The dark art of Radiohead
The mysterious Stanley Donwood is known as the band's sixth member. And his vicious depictions of bankers are in tune with the times
Wednesday 25 March 2009
He's better known as the honorary sixth member of Radiohead, the print-maker behind the distinctive cover art on everything from the band's 1994 EP My Iron Lung up to the colourful paint-splattered spectrum of In Rainbows, which won him his second Grammy for art direction earlier this year. But, of late, Stanley Donwood has turned his attentions from music to the parlous state of the economy.
In an exhibition at Brighton's Ink_d Gallery, Donwood is showing his latest work, "Pandemonium". A comment on the financial crisis – and the financiers who caused it – the series depicts soberly suited figures whose heads have been replaced by satanically grinning goats.
"They're horrible, feral, carnivorous goat-like creatures, consumed by a naked, guiltless, ravening greed," says Donwood. "Partly, the faces you fear you'll see when you pull open the curtains at night, partly the laughing visage of decaying Western capitalism, they're inspired by vast movements of cash into the pockets of the despicable, by bonuses, payoffs and bribes to keep quiet."
The "Goodwin goat" triptych, currently hanging outside in Ink_d's backyard, was inspired by the now notorious "Fred the Shred", former RBS Chief Executive, Sir Fred Goodwin. "They go after benefit cheats but these bankers are far worse and are being rewarded... people walk away with legally protected, huge bonuses".
Donwood sketched the bloodthirsty creatures, clothed them using photographs of bankers – "incompetent, parasitic vampires" – and pasted the figures to white plywood boards which he spattered with primary-coloured paint. Then, in an anarchic final touch (mirroring what many dream of doing to the architects of the recession), he doused the canvasses in lurid red paint. "And still they laugh", he adds grimly.
"Pandemonium" is not the first time Donwood has commented on the credit crunch. In October, he created an intricate medieval-style linocut which showed Fleet Street submerged beneath the waves of a flood and burning to the heavens. A stark warning to the media, it was printed on the last remaining printing press on the Street, dating from 1844.
The artist has a knack for such headline-grabbing projects which appear at odds with his hermitic lifestyle. He works from a printing studio located in a derelict dancehall somewhere in Somerset ("a bit like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining"), rarely gives interviews and is credited for his work on Radiohead's albums alongside a Dr Tchock or Tchocky, Thom Yorke's chosen nickname. But so reclusive is Donwood – and his artwork so in tune with Radiohead's music – that over the years some have speculated that he is in fact Yorke working under another pseudonym. The band's lead singer studied Fine Art and English at Exeter University and his partner is the print-maker, Rachel Owen. More likely, though, is the theory that Donwood is the moniker of Dan Rickwood, a fellow Exeter alumnus and old friend of Yorke's who began working with the band when he was on the dole after graduating.
Since those days, Donwood has created all the band's album covers including the haunting, screaming medical dummy of The Bends and the stark snowy peaks of Kid A and has won two Grammys (for Amnesiac and In Rainbows). He's also an artist in his own right, having staged two solo shows at London's Lazarides Gallery (home to Banksy and Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett). The first, in 2006, was "London Views", a panoramic linocut which showed the capital's distinctive landmarks sinking in a deluge. One panel – Cnut holding out his hand to stop the watery onslaught – became the cover of Yorke's solo album, The Eraser. Donwood's previous solo show was an angsty meditation on suburban living with prints showing stick men fleeing their identikit homes against an apocalyptic orange and red backdrop. Its unsettling title, "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now", might have featured in the lyrics of any Radiohead album.
The Ink_d exhibition also includes a new print from his "Hail to the Thief" series, which was used as the cover for the 2003 album. The impressionistic map of Manhattan picks out words, including "security", "fear" and "hamburger" in saturated blocks of colour. At the moment, Donwood is taking a break from his Radiohead work while the band tours South America but he's already heard a few early snippets of new material ("I couldn't possibly comment"...) and will be collaborating with them again. "I hang around throughout the recording, really. I just try to absorb what's going on. I usually get it hugely wrong to start with and then adjust what I'm doing. I hear what they're doing and they see what I'm doing and the two collide in some sort of incident. It's great working with other artists. I don't understand music but I love the way that it can suggest things to you."
To 10 April, Ink-d Gallery, Brighton ( www.ink-d.co.uk)
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