Back to the futurists

Local artist Steve Vanoni wants us to learn to love the buzz bomb

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes

Last Saturday night in Davis, on the sidewalk outside John Natsoulas Art Gallery, an irritated Steve Vanoni paced back and forth, madly puffing away on a cigarette. “You gotta stay 20 feet away from the building and keep moving,” he said, referring to the near-total ban on public smoking in the People’s Republic. That, at least, was Vanoni’s interpretation of the law, with which he deemed himself in compliance.

Four stories up, on the gallery’s roof, a dozen or so of Vanoni’s collaborators, dressed in disposable white coveralls, fright wigs and hats made out of stuffed animals, set the stage for the evening’s performance. On one side of the roof, they draped white and blue plastic tarps. On the other side, they maneuvered what looked like a 6-foot-long space bazooka into position.

The bazooka was in fact a pulsejet engine, a device best known for powering the V-1 buzz bomb, a weapon the Nazis used to devastating effect in WWII. The most any member of the gathering crowd knew about the impending performance was that Vanoni was going to use the pulsejet to “blast-paint” human subjects. What that meant exactly was for most of the onlookers a mystery.

Back down on the street, the evening’s master of ceremonies stamped out his cigarette, hitched up a pair of white overalls and adjusted a crude codpiece fashioned from a red pair of woman’s underpants and a thick length of black PVC pipe. He screwed a large, mangled teddy bear down over his ears using the hole where most of the bear’s stuffing had dribbled out. The bear’s remaining two limbs flopped around on Vanoni’s head like rubbery horns.

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes


You know Steve Vanoni. Even if you think you don’t know him, even if you don’t want to know him, you know him. He’s that guy who looks like Tom Waits’ older, taller, cooler brother. Or, if he’s riding around in that crazy, Munsters-meets-Beverly Hillbillies Cadillac of his, like Elvis from hell. He’s the silver-haired fox in the T-shirt, blue jeans and black leather motorcycle jacket. You can’t miss him, even if you want to. Vanoni’s colorful, cartoonish paintings of elongated locomotives, luscious red lips, and women with vertical hair-dos and missing arms (á la Venus di Milo) first began attracting attention in the early 1980s; he’s been a fixture on the local art scene ever since.

In addition to his own prolific work, Vanoni has gained recognition as a champion of “outsider art,” paintings and sculpture by artists with no formal training but plenty of raw talent and acquired skill. Gallery Horse Cow, which Vanoni operates with business manager/collaborator Allen Denault, has showcased outsider art since the mid-1990s, when it first opened its doors on Del Paso Boulevard. The gallery recently relocated for the third time, finally providing Vanoni the space to store an art collection that has grown immense over the years.

Where, for example, do you keep a bright-yellow fiberglass cat that’s taller than a house? Or a Volkswagen Beetle that’s morphed into a silvery UFO? Horse Cow is a wrecking yard for such oddities. “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep quiet about the new location for now,” Vanoni implored on a recent visit. You never know who’s gonna turn up these days. Law enforcement. Aliens from outer space. People with more stuff to drop off.

The gallery also provides Vanoni, Denault and their colleagues, collectively known as the Horse Cow artists, space to plan and execute performance-art pieces, such as the event staged on top of the Natsoulas gallery. That explains how they wound up on the roof with a pulsejet engine, but it doesn’t explain why. To do that, you have to go back to the futurism, the early 20th century artistic movement led by Italian poet F.T. Marinetti.

The futurists proposed, in theory at least, to flood the museums and purge culture of its love for nostalgia. Out with the old, in with the new. In his 1913 manifesto, “The Variety Theatre,” Marinetti swept convention aside as he proclaimed a new art born “from electricity … lucky in having no tradition, no masters, no dogma … fed by swift actuality.” No rules, just three guidelines: Emphasize the real over the abstract, exploit new technology as much as possible, and tear down the wall between performer and audience.

Manifestos and grand, historically sweeping gestures were the futurist stock-in-trade, one reason they were so admired by Mussolini. With a wave of his hand, futurist Luigi Russolo dismissed five centuries of classical-music history in favor of his “Art of Noise,” music based on the sounds of modern, urban life as played on intonarumori, or wind-up noise machines that performed a function similar to Venoni’s pulsejet: They made noise. It was noise, in fact, that brought Vanoni and Denault to the pulsejet in the first place, Denault explained at the gallery.

“We had seen them, they were easy to build, and they were loud,” he said. Denault designed and constructed their first pulsejet from scratch, basing it on photographs of an engine used by San Francisco-based performance-art group Survival Research Laboratories in the 1980s. The 6-foot-long engine looks like a rusty, stretched out bugle, with a short funnel-shaped intake on one end, a combustion chamber in the middle, and a longer, funnel-shaped exhaust outlet. Compressed air and propane mix and explode in the combustion chamber 150 times per second, creating a surprising amount of thrust and sound volume in the range of 150 decibels. For reference, 160 decibels can perforate the human eardrum.

“It’s a very dramatic tool,” Vanoni added. “A lot of times fire will shoot out of the barrel. The initial shock, if you haven’t heard it before, really freaks people out.”

Freaking out is what Marinetti meant by emphasizing the real over the abstract. It doesn’t matter if the Germans used the pulsejet for war. What counts is that it’s so damned loud it can make your ears bleed. So loud you can’t think of anything else. So loud Vanoni and Denault didn’t really know what to do with it at first, because you can’t run it full bore for any length of time inside city limits.

Then Vanoni recalled a French artist from the 1980s who created art by using the exhaust from his private jet to splatter paint on canvases. Why not use the pulsejet in the same fashion, blasting the paint with short bursts? Denault was the first test subject. Vanoni metered out buckets of acrylic into the engine’s roaring jet stream, and Denault was quickly plastered with wet, gloppy paint.

“I felt sorry for him,” Vanoni said. “The paint was really thick. It was like an Earl Scheib paint job on Allen.”

The pulsejet had found its calling.

For the engine’s first public performance in 2004, Vanoni gathered four naked models and 25 gallons of tempera in Horse Cow’s warehouse, blasting the models with layers of paint and then directing them to wriggle around on canvases, à la the “live” painting technique first perfected by French artist Yves Klein in the late 1950s.

“They became living brushes,” Klein said of his models. “At my direction the flesh itself applied the color to the surface and with perfect exactness.” He likened normal painting to “the window of a prison, where the lines, contours, forms and composition are determined by the bars.” For Klein, “live” painting was a break from this prison.

Well, what do you think is going on in these pictures? Horse Cow artists horsing and cowing around? Auditions for a Terry Gilliam movie? Nothing at all, because actually it’s just you having some kind of horrible flashback?

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes

If performance art can tear down prison walls, it stands to reason that it could open doors, as well. That seems to be Vanoni’s intention.

“A lot of people are alienated by galleries and museums because of the pretentiousness and snobbery that surrounds the whole art world,” he said. “It alienates everyday people, who figure they’re ignorant about artists and art work, and therefore won’t go in a gallery because they don’t want to feel ignorant.”

Vanoni first became aware of performance art in the late 1970s while a student at Sacramento State, studying under Professor John Fitzgibbons. Later, he met the late Alan Kaprow, the painter and assemblagist who’d helped pioneer “happenings” in the 1950s. Happenings were staged “spontaneous” events, which followed the precepts elucidated in Marinetti’s manifesto, emphasizing live performance and intimacy between performer and audience.

It wasn’t long before Vanoni picked up the performance-art torch. He founded the Screaming Pygmy Orchestra in the early ‘80s, a loosely organized troupe of musicians, artists, and other performers that traveled from club to club like a sort of rock ‘n’ roll circus. A typical Pygmy performance might feature 25 skits, varying from spoken-word pieces to bizarre noise acts to people pulling practical jokes on unsuspecting audience members.

That practice carried over into the ‘90s and the early years of Uptown Arts on Del Paso Boulevard. Second Saturday Second Shift was in full effect, fire dancers had come into vogue, and Vanoni often could be found at the center of the storm, directing freaked-out fashion shows, playing psychedelic saxophone, hosting all-night parties at Gallery Horse Cow. It wasn’t all that strange for a man to stand on a block of ice in the middle of the boulevard wearing only a diaper. It wasn’t weird for a man to ejaculate sparks. It was expected.

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes

But that was then. This is now. Steve Vanoni stepped out of the elevator and onto the roof of the Natsoulas Gallery, where 120 people—men, women and children—had gathered to watch him “blast-paint” human beings. The house band from Uranus played in one corner. Monsanto, a Horse Cow artist dressed in an orange jumpsuit with gold butterfly wings and a platinum wig, manned the pulsejet. Monsanto’s interpretation of the Davis smoking ban was that you couldn’t smoke in Davis unless you were in a car going five miles per hour or faster. He estimated the cops would be at the gallery within five minutes of lighting the pulsejet off.

Vanoni loaded a waterlogged stuffed animal into the pulsejet’s rear end, stepped back and ordered Monsanto to pull the trigger. Boom! A ball of fire and a puff of smoke shot out as the animal flew across the roof, where another Horse Cow artist swung at it with a plastic bat. This, then, was the game audience members were invited to play.

“Step right up,” Vanoni barked through a plastic bullhorn, reloading the pulsejet’s barrel with another stuffed animal. A volunteer emerged from the audience. He took the batting stance and Monsanto pulled the trigger. The pulsejet made a sound like a loud, hollow fart; the stuffed animal barely rolled out the end. Without pausing, Vanoni gave the volunteer a plastic ducky and invited the next contestant up. Five people took swings, including a 7-year-old boy, whose tiny head looked like it could have been torn off by a flying stuffed animal projectile had the pulsejet not misfired once again.

Of course, baseball (of sorts) was just a preliminary to the main event, the blast-painting of live human beings. Vanoni posed the first subject, a tall man wearing goggles and white overalls, in front of the pulsejet’s exhaust. Monsanto opened the engine up, and Vanoni poured chocolate pudding into the jet stream. Unfortunately, the pudding was too thick to fly properly, so Vanoni, again without missing a beat, went directly over to the man and dumped out the rest of the bucket of pudding on him. Whip cream and cherries were next, with improved results.

The grand finale was a table piece dedicated to “Neo-Crocker,” the “modern culture party” being held at the Crocker Art Museum October 19. Apparently, for 50 bucks a head, you get Ferraris, fire dancers and champagne at the Crocker, but no Vanoni. There will be a slide show from Burning Man, but the Horse Cow artists and their pulsejet engine have been mysteriously uninvited from the event. To respond to this heinous sleight, Vanoni’s crew assembled an outdoor café table, a bottle of the same champagne, and a snobby rich couple in front of the pulsejet and let it rip. The engine roared and within seconds the couple, Horse Cow artists in disguise, were coated with thick beads of paint.

“Marvelous, darling,” one of them said, sipping champagne after it was all over. Confetti flew. Firecrackers exploded in mailboxes. The house band from Uranus played on. Monsanto was wrong. The cops never did come. Walking out of the gallery, a UC Davis student encountered some friends.

“You missed it,” she said, cocking her head back toward Natsoulas. “That’s where the real party was at.”