Made You Look

Local artist Ellwood Risk has captured the attention of the Los Angeles art scene, and he’s got more to say.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Amber Klinck
  • Photographed by
    Jeff Berting

Standing inside his sprawling, 4,600-square-foot studio, local artist Ellwood Risk shares the motivation behind his most recent work. “Yes, the tweets,” he says. “Since the election, I’ve been such a wreck. This is my response.”

Blackbirds peppered with visuals carried over from Ellwood’s most notable Pistol Target series lay over gold leaf composite. “I’ve wanted to work with gold leaf forever, and this was just the right time,” Ellwood explains. “With him in office, what’s his color? Oh, it’s gold.”

Along the panel of each piece, words like “Resist” and “Jackass” are written. “[This] is my therapy; it’s my way of dealing with it,” he notes.

With artistic juxtapositions such as violent, front-page headlines paired with images of Mickey Mouse, or lusty silhouettes adorned with firearms, Ellwood’s work is provocative and open to a wide range of interpretation. “I think it’s all subjective,” he says. “I have a really hard time classifying any art as objective. I mean, how can you?”

With such strong visuals that speak to our social, cultural and political climate, Ellwood’s work evokes a reaction at first glance. It would be a challenge to look at one of his pieces and not get lost in a dialogue with the person next to you.

“We’re all targets,” Ellwood says while explaining some of the imagery in his Pistol Target series. “That’s my general statement. We’re targeted from the time we’re born.”

He continues with a smile, “My mom gave me that one. I said, ‘So what do you think?’ She said, ‘I love it; it’s really weird. I love it.’ You know, we all take our hits in life.”

In one of Ellwood’s Pistol Target series he utilizes pornography for the background. “I’ll stress it out to where it’s barely readable,” he explains. “But when you’re standing in front of the piece and you start focusing … you realize that it’s a partially nude woman from a magazine. That’s her struggle. From the time you’re a kid you’re exposed to these magazines that tell you what you’re supposed to look like. This is how you’re supposed to look to be happy and to be accepted and to be wanted. You can take that from Teen to Cosmopolitan right up to Hustler.”

Ellwood then superimposes a silhouette of a woman holding a gun over the background. “When I lay a female image on top of that with a gun, that’s like laying over a power image.”

The visual inspiration behind the Pistol Target series came to Ellwood while visiting a gun range with his father. Ellwood found himself fixated on the targets themselves.

“I thought, ‘Wow, these are amazing. They’re spooky, they’re weird, they’re provocative.’ So I brought a roll of them home,” he notes. “I started making stuff with them immediately, and people were immediately interested in them. It was around the same time, maybe a year after, that I got my first show with Robert Berman.”

A self-taught artist, Ellwood spent years working in construction before making his mark on the Los Angeles art scene. “I was doing this abstract plaster work and playing around with joint compound, which I used for years as a drywall finisher. Ninety percent of my process is informed by a lifetime in the construction industry,” he explains.

But Ellwood pulls the inspiration behind the work itself from all around him. “Every couple of years I move in a different direction; it takes me a while to get there,” he says. “But for me, it was initially almost always a visual attraction, a visual stimulation. That’s how I’ve always responded to art, and that’s how I’m usually inspired to make art.”

There was a shift, however, when a sticker popping up all over the Westside made an impact on Ellwood. “It was Shepard Fairey,” he says. “When I saw my first OBEY sticker, I was like, ‘Obey? Fuck you,’” he notes. “And they were everywhere.”

It wasn’t until a friend of Ellwood’s showed him Shepard’s manifesto, explaining the concept behind OBEY, that he began to truly appreciate the work. “The guy is so fucking smart, and that really awakened my desire to be politically expressive.”

The pairing of provocative imagery and political and cultural expression has served Ellwood well, solidifying his place in the art world with a series of showings in galleries along the coast of California, Seattle, New York, Miami and London. His work has long been featured on Showtime’s Californication, as well as The X-Files, Six Feet Under, Modern Family, Curb Your Enthusiasm and more.

From the Virginia Beach kid who took a chance and drove cross-country to Southern California—a place he’d only fantasized about—to his first introduction to Venice Beach and his love affair with the art scene it had to offer, Ellwood’s journey has always been an organic one. “My benchmark for it all is: Does it make me feel good?” he says.

What an excellent way to approach life.