“Steven Cerio has found his niche in the art world by maintaining the sanctity of his own realm.” Carole Nicksin crosses the threshold.
by Carole Nicksin (JUXTAPOZ magazine,August 1999)
Imagine a world where vinyl rabbits smile at you from every corner and an oversized plastic grasshopper seems to be winking at you from across the room. A cat named Eggplant slinks out from under the bed, a bandage marking the spot where her tail used to be. If you’re feeling curious, peek into one of the tiny drawers in the cabinet against the wall. There you’ll find a bird skull, or maybe a satchel of hair clippings, or an assortment of roots, rocks, and bones. Soon you’ll discover that everything in this world has a history and a meaning behind it, like the green plastic cup you’re sipping tea out of that was found in a ghost town in the Arizona desert. And that music wafting in the background? Those are the sounds of Lettuce Little, a band that performs it’s music largely on toy instruments with vocals by a French girl whose voice sounds like an over-sexed four year old.
Meet the mayor of this world. He’s a man with a shaved head covered by a backwards baseball cap whose philosophy is one of perpetual joy and who enforces this philosophy by telling high-speed hilarious stories complete with razor-sharp impersonations of each character and their particular accents. For the duration of your stay in this universe, you’ll feel like someone is tickling you constantly, and you’ll go from laughter to giddiness to annoyance to scary-monster type fear, back to laughing again. Over and over and over.
Welcome to Steven Cerio’s world (he’s the guy in the cap). Prepare to be entertained.
The feeling you get from looking at Cerio’s dense black and white drawings or his acrylic-on-acetate paintings, of girly characters sailing through the air on flying doughnuts and fish popping out of holes in the earth, is fairly indistinguishable from the feeling you get hanging out in his Cold Spring, New York apartment. “Artists try to create their surroundings to make the universe fit what they think it should be,” he says. “That’s what art is to me. You want to make the world adjust to your whims. And you can do that if you want, if you can just get in there for a second a day it’s worth it. Once you have that filter you see things through, then whatever it is – for instance, maybe you crave screaming faces. Then you’ll find”em in the paneling on your walls and in the clouds. If you want everything to be smiling hippos, you’ll find smiling hippos.”
Cerio has definitely found the fracture in the cosmos that allows him to find the smiling hippo, bumble bee, or worm. In his artwork, everything is vibrating with life, from the coffee cups to the houses. Although this kind of trippy subject matter seems to call out for color, much of it is done in black and white. “Some people get really excited when they see their favorite color, but I’m not like that. Color is a compositional tool, it’s just another way to slap people in the face,” Cerio says.
The world he creates has few straight lines and even fewer 90-degree corners. Everything is safe and friendly. “You just want to hug the work,” he says sincerely. Cerio equates the overall effect to the fleeting rush of a sugar high or the feeling you had as a kid opening presents on Christmas morning. But it wasn’t always that way he explains. All this happiness is the culmination of years spent working through the angst.
“My work used to be a bit different. It wasn’t about joy; it was about happy things filled with biological realities. It was about taking a joyous thing like a smiling rabbit and filling it with intensity to see if it was alive, to give it the same functions as everything else, as a way to reduce it. I was bothered by icons of joy and bliss. If something is happy all the time, it reflects back to your sadness, doesn’t it?” he asks. The question hangs forebodingly in the air.
Born in Syracuse, New York, on September 8, (considering all the stuff crammed into his apartment, it’s amazingly organized and tidy, a trait closely associated with Virgos, his astrological sign), Cerio says, “I’m a classic only child. Daddy was a carpenter and mommy was an angry secretary who never fit into the thing. She wasn’t interested in reading Redbook and she didn’t want to knit.
Cerio’s dad had artistic aspirations of his own that were circumvented by having to earn a living, so when little Steven showed interest in drawing and painting, his father was ready to jump in the car and drive down to the art store to get whatever supplies were needed. “My first memory of drawing is doing a series of witches that would have been proportionally about 200 feet tall. And they were carrying big clumps of heads, walking through empty cities.” Although his dad died when Steve was only 13, the elder Cerio had already instilled a love of art in his son.
From the beginning, toys mesmerized and inspired Cerio. It was a tactile thing; his young fingers became addicted to the smooth but pliant feeling of plastic and vinyl. “A lot of people think I work this way because I was a comic book fan, but I never cared much for comics.” He sites Dr. Seuss and Colorforms as two of his greatest artistic influences, particularly the Jungle Book Colorforms set he had as a child. “ I even use the same color palette,” he says.
After high school, Cerio studied art in his hometown at SyracuseUniversity. “It was major watershed to have to sit there eight hours a day and draw naked people, which is really painful. I’d go out during breaks and whine with my friend Joe. It was like we were in the Marines. We had this teacher who used to be a coach for the Dallas Cowboys, he’d point me out and say, “Wake up hippie!” and stand with a stopwatch -“30 second sketch!” Click! I wasn’t a rich kid, so it was important to me to do well. And I knew I couldn’t work a straight job, so I had to do well.”
Cerio moved to New York City in 1988. He spent his first few nights sleeping in the back of a station wagon parked in the decrepid Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn. “I didn’t know New York from Kansas. It looked safe to me,” he says. His first job was at Psychedelic Solution, a gallery at the center of Greenwich Village. His drawings made it into one of the gallery’s group shows almost immediately, but just as important, his job offered him the opportunity to meet artists when they passed through the gallery. One of the more auspicious encounters was with the legendary Robert Crumb. “Crumb says to me, ’Hey Cerio, you think you’re going to make a fucking living drawing like this?’ And I say, “Fuck you Crumb.’ And everybody was clapping. He had a point though. It made me think, “Hey unless I want to work here the rest of my life, I have to do illustration work or something. At the time I was just obsessed with sitting there with a piece of illustration board in my lap doing detailed technical pen drawings of screaming heads and little monsters eating each other.”
So Cerio started pursuing illustration work. His first published piece was “a woman with six tits and fangs” for Screw magazine. When he earned a $500 check for doing four spot drawings for the Village Voice, Cerio felt he had arrived. “That check hooked me. I was being paid for doing drawings of tripped-out animals.” Soon Cerio’s work could be seen on the pages of magazines such as Guitar World and Entertainment Weekly.
As a newcomer to New York, Cerio immersed himself in various subcultures. He played drums in DeeDee Ramone’s band Sprockets, and became active in the mail-art movement. When the now legendary Mike Diana asked Cerio to contribute work to his outlaw comic Boiled Angel, Cerio was flattered but baffled. “I never thought I belonged in there ‘cause on one page there was a boy being raped by a dog, and I’ve got a smiling bunny rabbit on the next.”
Still, even a smiling rabbit can be filled with angst, and Cerio was working through these issues of huggable versus horrific in his work. The turning point came to him in a classic way: he had a dream. In it, he was walking through an open field when he came upon a muddy pit. He reached in and starting pulling out roots and stones. “They were all shaped very oddly; one was a big owl with a smile on its face. I was excited. It was like I discovered that these things did in fact exist in nature, that symbolically, joy did exist and it was coming out of the ground.” Then he looked up to see that he was kneeling at the feet of a giant Bunny-God, whose translucent body was filled with a potpourri of gummy farm animals, trees, giraffes, and the like. “The sun was shining directly behind and through the bunny’s head. The sun started hitting me and I looked like I had these brightly colored gummy shapes on me; there was a little girl with giant bows in her hair and green bees.” Cerio stops and takes a rare pause to absorb it all. “That dream was a big turning point for me. In the next six months I realized that I wasn’t so threatened by the specter of happiness anymore. I decided to focus on it instead of running away.”
The epiphany catapulted Cerio into a new phase in his work: the joy phase, a quest to capture ultimate bliss. “It’s almost like a loss of motor functions. I’m very influenced by all those paintings of holy women looking up with the light of God shining in their faces and their eyes raised to the Lord. I try to get that, that look of surprise like they just saw something that completely transformed them…catching them in a moment of clarity.”
All this happiness was not compatible with the coldness of the city, so around this same time, Cerio left the mean streets for the quiet hamlet of Cold Spring one hour outside New York City, a funky haven for baby boomers with money and an arty bent. The slower pace and wholesome surroundings seem to suit Cerio’s new outlook. “There’s nothing not to like. I can ride my bike all the time and there’s a tractor shop down the street so I can go down there and sit on’em. I need the slower pace because I picked up a stressful pace while I was living in New York that I’ve maintained…. I still feel like I have to keep in constant motion.”
The past few years have been busy for the artist. His first full-length comic book, PIE, came out in 1996. Cerio continues to do commercial work, most notably for Nickelodeon, and still makes music with his band, Lettuce Little. The Residents invited him to do the graphics that flash by non-stop in their”30 minute film, Disfigured Night, and Cerio also designed the “Kill a Commie” shooting gallery for the band’s CD-Rom, Bad Day at the Midway. Steven Cerio’s ABC Book-a drug primer“, an alphabetic book where each letter stands for a different drug, was last Christmas’ stocking stuffer of choice for the alternative set.
Through all of this, the artist seems to have found a way to make his life work for him, and perhaps even achieved his own state of bliss within the confines of his apartment. But in his work at least, Cerio’s over-exuberant happiness seems to border on the brink of lunacy. What he calls clarity – drooling doll girls and towers held together in the most unstable way, the rope and tape – looks more like the grit-your-teeth type of joy one experiences on a mega-dose of Ecstasy, and bears something in common with the expression often seen on the faces of longtime crack addicts. All in all, there seems to be something more sinister than unadulterated bliss going on here.
Cerio strongly rebukes this analysis. “People equate angst and pain and death with adult emotions, and when you give someone happiness they don’t identify it as an adult emotion anymore. And when they know an adult painted it, they immediately assume it’s a work of insanity or there’s something cryptic they should be reading into it.”
That brings up a very important point. If there is one dirty word in Cerio-land, it is adult. Adult anything is anathema to Cerio, who has no interest whatsoever in growing up. “The most adult thing I do is pay my rent,” he says, almost defiantly. “I don’t have a Peter Pan complex. I just don’t see any need for it. Adulthood is measured by how many keys you have on your chain, and the type of shoes you wear. I don’t do anything I don’t want to do except pay my rent. I just roam around, play with toys, ride my bike and draw.” Gazing around his apartment at the world he’s created, a world that’s perhaps indistinguishable from his inner world, Cerio gets a sneaky look of satisfaction on his face. As if he has just had a moment of clarity himself, Mayor Cerio sums it up, “I’ve got it made.”