LOS ANGELES — “When I first saw those rag drawings, I thought, ‘they’re ghosts!,’” exclaims Laurie Steelink. “That’s what our show is going to be about. It’s about ghosts and spirits and beings.”
She is referring to the delicate line drawings of crumpled, threadbare rags by Don Ed Hardy that make up half of the two-person exhibition Evidence of Things Unseen at Track 16 Gallery, near downtown Los Angeles. The other half features work by Steelink, a motley assortment of vibrant paintings, sculptures, and photography that is as exuberant and brash as the rag drawings are precise and measured: the clown-like foil to Hardy’s straight man. The photograph “Deliverance (Trickster)” (2000), from the Rodeo Clown series, portrays Steelink as a white-faced clown with a bulbous red nose, eyes bulging and mouth agape, a terrifyingly comic self-portrait.
Beyond these stylistic distinctions, however, the exhibition shows these longtime friends digging back into their roots to forge new aesthetic paths. They may seem an unlikely pair: Hardy, the internationally recognized tattoo artist who helped popularize modern tattooing; and Steelink, the contemporary artist who explores her Native American heritage through her punky, day-glo, cut-up and reassembled paintings and installations. But beneath the surface, both refuse to adhere to traditional artistic hierarchies, an attitude they have shared throughout their 30-year friendship.
Don Ed Hardy grew up in the Southern California city of Newport Beach, where he became enchanted by the Army tattoos sported by the father of a childhood friend. He was hooked. Hardy would take the bus up to tattoo parlors in Long Beach, and ordered catalogues of flash designs from tattoo supplier Milton Zeis. At the age of 11, he and his friends opened up a “tattoo parlor” in his family’s den, where they would decorate the chests and arms of neighborhood kids with colored pencils. They made official-looking tattoo licenses for themselves and hung signs that said “If under 9, stay out” and “NO CREDIT.”
“The whole look of those things was so important — not just what they meant, what they stood for, but the graphic forms of them were really important to me,” Hardy told Hyperallergic the day before the exhibition opened. “That’s stuck with me all the way through.”
He studied printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, but turned down a fellowship to Yale after he graduated in 1967, opting instead to begin his tattoo career. In the ensuing four decades, until his retirement from tattooing in 2008, Hardy played a huge role in bringing the art form from the fringes of US society to the mainstream. Wearing a dress shirt, jacket, and slacks, the soft-spoken 77-year-old artist offers little indication of his status as a counterculture icon, except for a bird tattoo on his neck peeking out from behind his collar.
Alongside his tattoo work, Hardy’s own “fine art” work plumb heterogeneous art historical depths, pulling from “high” and “low” sources without distinction: Renaissance paintings, Japanese prints, and tattoo staples like snakes, ships, birds, and devils. “It’s my therapy, to get away from all the things I had to put on people’s skin,” he says with an impish grin.
The rag series began simply enough when Hardy’s wife, Francesca, dumped a pile of cleaning rags onto a table. “I said, ‘that’s a pretty good shape, I should draw that thing,’” he recalls. He renders each rag through fine skeins of colored lines on black paper, endowing them with the dramatic presence of Renaissance drapery. They also resemble the linework of etching or engraving, evoking his student days as a printmaker. He adds elements of tattoo flash, such as a flame or a panther, into parts of the composition. In addition, he incorporates a lattice pattern to which he has returned over the years; the pattern is a reference to the trellises of his childhood backyard.
“He has such an extensive codex of imagery, and he uses those as accents within a composition,” says Steelink. “He extracts them and puts them over the head of a drawn rag, which then takes on this royal or holy stature.”
Steelink first met Hardy in 1992 at a tattoo convention in New Jersey. Like Hardy, she had also graduated from SFAI, though 20 years later, and had recently begun tattooing. While her then-husband was interested in watching tattoo demos, “I wasn’t so much,” she recalls. “I’d wander off and I’d always end up with Hardy and we’d have long conversations …. He was one of the people that you could talk to easily if you had something interesting to say.” This began their personal and creative relationship. She has curated shows of his work in her former role as director of Track 16. (This is his ninth exhibition at the gallery.) He gave her one of his signature “eye bird” tattoos on the back of her neck, visible only when she parts her mane of long, gray hair.
Steelink’s contribution to the exhibition also delves into her past, summoning ghosts and memories. She was born into the Akimel O’otham tribe in Arizona, but was adopted and raised by a white family. Despite their progressive politics, Steelink felt disconnected from her birth family and community. Over the past several years, she has begun to explore her complicated identity through her art, notably in her 2018 show Coming Into Being at the Angels Gate Cultural Center. Her installation “GATHERING POWER (Indian Market Booth)” is also included in the current OCMA Biennial, and melds abstraction with ritual objects. She has started selling her artwork at Native American Art markets, placing it in the context of traditional craft.
At Track 16, she digs into her personal and artistic history, cutting up old paintings and reassembling them into, for instance, a folding screen, as with “A Haunting (Blood Language)” (2022/2011), a carnally suggestive blue and pink abstraction sliced into four panels. “Sustained by a Myth (a recurring childhood nightmare)” (2022) features a plaster model of a cave with a sinister red glow emanating from its mouth, perhaps an attempt to exorcize a disturbing childhood dream by recreating it.
“Spirit Painting No. 1” (2022), a sculpture composed of strips of an old painting fashioned into a cone, speaks to the transformative and expansive conception of art that she shares with Hardy. Decorated with bells and pom-poms, it refers to the costumes worn by the Hopi dancers Steelink witnessed at a performance her parents took her to as a child. “I crawled under the table and I hid because I was so afraid of those dancers, because they were beings,” she recalls. “This is the purpose, right? For them to extend beyond the human by having these costumes. They become these spirits, performing for the purpose of harvest, rain, or whatever is necessary for life.”