Blurt introduces a new recurring feature in which we examine the intersection of rock and the visual arts. First up: noted artist/rocker/bon vivant Robert Pollard, late of Guided By Voices. “I get to drink, come and go as I please, have a good time”: Pollard talks about his other career—no, not his years as a schoolteacher, but as a celebrated visual artist. You may have spotted some of his work on certain album sleeves…
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: In 2010, as part of a project for an arts/media company, I was drafted to interview popular musicians who also moonlighted in the visual arts field. The first to be published was Joseph Arthur; the second commission was to interview Robert Pollard. Both were no-brainers, given how accomplished each man had become at that point in time, and each interview was highly enlightening as they illuminated the sometimes murky intersection of the two disciplines in ways even I didn’t anticipate. For reasons unclear, however, my Pollard story never got published. Out of the blue a few months ago the news broke that Guided By Voices had split for good, and when I heard about it, a little lightbulb went on over my head: where the hell did I stash that unpublished Pollard interview? After locating it, I decided that now might be an opportune juncture at which to put it out there (never underestimate the power of currently trending web searches when you are trolling for eyeballs for your website—plus, I’m the friggin’ editor and can publish whatever I like, har har!). After jettisoning my original intro and doing some minor cleanup to eliminate any contextual confusion stemming from it being four years old—voila, a “new” Robert Pollard interview, just for YOU, gentle BLURT readers and fellow GBV obsessives. It’s technically not “fresh,” but it is still relevant to understanding the man and his art (of both sorts). Given that Pollard apparently now has a lot of spare time on his hands with which to, in theory, work on his visual art, maybe it’s even a bit timely… Enjoy. – FM
TORSOS, BODY PARTS, CLOWNS, SOLDIERS, GUNS, WHATEVER
BLURT: I seem to recall reading that you don’t have any formal art training, just the usual art classes in school. So when did you first start doing your visual art? What appeals to you about collages? Any specific inspirations or other artists who influenced you?
ROBERT POLLARD: When I was maybe 14 or 15 I wanted to be in a rock band (or start one)but I didn’t know anyone who could play an instrument, so I figured the next best or closest approximation would be to pretend I was in a band and make album covers for them. That’s when I began cutting out images from magazines and doing my own primitive lay-outs and graphics, sort of inspired by the Hipgnosis album covers for bands like Pink Floyd, The Nice and other Prog stuff I was starting to get into in the early to mid 70’s. . Flash, Kevin Ayers, Ha!
Since for most folks reading this, your GbV and solo album sleeves will be their primary or most immediately accessible point of entry to your art, could you single out a few sleeves that you’re particularly fond of, and why you like them?
I really like “The Astral City Slicker” on the cover of Mag Earwhig! because of its depth and other-worldliness. It seems to express life as some sort of cosmic game of chance. You know, the sun king or God holding the cards. It literally threw itself together. The pieces, the individual images. I had cut on maybe 2 or 3 sources and there it was in maybe 10 minutes. It seems the most interesting art and music happens that way. It makes them seem more divinely inspired. Also, “Off to Business” is cool. “Zero to 99” because of the grittiness or sleaziness. I like the Tiger Bomb E.P. I like highlighting faces in yellow.
How much time do you allot for visual design relative to your songwriting and recording – do you set aside a specific day or time of day when you plan to work on a piece, or is it more as the mood/inspiration strikes?
I work on music and visual art separately. I collect printed materials from wherever I can find them. I cut them up for images and keep them in stacks/piles until I start throwing them together to form collages or montages. Some pieces become possible albums and others mock movie posters, postcards, or book covers. Some remain simply collages for possible inclusion into my “Eat” series. I write songs occasionally spontaneously into a primitive boom box and store them on cassettes and CDs. I pick the ones that I like and elaborate on them. When I have an album’s worth, I match up a collage.
Most of us think of creating visual art as a fairly solitary exercise, compared to how a musician will work with producers, engineers and other musicians to achieve a creative goal. Have you ever considered collaborating with other visual designers or artists?
I’ve never collaborated in visual art. To me it’s more a solitary thing. Music, however, is different. I’ve done many collaborations with people. Usually multi-instrumentalists who provided the finished music and then I add melody, lyrics and visual imagery. If I decided to team up with someone to do visual art, I would probably like to proceed in the same manner. Where maybe an artist sends me an unfinished piece or incomplete field of imagery and I finish it. That’s a good idea and I’m entertaining doing that!
In your “Life Lessons” essay you wrote for Magnet in 2005, one word of wisdom was: “Writing is easy. It’s an ongoing process, like eating, breathing, or sleeping. It shouldn’t be painful or difficult. It’s a report on the state of the soul and, like the soul, should be continuously evolving. It does so through inspiration. From people, books, film, music. When inspiration is lacking, you get writer’s block.” How does this statement compare to your feelings towards visual art?
I don’t get “artist’s block” as long as I have the source material. Some things I’m looking for are hard to find. Medical charts, educational posters, etc. One needs larger images to create larger pieces, which I am after. I am also interested in visually striking accidents or amateur commercial stuff. Stains on yellowed pages, high school yearbook graphics and photography, isolated sections of architecture. That sort of stuff works nicely in combination with geographical imagery, torsos, body parts, clowns, soldiers, guns, whatever. Also, I look for different types of material. X-rays, comic books, porn, pamphlets, board games, wallpaper, insects, cigarettes, it’s endless. The secret is combining them to make the piece look like a painting, drawing or photograph, or even better, something entirely unique. I’ve not been very successful with assemblages, or 3-D pieces, but I’m trying.
Your first “proper” book, Town of Mirrors, was published 2008 on Fantagraphics, but of course you were also doing your Eat series long before that. Tell me a little about the history of the Eat magazines and also how the 2008 book came about.
We’re getting ready to release Eat 8. [The Eat series] came out of my desire to create an ongoing vehicle for my collages in the same way that albums are collections of my most recent batch of songs. We only do about 500 copies of each volume because that’s the extent of the interest, but the people who buy them like them, and Eat also serves as a catalogue for my original pieces, which my friend, Rich Turiel, sells on a website gallery. Another of my friends and collaborator in various music projects, Chris Slusarenko, knows a few people at Fantagraphics and told me a few years back that they were interested. I told them to wait until maybe we’ve done 5 or 6 Eats, in order to have a wide range of material to choose from. Eventually, we decided we were ready to put it together.
You’ve also had your work formally displayed in a gallery, Michael Imperioli’s Studio Dante gallery in NYC 2008; plus at Merge in Durham 2008 for the release party of the Fantagraphics book. I imagine that since you’re a stage performer you’re not especially prone to feelings of self-consciousness, but this still had to be somewhat different as an emotional experience. What was it like?
Well, I was nervous for the first show at Michael’s studio, but it was just like the backstage area at a rock show. A lot of the same people. We got drunk. I had to tell myself, “Hey, they’re gonna put my silly shit on the walls for people to look at, comment on and buy. I get to drink, come and go as I please, talk about it, have a good time, that doesn’t sound difficult does it?”
Robert Pollard displays and sells his wares at Robert Pollard Artwork: http://www.robertpollardart.com/