“What do artists do?”
I looked over the sea of hands suddenly shot up from the hundred or so gathered five and six year-olds. Feeling all teachery standing up there at the front of the assembly hall, the choice was mine to make – pick one. Any one. I was pretty sure they all had the same answer. I don’t remember which and I picked in the end, but the response was like a punchline
“They paint things”
It’s not just small people even. I doubt I’m alone among artists either – that response when people ask what you do, you say ‘Artist’, they say “what do you paint?”.
My standard response is “skirting boards. Occasionally”.
There’s a general assumption that art is something you put on your wall. At best it’s something other people put on gallery walls. And don’t get me started on “art in unusual places”… what’s THAT supposed to mean?…
The flip side of this of course is that I obviously have walls at home and I like art. So what do artists have on their walls? I clearly don’t do wall stuff, and even if I did I doubt I’d have any of my own work at home. It’d be like an accountant having spreadsheets on the wall, or plumbers having their best soldered joints in frames.
I remember going to one artists house and seeing a small Dali on the wall – apparently a swap with Dali himself. I’d love to have one like that. Even just a Dali would be nice…
The other week, quite by chance, I got a signed print by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgerson. Actually I’ve not really thought of him as a hero until recently. I guess he’s probably most known for his iconic album covers for Pink Floyd – that prism for ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, and the flying pig over Battersea Power Station for ‘Animals’.
Back in my youth album cover design was a big thing. Factory Records had Peter Saville,
4AD had (and still have) Vaughan Oliver
and almost everyone else had Rob O’Connor at Stylorouge.
At the time I looked to record covers as where the exciting photography was and what I ultimately wanted to do. Peter Saville was pushing record sleeve design as works of art in their own right – most of the Factory records never featured the name of the band, or even album on the front and created a strong visual identity for the artists. Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson as 23envelope in contrast exerted their very individual style on every band that came on the 4AD label – unifying the label visually while transcending the style and nature of the individual bands (and not without a bit of a marmite split of support from the bands themselves). While many labels still chose to put pictures of the bands and singers on the records, these studios were turning product into a work of art.
The Factory / 4AD aesthetic (and particularly Grierson’s photography) was certainly in evidence in my early forays into record sleeves:
That strong visual element within certain streams of music I think shaped my musical tastes. I’m still guilty of judging a book by its cover. There are so many great bits of music and books I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for some brilliant photography on the cover.
But long before all that was Storm Thorgerson – the father of album cover art. Beyond every Pink Floyd album, his first studio – Hipgnosis – then subsequently Storm Studios – created some of most striking and downright surreal images of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s:
All classics in their own right, so I suppose were part of the cannon of music design and consequently part of the collective consciousness of artists working in that arena. Still, by the late 80’s, early nineties they all seemed a bit.. well, prog-rock and so dropped out of what I considered to be cool and relevant.
Yet, somehow bits must have stayed put in my psyche and could occasionally be seen subconsciously in bits and pieces, like this shoot for a theatre company where a man wakes up in a subway station at rush-hour:
In the intervening years I’ve sought to find my own voice and visual path, and finally split from my music industry trajectory when I moved to Cumbria. Being out in the sticks has immersed my work with a whole new world of inspiration and learning together with a whole different culture. The music industry has changed loads too – the downsizing of scale from 12″ vinyl to 6″ CD covers took away some of the visual emphasis. Since then iTunes and digital downloads have removed music from its packaging entirely. Around the same time MTV moved away from non-stop music videos and that great music design industry has largely slipped away.
Storm Thorgerson died in April last year. As with any passing of a great cultural figure there’s a period of reflection on that person’s achievements and a rediscovery of their forgotten genius. Storm Thorgerson, like Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville, comes from an era before digital manipulation. Oliver’s textural creations were created through a deep understanding of the reprographic processes and print technology to build up layers upon layers of image, graphics and text. Thorgerson on the other hand took a much more direct approach – to create the images for real and photograph them. Thorgerson’s images become more than just fantasies – they really happened. A product of immense prop building and researching the best landscape in the world to make it happen.
What I found most fascinating was now I saw another artist creating vastly ambitious temporary installations in vast open landscapes.
Coming at them from completely different places, the themes are so familiar
As a commercial artist there’s a lot of output. Thorgerson seemed to publish books of his designs every few years. Sure the quality varies, and if I’m going to be particularly critical, I think a lot of the styling in the more recent work feels very dated and less contemporary – less aware of its time and place.
But then there are still gems.
The cover of ‘Only Revolutions’ by Biffy Clyro is Thorgerson at his best.
The theme of Revolution has a narrative of struggle and conflict – the figures face each other in a blindfolded dual. Each concealing heir weapon behind their back – a rolling pin and a knife. The resolutions having broken down, the peace table in flames. The huge flags rise in the air catching the wind, their colours reminding us of the French Revolution and Delacroix’s Marianne in ‘La Liberté’
This is where great album cover art works for me. Here is an image that’s more than a pretty design. It has depth and narrative like a Rennaissance painting. As a photograph it has authenticity, yet it has a real mystery and fiction too.
I’m glad I rediscovered Storm Thorgerson’s work. It’s a shame I came back too it too late and never got to meet him.
There are those influential people you look up to and aspire to become, and there are those that speak to you in a way that deeply affects how you think and work, or you connect with in such a way you follow their every output. Then there are those who you may or may not know about who just happen to think the same way or do things the same way – those are the people you share a path with.And then sometimes when you’re walking along your path and by chance you find someone who’s already managed to get to where you were heading. Those are your heroes.
I’ve not gotten round to putting my print up yet. It’s all framed and standing on the kitchen table. But that’s the kind of thing I put on my wall.