Stanley Donwood is a multimedia artist who is, most famously, the preferred collaborator of the band Radiohead and the author/subject of the latest artistic publication from Thames & Hudson. Some of their recent titles feature Francis Bacon, Paula Rego and Quentin Tarantino. Can Donwood’s work stand up to scrutiny in such impressive company?
It is a tough ask. That Stanley Donwood : There Will Be No Quiet ultimately manages the job is not just a compliment on Donwood’s art, but lies also in his insightful text, as well as the inevitable fascination with Stanley Donwood’s links to Radiohead’s work.
Having met their frontman Thom Yorke at the University of Exeter, where they were both art students, Donwood has created all the band’s artwork since their 1994 single My Iron Lung. Often strange, dark or disturbing, his work is perfect for the themes of alienation in Radiohead’s music and lyrics.
Stanley Donwood is an impressively engaging writer with useful insight, not only in to his own practice, but also the experience and sheer work of being an artist. For this is less an artist monograph than a personal biography; a journey through his creative process as well as through his various collaborations.
For Donwood art is not an easy task. He opens the book with the phrase “It is not at all easy to become an artist and it’s not something I’d advise…” He struggles, worries, thinks and rethinks. Creativity is very, very hard work. In his words “Everything is difficult to start with, gets harder, becomes impossible and then it ends up OK.”
He absorbs and researches – seemingly in every direction. He investigates myths and legends, explores city streets, tests new materials, and experiments with media – all the while reading voraciously.
The breadth of his artistic appetite is vast. One moment he is filming a video, the next showing an exhibition of linocuts, organising an advertising campaign or setting up an audio art installation in subterranean tunnels. He talks about social problems, the crimes of international big business, animal cruelty and air pollution before popping off to set up a record label.
Amongst Stanley Donwood’s other collaborations are 21 book covers for JG Ballard and promotions for Glastonbury Festival. Along the way he opens up personal notebooks, photographs, sketches – and the abandoned routes – that have led to his arresting images.
Each part of Stanley Donwood’s journey is described in forensic and fascinating detail. The experiments, failures, problems and eventual resolution of each artistic endeavour. The creation of his artworks in the tunnels under Waterloo for example involves discussion on Piranesi’s engravings, the Palace of Knossos, Neolithic caves, Peter Ackroyd and 16th century magician, Doctor Dee. He then draws in Thom Yorke who helps create a soundscape from Downwood’s recordings of collected sounds: including everything from Japanese crows and Swiss cowbells to Devon morris dancers.
Interestingly his work bears comparison to that of another multimedia artist, David Lynch, who often draws on similar dark or troubling themes. Lynch has also expressed frequent frustration at the reluctance of the art world to embrace artists who switch between their practices – specifically in reference of course to Lynch’s own painting and sculptural work that is arguably a match for his film work.
Donwood in effect has the same problem. We can imagine minds working in ‘serious’ art institutions: ‘can someone who creates album covers for a rock band actually be considered a serious artist?’ After reading this book, there’s only one answer, and that’s a resounding ‘Yes’.
Stanley Donwood – There Will Be No Quiet is Published by Thames & Hudson
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Size: 24.0 x 20.5 cm
Pages: 384 pp