‘Collectors’ journeys into the homes of fledgling and seasoned art buyers from across the globe. The ongoing series offers an intimate spotlight on a range of personal collections from hobbyist ephemera to blue-chip artworks — all the while dissecting an individual’s specific taste, at-home curation and purchase trajectory.
At 50, Cali Thornhill DeWitt has lived many lives. Some glamorous, others not so much.
Originally from British Columbia, DeWitt moved to Los Angeles at age three, where he’d break the monotony of the suburbs by entrenching himself in skate, surf, and punk music. In hindsight, these early beginnings continue to inform his rebellious DIY philosophy today.
Having dropped out of high school, DeWitt toured around the country with the band Hole, briefly landing in Seattle, where he’d befriend Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, nannying their three-month-old daughter Frances Bean and even dressing in drag to model for the band’s In Utero (1993) CD graphic. This was up until ‘94, when Cobain tragically committed suicide — sending both DeWitt and the music world in a tailspin. As no stranger to drugs and alcohol himself, DeWitt nearly lost a grip on his own life before finally sobering up in 2001. “I’m not trying to bring anything like that back,” he tells us, “and I’m not trying to be like that’s what I’m about now, when I’m 50, but it’s an undeniable part of my lineage and foundation.”
From a short stint as an A&R rep for Geffen Records to co-founding his own label Teenage Teardrops in 2006, music has been a concurrent thread that ties each stage of his career, including The Life of Pablo (2016) merchandise he famously created for Ye or his own brand, © SAINT M ×××××× with graphic designer, Kosuke Kawamura.
Over the past 15 years, however, DeWitt has reinvented himself as a fine artist best known for creating provocative juxtapositions between striking imagery and haiku-like wordplay. He’s been a regular exhibitor at gallery’s such as V1 in Copenhagen, along with HVW8 in LA and Berlin, where DeWitt has played cultural instigator by emblazoning the words “CRIME SCENE” over an image of the White House, as well as showing colorful roses framed as a “CAGED ANIMAL.” “I want things that have a combination of aggression and humor,” DeWitt adds as we tour his Silverlake home. “Or anything that’s sort of spotlights how sh*tty people are and how f*cked up the world is.”
Given his folkloric status, it’s easy to think DeWitt lives in some Legion of Doom style mansion or an all-black Victorian home reminiscent of Batman, The Addams Family or the Borgund Stave Church in Norway. There is indeed a house like that on his street, but he actually lives several doors down in a modest craftsman-style abode that matches his welcoming nature as Hypeart paid a visit. With several gold teeth in mouth, Caramel Bobby — as he’s known on Instagram — greeted us to stacks of out-of-print books, rare artist editions and designer furniture.
DeWitt, admittedly, doesn’t consider himself a ‘collector’ per say, and says his obsession borderlines hoarding things. But regardless if its a rare early painting by Mario Ayala, sunglasses he wore to remind himself of an obscure sci-fi character called RanXerox or $1 USD crime novels from Donald Goines — DeWitt just wants to love what he lives with. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
For the latest Collectors, Hypeart toured Cali Thornhill DeWitt’s art collection mapped across his Silverlake home, his uncle’s pad nearby, and his West Adams studio.
What were your earliest memories of LA and how’s your perception of the city changed since growing older?
My earliest memories are of Zuma Beach, where I still go every week. It kinda hasn’t changed that much. The grocery store has a different name, but it feels the same. Also, Woodland Hills, where some of my formative years riding up-and-down Ventura Boulevard on my BMX in 1980 — kind of the same, Val Surf is gone, my karate studio is gone, but kinda feels the same.
When it comes to your collection in the house, what are some items that immediately come to mind?
This piece by Tadanori Yokoo. It’s just one of his old prints that are fairly hard to find. I got it in Japan at KOMIYAMA Books, where I always buy something. A lot of the time when you find these prints, they’re too expensive. I’m not that interested in collecting as a flex. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. I just want to love it…that’s it. So for me, any artwork, books or records I buy — to me, they’re like charged objects.
“It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. I just want to love it”
How about this stool?
I made it with my brand SAINT M ××××××, with Kosuke Kawamura. It was a collaboration with him and I do have a poster of his as well, next to a Larry Clark photo of a young Harmony Korine.
This is an edition by Tauba Auerbach, who’s one of my favorite artists. Now a piece by her, they go straight to a museum. I’m into editions — like this one here, I’m not going to have an original [Robert] Mapplethorpe, but I’m going to live with this and it’s going to have the same effect on me. And this was just a mailer for the show and it was cool, because it’s still addressed to who got it in ’83, which was Larry Gagosian. Super interesting.
As for my son’s art collection…
How does your son, Sam, react to the artwork and does he gravitate more towards superhero comics, like Spiderman or Superman?
At a certain point, he became aware of it, walks around and points at everything.
I liked looking at art too when I was a kid. It’s interesting, because he’s only one, but I see that he looks at all of these and points at them. This is an original space rat and I wonder when he looks at it, is it wonder or nightmare fuel? This one is an edition from Sylvie Fleury that came from Italy.
[What he likes] changes everyday. He likes Bluey today. I grew up in a house with a lot of books and records. I think it was good. Sometimes I go to people’s houses who have kids and there’s literally nothing. I just wonder what that does? I don’t think it does anything negative, but don’t think it’s positive to be around.
Things that expand your mind…
Yeah, you look at things differently. Think out of the box. Sam is starting to mark things, so I’m going to move some of these and put up blank canvases, so I can make those into his canvases and see what they look like in a few years.
If there was a fire, what items are you grabbing first?
Man, if there was a fire, there’d be a fire. I’d get my family and I out. Then if I could come back, I’d grab whatever. You know? I’ve had times, where I’ve lost big chunks of records or whatever and you just look for them again, if you can remember what they are, find them again. Or maybe it gives you another mission. Mission busters.
I lost a lot of the stuff that I had before I was 20. I had a huge collection of punk sh*t — flyers, posters, zines, and some shirts. My dad threw that out, not to be a d*ck, just because he’s dense. He’s like, ‘Oh, I threw those boxes away.’
I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that. It’s just stuff, it’s your life. What are you going to live with? I’m going to live with things that I like and I’m lucky that I like a lot of things. I have some pretty specific interests that I can sort of entertain with this, but it’s not a super focused thing. I like a lot of different things.
Do you find the work that you collect influencing your own art?
For sure. I think anything we’re looking at or talking about has somehow influenced me. I don’t know how it wouldn’t. I can’t do that, but maybe the feeling of it influences me.
Sometimes my wife is overwhelmed about the amount of f*cking stuff I bring around. She makes fun of it. I had this funny argument the other day. I said, ‘Think of the whole thing as a sculpture. I know when I find a piece of it and it won’t be finished until I’m dead.’ She’s like, ‘Great, you’re working on a f*cking sculpture.’ So it’s kind of a fun way of thinking about it.
“What are you going to live with?”
Clothing is such a big part of your practice. Can you talk about your thoughts on the t-shirt as this democratize form of both expression and protest?
Let’s take a popular artist. George Condo. Kids can’t buy a Condo painting, but they can communicate with how they dress. So democratic, I agree. When I was a kid, I communicated with my clothes. I feel like a lot of people do now.
What type of artworks do you generally gravitate towards? And how would you classify the works we’ve seen in your home and studio?
I don’t know if I can classify it, but I want things that have a combination of aggression and humor in. Or anything that’s sort of spotlights how sh*tty people are and how f*cked up the world is — but with humor. I don’t want like, a “F*CK TRUMP” thing. It’s too easy.
Was that penchant for humor and chaos something you gravitated towards early on when becoming an artist?
Yeah, when I was a kid, like eight years old.
Do you remember what steered you in that direction?
Punk records. There’s no doubt. When you’re a child and get Ramones records and Clash records, it informs everything. I’m not trying to bring anything like that back. And I’m not trying to be like that’s what I’m about now, when I’m 50, but it’s an undeniable part of my lineage and foundation.
How would you define your own work?
I don’t really know. I think it’s pretty scattered. And I think I’m just trying to make myself and my friends laugh and make something that I would want to hang with my stuff. I feel like I’ve gotten lost before trying to think about other stuff. I just try to keep it simple. If I can do something that Myles and Zoey and Kubo like, then it’s a success to me.
While your work is all about humor and wordplay, you do touch on poignant issues, such as climate change and the threats of war. What are your current thoughts on the socio-political order of the world right now?
A lot of the time, I think one of the big problems is people don’t like their own lives and they’re looking for someone to blame it on. To me, that’s the current and past — most big negative blaming upheavals, which are usually race-based — when I look at the individuals, ‘Your life sucks and it’s your fault that your life sucks. And you’re not going to take responsibility for it.’
For instance, I’ve seen that a lot recently in the last few years with QAnon ideas. I know people who’ve flipped into that mode of thinking and I just think, “You’re this super unhappy person looking for [validation of your unhappiness].”
“Simply get stuff you like and learn about it.”
How about these latest works in the studio that are draped down to the floor?
Yeah, that’s the idea. One word printed in a way that appeals to me aesthetically. Right now I really like them. Once I get six of them stretched on a big wall — I want to feel like I made something I like.
If you can give a number, how many artworks do you think you own?
I don’t know, maybe 100. I don’t feel like I need more and I don’t feel like I don’t need more. If I see something that I want and it’s reasonable, then I’ll usually get it.
Can you list off where you find the pieces you collect?
Kind of everywhere. When I was younger, it was harder to get punk records. There were specific places where you would follow breadcrumb trails, from reading ads and magazines. Maybe you would mail order things, like sending $12 USD cash in an envelope. But I learned to find things in that way. “I like this artist or author, who do they like?” That’s like part of the fun for me, the treasure hunt and I’ve found a lot of things I really love through that.
What is your advice for budding collectors?
Simply get stuff you like and learn about it. What are you into? Learn what you’re into and don’t take it too seriously, ‘cuz it’s just stuff. It’s cool stuff, but in some ways, I’m almost a hoarder. The difference is, it’s not newspapers, it’s cool sh*t — to me anyways. Do it for you, don’t do it for… “I have the limited thing that everyone wants.” That doesn’t really do anything for you. You’re trying to impress other dudes about the colorway of your shoes.