Before Alix Ross and Elijah Funk launched Online Ceramics, they were two kids trying to make it as fine artists. That’s where the name Online Ceramics came from: they envisioned starting a website where they could sell their ceramic sculptures, and they jumped on the domain name. Then Funk got the opportunity to design a T-shirt for a friend’s brand. The rest was acid-dipped history: their bugged-out, Grateful Dead-influenced merch designs caught fire with a new generation of deadheads (including the likes of John Mayer, Emily Ratajkowski, and Virgil Abloh), and soon they were collaborating with their favorite band. But their artistic aspirations never faded. “It’s not like our art practice ever really died,” says Ross. “It just kind of transitioned into this other thing.”
And now it’s transitioned back. On Saturday, their first gallery show, “The Galaxy Song,” opened at David Kordansky in LA. Featuring nine graphic paintings and a sculpture, the work “is like Online Ceramics at full blast,” says Funk. How full? The sculpture takes a trippy motif that could have crawled off the back of an O.C. hoodie—a flute-playing skeleton jester riding on the back of a turtle—and renders it as a six-foot-tall bronze monument. The paintings, which Funk and Ross created using an enormous screen printing rig, go even deeper into their symbolically rich graphic domain. “We contemplate every shirt that we make, but the contemplation that went into these was a lot more meditative,” says Funk. “Like, I really feel like I lived in those things for days.”
When screen printing T-shirts, the guys are limited to a handful of screen designs and colors; in their paintings, they could use as many as 40 screens, and indulge in wackier setups that merge their spooky-Americana aesthetics with their interest in things like organic agriculture. “It was almost like deconstructing whatever little commercial goal we have with the clothes,” says Funk. To put it another way: “The paintings were finally a space where we could make a painting of, like, a skeleton milking a cow, which is something that we maybe would never put on a shirt,” says Ross. “Not yet,” adds Funk. Anyway, he says, “It’s cooler as a painting.”
The show itself, which includes the painter Matthew Brannon and his Grateful Dead-referencing prints, naturally has its roots with the band. Kordansky and the Online Ceramics guys first exchanged numbers back in 2016 outside a Dead & Company show in Irvine, CA, where Ross and Funk were selling their early Dead bootlegs; a year later, Kordansky reached out with the idea to do a proper show. (Their gallerist, Ross says, “is almost more of a deadhead than we are.”)
In order to complete the works for the show, Ross and Funk had to pause their usually-frenetic merch output for about three months. But the time off after years of nonstop collaborations and drops, they say, was creatively energizing. “This was definitely the most I’ve learned through Online Ceramics in years,” says Funk. “It’s rewired my hard drive a bit.” Though Ross and Funk are already thinking about what their next gallery show might look like, fans of their tees and hoodies don’t have to worry about losing their guys to the white cube complex. About an hour after the acrylic dried on their final painting, Funk was back to designing T-shirts.
Check out the scene at the opening of “The Galaxy Song” below.