THE PRODIGAL SON
Interview by Devon Howard Photos by Jack Belli
For the first time—in a very long time—artist Kevin Ancell is returning to where his wild journey began.
Homeless by age nine, the Santa Monica native was looked after for years by local surfers like Craig Stecyk. It was there amid coastal LA’s rough-and-tough ’70s beach culture that he was exposed to art, surfing, and skateboarding. Stecyk gave him his first job, painting on surfboards, and he soon used his newfound art talents on murals around Venice and Santa Monica.
After a brief stint in China during the mid-’80s (he was kicked out for being a “cultural pollutant”), he moved to San Francisco. It was there that he began a life of hard drinking, while at the same time developing a unique style of allegorical, fine-art oil paintings that were satirical in nature.
Despite all the hard living, Kevin’s work caught the eye of the world’s biggest collectors. His art was as known for being provocative as it was for its beautiful, richly detailed layers reminiscent of influences like Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Manuel Ribera. But his work beyond the brush became legendary, too. He created impeccable sculptures and carvings, as well as warp-minded installations, like robotic mannequin hula chicks, wielding
Around two years ago, Kevin’s health was in decline—he was out of shape and drinking heavily. His good friend, Pat Tenore, decided to intervene and snap him out of a one-way ticket to the morgue. Pat pleaded that instead of pissing his gift away, Kevin ought to share it with the world. He then convinced Kevin to do his first-ever solo show—and to do it in the city where it all started. But Kevin first needed to physically remove himself from his Bay Area bad habits. Pat suggested that he move down south near his home in Costa Mesa, CA, where Pat could help him get healthy and tackle the show that would feature his best work to date.
The move worked. Through boxing and martial arts training with Pat, he shed the weight, becoming energetic and inspired. Living far from his party-life routines, he was able to focus and produce while at work in his non-descript, cozy-size Costa Mesa commercial space.
Weeks before he opened doors for his show, The Prodigal Son, in Abbot Kinney—a Venice neighborhood Kevin remembers as once being riddled with crime, drugs, homelessness, and hookers—he excitedly gave me and photographer Jack Belli a sneak peak at, and some passionate insight into, his body of work.
Is that bomb over there going to be in the show [pointing to a giant mock bomb made from an old 747 water tank]?
Hell, yes, everything in here is. You ever see those things out in front of supermarkets, where you stick a quarter in and your little kid rides a horse? I found one that pushes 250 lb. Instead of a small metal horse, I am going to mount that fucking bomb to it, strap on a saddle, and put it at the show’s entrance. It’s the first thing you will see.
To set the tone—or a theme—for the show?
The theme is kinda “antiestablishment.” Most of my work is about that, really. The bomb is just like one of those what-the-fuck moments. [Laughter.] The largest pieces in the show, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is another good example of that. Leonardo Da Vinci originally sketched the composition, but the actual painting of that drawing was never found. In the original they are fighting over a jousting lance. I made it so they are all fighting over oil instead. [Points to a hose and gasoline nozzle amid the struggle.]
I didn’t even notice that till you mentioned it.
Yeah, well, my work is known for having all kinds of surprises. There are lots of hidden images and messages. It’s really fun to watch people look at them. They walk away, then they come back later and discover something. I have had guys call me a year later and go, “Dude, I can’t believe I just found that now.” Sometimes it’s just words, like the sword here that says, “Fuck You Brother,” over and over on the blade, in Latin.
The girl with a tear in her eye, and wrapped in an American flag—what’s that symbolizing?
You know the story of Princess Ka’iulani, right? She tried to stop the annexation of Hawaii. That’s [Lorrin] Thurston behind her, the fucker that lobbied for it to happen. In the early 1890s, she talked her way into an audience with President Grover Cleveland and his wife. The princess was smart, beautiful, and well educated. They were so enamored with her they went up in front of Congress and said, “Hey, we can’t do this,” and asked to restore the monarchy. They basically told Grover to fuck off, and the next president made annexation happen. That graffiti behind her is the lyrics to a song, “Aloha Oe,” that Queen Lili’uokalani wrote about the islands being taken away. The princess, sadly, died soon after—at the age of 23.
And what of the military stripes on that wooden surfboard?
That’s an homage to Billy Al Bangston, the famous pop artist who was based there in Venice. One of his most famous pieces was on an old car hood with metallic hot-rod paint—and right in the middle were sergeant stripes. The surfboard itself is the best one I’ve ever made, perfectly foiled, like an airplane wing. The wood is ancient, too—hundreds of years old. It was unearthed from the mud along the Russian River, which explains its unique stain coloring.
Does the one of Jesus healing people fall under “antiestablishment”?
He’s just healing the kooks. Surfing is so fucking blown up the past decade or two that they are bypassing the basics of it all. Seriously, most surfers these days couldn’t swim from here to across this room—they’d fucking drown without their leash. Surfing is just different now. You know, like all the old-school knowledge shit we used to have is out the window. Like knowing when there is swell approaching without some forecaster doing it for you, or if you see butterflies you grab your shit and run to the beach because it’s gonna hook offshore. They don’t know this stuff anymore, so they need saving.
The pencil drawing with the little girl in bed with a wolf is quite different than a lot of the other works. Do you know much about the old fairy tales?
Well, before the guys that wrote those tales were the original stories that inspired them, and they were fucking gnarly—basically porn. There is one version where the young girl takes her clothes off, jumps in bed and the wolf just eats her. So that’s why if you look real closely at that textured background you’ll see that I drew the word “porn” over and over.
What do you hope to achieve with this show?
I think that the state of things now is that people don’t like to think about what’s going on. They are complacent, oblivious, just in their own little world and turning a blind eye. I kinda just want to slap them in the face a bit.
Complacent with what?
Every time I read or listen to the news I am left feeling, “This is lame, we are just killing the planet.” If my art can make some people think about the environment, nature, or corporate greed that’s causing it, then hopefully some of them will act on it and help make change.
So the legacy of your art will in large part be the message?
I hope so. I’m sick of what’s happening out there. And plus, who the fuck knows how long I got? I could go out tomorrow. So that’s why when I travel I leave as much stuff behind as I can. Whenever I go to my place in Costa Rica I do something like grab a giant hardwood log, carve the shit outta that thing, then put it down on the road where everyone can see it. When I went to Tavarua last year everyone asked, “Which way is north?” So I carved a giant wooden compass with the island in the middle of it. The boys were all stoked. I am totally into that kinda stuff.
Where else have you left something behind?
Lots of places. When I stay at [Kelly] Slater’s house on North Shore I totally fuck with it. [Laughter.] I draw on the walls and shit. It’s great. Last time I was there I did abalone turtles on all the doors. The time before that I drew a hula girl with a big automatic weapon on his entry door, like, “Watch it, fucker.” Oh, I did Andy [Irons] on his shop door, that one is really cool. He didn’t see it for a long time and so I thought maybe he was pissed about it since I never heard anything. Come to find out he loves it, and anytime someone comes by he’s all stoked to show it to him. Then we did all those orca art boards together to raise awareness about how messed up it is to keep them in captivity.
There is a lot of art in here. You’ve been busy.
It wasn’t easy, but I’ve been doing this a long time.
I know a lot of tricks to getting this much work done. Sometimes people think they can take shortcuts, but it actually takes them twice as long. I know what to do, and when, without sacrificing quality. But basically, I just really enjoy the craft—you have to when doing this type of work.
The space for your show will be open for a month. Then what?
It’s been a fun couple of years working on this, and I am really blessed to have a friend like Pat [Tenore], who set this up and encouraged me to do this. I wouldn’t fucking be alive if it weren’t for him getting me out of SF and down here, getting me healthy. So when this is over, I feel like it’s time to retreat back into the rain forest for a bit. But first, I’m going to Australia. Then go party in Tokyo with my friends, [Danny] Fuller and [Dustin] Barca. After that, to Fiji with Slater, and then spend the rest of the winter in Hawaii. Traveling and surfing with friends feeds inspiration for the work. And finally, probably just set up shop in Hanalei and start on the next show.