Interviews

Clark Fox: Revolution Through Art

By David Jenison

Clark V. Fox is a revolutionary. In casual conversation, he might hide this fact with his friendly and soft-spoken manner, but he is a counterculture subversive who creates and supports art that challenges the government, capitalism, consumerism and the media machine that whitewashes them all. As a Native American of Cherokee descent, Clark jokingly refers to himself as a hostile Indian who went off the reservation, but the underground art community knows him as a pioneer. He previously ran galleries in Washington, D.C. and New York City that promoted underground icons (at the time) like Shepard Fairey, Mark Lombardi and Ron English, and as an artist himself who subverts pop-culture iconography, he infamously uses the Mr. Peanut mascot to critique corporate avarice and depravity. He speaks truth to power through art fearing no consequence. 

Now through November 16, the Art Center/Gallery at Delaware State University will exhibit Clark Fox: Typology showcasing several of the acclaimed artist's pieces. Likewise, Clark Fox: Icon Chains is on display at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Delaware through January 2017. PRØHBTD spoke with the man often called the Godfather of Modern Underground Art about his extensive history in the art world. In other installments from this interview, Clark also discussed pop culture, American history and the evolution of art.

How did Mr. Peanut become a major character in your art?

This is the idea of corporate branding. Ron [English] put together this South Park show, and it was funny because the South Park guys sent me this telephone book of colored xeroxes of all these spooky characters they do. We were supposed to do artist versions of South Park knockoffs. I took all the African-American characters and the shit with the Santa Claus hat, and I got these two Mr. Peanuts chasing them looking very angry.

The piece alludes to when peanuts were African-American food. They grew and raised hams for the master, and they ate peanuts. They hardly got any meat. Peanuts were actually considered “black people” food, so white people wouldn't eat them unless they were low class. The peanut guys got this idea, if they classed up Mr. Peanut in their advertising, they could con sophisticates into buying Planters peanuts for big bucks. They put him in the monocle and the top hat and spats and the walking cane, and they called them cocktail peanuts. You were supposed to eat them with your martinis. It actually worked. I just took Mr. Peanut—the corporate show guy who’s supposed to be friendly—when they're basically ripping everybody off.

Wow.

It's funny because these people came in and bought this Mr. Peanut painting of mine. The lady's father worked in the Planters peanut yard down in Norfolk and worked his way up to be president of the company. Then they had one of these hostile takeovers, and he got canned and received nothing. They were first run by Nabisco, then by Kraft, and it just got sold to Heinz, so it’s gotten even bigger. It was just funny to run into somebody and hear how the head guy got ripped off.

You have a painting titled Gold, Oil, Drugs. What was the...

GOD.

... drug reference there?

Those are the three main things that people worship: gold, oil, drugs, G-O-D.

How do people worship drugs?

Man, the United States couldn't function without the drugs that they have coming in here. There would be a revolution. Sixty percent of the people in the country now are on medication, which is pretty freaky. I don't have anything against marijuana, but how much of the population is self-medicating?

Did you ever smoke yourself?

My parents were real smokers. I did eat marijuana in cookies and candy, and it made me so paranoid that it didn't do it for me. Then, during the Vietnam War, I was working against the war, and the groups I belonged to considered booze and drugs as counter-revolutionary, so I didn't even start drinking until 1975 when the war was over.

Did you make up for it since then?

My drinking career lasted about four years, and then I had to get into a 12-step program.

Bad joke. Sorry.

My parents are American Indians, so the whole family were booze hounds. My mother died drunk, my father got into AA and made it through the rest of his life without screwing everybody's life up. If you have Native American blood, it's not a good idea to drink.

Now the Mary Jane series, is that a reference to marijuana?

It could be, and a lot of people bought the paintings because of the marijuana reference, but it's more about child prostitution and incest in the United States. It's real rampant. I've gone out with a few chicks who were raped by their relatives, their fathers. They're really screwed up mentally and sexually.

What are your thoughts on cannabis prohibition?

I think marijuana should be 100 percent legal, and alcohol should be illegal! Pot equals happy, and booze equals mad. My parents were three pack-a-day Pall Mall smokers, and I hated smoke. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. A puff off a pipe at a powwow, but I didn’t inhale. I only tried pot in raw or cooked form perhaps because of the laws against it. I was pretty paranoid on pot, but I could see it could be a very positive thing. Booze, on the other hand, has so many negative factors, like crime, murder, suicide, fights, fatal car wrecks… it’s mostly negative results from drinking. Pot people okay, booze people thumbs down. I have been in a 12-step program for 36 years. I do serve alcohol to guests, and I do not have any problems being around drinkers in social situations. I just cannot drink myself.

Coming from a Native American background, what are some of the ways in which you might view U.S. politics differently?

There's 2.3 million Native Americans living on reservations, and it's subsistence living. Only one out of four males makes it beyond the age of 26. Pretty grim. I'm a super green person—like they shouldn't be digging up oil—and I've never driven a car. I'm more living the traditional Native American life for the most part and go by a lot of the stuff that's in the Native American religion.

When you create art, what tends to be the common inspiration? Do you visualize something first or is it a political or social idea that provides the spark?

I have about eight different periods. Sometimes I just go back and go fresh about it. Over the last three years, I've been doing a lot of abstract stuff. I started out as an abstract artist, but I got bored with it. Then you get roped into coming up with recognizable styles. Political stuff is pretty hard to sell. Even nudes are hard. A lot of the stuff that's fun to paint, people don't really buy, but I don't really care. I'm more into just making art. I've made enough dough from the old days that I have been able to live comfortably off my investments in this capitalist system, and I can just do whatever I want to do. I've got a lot of stuff in museums and stuff from different periods, and it keeps me going.

You ran the Museum of Contemporary Art—Washington, D.C. in the '90s. What was it like doing very progressive, very political art in the capital?

I got the idea from this German artist Joseph Beuys who thought that anyone could do art, but my philosophy came from the French art situationist movement, which had a big influence on the Paris riots in 1968. I was trying to show everything: knowns, unknowns, has-beens, never knowns. It was pretty cool. We did a lot of stuff with Ron English and several street artists. I helped launch Roger Gastman’s career by letting him curate about four shows, and Gastman later went on to do this huge street art show for [art curator] Jeffrey Deitch at MOCA-LA. Now he’s one of the foremost experts on street art and graffiti in the world. My museum got write-ups practically every month from the major newspaper, but it was still so avant-garde. I was showing stuff that was just way ahead of its time. We had this unknown Jewish lady, Alice Mavrogordato, a student of Morris Louis, who got run out of Germany by Nazis. She did a show there, and the Austrian government actually bought 16 paintings. I pulled so many wild things out of my ass, no one could believe it.

How was the D.C. art scene?

D.C. is a really bizarre town. It's all power and politics and money. They don't really have a big interest in culture. The whole arts scene got a crummy rep and hardly anybody made any money, just chump change, but it was easier to live there than in New York City. I graduated from high school in Alexandria, Virginia, and I had an arts studio with David Lynch and Jack Fisk back then. Jim Morrison, the guy from The Doors, lived down the street in my neighborhood.

I dug D.C. in a way. I had this patron who gave me the space in Georgetown to do my thing, and he came up with a bunch of money to promote parties and stuff like that. I did that for 14 years. I got worn out doing it. When I left there after 14 years, I didn't owe any money or anything. I broke even and got out. That's pretty good. I actually changed things. I helped get the street art thing going with Shepard Fairey and a number of the early guys. I was influenced by street art from the early '70s, from the subway guys, and started doing Mr. Peanut in the early 1970s. That was my guy. My guy was Mr. Peanut. All my girlfriends, when we broke up, stole my art, so I don’t have much from back then. One girl even stole my Picasso and Manet.

(The 1976 Inaugural Show at PS1 in New York City. Notable artists in the picture include Clark (in the suit and tie), Colette, Marjorie Strider, Judy Rifica, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, John Baldesari, Shigeko Kabota, Dick Mock, Richard Serra, Alan Saret, Charles Simons, Ron Gorchov, Fred Sandback,Nam June Paik, Frank Gillette, Richard Tuttle, Michael Goldberg and Ronald Bladen.)

Did you experience much pushback?

I got a lot of resistance because it's such a conservative town. Ron [English] was getting a ton of shit. See, I've been working with him since 1988, and I remember how, boy, he was dodging bullets all the time for a really long time. We just kept pushing on, but not guerrilla tactics. We didn't really know that it was going to change, but I think the art world has. Even though the old guard is doing their same old bullshit, I think it's a lot more exciting now, and it's an invigorating kind of thing. I never feel down about it.

A lot of people, a lot of my friends, got really discouraged and depressed. Most of them are dead. They either did too much booze or drugs, I don't know, they just did themselves in. I just felt like life is a struggle. So what? Big deal. Makes it more fun than not struggling, in a way. I dug it. My patron filled two luxury hotels with my paintings. A lot of people go, "Oh, you've got work in hotels." They were really good four-star hotels, and, actually, I didn't have to come up with dough for the gallery. He gave me whatever I wanted, but then after 12 years, he started charging me rent. Ron and I put this big [Jesus] thing in the window, The King of Jews for the King of Beers, that Ron painted. The guy was Jewish, and he went apeshit. I lasted two years where I sold lots of Mr. Peanuts to float the gallery. I had to pay the rent, which was pretty expensive, with cash, and I was also floating a gallery in New York at the same time that my wife ran. I was married for 10 years, and my marriage was breaking up. Things were starting to get dicey, and this dude wanted to take the thing over, and I just went, "Oh, okay." Then I scurried back to New York City.

In the next installment of the four-part interview series, Clark recounts his firsthand pop-culture experiences, including sharing a studio with filmmaker David Lynch. David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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