Ron Wharton isn't the first artist to rechristen himself with a new professional moniker. But he probably spent less time thinking about it than most. He picked his name, “The Art Pimp,” on a whim.
“It's a character I made up so I can talk about myself in third person,” he reveals with a mischievous grin. “It's easier. The Art Pimp can say whatever and not answer to anyone.”
The big-upping alter ego he created a few years ago for his website (rwharton.illequipped.com) “has taken on a life of its own. A lot of people don't even know my real name. It's strange to get e-mail addressed to The Art Pimp.”
In real life, Wharton looks more like an aging punk than a pimp of any sort. The 43-year-old New Jersey transplant wears his blond hair cropped close, but tattoos of the seven deadly sins, Frank Kozik's smoking bunny and a Virgin Mary rocking a dollar sign peek out from beneath his T-shirt. His jeans are clean but his black Chuck Taylors are legitimately battered.
Back during the early '80s, when the punk band Minor Threat was on the vanguard of the Washington, D.C., scene, Wharton played in a Baltimore band called TF-Toxic Freedom. They stuck it out for a decade, though there's little trace of TF online (one reviewer remarked that “they are quite toxic and freedom returns only as the CD slips quitely [sic] back into the jewel box”). Legends they were not, but Wharton doesn't care. It was a chance for him to make some noise.
“I'm big on kicking shins and stirring up the pot,” he says.
This seems to be his guiding principle, though since those early punk days, his shin-kicking has become entirely metaphorical. “I hate to fight. I'm way too lazy.”
Instead, in 1995, he switched his creative attention from music to art as “an alternative way to spout off.” Wharton's bright, campy paintings feature everything from Elvis, McDonald's and '50s housewives to pills, gambling and guns. With such iconic imagery, sometimes subtle and sometimes baldly literal, he playfully takes to task the world around him.
“I paint about pop culture, vices, anything that's American. We're an odd breed. We're still in our infancy. Most countries have socks older than us. We got so big so fast that we're full of ourselves. And we don't know what our cultural identity is. But we also can make fun of ourselves.”
Wharton, who has no professional training, identifies with the “lowbrow” scene, the underground art movement that sprung up in the late '70s around the Los Angeles subcultures of comics, punk rock, tattoos, skateboarding and hot rods. Many of the artists associated with lowbrow-the opposite of highbrow, or high culture-are outsiders with little or no formal art education.
“I've been artsy since day one, but I never pursued it to a point of professionalism,” Wharton explains. “Most of the techniques I learned from library books or online. When I was in the band, I learned every chord out of a library book, too.”
To pay the bills, he manages a deli part-time in Mission Bay. He spends many of his remaining hours working on his art, which he sells at Seth's Chop Shop in Ocean Beach. His pieces move slowly but surely-about three a month-which keeps him motivated. “Selling is important. I like money. In the U.S., cash is freedom. And I'm big on freedom.”
Freedom, it seems, is sitting outside in his courtyard on a balmy winter afternoon, chugging a can of beer and chain-smoking. He lives a block from the beach in O.B., and readily admits, like so many other non-natives, that he moved to San Diego for the weather.
“When I first moved here in 1999, it felt like the last scene of Goodfellas, when [Ray Liotta] gets relocated. Where I grew up it was pretty rough around the edges. It's very happy and shiny in San Diego. I'm used to a little bit of grit, a little bit of street-like two pieces of sandpaper rubbed together.”
Grit is the last thing that comes to mind when looking at Wharton's cottage-style apartment. The décor is thoughtful and modern and everything in the tiny space is expertly arranged. Plus it's spotless and smells good. Not exactly a hovel of punk-rock depravity.
“That's a girlfriend thing,” he says sheepishly. “If I lived here by myself, it would be a different story.”
A tidy little corner of the living room serves as his studio. He won't even consider renting a space-“then it would feel like work.” He prefers to paint at home, surrounded by his girlfriend of eight years, his cat and his two parakeets. He works late into the night, his creative witching hours, and focuses on the details by day.
He digs San Diego but points out that his work fares much better in other cities. “It's too nice here. People care more about art and culture when it's miserable out.”
On the East Coast, “I have black canvases labeled ‘My Soul' and they sell. I created paintings I thought wouldn't sell and they still sell, direct-assault paintings that say, ‘Fuck you' and ‘You suck.' I had one painting with two angels-one saying ‘I hate you a lot' and the other saying ‘I mean a lot'-and it sold before I even hung it on the wall.”
He pauses to consider the meaning of this. “Who's a crazier person-the one making such art or the one buying it?”
Wharton doesn't seem particularly crazy. He's mellow and quick-witted, an easy conversationalist eager to poke fun at his own amusing American ways-after all, it takes a pop-culture junkie to truly appreciate the skewering of it.
But as he lights another cigarette and discusses the history of hemp and the merits of various prescription pills (his paintings often depict a pharmaceutical cornucopia of uppers and downers), something a little dangerous flickers in the artist's friendly blue eyes.
Maybe it's a trace of his younger bad-ass, punk-rock self, ready to kick the proverbial shit to the fan and laugh maniacally as it splatters over everyone standing around to see him. His nickname during those days was “Satan.”
He's still trying to raise hell with his artwork-according to him, “no one is immune!”-but these days he goes about things a little more quietly. Looking like a semi-normal beach-dwelling dude in Southern California has its advantages. “It's way more fun if you're devious in a secret-agent kind of way. You don't have to sneak through the back door.”
Mostly, Wharton wants to stay true to his subculture roots. When he was a kid, his hippie father used to tell him, “It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks.” By the time Wharton was a teenager who came home with a mohawk, his father had changed his tune: “Don't you care what people think?”
Wharton, now middle-age and, by his own admission, sometimes a “grumpy old man,” hasn't followed in his father's footsteps just yet.
“A lot of people my age have a lot to lose,” he opines with a rueful sigh. “They might not speak their minds out of fear. But really, voicing your opinion takes very little. I don't ever want to be the guy to go ‘You crazy kids with your-'”
See Ron Wharton's work at rwharton.illequipped.com or Seth's Chop Shop, 4994 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach. His work will also be on view at CityBeat's “Seen Local” art show, 7 to 11 p.m. Friday, March 16, at Cream, 4496 Park Blvd. in University Heights.