James Ettelson, artist, 26, on a police love affair, the gel of laughter and the beauty of a good chemical cocktail.
By Jed Smith
As the sun sets over Sydney, artist James Ettelson stands roadside in the affluent North Shore suburb of Mosman, trousers removed, and a policeman gently invading his backdoor pipe. His friend, Adam stands next to him awaiting the same treatment while more cops empty the contents of their car on the street.
In three weeks, Etto will present his second solo show, LAUGH, at Sydney’s Arthouse Gallery and this was supposed to be his relaxing weekend away before the final dash.
“We were going, ‘Is this happening?’” he recalls.
Etto and Adam had been on their way back from his Dad’s farm near Scotts Head on the NSW mid-north coast, a few days surfing, cracking whips and scorching Scotts Head heads seeming the ideal way to take his mind off the show. But, they forgot to take the mull bowl off the back seat as they pulled into a roadside breath test, and now they’re being finger-fucked.
The cops find some bud (not enough for a charge) and a Valium. Etto has a prescription but they find it on Adam and Etto admits giving it to him meaning he’s now up on a trafficking charge. They’re taken back to the station for another strip search. “They were writing me off about my ‘shit tatts,’” says Etto, who, among his many ink jobs has an image of a bra with the words “bra girls” below it.
“I reckon it’s funny but be careful who you show that too,” was Sunny Abberton’s response when Etto showed it to him. There’s also a a tattoo that was supposed to read “skate or bond” but actually reads “skate or bodi” because the tattooist got stoned and misspelt the second word. They will spend the next eight hours in a holding cell, not easy for Etto, who is claustrophobic, before they’re released.
“I was just going, ‘Fuck, I’ve gotten away with that much other shit.’ I guess it was my time to get busted for something,” he says.
Raised in Avalon, Etto’s youth was a haze of surf, smoke and assorted skullduggery. Like many groms in the area, he too fell under the spell of Ozzie Wright, soon taking up Ozzie’s muse, Jean Michel-Basquiat whom he still idolises and pays homage to in LAUGH. Like his two idols, Etto has never been to an art class.
“Everyone’s in your ear telling you, you can choose between a gallery or us and we’ll strip you back and make you forget everything you know. I was like, fuck, it’s gonna make me hate art after three years,” he says of the decision.
It was in these wake-and-bake days of surfed-out bliss that Etto and his pals refined the cheesy puns and extreme sarcasm that, along with his signature depth rendering and excruciating attention to detail, defines his latest collection.
“Most people just think we’re lame losers. When people hang out with us they understand the lameness of our sense of humour and what we’re getting at. Hopefully, most people around our generation, a bit older and younger maybe, get it,” he says.
LAUGH is also an important personal milestone for Etto, whose acclaimed, though much darker, 2010 debut show, Magic Eyes, was produced in a blur of boozy Xanax benders and oscillating mental health. “That was the first time I wigged out and thought I had no control,” he says. He’s since reacquainted himself with surfing (“It’s the best thing ever. If I didn’t have it I’d definitely be depressed”) and pulled back on the drugs, saying, “I just smoked a lot of weed for this show.”
At opening night, Etto covers his mouth with his hat as the curator gives the obligatory preamble to kick off proceedings in front of the capacity crowd. There are maybe 70 or 80 people here, from old loaded eccentrics and art dealers through to the vast majority of degenerate surf/skate/muso types jostling for position at the free champagne table.
“I was cornered by gnarly old women all night but it was a hell good turnout, so I was stoked with that,” says Etto.
He wasn’t the only one. The exhibition was a sell-out with 50k of art going on the first night and the rest the week after. Yet, with the drug charge unresolved, Etto can’t enjoy it and worse still, he’s just started fielding offers from the Los Angeles and NYC galleries he’d long hoped to represent, an impossibility with a drug conviction. He has to fight it and does, representing himself in court a few weeks later. The judge looks at him over his square, rimless glasses and decides in seconds. “He just laughed at it. Section 10!*”
*Case dismissed pending a good behaviour bond.
Go check out Etto’s Tumblr, here.