By Robert Seitz
Art © Andrew Sexton
If you were to first become acquainted with the artist, who carries himself with a great deal of dignity and warmth towards his loved ones, a true family man, you might not suspect that at the drafting table or while welding, pouring and chasing bronze in the sculpture foundry where he is foreman, he is giving life to a churning degree of detailed grotesquery born in direct response to some of the art world’s most absurd illusions. This is an artist who is too extreme for all the ordinary venues, who makes other artists uncomfortable. All this over the same age-old stumbling blocks of sexuality and cleanliness, for the artist working with the classic vexations is as much a sport as an earnest, informed questioning our current dialogues on art.
Starting as a kid, influenced by comic books, Mad Magazine, and heavy metal album covers, he began a lifelong practice with the kind of free association folder drawings that writhe, twist and ooze with visual activity. You all know the kid, pen always moving, bottom edges of the palms smeared with ballpoint ink.
Growing up in Quebec, Canada, an English kid in a French town, created the perfect amount of tension to drive him to get creative with his survival. He was already getting respect from the good kids because he was a sharp student; his drawings were the ticket to respect from the bad kids. As an example, he remembers a velcro patch in the shape of a triangle that came off a friend’s binder. He slapped it onto his desk, and because it resembled a perfect patch of pubic hair, to which he quickly finished with pencil the outlines of the woman it belonged to. It created a moral furor, teachers, the dean, counselors, gathered around him trying to determine what to do with the situation. Later the school bully, Billy Higgs, confronted him, “Hey, are you the kid that drew that naked lady?” When he learned it was, he told Sexton, “You’re fucked up, dude.” By way of the compliment, he clapped him on the shoulder and a path to working with the world was laid before the artist.
Going from a middle class family to Yale brought more levels of uncertainty to be dealt with. The artists were sophisticated, smart, soaked in clever theory, and often highly privileged. He found himself looking for something to counteract the dominant atmosphere, deciding that if they were going to take flights of fancy in the critique room, he was going to make work that he could stand behind completely. He began to make portraits, focusing on the stories of his loved ones, his friends, his relatives – his resistance was to give them truth. This led to one of his first grotesques, an illustration of the life of his friend Daryl, a seething montage of aspects of the neighborhood rocker who helped teach him how to really live. His friend was crazy about tribal tattoos, something Sexton couldn’t stand, but being true to his friend pushed him to go ahead and draw, and something about working with the ugly started to really click for him.
Coming to LA was another drop into a hot bucket of more disparity to deal with. To go from an Ivy League environment to being a member of the working class, along with other shake-ups, pressed him into involuntary psychological changes. Al lot of it had the character of fading illusions. He had come to Los Angeles because it seemed to promise community in all the edgy, extreme art he had imagined. Juxtapoz Magazine, Robert Williams, Joe Coleman, Hot Rods and Low Riders, the city beckoned. But the divisions of the art wold were instead more rigid than anything he had previously experienced. High Art in Los Angeles carried on as though Low Brow didn’t even exist. Low Brow virtually spit out someone like him, with his formal credentials. That scene was still circling around boring, routine, kitsch themes like tikis and hot rods, other predictable ideas of shock that hadn’t changed in decades. He had expected L.A. to be the Wild West, instead he found it far more uptight than New York.
At first he gave it a go to join in, bought a low rider equipped with hydraulics, later customized a chopper, did some work with flaming moustaches, but the boredom got to him. Realizing he was likely to have to work for the rest of his life eventually brought him some leverage on free expression. It was up to him whether he wanted to continue making or not, and as a result his midnight garden of grotesqueries bloomed. These horrific confections reflect more hours at the drawing table than most humans can devote to anything at all. They are endurance pieces, and they are records of an immense pleasure, an entertained perversion, a bite back at the bared teeth of an uptight, regimental and obedient world. The grotesques incorporate elements that challenge all sides, uptown and down. His work references masters, but it’s a very sexual, acidic rococo. One of Sexton’s major innovations, partly inspired by not wanting to be another white male making art about naked women, is a gender collision, abstracted deviance where figures are not male or female. Not wholly human and therefore not really hermaphrodite, their sexuality is decorative, true grotesquery, they are the quivering, oozing shambolic dismissal of gender – raw evidence of a mental life, masturbatory, the fantasy aspect of drawing.
He works this way because it thrills him. A pleasure in the physical act of drawing compounded with the pleasure of subverting all sensibilities, high and low brow. He works this way because he is exhausted at the end of each day, intense physical labor and a modest life present their challenges, and the relief of working the large drawings are a vital part of maintaining his balance, they lead him somewhere that can feed him the energy to keep working. Sometimes he works this way so he can take down the ugliness he sees around him, such as his narrative drawing of ice-blooded conservative PM Stephen Harper, monstrous and pleasuring itself from the secretions of a hovering monster, like the vision of Mugwumps in Naked Lunch. In another work he mocks the absurdity of racism he encountered in Quebec, illustrating a famous folk story, “the Voyageurs” about trappers who make a deal with the Devil so their canoe will fly them into town to make merry, but they must return by midnight. In the many versions of the story, something always goes wrong, they don’t make it, and the Devil takes their souls. In Sexton’s version, a French, English and Indigenous Canadian all go at each other in a tangle of blood vengeance while soaring through the air to their mutual doom. In one of the more visually intense and recent of these works, he illustrated a chthonic, demiurgic God seated in a bucket of blood, a passing image from the boiling imagination of plague witness Isadore Ducasse from his book of nightmares, Maldoror.
Sexton is a maker, and through it he is able to deal with the used car salesman mentality so many believe necessary for a career, the grant writing just to beg for a shoestring to chew on, and the poor treatment the artist often receives from the galleries or other artists. Losing these things, even if it not by conscious choice, has not necessarily been a bad thing. Not when he can find pleasure in the work, and capture the grotesque and maligned carnival of it all to transform it into something that truly serves as anodyne. Beyond this, possessing the intelligence to know it is not merely this way because of personal struggle, means these are not demons of a troubled mind but a kind of defiant, victorious laughter. Sexton knows that his monsters are an intelligible response, caricatures, the progeny of what is truly ugly in this world – human pettiness and fear, and the mistreatment these bring about.