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SXSW Tales: The Art of Heavy Metal

March 16, 2012

Band, bands and more bands.

Even though yesterday's rampaging around the South by Southwest Festival was full of fine music (the highlight being a lunchtime gig by the Seattle-based gypsy rock outfit Hey Marseilles), the thing that stands out for me is the hour I spent in the company of a bunch of metal heads at the Austin Convention Center, listening to a discussion about the visual art inspired by the heavy metal music scene.

I guess metal fans are more traditional in some ways than other types of music fans: Digital consumption is the mainstay of the genre at this point as with the rest of the music world. But there still seems to be a thriving market for vinyl in heavy metal. Plus there are all the T-shirts with snarling skeletons baring hatchets that no self-respecting heavy metal fan would dare leave the house without.

As such, the market for visual art around this genre is thriving, and yesterday a panel discussion featuring three such artists (Mike Williams, Shawn Cahan and Orion Landau) plus moderator Corey Mitchell attracted a crowd of about a hundred badly dressed 20-to-50-something men with tattoos, long hair and pot bellies. Surprisingly, there was also a smattering of better-dressed, younger women.

It was a fascinating hour to say the least.

First off, I learned from Landau, a graphic designer in the metal space who creates amazingly intricate album covers for bands in a style that dates back at least as far as Hieronymus Bosch, that heavy metal fans like figurative and illustrative art. "Metal heads like a storyline," Landau said. If a band member comes to Landau with a color palette in mind (e.g. "this album is dark purple") then it's Landau's job to make something literal out of the abstract. Apparently it's quite common for metal bands to think of their albums in terms of colors. I like this artist's work a lot. It has intelligence, beautiful use of color and impressive penmanship. I particularly enjoyed Landau's eye for comedy too: I never thought heavy metal had much of a sense of humor -- unless you count Spinal Tap and that's not really heavy metal, but rather heavy rock -- until I saw Landau's image of Brian Posehn, a dweeby looking comedian in the heavy metal space who asked the artist to depict him looking like Conan the Destroyer while standing on top of a pile of dead bodies, all of them the cadavers of comedians Posehn hates. (See image above.)

The second part of the discussion was led by Shawn Crahan, who is with the heavy metal band Slipknot and is responsible for a lot of his band's art. Crahan, who goes by the moniker "Clown" which is hilarious because he takes himself so very seriously, works primarily in photography. Even though the guy quickly got on my nerves with all his pretentious talk about being an artist and seeking out pain etc, I must admit that some of his pictures are astounding. "I've been working with models, not in the fashion sense, but the contorted sense," Crahan announced as he showed us a photograph of a young woman lying facedown on a forest floor of tangled branches and dead leaves, with her legs splayed and her neck and head disappearing out of the bottom left hand corner of the frame. My first instinct was to think rape. But there are footsteps leading in one direction to where the body lies, which implies that perhaps there was no one else on the scene and that the model had walked there and fallen down herself. Disconcerting. Crahan has a penchant for studying and taking pictures of roadkill. He pontificated at length on the artistic merits of a newly run-over deer. The most beautiful image Crahan showed was of his daughter, aged 19, wearing a pretty, white vintage dress. The girl is in a state of utter turbulence and disarray. Her eyes are like dark pits and her mouth is a smudged pout. Her right fist is clenched tightly by her side as her left arm wields a heavy hammer. It's a perplexing and thoroughly undoing combination of innocence and anger. I kind of feel sorry for the girl having Crahan as a father. But that image was the most memorable image I saw during the entire session. In fact, it's probably the most memorable image I've seen in a long time and I wish I could get my hands on a print.

The third presenter was, unfortunately, the weak link of the session. He was probably high. I have no idea about Mike Williams' talents as a heavy metal singer for Eyehategod, but his band should hire someone else to do their artwork. Mostly Williams works with basic collage, assembling images from books and other sources into dull designs along vaguely thematic lines. Williams clearly likes to think of himself as part of the "instinctive" school of heavy metal artists who don't need to explain their work to anyone. All I could glean of his process beyond the fact that he likes to work with spray paint and stencils ("I can't get into Photoshop") and occasionally rips images he wants to use from library books, was the statement "painful art is always the best."

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