Look at the paintings of Ed Templeton and you'll see all of the elements that compose the trope of Southern California as paradise: suburban houses with tidy lawns, blue skies, the ocean and, of course, women in bikinis. But Templeton isn't making placid pretty pictures.
His broad view of the Huntington Beach Pier shows the steaming AES power plant in the distance as a Goodyear blimp advertises divorces overhead. On the pier, a religious zealot totes an oversized cross, while a young woman in cut-offs holds a baby in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other — a dystopic contemporary Pietà.
Elsewhere in his works, you'll find a collection of humanity's odd bits: a young girl running a black marker along a wall, a tubby man wearing a T-shirt that reads "Jesus is My Boss" and a one-armed woman, a wristwatch decorating what remains of her limb. In between are curious environmental details, such as a toxic pink sky or a discarded religious tract.
If you were thinking that Orange County was one monolithic carpet of bland homogeneity, Templeton's work serves as a reminder that it contains plenty of local color.
In some circles, the Huntington Beach-based artist is best known for his work as a street photographer, capturing skate punks, bikini babes and mohawked teenage smokers, as well as for being one of the artists featured in the 2008 documentary "Beautiful Losers," about the underground art scene tied to New York's now-defunct Alleged Gallery.
An exhibition of his works is on view this month at Roberts & Tilton in Culver City — the first time he is showing just his painting. The artist took time to chat via telephone about the show, discussing his approach to painting and photography, and why his hometown of Huntington Beach is so relentlessly weird.
The paintings in this show are scenes drawn from your wanderings around Huntington Beach. How did you come to focus on this area for this series of works?
This show was sort of started when I saw the man watering the lawn [depicted in "Man Waters Lawn, Suburbia," from 2014]. I was driving out of my housing tract and I saw him in that lawn chair watering his lawn. I thought, this is a living [David] Hockney. So I photographed it. But then I really just had to paint it, even at the risk of of people saying it's like a Hockney.
That got the ball rolling. I thought, 'There's all these photos I shoot and people I see that I could paint. I have all of these suburban Huntington Beach images, I'm just going to use all of these characters I see every day.' A few of the paintings in the show stem from the Instagram shots. But when I saw the man with his lawn, I thought, 'Man, this looks so cool' and it started the nugget of a painting.
What makes Huntington Beach such an interesting source of inspiration to you?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I grew up [in Orange County]. In my youth I was at war with the culture here. I hated it. It's the typical thing any kid might have. The grass is greener. I wanted to go to New York or L.A. or Europe. But then I turned pro for skateboarding in 1990 and I started traveling the world and I'd be gone for these long periods and every time I would come back, it'd be a new dose of how completely weird Huntington Beach is. You spend a month in Europe and you come back and you're like, "There is no place like this." We live in a paradise and it's really weird and it has a lot of characters.
If you've been to Huntington Beach, you've seen that when you drive in it's just wall after wall after wall. These suburban developments all face inwards. But you still see pieces of what goes on behind those walls. We were driving down the street the other day and behind the wall there is a trampoline and every couple of seconds you see a kid flying up above it. It was so strange and I thought that could make a great painting.
Your portrayal of Orange County gets well away from the image of sunny suburbia you see in the media. There's a darkness to it — and some really unusual people.
Part of it is the skateboarding. You're out on the streets a lot when you do that, so you become more open to the street culture. We'd go to the middle of nowhere or some urban area, and rather than shying away from the homeless guy, you embrace it and hang out with him. So you get to know another side. And I've always like the underbelly part.
Plus, in the suburbs, there's the stereotypical side, with the lawns and the picket fence and everything is nice. Then you go to the city and you see humanity and there are homeless and there is garbage and there are kids smoking weed and you think this is humanity. Well, humanity is humanity everywhere. Humanity is humanity here, they just polish it. You still have domestic abuse. You still have teens smoking weed. All the depravity is still happening in the suburbs, too. It's just behind the façade of a beautiful house.
How did you get into art — was it through painting or photography?
A lot of people would know me as a photographer and that's because I'm more interested in photography books. I collect photography books. I'm a big photo book nerd. But I actually started as a painter in 1990. All my early exhibitions were painting shows. In fact, my first solo show was a painting show at the Alleged Gallery in New York. In that show, I put a bunch of Polaroids in the doorway and that was the start of my photography. After that, I started to hang my photographs together with painting. But I've been doing both all along.
What type of paintings do you look at? What kinds of traditions are you inspired by?
I love all my peers: Chris Johanson, Barry McGee. Lately, when I visit Europe and go to museums, I love the medieval art. I like the flatness of it, the decoration and all of the meaning put into it. And I grew up a huge fan of [German and Austrian painters like Egon] Schiele and [Gustav] Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. [A] friend at the show said, [my paintings were] like a suburban Otto Dix. He liked the social satire. That was a real compliment.
I also love Hockney. If you grew up in England and you come to California and revel in the sunniness, I see that. I'm not copying it but I understand it, I see the vibe. I don't think a painter can touch a pool without invoking Hockney because he spent so much time working on the problems of the body of water. [My] painting of the man watering the lawn, I think of that Hockney with a green lawn and sprinklers. Mine adds the human element. I'm interested in people and what's happening with them and the human condition.
Lately, I've gotten into the work of Paul Cadmus. I saw his painting of Coney Island at LACMA and it puts my stuff to shame.
How much of what appears in your paintings is real and how much is your own invention?
Most of it is an invention. Only two paintings from the show are sort of directly from pictures: the girl by the pool ["Erin Sunbathing"] and the man watering the lawn. Generally, I use photos for reference and inspiration, but I don't paint them literally.
For ["Woman Walks Poodles"] what happened was I snapped a photo of a woman walking poodles in front of a tree, a topiary that looked like poodles. So I used that idea — the woman and the fence and stuff — but I totally reinvented her and I reinvented the tree.
And I have photos of the "Jesus is My Boss" guy. That guy [always] wears that shirt. I've never seen him in a shirt that isn't "Jesus is My Boss." He has them in all colors, even camo. And he'll be down there shooting bikini girls with his iPad.
Some paintings are photos I missed: stuff I wanted to shoot but missed, so I turn it into a painting instead. The barefoot girl with the leopard-skin tights, I saw her walking around but I didn't photograph her, so I turned it into a painting.
What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen walking around Huntington Beach?
During the [U.S. Open of Surfing], you'll have a million people in bathing suits as well as all of these religious people who come to preach at all of these people who are looking at skin while they look at skin. There's a guy that comes with a big papier-mache Bible. And he comes down and yells at people that they're going to hell. One day he took the Bible on a cart and took it into the sand and into the waves. It was so strange. He's just carrying this giant Bible around in the sand.