern art historical canon like candy and became the youngest member of the Bay Area Dadaists. Performances took place on the Golden Gate Bridge or in nightclubs where Campbell would paint large cutouts of starlets like Mansfield and Monroe and take chainsaws to them to kick off punk rock shows. Even his sculpture final exam became a performance.
"I kept thinking about what the instructor said, that sculpture is the residue of the creative process." While the other students toiled and sweated, Campbell bided his time. During the final, each student set their sculpture on a table and discussed their work. When it was his turn, Campbell nimbly ascended the table and dropped his pants, on which he had written "residue." A self-timed camera captured the moment, and he hung his photo on the board to discuss with all the rest of the work. Other students were outraged. Campbell received an "A" from his instructor.
His painting final continued the tradition. Inspired by the similarity in colors between fast food's KFC and the Nazi regime, Campbell came up with the fried chicken show. Though school administrators and said nix-nix to live chickens in the gallery (after a protracted battle with the artist), they couldn't argue with the large, raw canvases painted to resemble an imitation KFC napkin. Each four-by-six-foot "napkin," instead of featuring Colonel Sanders, contained an image of a famous person, to whom Campbell then sent the napkin with requests for them to "do somthing to it."
Some (John Waters, Yoko Ono, Paul Krassner, and Lily Tomlin's) Campbell got back--Iggy Pop and Ken Kesey declined returning theirs. Waters painted some bewigged ladies on his, Krasner ate a meal on his like it was a real napkin (attracting flies to the gallery, a fact Campbell loved), and while the artist initially thought Ono had returned hers with nothing added, closer inspection revealed a tiny, tiny dot.
Campbell wound up in Los Angeles in 1989 by way of New Orleans; by 1990, he had snagged a job with A. West (perhaps better known to followers of the Zero One Gallery as wacky minister Reverend A. West). West was Tom Petty's art director and soon began producing album cover art for the likes of Petty, Michael Jackson, and Billy Idol. Looking back, Campbell realizes that it was a special time: "We were probably the last guys who got to be private, independent studio artists. Now, with in-house art departments and the record labels being so picky, the artists have lost that freedom. We got to experiment a lot, all hands-on, with no computers. Even the lettering was done by hand. It really taught me discipline and a pride in the craft."
Campbell struck out on his own as a commercial artist and got his start showing paintings at the infamous Zero One Gallery (see Juxtapoz #1 for a full discussion of that institution). Moving to La Luz de Jesus Gallery, which continues to represent him today, Campbell soon made the acquaintance of art collector and Epitaph Records founder Bret Gurewitz. Gurewitz had bought some of Campbell's work (Campbells work also graces the collections of Eric Burden, Nicolas Cage, James Corcoran, Bob Roberts, Rick Rubin, Harry Shearer, John Waters, and the NBC Censor's Office, among others) and wanted to know if Campbell could design a web site and album covers for his fledgling label. A profitable relationship was born, and you can see Campbell's signature style at www.epitaph.com and on records like Joykillers' Static and the Daredevils' Hate You. Or, go to your CD collection right now and open up your copy of Social Distortion's White Light, White Heat; that's Campbell's work on the inside.
Campbell's signature game art style, shaped like game boards and featuring painted inscriptions around the edges, reflects the artist's interest in how society's games reflect culture. "I think games inherently make up our culture. We constantly grasp for the edge, often setting our morals aside in the process to win the task at hand.
"I'm interested in the metaphors of society. My pieces can be set off by one image--a clothespin, a metal key, a syringe. Real life is the element of chance coupled with the path of desire, and that's what I try to reflect and absorb in my work."
Campbell fluctuates between painting in oils and acrylics, loving the depth achieved via oils but none too attached to the time involved. First, he hand-draws each element of the painting on paper, then transfers it to tissue. Sometimes Campbell scans the various pictorial elements into his computer and experiments with different layouts.
He primers a raw canvas with lots of gesso, then sands it to board-like smoothness. When the layout is satisfactory, Campbell transfers the drawings to the canvas via saral paper and unleashes his mighty arsenal of color as he paints.
In addition to his paintings, Campbell continues to be highly active in commercial work ranging frm CDs to T-shirts and was checking out some very cool sample lighters and belt buckles featuring his art from the Chicago company Mobtown when I visited Roulette Studios.
Not content to be confined to one medium, Campbell has hosted all-cable-access shows in both San Francisco and Los Angeles ("Carpooling with Kalynn" and "The NeoMondo Video Show"), penned a NeoMondo manifesto in ArtCom magazine that got a lot of artists hot under the collar, is an active participant in mail art, and recently (and grudgingly) got rid of a collection of 80 live tarantulas from around the world that he had purchased as an investment.
Campbell also almost single-handedly revived the career of "Washboard Bill," whom he had managed about 20 years prior in South Florida. The 96-year-old Bill is a pioneer of the American washboard style. Campbell took him out to California in 1991 to do a KFAT reunion show and recorded a record in South Florida that same year.
Campbell's Devil's Press occasionally publishes limited-edition Skeeter at the Skillet Southern white trash cookbooks. Writing under the pen name Skeeter Bodine, Campbell dispenses recipes for stuffed possum and squirrel stew, among other tasty treats. Incidentally, he loves to cook up vittles for his friends and is working on a LOWBROW cookbook to be published by a major publishing house.
"I remember a story I read about And Warhol giving a print to Bob Dylan. Well, Dylan didn't like it and when Andy visted he found out Dylan was using his print as a dartboard, which really upset him. I thought, 'How interesting; how would I react?' With my background in performance art, I want to involve the view beyond just viewing a painting. My paintings are functional; you can throw a dart at one!"
With that, Campbell climbs into his cherry-red '76 Datsun 280Z with the personalized "LOWBROW" license plate, a 40th birthday gift from his wife to ward off any potential mid-life crises, and roars off into the warm Siver Lake night.