Archive for January, 2010

Dan McCarthy and The Common Thread

January 25, 2010

I first heard about Dan McCarthy from a friend of mine who’s really into rock poster art. Dan does that kind of stuff, but he does other stuff too — eerily gorgeous prints, paintings and posters that elicit feelings of deeply sympathetic solitude and natural wonder.

He was also one of a select few artists commissioned to do poster for the TV show Lost.

Dan has the voice and demeanor you’d expect of someone doing his kind of work.

When you start on a new piece, do you usually have the finished image in mind? I tend to have a pretty clear idea of what I want it to look like when I start out. Often I have a title worked out and go from there. Titles are important to me. But I expect there to be some transformation while I work.

Can you talk about the  use of dinosaur imagery in your work? You make humans and dinosaurs appear as part of the same continuum of existence. It makes me wonder if you believe in some sort of collective or vestigial experience of the world. This is something I feel like I’m still trying to figure out. I think the more I explore it, the more clear it will become. I think you’re on track with finding a common thread between us and dinosaurs and other creatures that lived in the past. My main thought is trying to find a commonality between everything on Earth, through time. We’re all living on the same planet. Everything in time has looked at the same moon and the same stars. Everything has a similar attitude towards the natural world. It’s impossible not to. At least on some level.

Are you a solitary person? I do enjoy solitude. I work from home every day. I haven’t had a real job in maybe six years, so I’ve been spending a lot of time on my own. It was weird at first just getting used to being alone. I feel like I’ve gotten better at it. And now I definitely feel like I need to be alone at times. More than I used to. I don’t want this to sound too sad, though.

I don’t think it does. You’re talking about solitude, which is different than loneliness. Yeah. It’s like when people go camping or talk a walk. The experience of those things is not an experience of loneliness. I like doing those sorts of things.

Can you think of the first piece you did that made you feel as if you were speaking your own language? So like a turning point?

Yeah, that’s a better way of saying it. Let’s see, let me look through some of my stuff. Hmm. There’s an image I did called “Don Stepped Outside.” [That’s the picture above.] I felt happy about how it turned out. It conveyed the mood I was looking for. From that, I’ve been able to branch out into a lot of different pieces. The title for that piece comes from a lyric from one of my favorite bands, Slint. That was the first time I gave a piece of art a title based on music. A lot of my pieces since then have been musically related, even if I’m the only one who knows why.

What was the last creative thing you did? Right before you called I was sketching an animal. I have this print I’m working on called “Sketching The Animal Kingdom.” It’s about 300 different prints and on each print I’m sketching an animal, so I’m doing 300 different animals. One for each print. The last animal was the Grey-Cheeked Mangabey. It’s some sort monkey.

George Lois Is Planning A Big Surprise

January 18, 2010

Beginning in the early 1960s, George Lois helped make advertising interesting. As art director at various ad agencies, he was a key player in moving the medium away from the tame and prim and towards the hot and cool.

During the same decade, George helped reinvent the art of the magazine cover while working for Esquire. In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City devoted an exhibit to the cover images he created.

Lois swears a lot, talks fast, and has a great Queens accent.

Given that your work in advertising was always towards the end of selling something, how much of your artistic vision was defined by business-minded compromises? Well, I’m the wrong guy to talk about compromise. Not because I’m arrogant, but because when I was running an ad agency, I knew that every campaign I did had to be mind-boggling. When I showed the work to a client, if he didn’t look at it like I was nuts, I knew I had nothing. That’s the first problem you have to solve in advertising: how do you make it surprising? It needs to be surprising even before it needs to be good. Every time I showed something to a client, I would stun them. Their heads would go back a foot they were so surprised. But they eventually got it. And if they didn’t get it, I wouldn’t accept them as a client.

Were you able to have the same attitude before you made your name? I was always a bitch. When I was working for Bill Bernbach at DDB — I left there in 1960 — the art directors weren’t allowed to go sell the advertising to the client. I didn’t get it. In my third week, I showed an account guy a poster I did for Goodman’s Matzoh. The poster had Hebrew-style lettering on it — beautiful stuff. The account guy had no idea how to sell something like that. Oh my god, it was different! Of course the client didn’t like it. So I said, “Fuck you” to the account guy and I went and showed Bernbach the poster. Bernbach says, “That’s wonderful! George, that’s brilliant.” I told him the client killed it. He said that’s too bad. I said, “What’s this stuff about the art directors not being able to present to the client. My account guy doesn’t get what I’m doing. I know the consumers will get it, but my guy has no fucking clue.” I was talking to idiots when I was dealing with the account guys. So I said, “Bill, make me an appointment with the Goodman Matzoh people.” He agreed to do it.

Did you make the sale? I’ll tell you. Goodman’s Matzoh was in Long Island City in Queens. Ten minutes on the subway from our office. When people found out me, an art director was gonna go present, Everyone in the agency was like, “This young punk is gonna get his ass handed to him.” So I get to Matzoh place and meet with Goodman — this, like, 90-year-old Talmudic-looking Jew. The whole family is there. They were all ready for me. I get there and start selling my ass off, and one-by-one the younger family members say, “Gee, grandfather, I like this poster.” Still, he says, [Yiddish accent], “I don’t like this.” He does this twelve times. So I go to a window, climb out, and I hung out there holding my poster with my left hand and hanging on to the ledge with my right hand so they could see the way it would look from a store window. And while I’m out there, I yell, “You make the matzoh, I’ll make the ads!”  Then I go back inside and Goodman is looking like he’s had a heart attack. He says, “Alright, run it. Run the ad.”

But before I left, he says, “Young man, if you ever quit advertising, I’ll give you a job as a matzoh salesman.”

What’s the lesson of that story? There was no way that an account guy could sell my work as well as I could. I was even more of a bitch when I started my own ad agency, because I wasn’t afraid of hurting everybody’s feelings. I literally didn’t know how to compromise. No art director should know how to do that. 99% of the time the compromise is what kills the good idea. Everything you show to a client should be outrageous. Let them understand it later. You can’t castrate advertising if you want it to be effective. You can’t research a great idea. Everyone will, “Oh I don’t know about that. I don’t know if you can do that.” The client almost always will say that if you give them a chance to. And then they kill it. The minute a client says to me, “Suppose you do this” is the same minute I say, “Forget about it.”

Have you gotten feedback on your work that you thought was valuable? I’ve taken input, yeah. I’ve gotten ideas from other people. I can’t think of any examples right away, but I know I’ve listened to clients and gotten ideas before. I did a book called the Big Idea and what I tried to teach was that you have to understand five, six thousand years worth of ideas of art and culture. When you can do that, you’ll see that ideas come from the things around you. So when you’re assigned some sort of creative problem, you have to then you find out as much as you can about the idea in question — and the competition for that idea. I’m talking about three or four days of just learning. After you do that, there will be an idea there. You just gotta give yourself a chance to discover it. The idea will be there. I’m not being mystical. The idea is fucking there. All you gotta do is use your intelligence and instinct and find it. Sure, a part of it is maybe mystical, but the method I’m talking about begins with gathering hard information.

What’s the last creative thing you did? I’m always working on a big idea. Right now, I’m doing something for a restaurant in Washington, D.C., but I can’t tell you anything about it.

Why not? Because it will surprise the shit out of everybody.

The Ghosts Of Charles Bock

January 11, 2010

Charles Bock wrote Beautiful Children, a novel about Las Vegas, runaways, and what happens when families break.

The book took Charles ten years to write. When it was published in 2008, a lot of people dug it. But before then he had to do a lot of stuff  he didn’t particularly like doing.

Charles knows a ton about early ’90s UNLV basketball and rock poster artists.

He’s working on some cool stuff these days that couldn’t be mentioned here.

Some of what Charles says in this interview probably looks bleak on the page, but it was all said with a sparkle. So keep that in mind.

Where are you right now? I’m in a writer’s room in Manhattan. There’s all these other people with their fucking computers doing their stupid little bullshit. It feels pointless. You wanna feel like it matters. It’s hard to do that when you’re in a room like this. At least it’s quiet.

You did some ghostwriting before you published your book. Do you think that had any effect on the way your fiction turned out? There’s a few things that are pragmatically useful about ghostwriting: You’re not the boss, and you’re responsible for getting something in shape and making it publishable. You have to make sure the story has a certain narrative structure. You have to deal with the things that everyone wants to know even if the person you’re dealing with doesn’t want people to know those things. There are hard deadlines. Those are the rules. As much as you might want to, you can’t write an experimental celebrity memoir. And I think learning to work within marketable boundaries won’t ever hurt a creative person. Those boundaries are economic realities. No matter what kind of writing you’re doing — and in my case I’m doing stuff that goes everywhere — it’s important to understand the power of a good narrative. But I didn’t grow up wanting to be a ghostwriter. I was not happy about doing that work. I did it in order to eat. When you take one of those jobs you feel like a piece of your soul dies. But that’s okay, because trying to do anything in the creative world, parts of your soul will die. So in that sense it was good training.

You were almost 40 when your first novel was published. How would your writing be different if you’d first published when you were 25? That’s a very interesting question. Could I have written Beautiful Children at 25? I couldn’t have. I didn’t have the chops. I wish I’d been able to publish it when I was 25 — because years 26 to 30 would’ve been a huge fucking party.

Can you recall an early piece you wrote that made you feel like you were good enough to make a living as a writer? No, but I can tell you this: When I was in graduate school, I wrote a story that took place in New Orleans. I workshopped it more than once. I loved this story and I thought it meant so much to me. But I didn’t ever get it right. Successive versions kept getting worse. My teacher told me to put it to bed. The next thing I did was to get away from that and I wrote something in the voice of a teenage Russian. I sent it out. I’d been told that I could write and that I was talented and whatever, but I hadn’t put anything together yet. I’d had a lot of failures.

Then what happened? A while after sending out my story, I remember going to the post office box I was renting at the time and seeing an envelope from the place that eventually published my piece about the Russian. Inside was a form letter where they filled in the name of the story and the date they were gonna publish it, which was two years in the future. That made me feel like I could do it. But it would be a very long time before my next short story got accepted anywhere. It’s so hard trying to submit anything unsolicited because it feels pointless and like you have no shot. Even if you feel like you’re doing good work, you can also feel like the rules are skewed against you. But getting that story published really did make me feel like I could do this. There are a couple moments like that; where I thought if I stick with this, I can get it right, and something good will happen. But I always knew it was up to me to figure out how to get it right.

Sounds like it was sort of a drag. In many ways it was. A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you. But he also said that if you stick with it and do good work they’ll come back and kiss your ass someday. Okay, I added that last part about them kissing your ass. But if you don’t believe that there is an audience of readers out there that wants something good, then there’s no point. Then Tinker Bell is dead. I truly believe people want to read good work. There might not be a lot of them, but they exist.

What was the last creative thing you did? I made up a little rhyming song for my daughter. I do that a lot. It helps her sleep.

Bill Walton Lets It Flow

January 4, 2010

Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while tripping on LSD. Bill Lee descended from deep space and threw strikes for the Red Sox. Ricky Williams was banned from the NFL for smoking dope, took a season of hand-offs in Canada, then returned south to search for holes in the O line. All three are deserving of a drag, but no freak ever flew so athletically high as Bill Walton. In the early ’70s he was the best player on two national championship basketball teams at UCLA. He wore sweatbands to keep his long red hair in place and threw passes like a prophet. His 1977 Portland Trailblazers won it all by playing faster and more telepathically than their opponents. He was a key player on the title-winning 1986 Boston Celtics, a squad that anyone who cares about ball can comfortably rate as one of the greatest of all time.

Walton likes tie-dyed t-shirts and the Grateful Dead and in 1993 he was inducted into the hoops Hall of Fame — even though his oft-injured feet destined him to double as both a what if and a best ever.

After he was done playing, he became a television color commentary man and spoke about the game in mystical and Manichean terms.

He also wrote a book about bicycling.

When did you realize that you thought the game better than most players? I need to put things in context before I can answer that question.  My favorite player of all time, on and off the court, is Bill Russell. It’s hard to imagine any athlete, with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, who was more cerebral than him. You have to understand that the great body is a given. It’s the mental acuity and decision-making capabilities that distinguish the great champions. Russell thought about how he was going to win. That’s where the creativity comes in. You have creative artists like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Michael Jordan, Neil Young, Jerry Garcia — these people have the ability to spawn new ideas. That creativity is what sets them apart. And none of them played the power game. The power game, basically, is unappealing unless you have  some sort of attachment to that performer, like he’s your son. But the ability to inspire through creative brilliance is a transcendental bridge that draws people  to the cause. That’s why Jordan, the Celtics, Ali — even if they weren’t on your team you wanted them to win. It’s like the Brazilian soccer team — their style, their imagination, the thought processes that go into the attempt to put on a perfect show and ultimately win. That is what is most stimulating and exciting.

Do you think that– Everytime down the court is a totally different game. A good team is like a great rock’n’roll band. The activity happens so fast that it has to be the players. The coach teaches how to be creative in conjunction with disciplined organization. Creativity and imagination, that’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes you wait for the next release from Bob Dylan.

Isn’t it possible that– My thoughts aren’t written down like yours probably are. I was onto something. I need to follow my thought through.

Let it flow. I’ve lost it.

Let it flow, Bill. I’ve got it! You can listen to a song from any era and any age. If it’s truly great, it’s going to be new to you based on your feelings at that time. When you go to a great concert, you feel as if that person is performing to you and singing to you. That creative ability is what sets talent apart from something that is packaged or fake. The ultimate battle is the attempt to try to conquer hype with substance, to try to supplant luck with skill. That is the essence of the creative genius.

Do you think a physically dominant powerful player like Shaquille O’Neal is necessarily less creative than a fluid, flashy player like Pete Maravich? You’re judging substance based on taste. I can say that a given player is more creative to me. You can’t say that for me. That’s where my creativity as a fan comes into play. I can sit here and recite all the statistics you want, but I can’t control your mind.

So we can’t objectively say that any one player is more creative than another? Shaq plays in straight lines. Maravich played in spirals. I happen to think that Pete Maravich is one of the most creative people I have ever known. He out-thought history. He did things that no one else had ever done before. He came up with ideas and executed plays that no one else had ever even dreamed of. That’s why I have such respect for Harlem Globetrotters like Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. Their ability to entertain, create, and dream was right at the top. Bob Cousy, Wilt Chamberlain — no one ever thought of dunking from the free throw line before him.  Kareem — nobody had moves like that. Kevin McHale. Larry Bird. These players were phenomenal in their ability to think.  The body is a given. That’s why the skill and the intelligence always beats power. Power is basically unappealing.

What about the notion that– Look at the great teams and the great musicians. Its not how loud they play or or how high they jump. It’s not how impressively they flex their muscles. It’s the greatest brilliance of a mind, thinking as part of a unit, towards the success and accomplishment of a team. You say, OK, that’s why I love Bill Russell and the Celtics, the Knicks of the ’70s. Magic and Kareem and Lakers. The Trailblazers of the ’70s. That’s why teams love the way that Phil Jackson’s squads play. Look at Pau Gasol — there is not one aspect of his game that is based on power and he’s an incredible player. Incredible. He’s the antithesis of what the modern game is based on and he’s a champion.

Before we go on, thank you for your time. I’ve got all the time in the world for things like this. I choose to creatively spend my time. And I choose to spend it on things like this.

What was your moment of greatest creativity on the basketball court? Jerry West said it perfectly and it’s never been said better: By the time you’re smart enough to really play this game, your body won’t cash the checks your mind so readily writes. There’s no way that your body can keep up with your mind. That’s why the great master teachers — John Wooden, Neil Young, Garcia, Dylan — encourage you to train your mind. Your mind is where ultimate success, happiness, achievement, and accomplishment come from.

What was the last creative thing you did? This interview. I thought about it in advance. I tried to come up with something to say. I hope I did.