The Battle for Art

Interview by Sean "Goblin" Aaberg for Eaten by Ducks.

I've been following the work of Dennis Dread since the mid-90s when i came across his underground art zine "Destroying Angels". Dennis works almost entirely in ball-point bic pen, in an advanced version of what i always called "jail style" art, with the hyper-rendering & the skulls & leather & all that good stuff. He mainatains the blog "The Battle For Art" with exciting pictures, how-tos, contests & all manner of excitiment, & each year he curates the "Entartete Kunts" show at the Optic Nerve Arts gallery in Portland. Most excitingly, he's done some record sleeves for Black Metal legends DarkThrone. Let's get to know this guy!

So Dennis, Wimp Art & Underground Art... I know what they are, I know what the war is about, but how can other people begin to understand what this is about?

The Battle for Art is the struggle against complacency, stagnancy, and laziness. It is the battle against false pretense and weakness in art. Despite all my swaggering hyperbole, this has nothing to do with bonehead machismo and it doesn't necessarily refer to "hard" or "extreme" imagery. Beautiful and subtle art can be very powerful and more subversive than many self-proclaimed "brutal" artists. I also want to be clear that I don't necessarily have a problem with commercial art. In fact, many of my own influences from childhood came directly from commercial "trash culture" debris. Everything from Count Chocula cereal boxes and KISS trading cards to album covers and Wacky Packages. Commercial book cover illustrators like James Bama and Frank Frazetta also made a big impact on me as a very young kid. I also really love all the old EC horror comic artists from the 50's. Those EC covers were some of the most amazing mass produced stuff of the mid-20th century. The economical linework and stark composition just seemed to say so much. And those guys were cranking out stuff at a pace I could never imagine. They had a real solid work ethic and considered themselves blue-collar entertainers and not some precious "artistes". I identify with that spirit very much. Those EC guys also had a sense of comradery that somehow embodies an important aspect of the best underground art. They posed for each other's drawings, inked each other's pencils, helped each other get jobs and generally promoted the development of each other's individual styles and specialties. Today so many artists seem shallow and self-serving and competitive. And the lines between underground and mainstream commercial art have blurred more than ever. I guess it's difficult these days to articulate precisely what makes great underground art and what makes wimp art. But you know it when you see it!

You mention KISS cards, Wacky Packages & Count Chocula. I also remember alot of the 70s & 80s kid's stuff as being quite cool. But today, when i look around the toy stores everything seems like complete crap. Alot of it is better made, more fancily painted & all that, but there seems to be no soul and nothing cool about it. At the same time, there's all these designer toys being made for nerdy adults, but i think people are forgetting the kids! The kids Dennis. Let's talk about the kids.

I do it for the kids every day! My daughter turned 10 this summer and published her first zine and my step-son is now 13 and already towers over me. They're both incredibly beautiful and bright children. Up the kids! It's true, there is a glut of hipster toys these days. Some of them look really amazing. There are some incredibly clever designers out there. I have a wind-up Pushead toy near my drawing table that never fails to amuse me. My problem with all these designer toys is that they're all too expensive. The price tag and "collectability" steals all the fun and they become nothing more than fossils of imagination. Toys should be played with, they shouldn't be designed to sit on some dick's computer monitor in a cubicle. My suggestion for the next D.I.Y. punk movement: Liberate the Toys!

The artists today REALLY do seem shallow, self-serving & competitive! There are some of these young aspiring professional illustrators who are cut-throat dogs. I've heard terrible stories. But, this seems to be a reflection of our society, which is shallow, self-serving & competitive. People like us come from "the scene", which gives us a built in community & set of ethos, let's talk about values.

I don't know that I've ever been embraced by any particular scene and I don't fool myself into thinking I have a built in community. There are a lot of shit talkers and pretenders to the throne in any scene. But there are also many honorable allies out there. If it weren't for my friends in Engorged I would still be sitting in my basement drawing zombies in complete obscurity. Oh wait. I still am...haha. I pour myself into every drawing I do, regardless of how much I'm paid or how "high-profile" the project. I live my life without shame.

It seems like this period of time & maybe since the mid-nineties, there has been a resurgence of both Undergroud & Wimp art, alot of it is found in Portland... it reminds me of when Emo started creeping out of the Punk scene & us kids with spikey jackets, reeking of alcohol were no longer welcome at certain shows.

Yeah, this stuff comes in waves. I've been around long enough now to recognize the ebb and flow patterns of art as well as "scenes". Chumps arrive on a scene like they invented something, talk a bunch of shit, contribute nothing, and then disappear two years later. Fuck 'em! Underground art and underground music will always thrive just below the surface of any scene. In fact, real underground art will probably thrive exactly where it is most unwelcome. Going underground is always an act of resistance and survival.

Commercial art... you've got some album art that is directed at people like us, is most likely some of our primary influences. Commercial art sometimes only obeys the dollar, but other times, you just happened to be being payed by someone for art that they like, the economics aside. Where is the line on selling-out?

"Selling out" is generally the poser-speak of the rich and talentless. You can bet if some corporation ever offers me big money to draw a bunch of zombies playing basketball or drinking Diet Coke, I'll be laughing all the way to the bank! I got bills to pay! Anyone who has ever hunched over a drawing table until the sun comes up should understand the value of being respectfully compensated and I've always been a big advocate of artists getting paid. Bands should pay their cover artists well and on time. They should properly credit their artist. And they should give their artist enough freedom to develop their own style. It's obvious when a band asks an artist to rip off some 80's album cover and there are enough Pushead and Mid imitators out there to embarrass even the most well-intended fans. My feeling is that most people have an internal guiding system that rings an alarm when they're doing something lame or that goes against their true artistic and spiritual instincts. When that internal alarm rings you should ask yourself what's going on and take a closer look at your intentions. Trusting your own instincts and questioning your own motives is always sound advice.

So, the question of selling out doesn't actually have to do with money, but about being true to yourself & pursuing your own fate. What about the more public or social perception of doing "dishonorable" work. I don't think that everything is personal, there is a large social or community element to art too, so maybe your zombies become associated with a company like Coca Cola, or you only do snow boards or something like that, isn't part of it associative? On one hand, you don't want to listen to the peanut gallery, on the other hand, the peanut gallery is your fan base right?

I probably don't have a "fan base" and I certainly don't have any wealthy patrons or clients, so I don't worry much about alienating the peanut gallery...haha. For me it has been a struggle just to get the public to consider my ballpoint drawings as art! I think people generally assume my work must be a novelty I learned in prison or while strung out on meth. For the record, I've never done jail time or been stung out on meth. But I agree that once artwork gets beyond the drawing table there is an element of social perception, especially in the image-conscious culture in which we live. Feedback is essential to creative development, but there is also a danger in paying too much attention to the opinions of others and a risk of allowing yourself to be pigeonholed. I wouldn't want to stifle my own creativity by accepting limitations forced on me by some shifting "community" or "scene". It is the challenge of the artist to create work that really engages the viewer and stirs the imagination. This gets back to the struggle against laziness in art. Even dumb art shouldn't dumb down. One of the reasons Garbage Pail Kids struck such a nerve in the 80's was because they were so well rendered. As fast as those things were cranked out, there was still a palpable love for the material in the best of those paintings. The artist was obviously having as much fun painting them as kids were having grossing out their parents and teachers. And that was John Pound, a guy who came straight from the underground. In the final analysis, I think "selling out" is less about money and more about selling yourself short creatively. There's nothing dishonorable about earning money from your craft. I often wish I could earn enough money to draw "full time" and not die starving in a gutter.

We both have "Luciferian Tendencies", however, one of the central themes of the particular secret masters that i pay attention to is "As above, So Below". So, is the evil element of your work aesthetic? We both have kids, it makes the future a very pragmatic, straight forward thing...

At the risk of sounding ridiculously pretentious, I believe that conscious parenting is itself a magical undertaking. As thoughtful parents we are constantly - willfully - influencing our environment and the world around us. The principles of Order & Chaos are the "prima materia" of parenting. The seemingly mundane tasks of paying bills, planning healthy meals, and drawing around us an extended family of individuals who contribute to the inspired lives of our children are all imbued with the potency of sustained ritual. One glimpses the alchemical Philosophers' Stone in the changing of a diaper. As above, so below. Parenting also entails rituals of destruction and the warding off of insidious negative influence. The evil aesthetic serves this purpose well. We must be careful that in creating a "pragmatic, straight forward" future for our kin we don't unintentionally strip our own lives of the mystery and passion and ecstatic visions that make life worth living. Such a clumsy neglect of one's creative vigor would surely result in a sort of extended post-partum depression. Incidentally, "Luciferian Tendencies" sounds like a great band...

Let's say the Battle For Art is won. What does the world look like? Or is that even a goal?

The only goal is struggle. Strength through strife!