Thursday, February 7, 2008

To Make the Horrible Beautiful

Remembering paintings he had seen as a child of “redcoated English soldiers massacring foreigners,” Stanley Donwood writes in Dead Children Playing: A Picture Book featuring the art of Radiohead, he later came to realize that “that’s what [he] wanted to paint; jewels strewn in snow. Somehow I want to MAKE THE HORRIBLE BEAUTIFUL.” Since 1994, Donwood and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke (co-author of Dead Children Playing as his alter ego, Dr. Tchock) have collaborated to create album art for Radiohead albums The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows and Yorke’s solo album The Eraser. This collected body of work represents the greatest assemblage of album art since the iconic album covers of The Beatles in the 1960s.

Donwood created a series of nightmare landscapes that indeed made the horrible beautiful for the album Kid A, including Residential Nemesis (above, from 1999). In such apocalyptic landscapes snow becomes not a blanket that hides but rather a document of the “evidence” of cruelty, a record of the footprints of the oppressor over the oppressed. Later, the repetition of a symbol for a lost child, similar to what you’d see in a shopping mall, turns sinister when set in a whitened landscape of urban highways careening about. Donwood’s art captures the sense of dread and angst at the center of Radiohead’s art. One of the earliest pieces in Dead Children Playing parodies the instructions for an asthma inhaler, replacing the real instructions with steps such as “Scrabble around on the floor trying to find it” and “Realise with terror that it isn’t working.” Donwood’s art conveys this sense of asphyxiation beneath the pressure of modern life. “Since I started drawing little weeping minotaurs, I’ve been trying to find the maze,” Donwood later writes after transforming London in his imagination into a labyrinth of twisted facts and fictions. Like the labyrinth of classical myth, you feel not only little hope of escape but the constant dread of being pursued when looking at these images.

The series of paintings I found most striking were those done for the album Hail to the Thief. Donwood recounts a visit to Los Angeles and his sense of being oppressed by the “very big, and very brash” omnipresent advertising and its relentless repetition of the same basic seven colors. Inspired, Donwood began to paint maps consisting entirely of those same seven colors, beginning with the Pacific Coast (above, from 2003), later moving on to Hollywood, and even later moving on to war-torn cities such as Grozny, Kabul, and Bagdad. In those brash seven colors, Donwood inserts words and phrases onto the landscape, spurring the viewer to make whatever connections he wishes. When the words “Pointless,” “2 + 2 = 5,” “Someone’s Son,” and “Someone’s Daughter” appear over a map of Bagdad, the message of an unjust war based on false arguments waged by the powerful at the expense of the innocent seems quite clear. The power of American hegemony, garishly visible by the trail of media and advertising our culture leaves in its wake, literally rewrites the maps in these paintings. These paintings made me think of William Kentridge’s tapestries currently on exhibition at the PMA. (My review of that catalogue here.) Kentridge uses maps as the backdrop of his tapestries to reject the idea that any landscape, including that of his native South Africa, could somehow be innocent. The imprint of injustice remains no matter what cosmetic treatment is applied. Similarly, Donwood’s repainted maps illustrate the cost of imperialism and the permanent mark it makes not only on the landscape but on the collective psyche of a people.

“Don’t get any big ideas,” one cartoon says near the end of Dead Children Playing. “They’re not going to happen.” The art of Donwood and Radiohead makes the big ideas visible without dogma, allowing the viewer to experience and absorb the concepts for himself. The Beatles had the luxury of the long-playing album sleeve to create their packages, but Donwood and Radiohead exist in the era of the compact disc jewel case. Would Peter Blake’s crowded cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band be as memorable if those famous faces were too small to pour over with the music in the background? Fortunately, Donwood’s art exists and, strangely, thrives in those close confines—a physical manifestation of the claustrophobic feelings they often depict. Dead Children Playing, with its beautiful reproductions and astoundingly affordable price, should help spread those big ideas around and, perhaps, make them happen.

[Many thanks to Verso Books for providing me with a review copy of Dead Children Playing: A Picture Book.]