Roger Dean: artist and designer

Kieran at Sci-Fi-O-Rama was in touch recently asking me to contribute a paragraph about a favourite Roger Dean picture for this feature about the artist. The following splurge of polemic was the result, something I’d been intending on writing for a while. Since so many words would have overwhelmed the other contributions it’s being presented here while Kieran’s post has a variety of shorter appreciations and further examples of Dean’s art and design.

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Pathways (1973). A slightly reworked version of the original painting.

“Science fiction is unfortunate in having a most unsatisfactory framework of existence—it’s considered literary kitsch. I believe it should be the mainstream of literature because all the books that have become important down the generations of civilisation have been books about ideas. Superficially, science fiction would seem to offer the most scope for idea content, but the promise is unfulfilled. Good ideas and good writing rarely coincide. All too often the medium is used for entertainment alone and its potential beyond this should be obvious to everyone. I don’t just mean in the sense of fantasy technology. The potential for anticipating human evolution is there and perhaps the means to bring it about and definitely the means to bring about a social evolution.”

Roger Dean, interviewed in Visions of the Future (1976).

If popularity is often a curse as well as a blessing, it’s been Roger Dean‘s curse to see his work dismissed along with many other products of a decade—the 1970s—with more than its share of cultural heroes and villains. Music journalists in Britain have for years given the impression that the arrival of the Sex Pistols in 1976 swept away all that preceded them, in particular bands such as Yes whose album covers had helped raise the visibility of Dean’s art to an international level. This is not only a lazy assumption, it’s also wrong. When Yes released Going For the One in 1977 it was their first studio album in three years, yet despite the punk explosion it went to no. 1 in the UK album charts, while a rare single release from the band made the UK top ten. Yes were playing sell-out tours in Europe and the US in 1977 and 78, as were Pink Floyd whose The Wall was massively popular worldwide in 1979. Punk didn’t sweep prog away, what happened with its advent was that progressive rock and everything associated with it—Roger Dean’s art included—became critically disreputable almost overnight, such that no journalist would dare say anything good about it. That disrepute has persisted for thirty years despite a lasting and indelible influence; this is an old argument but certain facts often need restating anew. *

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Views (1975).

I was 13 in September 1975 when Roger Dean’s first collection of his illustration and design work, Views, was published. At that time, I hadn’t heard any of the music to which his paintings and drawings were attached, and I didn’t even see a copy of the book until February 1976 when I happened to be in London on a school trip and found a big pile of what I guess was the second edition in Foyle’s book shop. This appeared at exactly the right moment; I wasn’t listening to the music but I was reading a lot of science fiction and was starting to notice and imitate the work of various paperback artists. I recognised many of the pictures in Views from the covers displayed in the window of our local record shop, Cobweb, whose shopping-bag logo was a cowled magician figure à la Dean or Rodney Matthews. It’s difficult to say what struck me about Dean’s work at the time since you rarely articulate your preferences at that age. I think I liked the consistency of vision and the invention which blended the organic and mechanical, the architecture which looked at once ancient and futuristic, and the flat landscapes which put lone pine trees into rocky terrain familiar from Japanese and Chinese prints. For a teenager his style was also relatively easy to imitate if you forgot about basic things such as imagination and finesse, and I spent a year producing a lot of badly-drawn reptiles posed against lurid watercolour skies.

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A profusion of Peake

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Bellgrove, young Titus and Barquentine by Mervyn Peake. Case designed by Robert Hollingsworth.

I’d thought about posting the covers of my boxed set of Gormenghast paperbacks a couple of years back when there was a flurry of blogospheric attention being given to Penguin cover designs…thought about it then never got round to it. The reason for doing so now is twofold: firstly I’ve been re-reading the books, and secondly some Gormenghast-related news emerged this week which gives this post an additional relevance.

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Fuchsia by Mervyn Peake.

The set of Peake paperbacks which Penguin published in 1968 (and their subsequent reprints) were the first editions of Peake’s trilogy which I encountered so I can’t help but regard them as the ones, the only copies I could countenance reading. That may change, however (see below). I’ve no idea how scarce the boxed edition is but the books are reprintings from 1970 so I presume Penguin put out a boxed gift set to make the most of Peake’s posthumous success. I always liked the presentation which is the standard Penguin Modern Classics format of the period, it leaves to you how much you want to regard the books as works of fantasy or simply novels of a rather grotesque and highly imaginative reality. Titus Groan‘s sketch of a glowering and thoroughly unglamorous Fuchsia was a daring choice for a cover intended to lure a newer, younger audience to Peake’s work. The drawing says a great deal about the author’s unsentimental attitude towards his creations; compared to the florid and often delicate covers of the fantasy books being published by Ballantine in the late Sixties (a series which included the Gormenghast trilogy), it seems shockingly unpleasant.

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The biter bit

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For the Love of Disruptive Strategies and Utopian Visions in Contemporary Art and Culture No.2 by James Cauty.

I usually wouldn’t bother writing about the over-rated and over-valued Damien Hirst—I’ll leave that to heavyweights such as Robert Hughes—but one story this week toasted the cockles of my black and cynical heart. Before we get to that, some context is required.

Hirst unveiled his diamond-coated platinum skull, For the Love of God in June 2007. Later that month, artist John LeKay complained that Hirst swiped the idea from LeKay’s series of crystal skulls made in the early Nineties. Hirst certainly knew LeKay at that time and interviewed him for a gallery catalogue in 1993.

(LeKay) said: “I would like Damien to acknowledge that ‘John really did inspire the skull and influenced my work a lot’. Damien’s very insecure about his originality. He used to say, ‘You’re a better artist than me’.

“He can be affectionate and is fun to be around, but he struggles to come up with ideas. It takes years of work to develop something. My stuff with crystals took a lot of research. You don’t just get there. He’s impatient. He’s a lazy artist.”

This wasn’t the first time Hirst was accused of laziness or even plagiarism. In 2000 he was sued for breach of copyright by Norman Emms after he made Hymn, an over-sized copy of Emms’ model for the Young Scientist Anatomy Set. That dispute was settled out of court only to be followed in 2006 with an accusation of theft by computer artist Robert Dixon who claimed that his geometric model of a flower, True Daisy, had been copied by Hirst for a piece entitled Valium. Judge the similarity for yourself.

Fast forward to December 2008 when a teenage graffiti artist who calls himself Cartrain created a collage which includes a photo of Hirst’s skull. The £200 that sales of this netted him also drew the attention of the Design and Artists Copyright Society and Hirst himself who demanded both the money and the artwork. Cartrain said:

I handed over the artworks to Dacs on the advice of my gallery. I met Christian Zimmermann [from Dacs] who told me Hirst personally ordered action on the matter.

I think this is the point where one has to start using the word hypocrite, don’t you? Others think so too, among them Jimmy Cauty (ex-KLF) and Sex Pistols sleeve designer Jamie Reid whose website Red Rag To A Bull describes itself as “a radical institution dedicated to the pursuit of “FREEDOM, TRUTH and JUSTICE in the art world and BEYOND”. And also overblown statements.” Inspired by Cartrain’s treatment, Cauty and co have been producing their own riffs on Hirst’s skull as a deliberate act of provocation. Cauty says, “Unlike Cartrain and his gallery, we are not intimidated by lawyers and if an injunction is issued, we will simply ignore it on the grounds of freedom of speech.” Reid calls Hirst a “hypocritical and greedy art bully”. There’s some funny stuff on their site, all of which is for sale as limited edition prints.

All of the works below are for sale and once TWENTY MILLION POUNDS has been raised ALL the proceeds will go to make an exact copy of a sculpture known as “For the Love of God”. This will then be sold for FIFTY MILLION POUNDS and the THIRTY MILLION POUND profit will then be used to repay the Street Urchin his 200 quid, help other Street Urchins and also feed starving children in Africa and Sussex.

Hirst will no doubt be grudgingly amused by the attention even if it is for behaving more like a grasping corporation than an artist. He’s also become the subject of another artwork by Eugenio Merino, For the Love of Gold, which depicts the corporate entity inside one of his vitrine tanks shooting himself in the head. All of which is silly and juvenile but then the only response much contemporary art deserves is a silly and juvenile one. People are naturally tempted to wave a red rag in the face of the pompous or the hypocritical. More power to them.

Update: Damien Hirst in vicious feud with teenage artist over a box of pencils

Neville Brody and Fetish Records

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Seven Songs by 23 Skidoo, FM 2008, 1982.

Since I made a post earlier about bad album design, it’s only right to redress the balance somewhat. Neville Brody has long been a favourite designer and something of an influence since it was looking at his work during the 1980s that made me think seriously about design when I’d previously had little interest in the field.

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Pow-wow by Stephen Mallinder, FM 2010, 1982.

The record sleeves Brody produced for Fetish Records from 1980–82 are great examples of post punk style that showcase his particularly individual approach to design. This involved much use of hand-crafted elements, whether painted, printed, cast or carved. (In the days before computer design everything had to be pasted together from paper cut-outs, film overlays or PMT [photo-mechanical transfer] prints, with type provided by a professional typesetter.) Some of the Fetish sleeves used three-dimensional work that was then photographed, such as the wooden carvings or plaster hands on the 23 Skidoo sleeves. This approach might have provided a new direction for other sleeve designers but was quickly passed over as the decade progressed in favour of a weak pastiching of Modernist styles and the cultivation of a slick corporatism, much of it watered-down from Brody’s highly influential innovations for The Face magazine.

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8 Eyed Spy by 8 Eyed Spy, FR 2003, 1981.

Brody has said of the Fetish period:

The musicians on Fetish were also totally open to the idea of me working under my own steam; there has been such a shift in this respect—most groups now take a much bigger hand in design which does not necessarily make for a better cover.

The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, 1988.

The situation is just as bad, if not worse, today. The open-ended nature of digital art has created a situation whereby a given design can be subject to endless revision merely because the client knows that the technology allows changes to be made.

Brody continues to work as a designer even though he’s less visible now, heading his own Research Studios.

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Diddy Wah Diddy by 8 Eyed Spy, FE 19, 1980.

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Wipe Out by Z’ev, FE 13, 1982.

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Pow-wow by Stephen Mallinder, FM 2010, 1982.

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Temperature Drop by Stephen Mallinder, FE 12, 1981.

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Five Albums by Throbbing Gristle, FUX 001, 1981.

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Things That Go Boom In The Night by Bush Tetras, FET 007, 1981.

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Thirst by Clock DVA, FR2002, 1981.

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The Gospel Comes To New Guinea by 23 Skidoo, FE 11, 1981.
(This is actually the cover of a CD compilation which somehow gained
three circles that weren’t on the original sleeve.)

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Zebra Club by The Bongos, FE 17, 1982.

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Mambo Sun by The Bongos, FE 18, 1982.

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The Last Testament, Various Artists, FR 2011, 1983.

Update: added a couple more sleeves (Bush Tetras and Clock DVA). Since there’s little information about the record company available, I’ve also added Jon Savage’s sleeve note from The Last Testament (1983), the final Fetish release and a compilation which acted as a celebration and epitaph for the label.

I’D IMAGINE IT TO BE SYMPTOMATIC that the word Fetish should have changed in the middle to late 70s, from being a slogan on an obscure Mail Art T Shirt to becoming the tradename of an internationally renowned record label—Maida Vale’s own ‘Home of the Hits’—but that’s showbiz.

AS WAS PRACTISED FOR A BRIEF TIME: Fetish now appears a product of a particular period when the separate streams of pop and avant-garde—the difference being in self-estimation as much as anything else—were thought expedient, cool and all those things, to crossover. In practice, this tended to mean press coverage disproportionate to sales, plenty of amusing attitudes struck, and streams of ill-advised people like myself being persuaded to view such artistes as are on offer here in dark and dingy basements. These last would always give the lie to pop’s brave new world pretensions.

IN THIS PULSATING SCENE, Fetish represented an opportune, if haphazard, meeting of New York, Sheffield, and Hackney. All of these spots have been glamourised to a greater or lesser degree, so you would have thought that this brand name was onto a winner. It is, however, an undoubted sign of human perversity that Fetish’s greatest success was to occur at the point when mogul Rod Pearce was shutting up shop: in early 1982, 23 Skidoo’s ‘Seven Songs’, produced by noted noisemakers Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson, became NUMBER 1 in the indie charts. Phew! Luckily, insufficient interest combined with too much time spent promoting the Bongos meant that this incredible success was nipped in the bud: disheartened at rock ‘n’ roll’s indifference, Pearcey announced that Fetish was to cease operating. People in polytechnics wept.

MAY I NOW IMAGINE YOU holding what I hope will be a beautifully designed sleeve (although you never can tell) and wondering why you should part with the money? (And, as they used to say, if you’re not going to, please don’t leave fingermarks all over Neville Brody’s labour of love). Apart from all the usual ‘unreleased’ and ‘live tracks’ sales points, you will own 12 tracks from a brief, hothouse period, a temporary delay in the long slide from the Sex Pistols to ABC. You will find preoccupations of the times faithfully represented: the full flowering of ‘industrial’, mature works from your favourite New York noisemakers, and the first UK meshing of punk and funk

1980! 1981! THOSE WERE THE DAYS! Those heady days of idealism are over. The fragile dividing line between art and commerce which Fetish represented has now shattered: Rod Pearce and Perry Haines are now prostituting themselves with King, Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson with Psychic TV, Adi Newton with DVA, and Neville Brody with the Face. I too, am deeply implicated, having sold my soul similarly to PTV and the Face. How worlds change! Isn’t life tough?

JON SAVAGE

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