I’m pretty lenient when it comes to art. I’ve always hated the debate over art “is” because I truly believe there’s beauty in everything, and trying to constitute what is and isn’t art just leads to shitty semantic debates. Even some low-effort installation created in irony to make you question “is this art?” still has a point to it. Art is made by people that need to get something out of themselves. Sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s a 20-foot sculpture. It’s not always pretty, but it’s a way for us to speak a different language and express the inexpressible.
Aside from music, writing, and the occasional video game, my free time is mostly spent mindlessly scrolling through reddit. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a link to an AV Club article that brought back a flood of nostalgic emotions. The article in question breaks down this specific kernel of nostalgia far better than I ever could, and as much as I’d love to talk about this book, I wouldn’t be able to add much on to what’s already written here. This article stirred something in me that made me question my taste in regards to art. Not music, not movies, not the written word, but Art with a capital ‘A’
I don’t often talk about visual art on here because I feel like I don’t have the vocabulary for it. I know what I like, but I never really questioned why I like it. When I say that I’m “lenient” in regards to art I mean that I’m not picky, and that’s another reason why I don’t talk about art; I kinda like it all. I don’t have a very discerning taste because I feel like I can (almost) always find the beauty in art. What I’ve come to realize is that while I enjoy all art passively, what I actively enjoy is fucked up.
The reason this article struck a chord with me is because it connected some dots in my mind and brought back a flood of memories that helped me remember a string of bizarre things I was exposed to as a child. It brought me back to a formative time in my childhood and helped me remember a series of massively impactful experiences that changed my artistic taste and lingered with me for the rest of my life.
1 - Lane Smith
The inspiration for this post was also, fittingly, one of my first memorable exposures to a unique art style. Again, the write-up above does a more articulate job of analytically breaking down Smith’s style, but more importantly, it served as the catalyst which helped me realize that two of my favorite books in elementary school were illustrated by the same person: Lane Smith. As a child, I read The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, andThe True Story of the Three Little Pigs ad nauseum. Both of these books are categorized as “postmodern children’s books” which skew and satirize traditional children’s fairy tales. If you have any doubt about where my overbearing skepticism and incessant irreverence come from, make no mistake the seeds were first planted here. Smith’s dadaist take on these stories is absolutely incredible. Filled with abnormally long tounges, contorted caricatures, and general fuckedupedness, these books helped me look at the world differently.
Seeing something as simple as a cow drawn in such a foreign style made me realize how different other people’s perspectives and interpretations could be. To see so many concepts that I was already familiar with (both visually and storywise) made me realize that not only were these bizarre interpretations valid, but they still worked. I still recognized this duck as a duck even though it didn’t take a “traditional” form that I was familiar with. These unique illustrations combined with the meta post-modern writing style were a door-opening combination for an elementary school-aged Taylor. There was no turning back.
2 - Stephen Gammell
Jesus Christ. If there was any indication that I had a fucked up start, it was first evident here. While I certainly loved Stinky Cheese Man, and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, later on in elementary school I was forced to read more “substantive” books (i.e. smaller text) so I looked for something with a cool cover (how else are you supposed to pick reading material at seven?) As I sifted through the contents of my Elementary school’s shelves like a shitty, snot-nosed seven-year-old record collector I stumbled across something that stopped me in my tracks and made my hair stand on end: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell, these books were (and still are) absolutely chilling. The short stories ranged from rewritten classics to modern urban legends, and while the written contents of the book were amazing, the real draw for me at the time was the art. A simple google image search returns a myriad of illustrations that I can only describe as unsafe for children. I don’t know how or why this book was allowed in an elementary school library, but I have a feeling that’s something that wouldn’t be allowed in 2016.
This was my first time realizing that art could be weird. Not that I’d had massive exposure to high art as a seven-year-old, but it felt like the first time I was looking at something completely unique. It was like viewing the world through a whole new (disturbed) lense. It scared me, but in a good way. It looked cool. It looked otherworldly. I wanted more.
3 - Gerald Scarfe
In 1998 my family bought a beach house in Manzanita, Oregon. That log cabin was a magical place and it contains some of the happiest memories of my childhood. My family took a trip down to the beach nearly every weekend. It became an escape. One particular weekend I went alone, just me and my dad. My mother stayed home with my younger brother, so it was a father/son weekend… which probably would have meant more to me if I wasn’t still in elementary school. On this trip my dad let me watch Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a movie that I was apparently just on the verge of being able to handle. While I’m sure he meant well (he just wanted to share his music with me) The Wall fucking scarred me. It was R-rated, sure but I think (aside from wanting to show me my first R-rated movie) my dad forgot how dark the movie was. Everything from the masked schoolchildren, graphic violence, and obtuse depiction of sex scared the absolute shit out of me. Now that I think about it, this movie is probably the reason I’m so freaked out by gas masks. Just take a look at the IMDB Parents Guide to this thing… I was a kid who was too scared to watch this scene from Winnie the Pooh a few years earlier.
Aside from the minor emotional scarring, my biggest takeaway from The Wall were the film’s animated sequences. The movie covers a double album it switches between live action and animated for many of the songs. Probably because of my age, I paid more attention to the animated sequences thinking “hey it’s like a cartoon, cartoons can’t be scary!’ The animated segments of the movie drawn by Gerald Scarfe were in retrospect more surreal and depraved than the film’s live action counterparts. Most notably the film’s dark and horrifying depiction of war (in reaction to WWII) was seared into my mind. Similar to the above entries, Scarfe’s distinct style granted me a new perspective, in this case, it was a twisted perspective of morphing objects, violence, and sexual intimacy, but it was a new perspective nonetheless.
4 - Jonathan Gourley & Ralph Steadman
On a more positive note, as I grew and developed into an adult with an only slightly-fucked up artistic taste I tended to lean towards abstract and disturbing artwork (who woulda thought?) In high school I discovered both rock band Portugal. The Man and writer Hunter S. Thompson both artists who utilize surrealist imagery to enhance their respective creations. Portugal. The Man uses lead singer John Gourley’s watercolored artwork as the cover and liner artwork to most of their records. Meanwhile, Hunter S. Thompson famously used Ralph Steadman’s artwork as a visual component to his books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegasand Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. These artists combined with things I’d find around the same time like Wednesday Wolf all represented a further development of the style I was drawn to as a child.
Personal history obviously plays a major role in my taste, but emotion aside, I can’t really explain the psychological reason why I’m drawn to such a distorted art style. Maybe seeing the “scary” view of something makes the real world that much brighter. Maybe it’s just seeing these everyday concepts twisted and distorted to such a degree that they’re almost unrecognizable. Maybe I just like art that resembles drug use. I have no idea. But in looking back at all this, one thing is clear:
I have a fucked up taste. I’m lucky.
I don’t want to end this on a note of me masturbating to how great my own taste is, but I genuinely feel fortunate that I had the freedom and access to take this path. Being able to have a fucked up taste, or an off-kilter personality is a luxury that can only be afforded by growing up unafraid. If I had grown up in a harsher environment, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to explore “weird” stuff because I’d be too preoccupied with fending for myself and trying to be cool. I never had to deal with bullying, racism, discrimination, poverty, or violence, so I was able to flourish and be whoever I wanted to be. I’m grateful in that sense, but I’m also hopeful. I’m hopeful that I can culture the same environment for my children one day, and I’m hopeful that this path will keep me open. I don’t want to be one of those people that shits on art, or is “scared” by art… and not scared in the same way that I was when watching The Wall, but scared in the way Christians were afraid of heavy metal in the 80’s. I don’t want to be scared of the next thing, I want to embrace it. Even if it’s weird or confusing, I want to at least have some grip on art and pop culture as I grow older… but I know that’s impossible. You can only be “cool” for so long, but I think this “open” mentality can be eternal.
Remaining open to new experiences and weird fucked up shit can only open your mind. Sometimes you’re not ready for it. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, and that’s fine, but sometimes it can click with you in a way you couldn’t even conceive of before. The times when you see something, or read something, or hear something and say “fuck, why didn’t I think of that?” or “shit, this exact sound is exactly what I needed to hear right now.” The times when you’re tapped into something greater than yourself, when you’re experiencing something on a spiritual level, when you feel connected to another creator. That’s what art is about. That’s what life is about.