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Street artist D*Face revels in provocation

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Growing up in a working-class London suburb beset by dull classes and endless winters, Dean Stockton often escaped into a dream vision of California fueled in equal measure by "Back to the Future" and the skateboard bible Thrasher magazine. "When I was 12 or 13," he recalls, "I watched this guy in 'Back to the Future' holding onto the back of a car skateboarding down beautiful-looking streets in the sunshine and I was like: 'That's where I need to be!'"

Decades later, Stockton, who signs his work as "D*Face," finally made it to Southern California, bringing with him a cheeky anything-is-fair-game aesthetic. First, he filled an empty San Bernardino swimming pool with hundreds of skull images. When the skulls faded, he strapped wirelessly activated spray cans underneath skateboards and enlisted skaters to gang-paint a spaghetti-striped abstract graphic curving up, down and around the pool's concrete walls.

But Stockton's most spectacular Los Angeles "intervention" happened in 2010 when he sneaked into Runyon Park after dark and installed a cadaver-like 7-foot-tall "Zombie Oscar." He also placed a rotting man-sized Oscar in front of Mel's Diner, not far from Academy Awards venue Dolby Theatre.

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Stockton, 40, says the statues embody an appetite for deconstruction that characterizes much of his work. "Poking fun and trying to be provocative — I really enjoy that element of what I do, which I guess comes back down to a skateboarding mentality, a punk rock mentality and a graffiti mentality where you're doing things that will upset the status quo. The thing I did with the Oscars was a very direct way of prodding [this] slow-moving part of America.... 'OK, I'm going to make the Oscar dead and I'm going to place it right in front of you.'"

Stockton's mordant body of work gets the deluxe picture book treatment in "The Art of D*Face: One Man and his Dog" (Laurence King Publishing Ltd.). An exhibition of his sculptures, screen prints, helmets, skateboards and other art objects runs through March 4 at Stephen Webster's Beverly Hills in-store gallery. Prices range from $450 for pendants co-created with jeweler Webster up to $33,000 for "Her Royal Hideousness," which portrays the queen of England with wings sprouting from her head, layered over a canvas painting of a skull.

The D*Face brand today commands a level of commercial respectability that would have been hard to imagine in 2003, when Stockton quit his job as a graphic designer at an ad agency and committed himself full time to the then-precarious occupation of street artist. "In my early years," he recalls, speaking during a recent visit here, "I used to get a lot of situations where people would ask me with a puzzled look, 'What do you do for a job?' I don't get those questions anymore."

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As both practitioner and curator — Stockton ran the pioneering Outside Institute urban art gallery frequented by Banksy and now represents Los Angeles friend Shepard Fairey at his StolenSpace London gallery — the British artist shows no interest in toning down his public provocations.

During a 2011 visit to L.A., he and his team rolled down Hollywood Boulevard at 3 in the morning and placed a concrete "Cheat Death" headstone next to Charlie Sheen's Walk of Fame star. It was one of a series of tombstones that Stockton fabricated after he came across a tepid grade-school assessment in a stack of old papers. "One of my teachers said that at my current trajectory I'd be going nowhere fast," recalls Stockton. "I thought that made such a good title for a show and really made sense for me in terms of where I've come from and what I'm doing right now. It's not about dying. It's about celebrating life and burning bright and living fast."

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