I had never heard of James Lipton’s dictionary of terms of venery, An Exaltation of Larks, or The Venereal Game before I found it wedged between some old etymological dictionaries I was browsing in my favorite book store, but when I picked it up I knew I was going to buy it almost immediately. Part dictionary, part etymology, and part linguistic game, An Exaltation explores those strange collective noncount nouns of English that anglophiles (like me) find so charming and weird. The first part of the book deals with some of the more common terms of venery, like “pride of lions,” or “skulk of foxes”:
But Lipton soon gives over to more esoteric terms, and then eventually plays with outright invention. The book’s illustrations recall Max Ernst’s surrealist graphic novel Une Semaine de Bonté; they also remind me of the recapitations of recent Biblioklept interviewee Click Mort. Anyway, a very cool book, likely a cult favorite, and lots and lots of fun.
Click Mort makes surreal, charming, disarming sculptures that synthesize pre-existing figures into strange new forms. Largely self-taught, Click works out of his home in his native L.A., where he lovingly decapitates and recapitates antique statuettes. Click’s sculptures were featured in a solo exhibit earlier this year in L.A.’s La Luz de Jesus gallery and are currently on display at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. Click was kind enough to talk to me in detail about his work over a series of emails around Thanksgiving. Check out Click’s website to see more of his fantastical stuff.
Biblioklept: I love your sculptures. They’re disconcerting and surreal but also charming. They’re bizarre and clever, but not whimsical. Can you tell us about how you make them?
Click Mort: Thanks. I’m especially happy to hear them described as “not whimsical.” As for how they’re made, I should probably backtrack a bit since the porcelain pieces I’m doing now weren’t the actual starting point. The first things I tried recapitating were resin figurines from the 99 Cent Store: cute kid couples strolling hand-in-hand, adorable angel-tots, etc.. They were pleasantly awful on their own merits, but when I saw some particularly crappy plastic barnyard animals in the toy section that were roughly the same scale, the gears started turning. Those first head-swaps were pretty crude: I’d just hack off both heads mid-neck with a jeweler’s saw, attach the non-native head with some sculpting resin, and paint over the seam. Voila … Angel-tot with a pig’s head (or angel-pig with a tot’s body, depending on how you look at things).
After a few years of working with cheap resin figures, I kind of burnt out on them. My technique had developed to the point where the swaps were reasonably undetectable, but the available subject matter — tots, tots, and … tots — had gotten monotonous. Also, the figures gave off a really horrible smell when sawed; I strongly suspected they were made of something creepy like melamine. At that point, I decided to try doing the same thing with porcelain figures.
Right … so now I can answer your actual question. Once a suitable head and body match have been found (and describing that process would add a few more paragraphs to an already inhumanely long and dull answer) the first job is to remove all the unwanted material. A jeweler’s saw — or any cutting implement whose description doesn’t include the words “diamond-edged” — won’t even mar the finish on porcelain. I use a high-speed Dremel with some sort of diamond-dust edged cutting tool attachment. Assuming we’re talking about a human body getting an animal head, everything from the collar up has to go on the body figure. This includes hair, headgear, ribbons, or whatever connecting the head and body. If any of these drape over a collar or lapel, those parts have to go too. For the heads, the amount that gets hacked off depends on the animal. On a quadruped, because of the different angle the spine intersects the skull relative to a biped, almost everything behind the ears and under the jawline has to be removed and then re-sculpted after the head has been attached to the body.
In order to get a really good bond between the head and body, I fill the upper torso with sculpting resin and sink an aluminum rod into it. A length of rod is left protruding up, and the head—which also gets stuffed with resin—is then positioned on it. After that, all the missing areas have to be sculpted back on. Finally, whatever painting is needed to cover the recreated areas and blend them into the original parts gets done.
And however tedious that was to read, the actual process is several thousand times more so.
Biblioklept: I liked reading about the process, but I suppose when we do something all the time, it seems tedious to us. Your process fascinates me, because the images of your figures don’t show any “seams” — your figures look like little mass produced statues from an alternate dimension. There’s a surreal synthesis at play in your work, not just in the actual combination of, say, a dog’s head on human body, but also in the tone of the work. Your pieces strike me as both creepy and tender at the same time. I’m curious how you know if a piece “works” — when are you satisfied with your figures?
CM: That mass-produced quality is something I really try not to lose when putting together the figures. There’s something inherently familiar and low-key about mass-produced objects, and I like the idea of art that doesn’t scream for attention but just sort of sits there mumbling to itself. The down side to this is it sometimes works against the figures getting noticed at all. In the few gallery shows they’ve been in, it seemed a lot of people never looked at them from closer than a few feet away. Maybe they thought someone had just lined up a bunch of old lady tschotske crap as some sort of conceptual piece.
As for the figures working as much on a tonal as objective level, yeah, that’s becoming more and more the case. Or at least my intention. On the early pieces, I was getting figures that I thought were awful to begin with and simply trying to change the nature of their awfulness. Over the course of hundreds of hours on eBay looking for working materials, I started noticing how great some of these cheap figurines were in their own right, particularly the stuff made in Japan in the fifties and sixties. At that point, I really started paying less attention to what kind of head would seem funniest on a piece and focusing more on how the shape and expression of the new head would fit into what was already a wonderful figure. It became more about trying to maintain the geometry of the whole thing while shifting the mood.
“Creepy and tender” is as good a description as I’ve heard. I guess the tenderness is a product of my real affection for the original figures showing through. And while I don’t consider the finished pieces particularly creepy, a lot of people have described them that way. As near as I can figure, it’s because the heads I like to use almost always have sort of neutral expressions, and that lack of expression is unsettling to us on some fundamental level.
And to a great degree, when a piece “works” is determined almost as soon as I have the original figure in hand. The only finished pieces I’ve been unhappy with are ones where as soon as I unpackaged a figure bought online, I hated it but followed through with a head-swap anyway rather than just eat the cost of the figure. Usually though, if I like the original piece, I’m going to be happy with the finished figure. It might be a week or a year for the right head to show up, but I’ll know when it does. And from there, it’s only a matter of taking the time (and typically, this is something like ten to twenty hours) to bring the two together.
Biblioklept: There’s a clear appreciation or even adoration of kitsch in your work, but there’s also this level to it where you’re literally grafting two tchotchkes to each other in a way that transcends kitsch (I don’t know if that description is clear or valid). What I like about your work is that it doesn’t rely solely on an ironic aesthetic shared by both artist and audience, but that’s nevertheless part of the experience. What is it about the awful that attracts us?
CM: I wouldn’t describe my composite pieces as transcending their components, but that’s probably an extension of my regard for the original, unaltered figures. I mean, obviously I don’t think they’re sacrosanct or whatever or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Still, if there were only one — rather than thousands — of a given figure, I’d absolutely leave it alone. The same holds true for figures I think are already so wonderfully bizarre that anything I could possibly do to them would only diminish their oddity.
I guess I consider what I do as just condensing what I like about these things: taking the most expressive elements of each and putting that all in one figure in a way that enhances (but doesn’t necessarily transcend) what was already going on to some degree in the original.
It’s really hard to say what perceptions I share with whatever audience my work has. Originally, the only place that would carry them was a little boutique retail store, and now the figures have gotten into a couple of gallery group shows. In both instances, I almost never know who’s bought them, so there’s no opportunity for any sort of dialogue. For me, there’s no irony whatsoever at work in these things, but I’m pretty much literal to the point of dullness and don’t really see them as operating on any level other than the apparent. All I’m trying to do is get objectively incongruent elements and make them visually and aesthetically congruent.
But that’s just my take on them. I can be a didactic goon about a lot of stuff, but it would really be pointless to try and dictate what anyone else is or isn’t seeing in these pieces. And while there’s a definite attraction to awfulness, I don’t perceive these figures as awful. Alien, yeah. Absolutely. Which is pretty funny, given that they were originally produced as innocuous home garni and now something like a Norman Rockwell figurine is about as familiar as one of those lumpy Paleolithic Venus figures.
Biblioklept: A few of your pieces reference authors (Didion, Hemingway), but it’s not necessarily a recurring theme. How did these authors find their way into your titles? What do you enjoy reading?
CM: Titling the pieces is probably my least favorite part of the process. Usually, I just slap on whatever gibberish pops into my head and that’s that. The two figures you’ve posted are the only ones with literary references and, oddly enough, refer to one author who knocks me out and one I think is flat-out terrible (and I don’t think Didion is terrible).
As for what I read, it’s sort of a weird grab bag of stuff. Rather than trying to categorize my likes, I just grabbed the pile currently on the nightstand. Here’s what was there:
Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects
Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction
Zippy Goes to School (The titular Zippy is a chimp, not the better-known pinhead.)
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Keep trying to read this but invariably drop it in favor of something like Zippy Goes to School)
Tank Warfare: A History of Tanks in Battle
Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo: The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films
And there’s other stuff I like and have been reading and rereading for decades: Saki and Flannery O’Connor are two particular faves.
Biblioklept: You’ve mentioned that you don’t have an art school background. I’ll concede up front that this is one of those questions that interviewers aren’t supposed to ask, but I’d really like to know—what artists move you?
CM: Not to flip the interview, but why aren’t you supposed to ask stuff like that? It seems like a reasonable question.
Besides lacking an art school background, I’ve got a pretty skimpy art foreground. I’ve just never paid all that much attention to visual art. There are a few artists who for whatever reason caught my attention like Mark Ryden, Basil Wolverton, and Norman Saunders, but that’s about it. Oh, and Norman Rockwell, whose paintings are as wonderful as the figures inspired by them aren’t. And oddly enough, I seem much more moved by sounds than sights. It’s probably just a matter of how my neuro-wiring is laid out.
Biblioklept: I don’t know where I got the idea that you weren’t supposed to ask the interviewee questions like “What artists do you like?” or “What books do you read?” — maybe my high school journalism teacher? Not sure. I guess it just seems lazy on my part. But the questions are asked in good faith, I think.
You bring up music—I know you played guitar for The Cramps in the early eighties—do you have any musical projects underway now?
CM: Nope. While I still spend a fair amount of time banging on guitars, the interest and/or enthusiasm for any sort of group effort just isn’t there. I mean, I guess I could go the digital recording route, but rock and roll — and that’s all I really care about — has always been a real immediate, physical kind of thing to me. Anything other than playing with a clutch of similarly-minded goofballs just seems kinda clinical.
Biblioklept: What are you working on now? What projects do you have on the horizon?
CM: I’ve attached pictures of the figures currently in progress. This seemed kinder than subjecting your readers to the equivalent two thousand words.
As for events outside the “studio” (which is my apartment’s kitchen and breakfast nook), about a dozen pieces will be in a show opening December 4 at the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. Also, La Luz de Jesus here in L.A. will have a clutch of them on hand through December. And my website will have an ongoing influx — and hopefully, outflux — of new figures.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
CM: Not recently, but yeah, I’ve lifted a volume or two. For a big stretch of my adult life I was a junky, and like most junkies had a terrifically flexible — and convenient — sense of morality. I used to steal books from used bookstores under the theory they were already used, so if I read them and then took them back, no one was really out anything.
And I usually did return them, but as often as not it was to sell the store their own book.
When I finally cleaned up, I felt like a crumb for having done this. All the same, I wasn’t about to risk some hothead filing charges if I told them I was sorry about what I’d done and wanted to settle up. Instead, I just went back to the various stores involved and, over time, bought all the books I’d sold them and those just read and returned. To me that seemed to square things, but this could be just more convenient moral reckoning. Beats me.