“I don’t like things I can understand – an interview with Steven Cerio” by George Petros (Seconds Magazine)

 SECONDS magazine (issue #42, 1997)

   He arrived unannounced form another planet and quickly took over the illustration department, displacing the entire lineup of Eighties types who scribbled and scrawled countless “comics” and meaningless vignettes and little trading cards and so on…

In his work he seeks elegant innocence; he attempts to simplify, but it’s just too complex to be “comic art” – in fact it’s influenced by children’s books rather than comic books – and so it stands alone, hyper – juvenile sight jingles bringing order to the charming chaos of a vanishing visual vocabulary.

STEVEN CERIO is ambidextrous and, incidentally, he draws, not illustrates – that is until big corporations like Nickelodeon and Disney make him do happy illustrations with which they subvert the minds of unsuspecting consumers. But there’s more to it. Cerio has been influential as a percussionist for Avant-garde Rock ensembles like DeeDee Ramone’s Sprocket and Drunk Tank, and he currently propels the retarded psychedelia of Lettuce Little. And, to top it all off, he is the official Art Editor of this very magazine, wherein he grills “famous artists” about what they do and why they do it.

Well-disciplined waves of drumming and drawing (and writing) fuse in Steve’s fevered head, cross-referencing and coalescing until the pulsations become soundtracks to expertly-rendered scenes of happiness and cleanliness – in other words, both his art and his music celebrate the fact that nature always wears a big permanent grin.

1)   Drawing: Ours is a fake “counterculture” that steals from Timothy Leary and Ronald McDonald with equal impunity. It is fed by a phony “underground” composed of lazy liars who believe their own hype. Cerio is not one of them; he is not caught up in that Low Art vortex of stupid ideas and tacky advertising. He is not an Underground Artist; he’s not alienated in the clinical sense. His work is not      angry – in fact, it is genuinely nice.

Jaded connoisseurs of contemporary Hate Art and Shock Journalism will search long and hard for a prurient angle to Cerio’s work; they will find nothing. Perhaps the work’s frantic intensity and high density tricks us into thinking we’re being threatened. We are not; Cerio simply wants to show us lots of stuff at his own dizzying pace. Presumptions of his decadence might be fueled by ghost gas from previous group shows with those same comic types whom he eventually displaced. Maybe he simply replaces skulls and crossbones with bunny rabbits while the space in between shines perversely (in fact, his cute little icons are often strung together with sexy B&D-style ropes)…Bullshit. It’s nice stuff.

To sum it all up: Due to the zine scene and desktop publishing and the Internet and the relative ease of doing art and so on, a lot of amateur artists have been elevated to semi-prominence with in an ever-expanding network of mutual masturbators and perverted providers of preordained collector’s items. Cerio has somehow bypassed that network, although there is much evidence that he has used it extensively for his own purposes – for example, there was his appearances in shows at Exit ArtC-POPLa Luz de Jesus and The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, his posters for King Crimson and White Zombie, his work for the Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly, his graphics for CD-ROMs of The Residents (with whom he is starring in a traveling art show), and his new comic (make that “kid’s comic”) called Pie (published by Wow Cool). (P.S. Steven is represented by Giger’s masterful media manipulator, Les Barany.)

2. Drumming: Cerio is a drummer who dislikes traditional grooves, and so he must invent new ways to make sound patterns. There’s still plenty of echoes of influences such as Terry BozzioDrumbo– guys who played with Zappa and Beefheart – as well as Jazz giant Elvin Jones, and Art Rock pioneer Bill Bruford – but for the most part Cerio doesn’t sound like anybody else. As a pivotal early member of Railroad Jerk, he provided a distinctly Beefheartian atmosphere – a rare treat in a world where drummers usually suck. But in Lettuce Little he has somehow reinvented the wheel, and by breaking all the rules he comes closer and closer to percussive ecstasy.

Lettuce Little is experimenting and having fun and trying to figure out wither they should go for the gold or keep it sort of easy-going. He and collaborator Roger Kummert are currently sending tapes to Parisian diva, Laure Barges, who overdubs vocals. The music is a lot like Steven’s art – happy, dense, and always evocative of speed.

3) The Future: Cerio is gonna start doing children’s books. Through the majesty of the rendered image he would lead successive generations away from the condescending, subliminally nihilistic tone of today’s kids’ books. Clearly his subject matter lends itself to such endeavors; it sometimes seems a shame that his innocent abandon is wasted on sour, seen-it-all adult audience. And his technique is perfect as well – the clarity of line, the separation of compositional elements into various visual planes, and intensely contrasting colors all make his work easy to perceive and understand.

So there you have it – you can either look or listen!


SECONDS: Steven, what scene do you come out of?

CERIO:  I spent ten years in New York City. Istarted out in ‘zines. After I grabbed a couple of paying gigs with Screw and The Village voice I was hooked.

SECONDS: What stylistic influences do you come out of?

CERIO: Kid’s books, color-forms,biology textbooks, psychedelic posters,candy wrappers….those all led me too Karel AppelHundertwasser, David Smith, Stuart Davis and Alexander Calder. I dug their playful edge. I lucked upon them in the library in the town where I grew up.

SECONDS: What’s the difference between an illustration and a drawing?

CERIO: An illustration is secondary to words. It’s to help support ideas and narrative.

SECONDS: Is there an illustrative vocabulary?

CERIO: I think everything has to do with vocabulary. There’s a poetic intention behind everything and I know a lot of people don’t like to hear that. People think of “poetry” as Emily Dickinson and they don’t see the value in poetics. I don’t necessarily mean rhyming love poems. Ideas and concepts are made of words whether they’re written or not and that is all inherently poetic. Religion and advertising rely on it.

SECONDS: What’s wrong with Emily Dickinson?

CERIO: Her sentiments are a bit antiquated and girlie for me and Shakespeare tends to irritate me because of that language barrier. I tend to read more of the surreal stuff like CummingsKenneth Patchen, late Dylan Thomas and Lorca. Their work really talks to me.

SECONDS: So, an illustration is a literal interpretation that feeds into the concept of vocabulary –

CERIO: Yes, in anything non-illustrative, you allow yourself to stay open and create something out of pure impulse. Like the other day I woke up and I started adding over-starched mittens to a new drawing I was working on. That placement pleased me.

SECONDS: Isn’t that just taking something literal and changing the meaning of it?

CERIO: It becomes something more than that. It’s more of a personal thing. Sometimes I’ve used objects simply because I’ve liked their nomenclature. I’ve never been into finite impulses – I don’t like things I can understand. I don’t like photo-realist painting .I don’t seek art that looks like something I’ve seen before. There’s a “how did he do it?” technical quality to Sargent painting, but that’s where it ends for me- if you don’t allow yourself to stay open, things become to finite. They become too close for reality. Who needs that?

SECONDS: Did you pick the mittens for effect like, “Here’s something that will confuse them”?

CERIO: I never set out to confuse. I’m not being surreal; I’m being surrational. I’m making decisions and not bothering to figure out why I made them. I don’t choose for irony; I don’t say,”Gee, what doesn’t belong here?” and then put it there, which is pretty prevalent in early Surrealist works like Magritte‘s paintings. I’m just trying to entertain myself. If there was monkeys juggling broken eggs in everyone’s front yard and little girls flew around on doughnuts, I wouldn’t have to work anymore. I could sit around all day, eat Wheaties and look out the window. I always thought art was about developing your own iconography. I don’t see the value in using Pop iconography. I don’t feel the need to force philosophies on anyone because they surface in my work anyway. I don’t want to get on a soapbox because everyone already believes their right. When you highlight lines in a book, you highlight things you agree with. You underline things that support your beliefs. When someone tries to force things down your throat, it does nothing but cause repulsion in people who don’t agree. So why not do something less aggressive? I hate to use this quote, but Nietzsche said “One often contradicts an opinion when it is really only the tone with which it is represented that is unsympathetic.” With kindness you can sneak your ideas in the back door ‘cuz their not looking.

SECONDS: Who crams stuff down people’s throats?

CERIO:  Rock & Roll iconography. I don’t need to see another skull. I don’t need to see another gun. I don’t need any more irony: it’s the hideously boring staple crop of pop culture.

SECONDS: Was it okay in its heyday?

CERIO: I will always love Rory Hayes, Mike Diana, BobX Jeff Gaither and XNO‘s stuff , those guys are doing bleeding skulls and rotting flesh but it’s so playful, skillful and trippy. They found unique perspectives. Like I said before, I thought the whole thing with art was to develop your own iconography. I don’t believe there’s any shortcuts and everybody knows when your cheating.

SECONDS: What reaction do you want out of viewers?

CERIO: I feel like I’ve managed to leave ninety-nine point nine percent of all possible aggressions out of my work. I made a conscious decision towards a cleaner and more figurative style. I was able to clean things up, and the word “wimpy” has been used to describe my art, which I think is a great compliment. I’m trying to be as wimpy and blissful as possible. People have been painting human torment since Francis Bacon but I don’t think anyone has tried to capture joy and bliss. You deal with pain and anguish every day but how many minutes a day do you feel joyful? Every ten minutes I find something new to be bothered about. I felt like going the other way with my stuff. Joy is elusive but pain is always on your apron string.

SECONDS: You say nobody’s done joyful art, but what were the Impressionists and religious icon painters doing?

CERIO: The kind of bliss and joy I’m talking about is not a hold out your arms in praise of God brand of bliss. I’m talking about a sugar high: four milkshakes and peanut butter cookies.

SECONDS: Are we talking about happiness in the context of Pop Culture?

CERIO: Happiness in terms of opening up a Christmas present, a fresh pumpkin pie, a sunny day or an Orange Julius ….The Impressionists were trying to…

SECONDS: Were they overwhelmed by nature?

CERIO: Yeah, it’s a warm fuzziness. It’s a calm, cool, Zen feeling, they painted serenity but I never saw anyone capture joy. The Renaissance painters were trying to capture religious rapture, but I’m talking about…

SECONDS: – the happiness a bunny rabbit brings?

CERIO: Right. A smile is another thing all together – what does a smile really mean? A smile can look sinister; you can do anything with a smile. When people see a smile, they immediately assume irony. I’ve been trying to get to the point where people know I’m not being ironic.

SECONDS: May I argue that your drawing with the mittens is ironic?

CERIO: Mittens aren’t ironic. A fish in the desert is ironic.

SECONDS: Is it ironic for a person who is seeing it for the first time?

CERIO: Anything that breaks from reality can be processed that way unless you care enough to spend time to consider the event. The thing is, you can never communicate with anybody. Say I choose to draw an apple core. That symbolizes a different thing to every person. Someone who doesn’t like apples is going to be set aback by it. If you draw an apple core with an Indian headdress on it, someone might be affected by the headdress, and someone might be affected by the apple core. I don’t think you can scientifically approach art and know how you are going to affect people. Symbols are only symbols not events, not truth and not universal knowledge. Timothy Leary warned against symbols he said “if you don’t learn to use your cellular equipment effectively you’re going to be addicted and limited by artifacts and symbols.”

SECONDS: Should people be elated when they see your illustrations?

CERIO: I think so. My work really repulses certain people though; they have a hard time going into this world I’m working on. It’s very childish and safe. It’s inherently psychedelic, but some people don’t see that. Most people crave fury and violence and they equate it with maturity, now that’s ironic! What was the question you asked me again?

SECONDS: You answered it, whatever it was. Are you a childish person?

CERIO: As often as possible. That’s the only way I can feel good.

SECONDS: What’s the sexual dynamic of your work?

CERIO:  There’s no sexual dynamic. But you can be a half-assed Freudian with just about anything. I avoid anything that could possibly be misconstrued as a sexual reference. I also obliterate any sharp geometric shapes. I’ve never used sharp angles.

SECONDS: Is that a revolt against formality?

CERIO: No, just the stagnancy of sharp curves and perfectly straight lines. I love the comfort in a rounded curve. It’s impossible to draw a pleasant right angle.

SECONDS: Little girls often show up in your work.

CERIO: They are symbols of purity.

SECONDS: Where are the little boys?

They’re a symbol of aggression to me. Little boys run around with BB guns and kill frogs.

SECONDS: Do the animals you draw represent purity?

CERIO: Yeah, purity and intelligence. I’m an environmentalist and putting a human being into my work is like putting an enemy in there.  I’m not making direct statements about this in the work but ideals surface anyway, I have no control over that, and that’s the way I like it.

SECONDS: You’re ambidextrous, correct?

CERIO: Yeah.

SECONDS: Do you utilize that?

CERIO:  It helps me stylize a figure or get a composition to work. I occasionally do my pencils with my left hand and the inking with my right. Since I’m not completely ambidextrous, the work with my left hand is never as smooth as the work with my right.

SECONDS: Does it give you a different perspective of the image?

CERIO: I was trying to use pure intuition. I felt I was going in this direction where my lines were becoming far too exacting and I wanted to dredge up some stuff from the other side of my brain. I still do a lot of pieces where I do my inking with my left hand. I wanted to find somewhere in-between that lacked control and had some caveman surprises .The work I do with my left hand now has developed into a style of its own.

SECONDS: If an alien looked at the drawing process, he’d say, “The creature has the paper in front of him and plenty of pens, but only one hand is active. If there’s a certain economy of time and process he’s looking for, why doesn’t he use both hands?” Steven, I’m accusing you of that and I want you to answer that as a charge.

CERIO: Well like I said, it depends on what I’m doing. If I’m working on something for an illustration client, I will solely use my right hand because I’m trying to communicate with cultural symbols. It needs to be a mixture of the gestalt with decorative beauty. With illustration, you’re not there to open people’s minds to new possibilities and inventions. You’re there to communicate the article or the product. You are secondary. There are pieces where you are allowed to come out a little bit more, but generally…

SECONDS: In other words, one function of illustration is to communicate symbols and common visual vocabulary and another purpose is to convey an abstract experience with you as the intermediary.

CERIO: Yup, and that abstract aesthetic experience is the reason you were hired, hats the element that builds a “style”.

SECONDS: Let’s go on to the process of making a drawing.

CERIO: Well most of my pieces begin with a simple scribbled composition or a fragment of a narrative. I’ll build on a character I have and develop the story as I’m drawing. I come up with reasoning for the interaction between the different shapes and objects as I go along. Sometimes I get stumped in a piece where I have a large space I need activated and can’t figure out what might work. I’m able to figure out what belongs in a certain place, but sometimes it’s just a shape that belongs there and I have to adjust the object to fit the composition. I think my compositions are the largest part of my pieces. The objects are sometimes decided by the shape that’s needed. The narrative develops with the composition.

SECONDS: So, you draw in pencil and then ink it in. What do you do with them in pencil form? Do you hang them up and stare at them for a couple of days?

CERIO: I usually work on five or six at the same time whenever I can. I’ll be in the mood to ink one day, or maybe pencil, and I’ll pull an unfinished one out and maybe the element that’s needed will come to me – sometimes not. Like I was saying before, I make surrational reasoning’s for everything that don’t happen through intellect, it’s all instinct and patience. I make conscious decisions not to choose things that contrast with each other and create some sort of silly irony. I move away from that and it creates a greater amount of confusion. Cryptic images won’t let the mind relax

SECONDS: Tell me about the technical side of it all.

CERIO: Just brush and ink

SECONDS: You’ve done watercolor on pencil drawings, right?

CERIO: Yeah, I do. A certain aspect of my work deals with doing large watercolors with soft pencil. Those I allow to happen very quickly. I can do four or five a night. They’re the opposite of the other pieces, which are very labor intensive.

SECONDS: Your lines seem definite, with distinct starting and ending points.

CERIO: Grace creates a visual comfort. The closest thing I’ve ever seen that looks like joy is some of what I’ve seen in children’s books – I’m a devoted Dr. Seuss kid. His work is so germ-free, and there’s an odd grace in his line.

SECONDS: So this is essentially pen and ink; color is an afterthought.

CERIO: I’ve never thought in color. I paint some like animation cells and others on masonite. I do have a favorite palette or two but color is very secondary to me: it’s a tool. I just use it to help the composition along. It’s very limited. I might want something to be a certain color – “that bumble bee might look good blue” – but if it doesn’t work into the composition, I’ll use another color. I allow my colors to change – whatever helps the elements pop out more.

SECONDS: How did you develop the black-and-white sensibility?

CERIO: The first moment I remember being interested in art was when I asked for a Random House dictionary for Christmas when I was eight years old because I saw it in the library and liked the illustrations, which were tiny and tight with black ink. I used to flip through that dictionary like an art book. Also, my parents never allowed me to use coloring books; they always made me draw instead. .

SECONDS:  Is there anything you want to say with your work in the political arena?

CERIO: Political, no. But there’s a lot of Gaian and environmental concerns that pop up in my work. Nature trying to survive is one of my favorite themes. I’m not really interested in politics – I’ve never read a newspaper in my life or ever watched a newscast.

SECONDS: What were you looking at when you were a kid?

CERIO: My parents always encouraged me to draw. I was a classic only child sitting home drawing and they always pushed me to draw. At some point, they had to start forcing me out of the house to play with other kids because all I wanted to do was draw. I think my childhood is surfacing in my work now more than ever. Especially all of the great psychedelic kid’s shows I saw in the early seventies like “Lidsville”,

“H.R. Puff-n-stuff” and “Captain Kangaroo”. I’ll even call “Mister Rogers” psychedelic because it was so hallucinatory.

SECONDS: What were your earlier influences, in general?

CERIO: The first thing I can remember beyond Random House dictionary illustrations were illustrated biology books. The first art book I bought was Roger Dean’s “Views” book, because I got heavily into Yes when I was fourteen. Like most kids that age, I had my brief stint with Frazetta and Vallejo – mostly the Fantasy Art guys. I got my art through record covers. I left any cover that Hipgnosis designed out, leaning against the wall. Catching “Moleshow” by The Residents on “Nightflight” when I was fifteen is what changed me instantaneously.

SECONDS: What illustrators did you like?

CERIO: Ian Miller, he illustrated Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles”and Tenniel maybe.

SECONDS: So there aren’t any specific influences, you just breeze through everything.

CERIO: The sort of people’s work I like doesn’t necessarily reflect what I do at all, I think that could be why I enjoy their work so much, it gives me a break from my own perspective by proposing a new one. I enjoy A.R. PenckAnselm Kiefer, Philip Guston and Eva Hesse. There are some great children’s book artists: SteigProvensen and Duvoisin.

SECONDS: What are you doing now?

CERIO: I did a comic for the fun of it. I’m not really a cartoonist; I recently became interested in doing it because I’ve always been a big fan of Amos Tutuola. He wrote” Palm wine Drinkard “and “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”. I’ve been reading those books over and over again for years and was always fascinated by his narrative sense, by the time you finish a page he’s been chased by a man who has birds growing out of his knees through a desert and carried in a giant’s sack filled with centipedes for two years . He’d been married, had a baby, and the baby became a god with metal bones – all within one page. I was very influenced by that in wanting to do a narrative. I mimicked the speed of his plots. Wow Cool published it and got Fantagraphics to distribute it.

SECONDS: What other gigs are you doing?

CERIO:  Illustration-wise, I do a lot of work for most of the entertainment magazines. I’m working on a series of black light posters right now and that gig is a dream come true. I’ve done work for Disney, Nickelodeon has my “happy birthday” animations running every day on Nick Jr..I recently designed characters for The Residents; they have a CD-Rom that came out called “Bad day At The Midway”. I designed the targets for the shooting gallery and Jim Ludtke did the animation and I couldn’t be happier with it. It was also a dream come true because The ResidentsBeefheartZappaHarry Partch and Coltrane have influenced my work immensely. There is a joy and bliss I hear in their work and I try to create the visual equivalent of it. Their music has had a bigger impact on me than any visual artists.

SECONDS: You were in Railroad Jerk –

CERIO: I was in Drunk Tank and Dee Dee Ramone’s Sprocket and a couple others too embarrassing to mention. I’m very proud of the recordings I did with them but I just became increasingly embarrassed and bored with playing Rock & Roll.

SECONDS: What do you play?

CERIO: Drums. Working with other creative people can be very painful because feels the need to impose their will and aesthetics on you. It’s like playing sports but you’re touring in a van with the opposing team. I don’t have the time for that. I’d rather wash dishes than play music for college kids. I only play music with people with identical record collections now. I started a new band called Lettuce Little with Roger Kummert. We’re doing extremely dense soundscapes… just started our first record. It should take a couple years to finish. We’re layering different studio and rehearsal sessions

SECONDS: As a drummer, who are some of your influences?

CERIO: Bill Bruford, Peter ErskineRobert Wyatt, Elvin Jones, Captain Beefheart’s drummers like John French and Robert Arthur Williams, Joe Nanini from Wall Of Voodoo also had a big impact on me.

SECONDS: How does drumming affect drawing?

CERIO: I’d like to think the music we’re doing is a soundtrack to one of my drawings. I’ve put aside using a normal drum kit because I’m bored with the boom-boom-crash-crash thing. I started playing around with cardboard, found objects and midi triggers. I’ve become increasingly bored with what a drum set can offer.   You can reinvent reality with entertainment, but only for a minute or two….that’s what I dislike about all of the arts in general.