Earlier in the week I paid tribute to Ryan Klemek's early work with absurdist music provocateurs The Ass, an ambitious project which Klemek has described as being "about as important as taking a selfie." Though The Ass may have been a casual blurt of incendiary genius, Klemek's modern work is a full blown assault on the fragile barrier that separates reality from fantasy.
I talked to Klemek last month as he was gearing up for the 2017 Arisia Sci-Fi Convention. My interview revealed some fascinating insights into Klemek's unusual aesthetic and the ups and downs of creative work.
SPLICE TODAY: When did you first get interested in working as a visual artist?
RYAN KLEMEK: I just drew a lot as a kid and was encouraged by parents and teachers. When I was really young I liked drawing the typical things that little boys draw: superheroes, dinosaurs, monsters, etc. I got more serious about visual art in high school. My school actually had a really strong art department and my teachers were adamant about everyone drawing from direct observation, which is what really helped me. It turns out I don’t really know what things look like and can’t draw that well from imagination. I need references...
ST: Do you believe there is a direct relationship between the subject matter of your visual art, your writing, and the music of The Ass? If so, can you explain how these different sides of your work relate to one another?
RK: I think all of my work is narrative and all of my work is absurd—strange stories being told in a variety of media. Even my t-shirts are strange stories.
ST: Many of the paintings you've made feature iconic figures like Godzilla and pro wrestlers from the 70s/80s. Why are these spectacular characters important to you?
RK: All of the paintings of wrestlers were done as Christmas presents for my friend Jeff. We’ve both been waxing nostalgic about 80s pro wrestling recently. The Godzilla and other absurd elements of these particular paintings are just thrown in there as a way to tie it all with the rest of my work.
ST: Okay, so, I don't know how to put this gently, so I'm just gonna go for it: The first time I learned about your work in the genre of dinosaur erotica I laughed out loud. I try to be a sex positive person and all that, but I'm just baffled by this element of your work. Is dinosaur erotica supposed to be funny? Is it open to wide interpretation? Is it bad or offensive for you to know that people may be laughing at dinosaur erotica and not getting turned on by it?
RK: The stories were initially just an excuse to make the cover art. But once I got into the writing, it actually became my goal to make my dinosaur erotic stories as sex-positive as possible. Mostly because I think it’s completely absurd to be sex-positive about dinosaurs and humans getting together. Yes, the stories are meant to be funny, but I think the most original way to be humorous in this genre is to play the sex/relationship elements straight. Yes, I use silly descriptions when I’m writing about the act itself, but I try to make the character’s reactions to it all as complex, believable, and relatable as possible. It’s just more fun that way. This imagery isn’t necessarily a turn-on for me, but I like the challenge of being absurd while at the same time not condescending to readers who might actually get off on this stuff. I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to pull it off, but even just the idea of someone making an honest effort to do so is amusing to me. Ed Wood’s sincerity is what makes Plan 9 From Outer Space entertaining and, in my opinion, a genuinely good movie. If he had set out to be ironic, it wouldn’t have worked.
ST: From an artist's point of view, what is your opinion of pornography's cultural power in the post-internet world?
RK: It gives me great satisfaction to think about the cultural power pornography wields in the post-internet world. I like how it has become harder to hide one’s fascination with it from the rest of the world. Before the internet, we had to speculate about the fetishes of politicians, but now there’s a little thing called "browser history."
In the 21st century, pornography has gotten a little more raw, a little less theatrical. The gonzo porn movement (if it's a movement) is meant to embrace the amateurish qualities, remove the artificial story, and appear more realistic. This includes less classically idealized bodies, less plastic surgery, more girl- or boy-next-door types. There's an acknowledgement of the camera and the viewer, not in a comedic or cartoony "breaking the fourth wall" way, but more as though the performers are being interviewed, etc. In that sense, it reflects the Youtube culture where everyone has a phone that records video, and everyone has some basic editing software that comes free with most operating systems, and therefore, anyone can make a movie. What Amazon offers to aspiring writers is similar, where anyone who wants to can publish a book. It may be too early to tell what the long-term effects of all this will be. It's internet culture that has affected art, including pornography. A positive aspect of this is now there are more people willing to try their hand at making art. One drawback is that the internet has become saturated with mediocre art, and it's hard to sift through it all. An even more dire consequence is that there's now a certain expectation from consumers that art, like porn, should be free.
ST: If you believe that there's a clear distinction between pornography and erotica, how do you define that distinction?
RK: One of the reasons I’m not as good of a writer as I could be is that I don’t read enough. I had only read one erotica story before I wrote my first one. It was terribly written, but that was my only exposure to the genre. To this day I’ve never read what would truly be considered erotica. If I had to guess, I’d say the difference between pornography and erotica is that the former is just gratuitous and makes no pretenses about serving a story. There might be more to it than that. There might be a gradual progression from romance to erotica to pornography as far as how explicitly the sex scenes are written and how much of the book is dedicated to them. There are probably some grey areas. Maybe as many as fifty of them.
ST: I noticed that Skull Island is both a name for an old Ass song, and the website that prominently features your writing. Is there any aesthetic correlation between the song and the site?
RK: They actually are connected. It all goes back to this treasure map I drew when I was a kid, probably five or six years old. The drawing was inspired by an illustrated copy of Treasure Island I had been reading. It was eventually lost under a dresser or something, but at some point during college I found it and pinned it up on the wall in my bedroom. On the map were these islands, which I labeled "Scull Island" and "Mistry." Nate happened to see the drawing on the wall and was amused at how I had spelled the island names. For whatever reason, he thought it would be funny to use those names for The Ass' free jazz songs. When it came to making the website, I spent a long time thinking of names. I had already written the dino stories and had done that illustration of the raptor at the typewriter, which I used on business cards. I started thinking of different concepts featuring prehistoric animals and remembered King Kong and Skull Island. It seemed like a fun idea to imagine a newspaper or blog written for the locals living there. For the site’s background image, I decided to create a map reminiscent of the one I had drawn as a kid.
I like to think that the Skull Island Universe exists in a time all its own. Most of the commentary is about current cultural phenomena, but I want to be flexible with that in the future. Especially since so much of the content will be short stories which have no common themes or settings.
ST: What inspired you to begin working on Skull Island Times?
RK: It was mostly developed as a way to promote RK Galaga’s erotic fiction stories. It’s a way to have a steady release of content while I’m working on more time-consuming projects. If I were to be MIA the whole time I was working on a painting or story, I’d lose touch with potential readers.
ST: What other kinds of content will readers find in Skull Island Times?
RK: It’s mostly short stories and reviews. We do fake reviews of real movies, books, food, consumer products and real reviews of fake movies, books, food, consumer products. We also do a fake advice column featuring wise words from both Jesus and Satan. In the near future, I’m hoping on bringing in more outside contributors as a way to keep things fresh. Actually, contributing author H. Steitz wrote most of the short stories that are currently up on the site. So far, I’ve mostly just written reviews of fake movies. There was also a fan fiction piece I wrote featuring Alf, Zombie Han Solo, and JJ Abrams.
ST: How did the Donkeyshines t-shirt enterprise come about?
RK: My interest in t-shirts started with going to the Salvation Army and finding retro silly shirts leftover from the 70s. That was in the 90's... I amassed quite a collection of shirts. Then I started making my own. I stenciled the "Cobra" symbol from G.I. Joe onto a shirt before you could buy one of those at Urban Outfitters. I hand-painted a portrait of Lando Calrissian onto a shirt because there were no Lando shirts out there. I drew a cupcake with Sharpie on a plain white t-shirt. As simple as it was, the cupcake one seemed to be the most popular. The Care Bears was my inspiration for that, Birthday Bear in particular. I liked how all the Care Bears had little logos on their chests. But I wasn't a screen printer and I wasn't about to hand-draw t-shirts to order, so I didn't really think about mass-producing shirts when I was first trying to think of some art-related enterprise that would allow me to forgo getting a real job.
My first "business" was selling greeting cards. I called that company Crazy Cupcake Designs and used a version of that cupcake from my t-shirt as the logo. Nobody really bought my cards, and even when they did, getting $1.25 for a card doesn't add up very quickly. Eventually, I looked into printing cheap, one-color t-shirts. The first design, naturally, was the Crazy Cupcake logo. This was back in the late 90s, early 2000s. Right around that time, Johnny Cupcakes exploded onto the t-shirt scene, and that pretty much killed Crazy Cupcake Designs. I didn't like the idea of people thinking I was copying him since he was so successful and they'd be familiar with his stuff before they saw mine. In 2008, I tried to rebrand with Donkeyshines, and I found an online company (Printmojo) that would screenprint, store, process orders, and ship directly to customers. Printmojo basically runs Donkeyshines to this day. I have a good relationship with the folks who work there, which is the only reason they're letting me keep my shirts there even though I haven't printed any new ones since 2013 and only sell 5-10 shirts a year. I enjoyed making the designs. The simple graphic style has a much more favorable energy-cost-to-sense-of-personal-satisfaction feeling than making the painted illustrations (although the overall satisfaction of the paintings is much higher). But I have no understanding of business or marketing, and the t-shirt market is pretty tough to crack. I read about how Johnny Cupcakes never spent a dime on marketing when he was getting his start, but I just couldn't figure it out. For a little while, it seemed like I might actually get something going, but I lost momentum right around the time social media became more complex and less "free" for promotion. I still haven't figured it out, which is why I have the same problem selling R.K. Galaga books, or even getting people to read things for free at Skull Island.
Pretty much everything I make these days is set up to be mass-produced. Most of my recent paintings are digital. The biggest con for mass-produced art is that it's hard to get people to really value it. People don't seem to want a print of some character or scene that they aren't already familiar with through more famous manga, comics, or movies, but they might buy an original painting of said scene. Another advantage with fine art is that, legally, you have more leeway. I could technically do a painting of Captain America fucking Mickey Mouse in the ass and sell the original. But if I try to sell prints of it (or probably even a single canvas print) then suddenly it's copyright infringement. Obviously, Disney is a juggernaut that isn't to be fucked with, but that's really the problem with digital painting. It takes just as much time and energy to make it, but it already feels mass-produced as soon as it's created. Unless you do something original to each print, I guess. That is what I plan on doing at the January Arisia Sci-Fi convention. I plan on selling prints of my sci-fi erotica book covers with handwritten quotes from the stories right on each print. And I will only use each quote once. We'll see if that works.
What has been most disappointing so far is that I haven't been very successful at selling sex. I was under the impression that sex always sells. Over the years, I've been courting smaller and more specific niche markets in hope that I can finally make a living at this. So far it hasn't worked. But the plus side of all this is I feel that I've been able to channel my frustration into more personal and interesting art. These days, the times that seem like I may be most desperately reaching outside of my comfort zone in order to find an audience, I'm actually making the most personal work.