When artist Storm Thorgerson, creator of iconic LP covers for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, died earlier this year, it seemed like the age of art in rock had finally passed with him. While the need for cover art shrunk (quite literally) during the CD era, the digital age has created a musical landscape that does not require any cover art at all, arguably depriving a generation of listeners of the rich association that these visuals impart. Many of these are good enough to hang in galleries, and used to be as vital to a new release as the music itself.
One artist though has found a niche in which he keeps this spirit alive. Los Angeles-based artist Kii Arens got his break at Woodstock ‘94, where he challenged the organizers' outdated attitudes to merchandise, eventually getting hired to design his own. He has since gone on to become a poster designer for acts ranging from Radiohead to Lady Gaga, as well as directing extraordinary music videos in which the viewer controls the camera.
Arens keeps the spirit of rock art alive at his home gallery, LaLaland, and BLOUIN ARTINFO caught up with him to discuss how he got his break, and the joys of designing for some of the most iconic acts of modern music.
Click Slideshow above to see a gallery of Kii Arens' works.
Your works balance graphic design and photography. Where do you see the line between the two, and from which base do you usually start?
I started using a camera in 2003, when I got my first digital one… and I know that’s like saying, ‘I started just when it became easy!’ But it all depends on the topic. It comes from the gut when you first experience the sheer excitement of ‘Oh my god, I’m going to design a Radiohead poster’ and inside you are thinking about the Haiti relief, and all of a sudden, ‘Band Aid box,’ and you are trying to envision what it’s going to be. And then it’s fun to work with bands who have the balls to put this stuff out there where their label would censor it, like Queens of the Stone Age. I enjoy pushing the boundaries, and that’s where [Japanese model] Hiromi Oshima is such a terrific muse — she loves rock’n’roll and she really goes for it. I love having no rules.
Do you feel a greater sense of freedom in creating a live poster, as would be the case when you make album covers?
Without a doubt. It reflects your own experience with that band. Every once in a while, a band member will come in with an idea — if it’s the drummer it’s always a bad one, if it’s a bass player it’s always a chick, but sometimes the singer has a good idea!
But usually it’s about how you relate to the music, and what you think the audience wants to see when a band is at their prime, holding the hand of the past and present.
You’ve said that your early inspirations were Sid and Marty Krofft. How does their work, which is mostly TV, come through in your pieces?
I think you can see their influence when you have a lot of my big striped color combinations side by side. I like just how crazy and out of the box [they were], they’ll go into a board room and say “we’ve got this great idea for a show about these hats that talk to each other and they’ll fall back in time, what do you think?” and yet they pull it off. Their DIY attitude too — if you look at their sets, they just cut things up if it looks cool.
Was abstract art and music always the direction you wanted to go?
As far back as I can remember. I remember going to garage sales and buying books of Russian fonts and creating band logos. I had this old hockey game where you control the players with sticks and cut it up to make a band with the goalie as the drummer. My approach to music was always visually based, probably because my older brothers were bringing home albums by bands like Queen, and it was just otherworldly.
There are no LPs anymore, so I’m sure many music fans with an artistic eye think you have this dream job creating large images for bands that the digital world has otherwise largely eliminated the need for. How did you get to this point?
In 1990, I moved to New York, determined to make it in the music business one way or the other. I had been a DJ for 7 years, then I started making my own music. When I saw Public Enemy live and noticed they were lip-syncing, I was so annoyed that I decided to become a rapper myself. I called myself Jack the Rapper so I could jack the rapper and got a posse that couldn't dance. I was doing it around Minneapolis and started getting shows, so I got a manager and went to New York. Of course nothing happened, what was I thinking!
But in the process I met Joel Rosenman, who originally started Woodstock. I was the karaoke host for his 50th birthday party. I just stayed in touch until they asked me to be the hotel coordinator. As I’m sitting there in meetings I saw all the merch, it was all tie-dye and I said “do you guys really know how Nine Inch Nails is? Do you get what Green Day is about?” So they said, “ok what have you got?” and I became the designer.
So you never had any formal art education at any point?
I never did go to art school or anything like that. The thing about people who go to art school is that it sometimes turns art into a competition, which hinders where they could actually fly. I guess it’s nice to be around all the supplies, and I’m curious about that.
With some of your posters — like the ones you did for Oasis — how do you go about getting approval and what feedback do you get?
I sometimes run into problems, and it’s usually the hardcore rap acts that have issues! With Oasis, the promoters Golden Voice reached out to me because they wanted to present it as a gift, so no, no approval. Sometimes bands reach out, and the process changes from artist to artist. Right now, for instance, I’m doing something for Fleetwood Mac. I'm working on a tambourine dreamcatcher, so I will make it, photograph it, and it will go back and forth.
Is exhibiting your work an ambition of yours?
I’ve had a few shows, in my own gallery, in Outre in Melbourne. The Flood in London has a bunch of my prints, and then there's M Modern in Palm Springs and Golen Gallery in Miami. I haven’t pursued art shows, as opposed to rock art, but I want to. There are just a lot of layers to what I do — I don’t know if it’s got something to do with my attention span. If I find something shiny over here, it’s just ‘let’s do this.’
Is that where the idea for spin art comes from?
Yes, that was my first show. In 2002, I went to the Minnesota State Fair and got this [spin art machine] on which I put my logo, Lala. You can find this logo throughout all my art, and I thought it would be hilarious to do an oil-painted recreation of spin art, paint by numbers. I played with lines, made it more visually palatable, and became obsessed. There was a gallery in Minneapolis that invited me to do a show, and that’s how it began. I used varying speeds and types of spin-art machines, laying them down in black, photographing and intertwining it until it worked. It’s like looking up at clouds in the sky until you think you can see something.
You've also been involved in directing videos?
Rock’n’roll, mostly. Artistically speaking, the most interesting piece I worked on was for Devo — the “What We Do” video, because it’s a video where you control the camera. I created tons of art backdrops that were printed as 6 foot by 10 foot canvases in order to create 11 worlds in an unedited video. It was nuts. When you see it, you can only go ‘what?!?’
So you push play, let it load, make it full screen, then pull down the mouse to control where the camera goes. We used 9 cameras in a room pointing outwards — it’s like the 360 degree hotel view some websites have, except that people are moving within it.
To see the video, click here – www.instantusa.com
Click Slideshow to see a gallery of Kii Arens' works, from Queens of the Stone Age to Arctic Monkeys, Florence & The Machine to Tom Jones.