Dean Stockton may not be totally obsessed with death, but the British street artist known as D*Face does have a fondness for ghoulish imagery charged with intimations of mortality. Four years ago, Stockton snuck two skeletal six-foot "Zombie Oscars" onto prime Hollywood locations just in time for the 2010 Academy Awards. With "Her Royal Hideousness," he layered a Queen of England portrait over a canvas painting of a rotting cranium. And while visiting a California skateboarder's house, he spray-painted hundreds of skull images onto an empty swimming pool.
For his new portrait series Scars & Stripes, opening September 27 in Los Angeles, Stockton embraces what he calls the "Dead by Thirty" theme by conjuring the haunted visages of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, James Dean. and other artists who died in their twenties.
"I've always been fascinated with the idea of living fast and burning bright," says Stockton, talking by phone from a Los Angeles coffee shop. "These people are remembered for their greatest moments as opposed to the terrible ones that might have happened later if they became stale or no longer relevant."
Commenting on the hollowed eyes, desiccated lips and pale pink wash that characterize the portraits, Stockton notes "There's absolutely a cadaver like quality to these pieces, which links to all of my work in the way that it plays with life and death. At the same time, I'm not trying to make the portraits feel too gory."
Stockton earlier explored cult personalities Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevera as pop culture brands. Since he plays music constantly during 12-hour work days at his London studio, the notion of paying tribute to some of his favorite dead musicians felt like a natural next step. "There seems to be a weird thread going through our culture, like 'The 28 Club,' or 27, where all these artists died potentially at the pinnacle of their career, and then It's almost like we put them on a mantle," he says. In conjuring the unsmiling faces for Scars & Stripes, Stockton says, "I liked to think about how these artists would feel if they could somehow come back from the dead and see how they live on in the public eye."
Stockton's work typically pops with brash blasts of colors, but for Scars & Stripes he went for a toned down effect. Combining dense black block screen prints with pale hand-painted acrylic and enamel washes, he took creative cues from the late Irish portrait artist Louis le Brocquy. "When you look at his paintings, there's a tiny amount of paint on this huge sparse white canvas. Le Brocquy's work is minimal and stripped back in the way he portrays somebody because he allows himself a huge amount of white space to breathe on the canvas. I was inspired by that way of painting portraits, although I also wanted to stay true to the very graphic element I'm known for."
Artists like Buddy Holly and Jim Morrison serve Stockton's purposes on a conceptual level, but the deaths of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Tupac Shakur, and Biggie Smalls affected him on a personal level. "As a fan, I was devastated," Stockton recalls. "I was a teenager when I heard about Kurt Cobain and couldn't get my head around why he would have killed himself. Then, as you get older you begin to understand the turmoil that often goes on in an artist's life. Our public fascination with the idea of stardom is actually quite frightening to me. I don't think anyone's every prepared for having that kind of celebrity thrust upon them and sometimes it sends them off the rails."
See Stockton's work and work space in the gallery above.