What's a fringe artist do when the fringe becomes the mainstream? Infiltrate the mainstream, of course! Sonny Wong and Sheik, two of Humboldt County's most prominent graffiti art practitioners, have expanded their repertoire to include painting en plein air -- also known as painting's bread-and-butter. Most recently, their show of landscapes, "Nature Bats Last," was shown in Old Town Eureka at Los Bagel's Truchas Gallery. A conversation with Wong provided insight into the Wong vs. Sheik relationship, their evolving artwork and the difference between graffiti and graffiti art.
The two met many years ago in a College of the Redwoods illustration class, where they immediately became both arch rivals and artistic partners. "Graffiti is a really competitive thing," Wong explained. "We push each other, make sure the other dude is doing his best." The two have a similar -- but not the same -- style, as evidenced in the landscape show, where the same view is captured in two distinctive ways. "I might look over while we're painting and say, ‘I like how you did those clouds,'" Wong said. "We offer a lot of feedback back-and-forth." Some of that "feedback" may resemble insults, he continued -- that's where the arch nemesis part comes into play.
Back in the early 1990s, Wong found graffiti art to be a fine outlet for self-expression. Lest anyone confuse tagging or a single color "throw up" with the sort of thoughtful work Wong and Sheik practice, a quick tutorial is in order: What they practice is "multi-use" graffiti art, the most evolved state in which letters and forms give off a certain attitude as determined by the artist. If Wong is designing the letter "P," for example, the loop part becomes a cartoon eyeball. That eyeball can exhibit a goofy look a la Garfield or turn into one "mad, militant letter." Wong takes his time. At the end of the day, he wants folks to say, "I can't believe you could do that with spray paint."
The use and sense of color embedded from creating graffiti art lends well to these new landscapes. Wong uses plenty of heavy outlines, for example, and what graffiti artists term a "shell," an outer color around the whole piece. These landscapes are not a realistic, photo-like capturing of Humboldt's rivers, forests and rocks, but they're not pure cartoon, either. The paintings celebrate the rich beauty of familiar scenery from Bear River to Trinidad Head in a more whimsical way than we normally see.
The pair announce in their artists' statement, "Transitioning from graffiti to landscape painting hasn't been easy, but it is all about reaching the next level as artists. We've got plenty of street cred already, now it's time for some gallery cred." They look to be well on their way.
See more Sheik vs. Wong in Arcata's new DTA store, at Wong's new Humboldt Healthy Foods store in Fortuna and online at sheikvswong.wordpress.com and worldwidewong.com. Wong also illustrates the covers of Savage Henry, a new Humboldt magazine edited by former Times-Standard Northern Lights editor Chris Durant.
Meanwhile, Matt Beard, whose artwork is already nearly as ubiquitous in Humboldt County as Duane Flatmo's, continues to take over the world -- or at least most of California. You've seen his mural on the old Humboldt Surf Company shop. His designs adorn Humboldt Nutrients' products. Both the North Coast Co-op and Humboldt Surfrider sport Beard art on their T-shirts and hoodies. He flew to Hawaii after winning Surfer magazine's cover art contest. Earlier this year, along with Ferndale artist Shawn Griggs, Beard's paintings were published in Surf Story, a $250 coffee table book containing a stunning collection of surf art. He's shown at the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente, which helped lead to a number of shows in San Diego, mostly at the green/flash art shop in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and at the Sacred Craft Surf Expo held in the San Diego Convention Center Aug. 14 and 15. The Surf Story Art Studio & Lounge will feature Beard's work as part of a show by artists from the Surf Story project.
All the travel up and down the coast helps with one of Beard's own projects: painting scenes from the entire California coast. His love of the North Coast shines through dozens of his paintings, and he's chronicled Orange County and San Diego extensively at this point.
Tripping around in the art world often means a lot of time spent with people who want to know exactly how famous an artist is (or isn't) and exactly what his or her most recent work is selling for. Beard's experience is atypical in that sense. "The people who respond to my paintings aren't really looking at who I am or how much money the paintings sell for -- the people who really respond are the ones who are really connected to those places. It's where they find calm and peace in their life, and they get that feeling even just looking at my painting. Tapping into that for them... It's fun."
Beard acknowledges that "surf art," like any label, has become something of a cliché. "About five years ago, the concept of ‘surf art' had a big boom," he said. He benefited from it, but just because surf culture remains faddish doesn't mean he's off to paint deserts instead. "This is what I know," Beard said. Besides, the ocean is inherently interesting. "There's so many stories associated with the coast, how we use it. Painting it taps into politics, the economy, even though I'm not trying to do that. I just try to capture what's out there."
See more of Matt Beard's work at beardart.com or as you cruise around Humboldt County.