As long as you’ve at least half a sleepy eye slightly focused on popular culture, you’ve seen his art work, even if you never go to galleries. Up until two years ago, he’d never even shown in one, at least not the ones where you stand around sipping wine and eating imported cheeses.
Stanley Donwood could be considered one of the most successful artists of the 21st century, and yet you might not even know his name. But in “the most democratic gallery” — the record store — he is king, having done the art work for every album by the world-famous U.K. band Radiohead since their second release, 1995’s “The Bends.”
“With the record company stuff, I was really happy because I saw a record store as the most democratic gallery you can have because everything is treated equally. It doesn’t matter who did it,” says Donwood this past Sunday in the Palace Hotel lounge, overlooking the Imperial gardens. “It’s all there, if you’ve got 10 bucks, you can go in and you buy a record that’s taken maybe two years to make, and a load of artwork that’s taken maybe two years to make, and psst, anyone can buy it. And I was really happy with that for ages.”
Given that Radiohead, and Donwood along with them, are probably the pre-eminent chroniclers of urban malaise in our pre-to-postmillenial times, it’s good to see that a happy, mentally healthy individual is the artist behind the dark, edgy images that grace those covers. Some of the latest works that the 40-year-old Donwood has done are on show from today till April 26 at Ginza’s Tokyo Gallery in an exhibition entitled “I Love the Modern World.”
“The thing with art is that you do it to exorcise something so you can be a relatively normal person. It’s this zeitgeist thing, isn’t it?” says Donwood, explaining where the musical and visual portrayals of modern fears come from. “Someone was talking to me about this idea of something called the field. It’s like this zone around human consciousness. Everyone feels it, some more strongly than others, and some express it in clearer ways than others. And I think that is why people have responded to the music and the art work, because it resonates somehow.”
Donwood was in Tokyo in 2000, having managed to persuade EMI, Radiohead’s record company at the time, that he’d do interviews while he was in town with the band. He didn’t. But he stayed in “a really posh hotel” — Roppongi-Itchome’s Okura — for a couple of weeks and spent a lot of time walking around and taking photographs of how Tokyo’s skyscrapers intersected with the sky and each other. When he returned to the U.K., he assembled those with images of bonfires from England’s annual Guy Fawkes night.
The result was a twin-tower motif surrounded with what appeared to be explosions, which he used for the artwork for Radiohead’s “Amnesiac,” released in June 2001. When 9/11 happened, it surely felt prescient.
“The cover was a mixture of London and Tokyo. In the ‘Amnesiac’ book, there’s a lot of skyscrapers and things in the artwork, and they’re all from Tokyo,” Donwood remembers. “I put them together with a photo from the bonfire night, and then the whole 9/11 thing happened. And when Radiohead had to go on tour with all this artwork, they kept getting asked, ‘What’s this all about?’ ‘No, it’s Tokyo and bonfire night, nothing to do with . . . ‘ “
Before he started working with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who he knew from art school at the University of Exeter, Donwood was a street artist, living on the dole and painting on old buildings at night. He’d cover them in giant monsters that he’d paint with a brush rather than spray paint, watching sites first to figure out the regular times guards patrolled. One night he’d do the outline, then fill in the colors one day at a time until slowly the beast had materialized. He had an open-air “gallery” as well, in a empty street-front shop, where he’d print out and put up different art every so often.
He made the transition to what might be considered more traditional galleries because “The right thing happened.” In 2006, Donwood met Steve Lazarides, who was selling prints of Banksy, the U.K. graffiti artist who received so much mainstream press last year for his cheeky street art and stunts in museums. (Banksy is showing at Harajuku’s La Foret in a show ending today.) Lazarides had a gallery that had been an old S&M sex shop in London’s Soho.
“It was just sort of derelict, with some builders’ stuff,” describes Donwood, “and he said ‘You got to come see this space. Do you want to do a show there?’ “
Donwood was terrified, shy about showing in public, and the opening itself was terrifying because so many people came. But since then he’s shown in Barcelona and Rotterdam, had another exhibit in London, and is now at Tokyo Gallery before doing one more in London. His change of heart comes from a desire to show the details of what an artist literally does with his hand, to let people see all the scratching and writing that you don’t see in the “Kid A” paintings when looking at their photos.
“I don’t really have any desire to be in ‘the art world.’ It’s just an atavistic urge to show your art to people. I think if you do loads of artwork and don’t ever want to show it to anyone, you’re probably mad,” he explains. “Like kids when they draw a picture, they want to show it to you. They’ve got a real urge.”
Given the Radiohead album covers, the exhibition is a bit of a surprise. There are very Pop pieces, large paintings of a bronchodilater — an inhaler for sufferers of asthma, which Donwood has had since childhood.
“I remember vividly the first time I ever had one — it was a new thing so my mother was like, ‘Don’t use it unless you really need it.’ When I did, then this wheezing, this desperate search for breath, it just went away,” he recalls. “You know, the clouds open, the angels sing, the sun shines down, ‘I’m alive!’ And I just want to make these paintings to worship these inhalers.”
What’s less expected are the prints. Donwood has done a series of copper etchings that are inspired by architectural sketches of building elevations. But rather than suggest the sunny-day optimism of architects’ drafts, his have the angsty feel of a real resident of the urban spaces. But an appreciative one.
“I was over there with hundreds of people,” says Donwood, pointing out across the Imperial Palace. “And basically we’ve got highly aggressive territorial apes, and they are all coexisting remarkably happily, and that is the project that we’ve got: civilization.
“It is a project, and it’s something that has probably emerged after millenia of strife, violence and aggression. We have a situation where millions of people who don’t know each other — probably never will — tolerate each other, and personal space becomes like that (gesturing to a small circumference around himself).”
The prints are elegant, and he is also showing and selling some of the plates themselves, unusual for an artist. But Donwood is fascinated by the process, which he used for the first time for this show. It’s a painstaking one, requiring long periods of carving and putting etching acids on the plates, then covering them with thick ink to finally find out whether the print works.
The ones at Tokyo Gallery do, though in black and white they can feel even more stark than the colored washes and bright splashes on his Radiohead covers. But, as he said before about the methods of artists, ultimately that’s not a full statement on his feeling for the modern world — hence the exhibition name.
“I am a huge fan of urban places, of cities. I think that civilization is the best thing humans have ever come up with, after fire. The city is a fantastic place. It’s always where culture emerges from — tolerance spreads from it out,” says Donwood enthusiastically, “compared to the countryside, where everyone is really suspicious, you know, ‘Strangers! You’re not from around here.’ ”
I love Tokyo, London, New York, European cities. But there is also this feeling that it’s not sustainable. If oil gets too expensive, electricity gets too expensive, lifts stop working reliably, and pfft! It’s very, very delicate, very fragile, and that’s what’s so beautiful about it.”