Cali Thornhill Dewitt has collaborated with Virgil Abloh and Kanye West, runs a show on NTS and once was Frances Bean Cobain’s nanny. Now, the visual artist talks to Fran Gavin about his new exhibition in Paris
You may know Cali Thornhill Dewitt for many reasons. There is the Cali who is known for his cult bootleg graphic T-shirts and collaborations with the likes of Virgil Abloh and Kanye West. There is the Cali with a monthly show on NTS radio and founder of music label Teenage Teardrops. There is the Cali who was Frances Bean Cobain’s nanny. Cali is also an accomplished visual artist, represented by V1 gallery in Copenhagen making increasingly political, tongue-in-cheek artwork that mixes found images and bold texts. In person the artist exudes warmth, positivity and an infectious love of the more obscure edges of culture. This month, the ever-busy Dewitt is opening a show in Paris titled Open Casket. Coffins appear in each work, referencing what felt “like a funeral service for the planet itself”. Pay your respects.
Fran Gavin: Your work seems to be playing with a lot of contemporary fear, particularly the kind circulated and amplified in the media. What do you find interesting about that sense of almost hysteria?
Cali Thornhill Dewitt: There’s this book, Among The Thugs, about mob mentality. I’m fascinated and horrified about this idea. The wolfpack. I see it everyday. The group is afraid. The group is empowered when together. I see groups wearing MAGA hats but very rarely individuals. News headlines more and more seem designed to agitate the group. Group fear divides. It’s all about division and blame. It’s an incredible cycle. I see very little humanity in the mainstream media, very little teaching or compassion. I basically feel pushed in certain directions, and I enjoy slapping back. There is absolutely an oppressive viewpoint that is becoming more normalised and I am comfortable saying fuck you to these oppressors in any way possible.
FG: What do you like about the juxtaposition of found imagery and text? Before this words and writing seemed more of your visual focus.
CTD: For me it’s a combo of simple aesthetics and an efficient and clean delivery system. My aim is generally to be blunt and concise.
FG: Would you agree there is also a dose of humour in what you do? Combining the words ‘Crime Scene’ against an image of the White House for example.
CTD: There is absolutely a humour to it. I consciously court laughter and joy. I need to laugh at the issues and the problems, the ones I have as an individual and the collective ones as well. A sense of humor is a terrific weapon.
FG: What are you afraid of?
CTD: People who think the private lives of others are any of their business. People who try and control other people based on the colour of their skin, their sex, their sexuality.
FG: What do you find interesting about bootlegs and images that are taken without permission?
CTD: It’s kind of a combo of a collage mentality and this feeling of being assuaged by imagery. How many images do you look at within an hour of waking up? It’s probably a couple hundred at this point. I have been bootlegged more than once and I actually love it most of the time. It becomes part of a larger or at least different conversation, it mutates. I know many people don’t like it, and I’ve had people get outraged on my behalf, but I don’t know... I enjoy it. Bootleg me. Make it better. Put your stamp on it.
FG: Merch and fashion are still a strong part of what you make. What do you like about using that platform?
CTD: T-shirts have always been a way to communicate for me. When I was 15 and I was walking down the street in my Corrosion of Conformity shirt and I spotted someone in a Terveet Kadet shirt I knew we had common ground and something to share. My relationship with clothing is essentially the same now. It’s an affordable way to communicate. It can be an easy way to find people with interests that might match up with yours. I’m certain more than a few of my friendships started with a graphic tee. I also like that a tee is for everyone. Not everyone can afford – or even wants – a piece of art, but they can get the shirt and be a part of that conversation. Fashion is a way of telling people who you are. It certainly was for me as a teen. I think that will always resonate with me.
FG: Your NTS show is super eclectic. How does music influence what you make as an artist?
CTD: I think music is the foundation of everything I’m interested in. It’s what led me to this moment. Music taught me most of my core beliefs. I am always interested in finding new music, exploring genres, it’s as interesting to me at 46 as it was at 16. People are always talking about how “things were better in...” and I have found that things were better (culture, music, et cetera) for people “back then” because that’s when they were eagerly interacting and taking part in it. That’s when they were passionate. Sadly most people stop that interaction after a few years and their view stagnates. Of course they don’t like new music and new ideas, they stopped learning the language. The NTS show is a blessing for me, because it forces me to try harder every month to find new shit. To keep digging and stay curious and wake up new ideas.
FG: Anything to add?
CTD: Let’s place a hex on the Trump administration. And let’s go ahead and extend that hex to anyone and everyone on earth who is trying to control any other person. May they all find themselves together on a meteor hurtling towards the sun into charred oblivion.
Open Casket is at La Cité, Paris, from June 20 – September 13, 2019.