Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sammy Harkham's Wedding Night

Sammy Harkham’s Wedding Night (meticulously screenprinted by Jordan Crane) might seem, at first glance, to be an exercise in ghoulish violence - but the piece quickly flourishes with enticing sparks once its surface is scraped.

Living in it, from my point of view, are ideas and symbolic imagery that address the underlying rapture and violence inherent in a ritual that proceeds to kill the individual and embrace the unity of the new bond. Mythology expert Joseph Campbell puts it as “In marriage you are not sacrificing yourself to the other person, you are sacrificing yourself to the relationship”.

The alchemical reference of (virginal) blood, urine (semen?), and sweat recalls ritualistic elements of Magik, Aleister Crowley and old Voodoo folk tales that certainly carry with them a heavy feeling of anxiety, but also seem to celebrate and recognize the need for a proper physical jolt to mark the ritual with an effective psychological shift.

One of the things that stands out to me about Wedding Night is having assembled certain visual references that are found in your other work … the anchor tattoo (from Poor Sailor) bandaged foot (Typewriter) how the general position of the two figures is reminiscent of how the Golem has his hand over the young boy’s face before he kills him (Crickets) creating a sort of “marriage” of elements from other projects. From what I understand, this image was taken from a painting you had done for an exhibition?

Harkham: It was a drawing that grew organically for a show at the Yerba Buena Art Museum with the theme of Werewolves. I started the drawing with the werewolf and nothing else. I had the hand out stretched in a typical monster lurch and was unsure where he was or doing. As I kept drawing I drew a female face under the hand and it started to make sense, it clicked … especially when the tongue part emerged.

As I worked on the drawing over the next couple days each element was clearly defined in my mind … I am not a fine artist, and rarely do stand alone pieces of art, but this was one of those rare drawings that went beyond being a nice drawing, and had a lot of content - at least to me. The anchor tattoo, the rings, the blood, the knife, the placement of her fingers, etc. None of these elements are just there to look good.

It was drawn pretty soon after I got married, and it touches on a lot of things about love and lust and commitment I was just discovering (the anchor tattoo is as clear symbol of her commitment to the endurance of love that I could think of) The whole idea that’s interesting about men turning into animals is the idea of the inner self, the true-self emerging outward … I could go on and be more specific, but I rather viewers took from it what they will without my concrete interpretations.

It’s an uncomfortable piece because of its personal nature to me, and I am aware that it can be read in a sexist, violent way, but to me it is romantic and hopeful above all else.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Grinderman's Gouging Guitar

"In the original sessions, the word "Grinderman" came up because of the John Lee Hooker song of that name. I was singing that song, riffing on that idea. Around that time we got this extraordinary loop from Warren [Ellis], and I played around with singing the title over that loop [which became the album's title track]. For some reason no one had called themselves Grinderman, except some act in Vegas. I think it's Mr. And Mrs. Grinder or something like that, and to them we give our apologies. But the name seemed to sum everything up. And it turns out John Lee Hooker's song came from the Memphis Slim song "Grinderman Blues", so having that kind of history behind it made the name feel right." - Nick Cave

While most of Grinderman’s tracks plunge into frantic fuzzed out guitar growls, the title piece finds a restrained center that allows for Caves stylistic vocals to act as the main melodic vehicle. Using the established key elements of the album’s visual world (light box, green lights, silver rain and Monkey), John Hillcoat (The Proposition) chooses to slow everything down, a decision that ends up heightening the song’s sadness and condensed determination.

Two thirds of the way in - its bulky two chord drone mightily collides with a “guitar solo” that consists of feedback bursts, carefully bleeding with all the right curves. Cave’s guitar solo aligns itself with the emotional passion of old blues players by refreshingly setting aside pompous ideas of “proficient musicianship” and thrives forward in a needed primal ferocity that has reshaped the way he interacts with process and performance …

Jim Sclvunos (drummer): He's never played guitar before. I think he might have played acoustic on one obscure Bad Seeds b-side, but I don't think I've ever even heard that song. He was visiting New York and I took him to a guitar shop in midtown Manhattan which was guitar heaven and he spotted an old Strat on the wall, and he said 'I want that one.' This was a month before the Grinderman sessions started, and he was buying a guitar to teach himself to play so he could try writing some songs, rather than playing on the piano like he usually does. He was so shy about getting the guitar that he didn't dare play in the shop. When the guy asked him if he wanted to plug it in, he was like 'No, no, just wrap it up.' He was quite the novice. I think he was imaging that we were going to get another guitar player, but the band were unanimously adamant that he was playing the guitar. We saw right away that he started singing the songs and approaching the song writing in a different way, and it was another thing that was going to distinguish Grinderman from the Bad Seeds, which was the point.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Power, Corruption and Peter Saville

A recently acquired copy of New Order’s 1983’s Power Corruption and Lies on vinyl got me really excited about Peter Saville. Listening to some interviews made it apparent to me that not only were some of his design ideas relevant in the early to mid eighties, they might prove to shine a light on the needs of design today.

We've seen a flourish and explosion of “throw it all into the mix” pluralist design that’s been floating around for the last few years that I find extremely stimulating, but found myself surprisingly seduced when Saville made the comment that:

I find Postmodern pluralism confusing, some aspects of pluralist culture kind of troubles me. Philosophically I like it, but systematically I’m a bit narrow at times. So, I’m quite a purist about things and I quit like bringing 2 different things together, but I’m not so comfortable in bringing 4 or 6 – to a point where we’re not sure what anything is anymore”.

There are some examples of irreverent juxtapositions in my work, my favorite cover is Power Corruption and Lies, but … it’s only stereo, not multi-channel. I find multi-channel fascinating, but I can feel a bit insecure with it sometimes”.

The cover, which is best seen on the twelve by twelve inch vinyl, has an old Henri-Fantin Latour painting, not a inch of type (band name or name of the record!) and a mysterious color code bar on the upper right corner.

Flipping it reveals (…die cuts and all) a frigid reproduction of a floppy disk image with another cryptic color assembly that is the key to the whole typographic affair.

Start from top green (A) down the 26 segments and you have the alphabet (sometimes one letter is a double color … and apparently the inside colors don’t matter). This helps decode the inner sleeves colors and ultimately spells out the name of the band and it’s release.

The design seems like a great example of being able to bring the right elements together. There is a maturity and calm refinement in how the design is able to project confidence that becomes less about how design can *visually dazzle us*, but one of smart juxtaposition and effective thinking. The Postmodern tendencies are still living in the choices of reference (as did most of his early Factory output) but the select few prove to be tremendously effective. Saville describes it as "romantic idealism juxtaposed against the modern, the technical, and the cool since one part is just incredibly florid and nostalgic whereas the other is completely cool and hard-edged. Working in a kind of curatorial way, bringing together old and new."

It seems that, in the scope of his output, Saville is able to occupy a world where Modernist foundations are referenced and respected while being able to push a few extra buttons that re-contextualizes the work in the here and now.