On April 24th of this year, I ventured down to the dusty outskirts of Watsonville, CA with fellow Cloud Shepherd member Mark Pino in order to commune with the artist Casey Sonnabend. I first saw a painting of his on the wall of a mutual friend’s house in Santa Cruz around 1991. At that time he was renting the garage out for a studio/living space, but for some reason I never got around to meeting him until twenty-one years later. The particular painting I saw frightened me in the best of ways: the enormous dimensions of the canvas itself, coupled with the highly detailed psychic dimensions depicted, truly awed me. The painting was a riotous explosion of colorfully frenzied marks, wonderfully grotesque and seething organisms, cornucopias of unnameable objects, humanoid forms, and other scintillating matter I could never truly explain. Sonnabend’s work is at once visceral, playful, and nightmarish. It also refuses to stay still long enough to be incarcerated in tired and clichéd art movement prison cells. The work is too various and unique to be categorized. What I call Sonnabend’s “primordial paintings” consist of imagery that combine the phantasmagoric with the mundane. Daubs and swathes of paint form soft embryos and multi-cellular Cambrian-era arthropods that in turn give way to intestine-like squiggles. Amidst these elements nude figures cavort, pulling at their flesh to reveal radiant innards. Everyday objects such as books and warrior ants vie for space with a plated roast chicken. Sonnabend also has a fascination with our simian relatives. They appear in both stately portraiture and as impish creatures that can smoke, paint, dunk donuts, and emote in a curiously familiar human manner. Also scattered throughout his enormous collection are reworked thrift store black velvet paintings. Some of these he’s left with the original image poking through in places. Among my favorites is a matador and bull that would be at home in a Mexican restaurant, albeit one serving enchiladas de hongos mágicos.
Casey Sonnabend was born in Buffalo, New York in 1933, but has lived most of his adult life on the fringes of mainstream California society. Never bothering with self-promotion or ingratiating himself with the high lameness of the art world, Sonnabend has maintained a fairly consistent obscurity throughout his artistic non-career, however, he did dip his toes into the mainstream when he had a prestigious one-man show of his photos at the San Francisco MOMA in 1963. He is primarily known as the (unpaid) photographer of the iconic image of a sadhu for the 1967 Human-Be In poster, which was later used for the City Lights Books edition of Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue.
To talk with Sonnabend is an enormous treat for anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes view of the jazz, art, and poetry scenes of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. He spoke candidly of his friendship with poets Lew Welch and Stan Rice, of his time touring Europe with jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani, and most importantly of his time as a student of Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. In 1958, while residing briefly in Italy, Sonnabend heard that Kokoschka was to give painting classes that summer. Off to Salzburg he went! Kokoschka, a demanding and relentlessly critical teacher, told him, “You’re the worst painter in the class!” as he gave out bon-bons to his favorite students. After class one day Sonnabend found Kokoschka in a chair watching a tennis game between two students. “Someday you’ll be like me…,” the senior artist said, “seventy-three years old and watching young women play tennis!” Now, at age seventy-nine Sonnabend chuckles over this.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s Sonnabend played music (he is a trained percussionist, but an aficionado of free jazz), painted, and wrote poetry in Big Sur, and then moved to Santa Cruz in the mid-’80s. His current studio is comprised of two large storage units, each filled to the brim with several hundred paintings, multi-foot-long rolled-up canvases, old photographs, a piano, and other odd and ends. Mark and I spent a couple hours pulling paintings out, giddily unrolling giant canvases across the grass, and viewing photographs of skyclad hippies and sundry Indian folk. All the while Sonnabend engaged us in lengthy, compelling conversations about his work as well as the writings of Artaud, Bernhard, Beckett, and Bob Kaufman. He also offered wise words regarding the Imagination and the visionary in a world that is seemingly indifferent to anything that isn’t consensually hip or commercially viable. Although we spent most of the afternoon with him and his work we saw perhaps 2% of what was stored in those containers, not to mention the many unseen paintings that grace people’s walls. Sunburned, disoriented, and dehydrated we returned to Oakland. As we drove away, Mark turned to me and said, “That was like a daylong acid trip.”
Thanks to Patrick Dunagan for the scan of the Lew Welch photo.
Brian Lucas is a poet, musician, and artist living in Oakland, CA. He’s the author of Circles Matter (2012, BlazeVox Books), Telepathic Bones (2011, Berkeley Neo-Baroque), and Light House (2006, Meeting Eyes Bindery). He plays in the improv-ambient group Cloud Shepherd. His visual art blog is at http://brianlucas.tumblr.com.