Carlo McCormick

Nonsense and Sensibility: Samoa’s Fine Art of Misunderstanding

What does Candy Coated Evil taste like? Is it good for you, addictive, adult or good fun for all? It is yummy and satisfying yet leaves you always wanting more, it is comfort on the edge of disquiet, absurdity without shame, familiar yet utterly alien. It is what is lost in translation and all that which is found in this loss, the new open-ended and impossible meanings constructed from our miscomprehension of our culture, the deification of our irreverence and the highly internalized adoption of public spectacle as personal dreamscape. These are the fantasies we take as real and the reality we make of fantasy, the look of desire and the mesmeric spell of what might rather make us look away. It was a legendary store in a time of legends where clothes hung in a place where people hung out, and where the very pretense of commerce was its most un-commercial aspect. It’s also a very apt phrase to describe the art of Samoa, who has been beguiling us for some 35 years with an innocence that is profoundly cognizant of the perversity around it.

Hard rocking stalwart axeman for the performance-core musical spectacle band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Samoa’s abiding sense of unembarrassed theatricality, self-taught ingenuity, mock fetish and exaggerate excess has wandered across media and genre like a casual accumulation of extremes over the decades. Did we notice him first as a go-go boy dancing on the bar (it was quite a sight), or when he took the stage covering Sex Pistols songs on a low-tech department store guitar and in an accent that made the lyrics as indecipherable as they were immediately recognizable? Samoa’s perpetual ad-hoc relationship to creativity, his infectiously ebullient amateurism as if taken wholly from the we got a barn in the back let’s put on a show to save the farm from the old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland Andy Hardy movies, his thrift store in a blender aesthetic and adapting of all manner of material as readymade artifact- what his long-term collaborator Kembra Pfahler has aptly termed “Availabism” for the making art out of whatever is available- and his various tenures in professions ranging from high-end floral design to set direction for porn movies before the industry left New York City for Southern California, constitute the same attributes and strategies of his more recent studio practice as a painter.

Like many whose sense of adventure and possibility was germinated in the wake of Punk’s improvisatory self-expression and flowered in the post-modern pastiche of the early East Village art scene, Samoa’s style is outré and organic, as much a matter of attitude as it is of sensibility. Be it is all too revealing habiliments, the elaborate and ornate fantasy of his fan-art paintings, his guitar thrashing madness with The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black or the manifestly sincere irony of the country-tinged folk outfit The Lonely Samoans he undertook during a hiatus from his other band, Samoa strikes a multitude of potent contradictions as an artist, constructing self as a fluid and indefinite frame of community based on an otherness that is at once catharsis and caricature. A persistent stranger (he’s not even from Samoa as his name always insinuated, but from Hiroshima, Japan), his craft lies somewhere between DIY authenticity and high-camp impersonation, constantly wavering between the quotidian and the quirky, the foreign and the familiar. Naïve yet knowing, heartfelt yet utterly ludicrous, Samoa recovers the ordinary and returns it to the unimaginable, working within an iconography that belies the obvious with a startling subjectivity, he takes the tropes of pop and transforms them into the props of cultural misapprehension. Building an optical derangement and frisson from an art of incompatibility, whether he’s fusing zebra-skin lounge with metal mania flame jobs with stripper chic, Americana with the avant-garde, or dissembling the hero-worship of celebrity icons through the mannerisms of folk, he transforms the common and recognizable into something disconcertingly off, repurposing the deification of our household gods- such an unlikely pantheon as TV painter Bob Ross, Princess Diana, Warhol, hyper-idealized revolutionaries, Dylan, Ono and Lennon, Bruce Lee and Ronald McDonald- into a panoply of perversity, a domestic shrine to the falsity and failure of faith.