Monday, 16 August 2010

Interview with John Coulthart

John Coulthart is a Manchester-based artist, illustrator, designer and writer. In 1980, a chance encounter with an acquaintance of Hawkwind led to his illustrations appearing in one of the band's album booklets. Since then he has, among other things, created illustrations and/or designs for numerous books, CDs, DVDs and websites, contributed art to the Lord Horror comic series, produced a graphic adaptation of stories by H.P. Lovecraft, designed a Lewis Carroll-inspired 2010 calendar, and completed an as-yet unpublished novel. His blog, {feuilleton}, is in some respects a better-informed and more regularly updated version of this one, and a lot more besides. Many thanks to John for finding the time to answer these.

When adapting Lovecraft, did you feel any obligation to try and be faithful to his original vision? And did you find it more or less challenging than creating something from scratch?

My first intention was to be as accurate as possible with period detail and also by taking the stories on their own terms as serious pieces of fiction. One of the things which frustrated me about many of the Lovecraft comics I'd seen from the 1960s and 1970s was their jokey attitude to horror which is common to the EC comics' style but which is completely out of place in Lovecraft's humourless universe. I've never liked that jokey approach in any case, it's lazy and invariably a cop-out which removes the need to carefully create and sustain tension and atmosphere. It seems to say that, in the end, nothing is at stake here since none of this is to be taken seriously.

The first story I adapted, The Haunter of the Dark, was rather lax in its architectural detail since I used a book of photos of Scotland as reference rather than searching the libraries for books of New England architecture. The thing was, when I'd first read that story I imagined the buildings and the city which Lovecraft describes as being closer to our own stone and brick architecture than the wood-frame Colonial style which is common in America. The Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, was very carefully researched throughout.

Are there any more authors you would like to adapt or illustrate?

Every so often I've thought about doing something substantial based on William Burroughs' work but unless I was specifically commissioned I can't see it happening. If it meant using spare time away from other commissions then I'd rather spend that time working on books of my own.

Several of the artists you name as influences - HR Giger, Austin Osman Spare, some of the Surrealists and Symbolists - are not really taken seriously by the art establishment, and some have been almost written out of history, yet others such as Francis Bacon and Max Ernst have extremely high reputations. Why do you think this is the case? And do you see any link between this and the way SF and fantasy writing tend to be marginalised?

This is a complex issue. For a long time there's been a very puritanical attitude in Britain and America towards exuberant vision and an excess of imagination. William Blake is regarded as a national hero now but his work was largely ignored during his lifetime, something which made him very bitter towards his contemporaries. This attitude became especially pronounced during the 20th century when it became common for art critics to write as though there was a single "story" of art running from the Impressionists through the Cubists to the Abstract Expressionists. Symbolism was contemporary with Impressionism yet was a more widely-spread movement--it encompassed poetry, literature and music as well as painting--but because later art developments concerned themselves more with the surface of the canvas than with the content of the picture Symbolist painting fell out of favour. In the 1960s all the Victorian stuff which had been regarded as florid and vulgar--Aubrey Beardsley, Art Nouveau and Symbolist art--underwent a reappraisal but that aura of alleged vulgarity continued to hang in the air.

Surrealism is in many ways Symbolism plus psychoanalysis but it's always fared better because it was an avant garde movement which grew out of Cubism and Dada. Any art which stands outside the approved history has tended to be ignored or marginalised until very recently, although you could argue that labelling things "Outsider Art" is another form of marginalisation. Many very accomplished artists of an older generation such as Ernst Fuchs, Leonor Fini, Mati Klarwein and HR Giger have been sidelined because their work was concerned more with personal vision than than with trying to continue a rather narrow idea of what constitutes the avant garde. I keep emphasising that this doctrinaire attitude is a British and American thing because it's never been evident to the same degree in the rest of Europe. There's always been a condescending attitude in this country towards genre fiction, comic books and fantasy art of any kind which you don't find in France, Spain, Italy or Japan. Things aren't as bad as they used to be since there are far more artists around today. In order to find a niche many of them are exploring the kind of quasi-Symbolist or Surrealist imagery which used to be so poorly-regarded.

Science fiction and fantasy have been subject to the same opprobrium for what seem to be similar reasons. Salman Rushdie's first novel, Grimus, is a science fiction/fantasy work which very nearly won a science fiction book-of-the-year award in 1975 until the publishers withdrew it from the competition because they didn't want it connected to a disreputable genre. Despite praise from Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard was regarded as a minor writer in Britain until he was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1984. Although he's now part of the canon he used to deliberately describe himself as a science fiction writer because he was proud of the fact and he knew the description annoyed people. World class writers such as Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter and M John Harrison have been frequently overlooked while reviewers (and even the authors themselves) fall over each other to reassure us that books by Margaret Atwood or Jeanette Winterson aren't actually science fiction because, well...they're good. A lot of sf and fantasy is bad just as a lot of literary fiction is bad. But that doesn't mean you dismiss everything done in these areas.

All you can do to push against this kind of blinkered attitude is to keep championing the things you find worthwhile regardless of the views of others. Time is a great leveller. If you look at a list of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels for the 1930s you'll see a number of forgotten authors and out-of-print books. HP Lovecraft was a contemporary of those writers and never had his work collected in book form during his lifetime yet now he's in Penguin Modern Classics.

There seems to a minor revival of interest in Lovecraft and weird tales in general at the moment, in particular from the Ghost Box label (or has it never gone away?). Do you relate to their approach or their obsession with the weird/obscure/neglected corners of postwar culture?

Lovecraft's star has been rising steadily for the past thirty years but many of his contemporaries--or the late Victorian writers of weird fiction--receive less attention. One thing I like about Ghost Box is that their releases point the way to Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, both writers that Lovecraft admired; he even borrowed the invented term "Aklo" from Machen. I'm very enthusiastic about the whole Ghost Box ethos, of course, as I was with Coil's similar explorations and, too a lesser extent, Current 93. If you're dealing with your own immediate past there's a danger of pandering to nostalgia but I don't see that happening here, they vary the ingredients too much. What's interesting for me is their attempt to capture some of the strangeness and unease inherent in childhood memories by mixing and matching the ephemera of a particular period. It's often the case that things which disturbed or frightened us as children seem completely innocuous and even silly when we re-experience them years later. Nostalgia tends to assert that the experience you had when you first encountered a piece of film or music is inherent in the work itself when it rarely is, the quality you remember is your own reaction. On one level the Ghost Box artists are returning that sense of strangeness to things that some of us half-remember.

You've said that album artwork by the likes of Roger Dean and Barney Bubbles was an early influence. Do you think that the days of the "iconic" LP cover are over? And are you optimistic that artists and designers will find new ways of engaging with music?

One of the people saying recently that record covers were over was Peter Saville and he's just done a cover for the new OMD album so make of that what you will. The two groups of people I've seen declaring the death of the album cover are the older generation of designers like Saville and Storm Thorgerson, or lazy journalists who extrapolate an entire trend from a single development of technology. Fifteen years ago the latter group were telling us that our fridges in 2010 would be ordering our food from the internet while we were all having sex in VR suits. They were also telling us that vinyl was dead which patently isn't the case.

What no one does when discussing this issue is ask the musicians themselves whether they think cover designs are over. None of the musicians I work for--from dubstep artists to metal bands--have this opinion. On the contrary, they tend to be very involved in the presentation and packaging of their work because the cover is the thing which communicates with the world before anyone has heard the music. It's the means by which the artist situates their work in the marketplace, it gives the work an identity and contextualises it, so you know you're buying a dubstep album rather than a metal album. Bill Laswell once said that all music should be sold listed from A to Z with no categories or genres. But at the same time he also paid a lot of attention to the design of his CDs. It might be better for musical taste if all music was sold in a generic package like cheap supermarket food, with just the name of the artist and a title in black on white. But this is never going to happen, people like their tribes and they want to use every means they can to make their work stand apart from the crowd.

I'm not sure album covers can be iconic the way there were in previous decades for the simple reason that there's a lot more music around today and the music world has fragmented into genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, all with their own enthusiastic audiences who pay little or no attention to what's happening elsewhere. A major statement has less impact as a result. But designers are still being very inventive and creative, has plenty of recent examples.

To what extent does your current work tend to be hand drawn as opposed to collage/digital manipulation?

It depends on the work. When I'm doing vector graphics I often draw something in pencil, especially if it's a human figure, in order to get a clear outline. Some of the Photoshop pieces I've done have also started out as pencil outlines which I then scan and paint over with the brush tool. I've never used a graphics tablet, the mouse seems to work well enough. Being able to draw freehand is certainly an advantage when it comes to digital art. Sometimes it's quicker to draw a shape on a sheet of paper rather than try and create it using Adobe's tools.

In your own work, do you value the reproducible nature of books and album covers over the "artefact appeal" of gallery art?

Yes, I've always liked the idea of working for reproduction. Who wouldn't want to reach a large audience? It's different if you're creating big paintings or three-dimensional works which benefit from being seen in situ, of course. But the idea that the gallery confers a special imprimatur on all artwork is a peculiar one, rather like saying that a group such as Kraftwerk aren't proper musicians because they haven't played the Albert Hall. In the 19th century it was different, the only way you could see art at all was via unsatisfactory copies or by travelling to see the actual works themselves.

Finally, any advice for someone who would like to make a living in design while simultaneously pursuing his or her own interests and obsessions?

I usually worry about offering advice since I haven't exactly followed a model career path. If you want to do personal work as well as make a living you need a determination to keep pursuing that personal direction at all costs, even if it's only a case of doing a very small amount of the personal stuff each day. An hour a day soon adds up. It also helps if you can find commercial work which is as close as possible to your personal interests, then it becomes possible to allow feedback between one area and another. If you can't manage that you can still use your time productively. People waste hours and hours on fruitless activities; if you can avoid that kind of time-wasting you might surprise yourself by achieving more than you imagine.

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