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Brothers' helping hands

Rob and Christian Clayton create candy-colored dreamscapes by painting over and reworking each other's handiwork.

May 08, 2011|By Hugh Hart, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Brothers Rob, right, and Christian Clayton have an artistic collaboration that has produced color-infused surreal work that will be exhibited at the Pasadena Museum of California Art starting May 15.
Brothers Rob, right, and Christian Clayton have an artistic collaboration… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Rob and Christian Clayton enjoy a killer view of the San Gabriel Mountains from their La Crescenta studio, but the brothers rarely gaze into the distance for inspiration. The source material for their twitchy exercises in Social Surrealism lingers just outside the door of their Honolulu Avenue storefront.

Christian remembers the impetus for one recent show: "This horrible motorcycle accident happened right out front. We ran out and saw the guy who got banged up. After the ambulance came and got him we came back in here we were both 'Arrgghh, my God!' and started talking about the idea of diagnosing our paintings from this sense of urgency, as if we were both EMTs."

And by "diagnose," Christian means one brother paints over, reworks, adds to or takes away from whatever the other one comes up with. The my-turn/your-turn methodology results in jittery, candy-colored dreamscapes peopled with anxious characters that have earned the brothers a growing corps of followers. Part of  a Southern California cohort of artists who erode distinctions between fine art and populist graphics, the Claytons infuse impish surface charm with currents of dread, discontent and intimations of mortality. A sampling of their work will be on display at Pasadena Museum of California Art's "Clayton Brothers: Inside Out" retrospective beginning May 15.

Dressed in near-identical newsboy caps, paint-splattered jeans and track shoes, their arms saturated with tattoos applied by musician-inker "Big Frank," the brothers radiate a go-with-the-flow alertness that makes it easy to picture them 30 years ago, when, as teenagers on spring break from hometown Denver, they'd rent a cheap motel room in Santa Monica and soak up the city's skateboard and punk rock scene. Pointing to a portrait-in-progress reminiscent of Peter Lorre if he'd sported purple striated skin and blue ears, older brother Rob, 47, muses, "I might have just painted a shape on there, put some eyes on it or something."

Then Christian, 43, went to work. "I didn't like his ears so I cut them off and put different ones on," he says. "I changed the eyes, which I don't like. I don't mind the shape, but the direction and emotion of the eyes aren't there yet. And this is the part where it gets fun, because now I can give it back to Rob: 'I'm done.' I don't know if he's [mad] or wants to bury it."

Angry or not, the siblings generally keep tweaking until the piece is deemed complete, if only because it's due to be shipped to a gallery opening.

Stephen Fleischman, curator of the original "Inside Out" exhibition that ran last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, Wis., says he's fascinated by the densely tangled tableaux produced by the brothers' tag team approach. "We tend to think of the creator of a work as monolithic entity, so you think, 'Surely they must have the same take on what they do.' But that's not the case with the Clayton Brothers." Though ample precedent for artistic duos can be found, for example, in the Starn Twins' photographic installations or Clegg & Guttmann's "community portraits," Fleischman points out that the brothers demonstrate a rare degree of synchronicity. Once a piece is completed, the brothers themselves rarely remember who did what.

Free expression

The Claytons initially practiced their craft separately during a free-ranging childhood dominated creatively by a photojournalist father who urged the boys to pay close attention to their surroundings and express themselves accordingly. Rob recalls, "We drew on the walls, leather jackets, on our arms, scraps of paper. We made punk rock fliers and painted on skateboards, went to movies with our dad we probably had no business seeing and picked up on everything going on around us."

The brothers earned degrees from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, then trekked around the country in search of roadside folk artists before setting up shop as illustrators-for-hire in L.A.'s Fairfax district. They worked in adjoining rooms until 1996, when a Portland, Ore., ad agency yoked their talents for the first time. Recalls Rob, "The creative director loved the work that both of us did and couldn't decide which one of us to hire, so he said, 'Why don't you guys do something together?' "

The Claytons — who now live in Pasadena with their families (Christian, married, has two sons; Rob and his wife have two dogs) — have been signing each piece with their pair of near-identical signatures ever since. "You never completely control the destiny of the piece, and that intrigues us." Rob explains. "Christian might come in one morning and find something that's completely different from how he left it the night before. We also play around with the idea of completely obliterating each other's marks and letting that be a mark unto itself."

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