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Still Life with Large Artist

The gallery of Kevin Ancell.

Light / Dark

“This city vexes me,” says Mohammed, catching my eye in the rear view. We’re barred by yet another dead-end sign on Potrero Hill. He apologizes in English and his native Eritrean as the cab meter clicks 15 bucks. Hurtling down Mariposa in the light drizzle, Gordon’s House of Fine Eats finally comes into focus at the foot of the hill.

I tell Mohammed that San Francisco vexes me too, and that whenever I want to feel like a navy-town hick, I flee my border city and head north. He asks, “What is this meaning…heek?” But I’m already out the door. My audience with the Large Artist is nigh.

Housed in a post-industrial building typical of the neighborhood, Gordon’s has earned a reputation for serious California/Americana cuisine. That means fried artichokes with aioli, pan-seared diver’s scallops, and maybe a peppercorn rib eye deglazed with a shot of Armagnac. That means I’m crossing the transom in a double-time style.

I have no problem picking him out: he’s clad in paint-stained shorts and knee-high Ugg boots, sitting at the bar with a beautiful Amerasian girl. His big, shaved dome is swaddled in a goat’s-hair tam, contrasting the bustling roomful of sleek tech industry nabobs, haberdashed in Banana Republic and those leisure-suits-of-the-90s—goatees.

“My friend!” he says as I enter. “This is Annette Yang, supergirl. She runs this place. What are you drinking?”

The 38-year-old surfer-artist is swimming in love and high spirits. He spent months at the bar here, drawing trajectories and triangulating fields of fire. Annette never stood a chance. He wore her down like wind on the Sphinx. Though his nearby studio space is long gone—the victim of dot com appropriation of the once-burgeoning artistic community—he still spends a fair bit of time here.

They make for an arresting couple, setting off the same weird visual friction rubbed up by Bogart/Bacall and Lovetu/Roberts: Ancell—burly, occidental, gregarious, with a scarred scalp and historical eyes, Yang—tall, gracelul, simultaneously wary and warm. But she’s not the only good thing in the life of the one called “Tumbleweed.” Artistically, he’s in his happy place.

Aloha Oe, his collection of 25 life-sized, polyurethane, mechanically-articulated hula girls was the star of last year’s Surf Trip show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Entering the main gallery, they were impossible to miss. Swaying in motorized unison, the first pair greeted you with Kodak smiles and Pleasant Hawaiian leis. As you waded into their midst, things grew dark with the tattoos, track marks, and black eyes of the subsequent rows evoking B-girl rough trade in a Hotel Street clip joint. When you reached the rear of the pack, they devolved into mercenitrixes, clutching unpinned grenades and Kalashnikovs on full rock-and-roll, mad-dogging all comers.

Aloha Oe was a risky piece. Its construction required a huge capital investment, taking Ancell’s credit and cash reserves far beyond the Mendoza line. Design and engineering presented their own problems.

A Thomas Hart Benson-referencing deck graphic for Real Skateboards.

“The first step was finding a body model,” Kevin explains, knifing into a plump vegan sweet pea ravioli. “I lucked into the perfect girl—Judith Ogren—and scheduled a load of plaster and rubber for the life casting.”

Ancell exhales deeply as he itemizes the litany of production steps. Words like mother molds, U-joints, custom cams, and spider gaskets issue forth as he eyes the sautéed sand dabs laid before us. I remember a quote from an article I had read concerning the completion of the process: “I’m a total train wreck,” he said. “In debt, no home…gained 16 pounds, haven’t surfed in two months, smoked 50,000 cigarettes, and I’m drinking again.”

A combo is setting up next to us. The guitarist quickly tunes a blonde-on-blonde DeArmond jazz box.

“I didn’t know that the toughest step was still ahead,” he says in reference to the quote. “I’m still trying to find a home for them.”

Due to the unsettling nature of the subject matter—the degradation of the noble savage by syphilitic Euros—the vending of the piece will require some new breed of salesmanship. The corporate world tends to collect hallmark works by ARTFORUM approved hot rods with cocktail-and-canapés name recognition. The surf industry has few players with the balance sheet wherewithal to support surfing artists. One such soft-goods titan is negotiating with him for the entire set, excepting the one already in the collection of Santa Barbara aesthete Reynolds Yater.

“They’re gonna grind me,” he says of the deal. “They’re gonna lowball me as an ‘out.’ I’m not even sure they were ever serious about it.” While he’s sanguine regarding the more mercantile elements of life as an artist, he could clearly use the bucks, and since he parted ways with his gallery rep, he is his own cheerleader, patron, and PR firm.

But he’s always been an independent sort.

When Kevin was 10, his dad shot himself in the family’s Santa Monica home. His mom was, as he says, “section eight.” Kevin became a de facto child of the streets, eventually gravitating to the surf and skate scene near Ocean Park. The crucial hangout was the Zephyr Surf Shop, home to shaper Jeff Ho, sander and raconteur Skip Engblom, and artist CR Stecyk III. When he wasn’t busking on the boardwalk with an old steel guitar, Zephyr’s was where you’d find him, doodling logos and surf pictures.

Like most artists will tell you when queried, he says he has been painting since childhood, though his first professional work came earlier than most:

“Stecyk got me my first painting gig when I was 13. This girl had heard he was good with an airbrush, so she brought her cherry VW Bug to the shop and offered him $200 to do his thing. He told her to leave the money and the car and to come back in four hours. When she split, he pulled out a box of spray cans and we went at it, and I mean went at it: we hosed down the whole car—the windows, the windshield, the dashboard, the interior, the tires, the engine, the headlights—just obliterated the thing. When she came back, she was mute. Just shaking. Stecyk peeled me off a 20 from his roll and said, ‘You work, you get paid.’”

His teen years were spent surfing and playing blues in California and later Kauai, where he lived for some time. Upon his return, he worked as an assistant and apprentice for West Coast art world alpha painters like Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston. In his off hours, he illustrated skateboard decks with Dogtown’s artist laureate Wes Humpston. Most of the time, though, Ancell was AWOL, traveling and surfing incessantly. Most would have categorized him homeless. “That’s where the Tumbleweed thing stems from,” he says. “I liked to get lost.”

In 1984, he got real lost. A family friend from China announced that she was returning to her Beijing birthplace. Her predecessors had been displaced during the cultural revolution, but as reparation the Chinese had offered her an apartment on the outskirts of the city. The 20-something Ancell decided to join her.

“The drug thing was getting out of hand in Venice and Santa Monica,” he says. “I didn’t want to be dragged into it, so I opted to get as far away as I could.” Ancell moved in with her in the Old Cemetery district. Soon he had arranged a job at the Beijing Institute of Science and Technology teaching Western Culture. “It was a scam,” he admits. “Basically, I taught LA street slang and a little art history.” He also found work as a set decorator and scenery painter on Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.

“We built a Forbidden City behind the real Forbidden City,” he recalls with a laugh.

Falling in love with a student, Kevin married at 22, a relationship doomed from the beginning.

“Not even a year after we hooked up, I was arrested by the special police and taken to the airport. They told me I was a ‘spiritual pollutant’ and was being deported.” Pro-Democracy sentiments were brewing, and Tiananmen was coming.

Ancell’s wife was denied a visa and remained in the PRC. Back in the States, Kevin moved to San Francisco so he could camp on the Chinese consulate. A year-long process of cash bribes and skullduggery commenced.

All told, he spent a total of $40,000 in his failed effort. The harshest toll wasn’t pecuniary. The Chinese consuls ordered him to cease and desist, implying that should he consider pursuing the matter, “things might not be so good for the wife and her family.”

THE MEDIA MIRACLE, oil on wood.

On hearing the news, Ancell walked down the street, entered a bar, and got drunk. For eight years.

In 1995, he woke up at the bottom and made his way to a small fishing village in Nayarit, Mexico, where he managed to white-knuckle his way to a clean bill of health through thrice-daily surfs and deep siestas. He crossed la linea a changed man, with a newfound appreciation for the small things.

In the razor-thin interstices between sobriety and blackouts during his dark period, he had managed to maintain his reputation as a highly-regarded scenery specialist. Now purged of his demons, he was ready to rumble. Over the last five years, he has worked on the sets of Sphere, What Dreams May Come, Bicentennial Man, and The Phantom Menace.

He also honed his skills as a fine artist, laboring through the finer points of color, composition, and anatomy. His work began to develop a signature, merging the dramatic chiaroscuro and themes of Caravaggio with subject matter from his life…specifically surfing. “It’s a sight gag that works for me,” he says.

The Media Miracle is as good an example as any. The heavens have parted over Maverick’s in this modem allegory: 13 cherubs—surf magaziners, one might assume—wheel in the sky as the subject waxes his twin-leash-plugged gun. His friend stands at his side, eyeing the cherubs and clutching a rock, his dogs baying at the heavens. On a bench at the surfer’s side is a handful of gold coins and a contract. Two team managers, cleverly disguised as wizened old men, clutch FCS fins and a Mont Blanc pen. The two old men are selling hard. The surfer isn’t buying.

Miracle is loaded with information: on close inspection, the people on the canvas are recognizable members of the surfing fraternity. That’s NorCal shaper Shawn Rhodes weighing big-wave virtue with sponsorship dollars. His friend Matt Ambrose is the cat with the rock. At issue is the northward creep of the surf media klieg lights following the first feature article on the now infamous surf spot off Pillar Point.

Craft-wise, he’s meticulous and unerring, typically laying down five underpaintings. “I like that shit to just vibrate off the canvas,” he says. Yet even craft bows to the one element that elevates him from the hackneyed firmament of most surf art. With Ancell, content is king.

Social commentary, satire, biography, history, gags, self-evaluation, and critique all find a home in his work. He’s responsible for two of the best-selling skateboard graphics of all time. One, a depiction of two San Francisco police officers locked in a screen romance kiss, outraged parents across the nation. Another featured a Klansman swinging from a tree. On the surf side of things, his The Consumption of Fear shows a surfer opting out of a wave at the last second. Two Davy Jones skeletons are hot in the act of tearing out his spine, punishment for his hairing out. In the dark lower corner, the fat lady sings.

Tonally, his work has always tended toward the provocative and the unflinching. On more occasions than one, it’s arced clear into the profane. His overtly narrative works run the gamut from the spoilage of paradise to the photo editor’s orgy known as Maverick’s. As you might guess, you won’t find his work hanging in a dolphins ’n waterfalls emporium in Waikiki or in the poster bins of the surf museums.

Which is all quite valiant until the rent comes due. In the minute niche that is the realm of surf art, plastic nostalgia, idealized surfscapes, and regurgitations of iconographic photos rule the roost

“Thankfully, Hollywood’s been shooting a lot up here,” he laughs. “Between that and portrait commissions, I’ve been keeping busy. Not so busy that I can’t surf, but enough to keep things green. I’m occasionally put in the position of painting things I’m not really into, but you try to have fun with those. You save your serious energy for your more personal work.”

THE DEATH OF IMAGINATION, oil on wood. “The mermaid of creativity has had its clock cleaned by information overload; the internet and television are the obvious culprits. In The Death, the four men (all modeled on yours truly) are using an icon of Neptune to try and revive her. It ain’t workin’.”

Our waitress glides over with a few suggestions from the port cellar. Ancell suggests reconvening in the morning for a surf check and a dim sum lunch. We do just that.

He picks me up in his Dodge truck. We drive south on Geary until we hit Ocean Beach, then growl down the highway to Pacifica. Near Sharp Park, we pull into the dirt lot at the oceanfront NorCal surfboards factory. A couple of surly dogs sniff us up, their back fur rising until they register his scent. He keeps a studio here. The Cuisinart whine of the Rockwells and Skil 100s battle the stereo in a war for aural supremacy.

“This is my hideout,” smiles Kevin. “There’s a wave out front that gets really good, and I like the guys here.”

There are a few shelves of books—art history, mostly and the smell of mineral spirits. A work in progress is nailed to the wall. A large black-and-white print of a Jay Adams axle grind is tacked over the entry. I notice a cantaloupe-sized rubber mass on a shelf.

“That’s a squid egg from Sphere,” he says. “We built over 10,000 of these. They needed something heavy inside to sink them, so we actually cast 10,000 baby squids out of plastic. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Of course, that never showed in the movie, but union scale, baby.”

Our tour continues to Linda Mar, The Point, and back up into the city. The surf is worthless, so it’s Yank Sing for lunch. Ancell jokes with the waitresses in his near-fluent Mandarin. “It’s like he lived there,” one of them says to me.

Ancell stares out the window toward the Embarcadero, quietly chewing his Har Gow.