One look at Matt Stallings and you wouldn't think he'd have very much in common with the Von Dutch-wearing bros and babes who flock to Pacific Beach every weekend. He often wears thick black glasses and Iron Maiden T-shirts—in the most non-ironic way possible, giving him the look of an art-film buff who also has a penchant for '80s metal. Ask your typical SDSU student what Von Dutch is and they'll likely tell you all about tight-fitting shirts and bejeweled trucker hats. But Stallings knows better.
“Von Dutch,” Stallings says, “is not just a damn trucker hat that Paris Hilton wears, but the man himself who helped invent pin striping and custom hot rods before he drank himself into oblivion like Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.”You learn something new every day. But why does Stallings know this? Because three of his paintings were recently commissioned by Mark Murphy (of local design firm and book company Murphy Design) for a retrospective book on the life and art of Von Dutch. The result, Pray that the Road is Long—The Mythology of Von Dutch, resulted in “Tuff Guy,” “Lucky 13” and “Hell Cat” being purchased by a rather unlikely buyer.
“All three paintings are now owned by Tonny Sorensen, the man who masterminded the Von Dutch [clothing] brand,” Stallings says. “The painting ‘Tuff Guy' is my representation of the tough guy Harley moto enthusiast. Von Dutch painted a lot of helmets and bikes. I won't go into it, but the panther in the painting is wearing a German World War II helmet. I like stereotypes.”
Stallings may have a predilection for stereotypes, but much of his paintings are more devoted to what he describes as a statement on American culture, pop or otherwise (most can be seen at www.mattstallings.com). Using mostly acrylic on wood, his work often resembles portraits of sorts, whether they're of the Man in Black in “Johnny Cash from the Fire to the Sky” or animals posed as humans like in the Von Dutch paintings, and he seems hell-bent on taking the familiar and throwing it into the flames of his id. He has a rebellious style, making subtle statements about corporate culture, but with an accessibly lowbrow, almost folk-art method.
“It's a little gritty and raw like someone painted with detail over an old sign or layers of stripped-down paint,” he says.
“I would say I am very pop-influenced, but I love simple folk art also. Most of my paintings come to me when I see something on TV or I overhear some random comment on the street and my mind twists the words into something visual that makes me chuckle inside. I know it sounds strange but one of my paintings came to me while drawing in the other room listening to my wife watch American Idol. I had never heard the term ‘one-trick pony' and instantly I thought about painting a horse on her hind legs with pink roller skates.”
One of his more recent works, “Land of Dreams”—a portrait of Walt Disney surrounded by surreal images of a battered Mickey Mouse and a verclempt Snow White that was recently part of the Noel-Baza Fine Art gallery's exhibition of San Diego Art Prize nominees—may be his most subversive statement yet. He says was inspired by a recent trip he took up north.
“It came after I took my wife to Disneyland this year for her birthday,” he says. “Being older now and reflecting back on childhood, I find that I see a lot of the power and mind control Walt Disney had over the last 50 years of our culture. The painting isn't there to make Walt look bad. It's more of an ode to his existence. He was just a normal man who pursued his dreams when a lot of people told him he was crazy. There is a bit of a dark undertone there, like Mickey Mouse with a black eye. I am just bringing to light what the industry can do to one single actor. Mickey is a worldwide icon. If he was real, I'm sure he would have a drinking problem.”
Much of Stallings childhood was spent in Ojai, about 20 minutes inland from Ventura, a town he describes as a “mini Santa Barbara with more successful ex-hippies.” He says that while his early art focused more on cartoon characters, it was after he moved to San Diego in 1998 that he started incorporating cultural critiques in his work.
“The mass media called ‘U.S.A.' inspires a lot of my ideas,” he says. “I like to focus on the things that have been said, done or pushed onto us as sophisticated humans. It is still sometimes hard for me to grasp the concept of a vending machine telling me to buy its water for $3.50 when there is a drinking fountain to the right of it.
“I feel like my art is pretty much right there on the surface for the public to relate to,” he continues. “This is why I focus on our culture because I feel like our culture is always enforcing their view or belief about something, whether it's politics, religion, butter or a movie star going on vacation. I like to create my voice through my artwork. I want to be judged, and, good or bad, no one is going to stop me from creating because I enjoy putting my voice out there.”
And the judgments have been good so far. Along with the Von Dutch commission and the Art Prize nomination, Subtext in Little Italy has booked him for a one-artist show in December.
What else is in the cards for Stallings?
“Flux capacitors and flying Delorians,” he says. “Just kidding. I spent too much time watching movies as a kid instead of learning math.”