Murality Play

Steven Yazzie creates a media circus

"Here! Listen to this," shouts Steven Yazzie as he applies another touch of dawn-tinted paint to the clown's Mohawk while Neutral Milk Hotel blares from two suspended speakers. "I paint to Neutral Milk all the time."
We stand in his studio near downtown, under a half-dozen blazing lamps, the room temperature topping a good 120 degrees, in the deceptive vapor of fresh oil paints. I wonder through nausea and sweat how anybody could remain upright--much less work--in these conditions. Nary a fan blade stirs, yet Yazzie is oblivious to it all.

He swigs from a Corona and points to a shadowy figure on the painting, the one carrying a flat object just behind the elephant's sizable rear, and shouts over the music, "That guy's the shit catcher. He's my favorite circus guy. All he does is go around and collect the shit, and he works the hardest. I made sure I got him in this."

Yazzie is working on an 8-foot by 6.5-foot diptych oil on Masonite mural, by request from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The painting, which so far depicts Yazzie's vision of the circus's Living Carousel in inventive detail, will hang on the circus floor at America West Arena through its run ending July 4. Then the piece will tour the country ahead of the circus production as an advance attraction.

The Living Carousel jump-starts the circus; in it, ornately outfitted athletes, elephants, acrobats, giraffes, ostriches, alpacas, clowns, yaks, camels and other side-show geeks perform together within the three rings of the big top.

Yazzie was selected for the honor of painting the mural simply because he is worthy. His job is to capture the essence of said spectacle and bottleneck it down to oil. A few weeks ago, he took a trip to Tucson to witness the show and take pictures.

"I'm painting this circus, so it is like this huge event," says Yazzie sitting in the calmer confines of his kitchen. "Every facet of the circus is just insane, elaborate and colorful. It's great. So I have been here just working on it when I haven't been sleeping."

In contrast to the physical concessions of his work space, much of what Yazzie paints is pop-driven and brightly colored, morphing the roots of everything from Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele to Sixties pop art deus Larry Rivers. His paintings are often visual non sequiturs, scattered with comical sexual subtext; boys wielding guns and carrots, pendent bananas, springing rabbits sporting coned calottes and anatomically overstated women who resemble Robert Crumb characters.

His subjects show exaggerated gestures with simple form. He paints on canvas, vinyl, hardboard and Masonite.

"I have tried to keep things accurate, but really all I do is paint," he says, adopting a mocking tone. "I call it Modern American Expressionism!"

Yazzie's hair, close-cropped and jet-black, sits well with his brown eyes and beige skin. He has tattoos, thick lips and is one-half Navajo.

If he worked it, he could be an artist subscribing to romantic pop star mythology and getting girls. But he's too nice for that, surely.

"I paint paintings because they smile back at me," Yazzie says. "I believe in it and it makes me happy."

One of his canvases, fittingly dubbed "The Perverse and Extravagant Superstitions of Bananas," shows a nude man with no face sitting on a stool; his hands cover his genitals. He has no eyes, nose or mouth, just a black head. And his head is pointed in the direction of a woman's telltale derriere. The tarty woman wears a flimsy dress and is bending over, her hands are on her knees and her back is arched like a lap-dancing stripper. Bunches of bananas dangle about, and a monkey is perched on the floor with a long, up-curved tail.

"I don't paint with that stuff in mind," he says, grinning. "Most of the time I don't even notice it until somebody points it out. There's just a lot of absurdity going on."

For the past two years, Yazzie has been earning a living entirely from his painting. At Art One, a gallery in Scottsdale where he's had three successful openings, his works sell steadily. But the tender process of establishing relationships with both the gallery and its clients is basically just beginning.

"My stuff is doing good. But it goes back and forth. I'll go a couple months making really good money, especially for what I need to live with. And some months I'll make close to nothing. Luckily, I'm in enough with the gallery. At least I don't have to get a fucking job. I can drink and go to work."

He is asked about painting for the masses, and to pay the rent.
"I'm always back and forth. Like, okay, at what point do you compromise? There'll be times when, like, the stuff that I love to paint is not selling. But I want to paint; I have to do this. As long as my paintings are smiling back at me, then I'll be all right."

There wasn't much smiling going on recently at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts when he gave a slide presentation and lecture about his work.

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