Stanley Donwood doesn't have the slightest objection to the term “commercial artist.” Often considered the sixth member of the band Radiohead, the 44-year-old Essex native is responsible for all of the band's artwork since 1994 and has the commercial marketplace to thank, in part, for his success. “It's better than graphic designer,” says Donwood, lounging in a leather chair at Subliminal Projects, which is scheduled to host the British artist's first exhibition in Los Angeles. Titled “Lost Angeles,” the exhibition showcases Donwood's latest piece, an 18-foot-long panorama landscape of the city flooding and engulfed in flames.
Donwood began collaborating with Radiohead on their first hit record, The Bends, and has worked closely alongside the band ever since, authoring several books, holding gallery exhibitions and selling screenprints in between albums. Thumbing through stacks of vinyl as a teen, he was struck by the artwork of punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Crass. “The record store was like the most democratic art gallery there was,” Donwood explained. “There was all this artwork and it was all treated the same.”
After forming a close friendship with the band's singer Thom Yorke in college, his longing to create a similarly pleasing aesthetic was soon fulfilled with his work for Radiohead. Aside from the notable logos he's created for the band, which are plastered on T-shirts and bumper stickers all over the globe, what's most striking about Donwood's artwork for the band is how closely it adheres to the musical theme of each album. On the landmark Radiohead album OK Computer, his imagery perfectly mirrors the lyrical themes of isolation spurred by technology and consumer capitalism.
Over the past two decades, Donwood's style has adapted along with the evolution of the band. For In Rainbows in 2007, he branched out to a noticeably more abstract style, using candle wax and hypodermic needles to create a psychedelic landscape of brightly colored blobs, which mirrored the more organic tone of the music. As he ventures into more experimental territory, Donwood notes that the changes are also part of his own personal evolution. “Every cell in my body has replaced itself now. I'm not just this furious, angry person anymore,” he explained.
Donwood typically favors his most recent work, so he's excited to discuss his sprawling contributions for Radiohead's most recent album, The King of Limbs. For the deluxe edition of the album, Donwood created several sheets of large artwork and 625 pieces of tiny artwork, along with a newspaper containing his own abstract writing. Also included was a sheet of perforated blotter paper, which Donwood says was inspired by his fascination with paper LSD artwork. Vinyl packaging and the deluxe editions in particular allow Donwood much more freedom with his packaging designs than the compact disc.
On recent projects, Donwood has been afforded the luxury of a studio space next door to the band, which allows him to flesh out ideas as Radiohead rehearse their newest material. “As the record develops and grows, the same thing happens with my work, and hopefully the two intertwine at some point,” he explained, though it hasn't been a foolproof process. For In Rainbows, Donwood explained how he threw out a series of etchings inspired by suburbia after he heard the record turning in to something more “organic and sexual.”
For the most part, however, the process has worked out quite well for both parties. Donwood's work outside of the band has flourished in popularity, as he's quickly gained status in the U.K. alongside popular artists like Banksy and Damien Hirst. His work on 2001's Amnesiac earned Radiohead a Grammy for Best Recording Package, and their Best Alternative Album win for Kid A the year before brought the artist to Los Angeles for the first time. Just a few years later, the city's vast landscape of billboards and advertisements served as inspiration for the cover of the band's sixth album, Hail to the Thief.
Though on the surface the cover for Hail to the Thief and the works featured in his new gallery exhibition “Lost Angeles” might reflect a sour attitude toward Los Angeles, Donwood holds a particularly high opinion of the city. He praises the street art on every corner and has a particular fondness for the Victorian architecture on Carroll Street, which is pictured in his stunning new panoramic landscape. Other landmarks featured in the piece include the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, LAX, the Hollywood sign and the downtown skyline.
The apocalyptic vision depicted in “Lost Angeles” bears a resemblance to Donwood's “London Views,” which was completed in 2006 and pictures London in a similarly decaying fashion. Both of the installations are inspired by the artist's concerns surrounding global warming, particularly the rising sea levels and catastrophe that could potentially ensue as a result. The destruction in “Lost Angeles” is intentionally harsher, however. Looking closely at the main piece, one will notice a halfway sunken hybrid cqr floating alongside a burning gas station, which Donwood notes is a commentary on the destructiveness of L.A.'s car-dependent culture.
Subliminal Projects designed a special concave wall to fit the 18-foot-long linocut, which took hours of hand-chiseling to complete and consists of 18 separate scenes all printed on one long sheet of Japanese Kozo paper. For the linocut process, Donwood intricately carves all of his images in reverse on a piece of linoleum, before they are transferred to paper. Also featured in the exhibition are several other black-and-white linocuts with gold and silver leaf, as well as an enormous Radiohead logo crafted from diamond dust.
Donwood met gallery owner Shepard Fairey last year and the two bonded over their separate contributions to Amnesiac. He takes pride in following one of his main inspirations: Jamie Reid, closely aligned with the Sex Pistols throughout his career, just recently held an exhibition at the gallery.
Despite the dark, apocalyptic visions depicted in his recent work, Donwood maintains a strikingly warm and upbeat disposition in person. In fact, he's adopted a new mantra surrounding politics that sounds more fitting for a CW sitcom character than a Bristol-based artist. When pressed about the difference between American and British politics and his stance on Occupy Wall Street, for which he produced a free, downloadable poster last fall, he says: “Don't get me started.”
“Lost Angeles” at Subliminal Projects runs through May 26 with an opening reception Saturday, April 28, from 8 to 10 p.m., at 1331 W. Sunset Blvd. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.