Murality Play

"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.

"I was nervous as fuck," he says, laughing. "There was like five of us that did it. I was up there shaking behind the podium. And all the guys that went before me are all well-schooled on how to talk about all the cool shit. So I had a couple of beers in me. I was like, whatever. I know I can paint."

After high school, Yazzie became a Marine just in time for the Gulf War. He spent eight crusty Saudi Arabian months surrounded only by men. He lasted a stretch of 64 days without a shower. One thing the Gulf debacle taught him was that war invariably breeds a rash craving for pornography. And the fact that Saudi was porn-free provided Yazzie an opportunity that would change his life.

"It was the Marines that pushed me into drawing," Yazzie says. "That's where I started working on the anatomy and human figures. Pornography is illegal there [in Saudi Arabia], so I started drawing it in the field for all the dudes. I'm like, 'Whaddya want?' Then someone would say something obvious and stupid like, 'I want a blond with big tits.' That's when I started drawing."

After his Middle East porn crises, Yazzie beat skins back in Phoenix in a punk group. Around '94, at the whiskey-soaked urging of artist Robert Anderson, Yazzie picked up the brush and pulled up residence in the infamous downtown art space called The House. Three ensuing moves to Portland, San Francisco and New Orleans later, Yazzie now runs and lives at The House.

Usually curated by a revolving cast of arty scenesters, The House was founded by Anderson six years ago as a way to ease the problem of dwindling resources and offer cheap art space for local artists. And a way, at least, to keep downtown Phoenix inhabited with a bit of color to counter its dull drop into Stepford land. Anderson now lives in Taos and owns a gallery.

Built in 1920, The House itself is as glorious as it is dilapidated, surfaced with all the color appropriate of a place home to at least six functioning art spaces. And the wry, red brick and old wood Victorian just smirks at night--resolute in colored lights against nearby smoked glass high-rises--as the neighborhood around her is slowly bulldozed.

And yet tonight Yazzie will spend hours putting detail on guys like the shit catcher, or the clown with the Mohawk carrying the big fish, or the man face in the elephant neck. And Tom Waits, too, sounding equally good at that volume.