There are few people in popular music today as prolific as Robert Pollard. Pollard is best known as the leader of the influential indie rock band Guided by Voices, lo-fi legends whose albums are densely packed with pocket-sized exercises in hooky rock magic, and he's also released a steady stream of solo recordings and offshoot projects such as the Boston Spaceships, the Circus Devils, Lifeguards, and the Keene Brothers. The fact that Pollard has released 25 solo albums between 1996 and 2013 says a lot; that Guided by Voices has put out three box sets of unreleased material with 100 songs each says even more.
You'd think that Pollard would be creatively spent with that sort of musical output, but you'd be wrong. Pollard also creates the cover artwork for most of his albums, collages that use found elements to create images every bit as striking as his music. The psychedelic drum on the cover of Alien Lanes, the trains snaking out of a gentleman's mouth on Standard Gargoyle Decisions, or the detourned Native American images of Under the Bushes, Under the Stars reveal that Pollard's visual ideas are as canny as his musical instincts.
Pollard's artwork has evolved into a separate career. In 2008, Fantagraphics Books published a collection of his pieces, Town of Mirrors, and around the same time, he began exhibiting his work in galleries. With Pollard presenting his art at Modified Arts in Phoenix as part of the group show "Chimerical," which opens Friday, April 18, he took time to answer a few questions from Jackalope Ranch about his visual work by e-mail from his home in Dayton, Ohio.
How did you first get involved in visual art? Do you have any formal training in that area? I think I became inspired, initially, by the Hipgnosis album covers of the late '60s and early '70s. (Hipgnosis were a design firm founded by Storm Thorgerson, best known for his work with Pink Floyd. -- Ed.) They did a lot of the artwork for the British prog rock label Harvest, Pink Floyd, the Pretty Things, and such. Very surreal, with a lot of interesting graphics and mechanical drawings. I used to emulate them a lot with fake album covers I made in my teens. I have no formal training other than a few art classes in high school and college.
You're best known for your work in collage. Do you work in any other visual media? Not really. I take an occasional photograph. I made a film in high school with a few friends. I used to do pencil drawings and watercolor paintings.
What attracts you to collage? The immediacy. The cross-pollination of mediums. The fact that I feel like I'm actually painting with paper, using borrowed images. One can actually create depth, contour, shading, and composition with found and re-assembled imagery. It's very exciting and addictive. Playing with color schemes. I also enjoy the hunt for source material.
How do you find the elements for your pieces? Do you actively seek them out, or do you simply keep an eye open? I keep an eye open, but mostly I seek material in thrift stores, flea markets, bookstores, and wherever else. There's a Goodwill Outlet in Dayton that has become a virtual goldmine for me. Occasionally, friends will bring me books and magazines.
When you're working on your art, what comes first, the elements or the overall idea for the piece? What I typically do is look for elements within a larger image. Something that is not considered to be a major constituent of the overall image, whether it be a photo, a diagram or whatever, but nonetheless attracts the eye if zeroed in on or examined more closely. Then I cut those images out, lay them out on a table and try to match them with similar, complimentary images or colors.
Many people first saw your work on the sleeves of your many albums. Do you have the music in mind when you make the pieces for an album cover or are the creative processes separate? They're usually separate, unrelated projects. It's simply a matter of matching things that seem to make sense or in some cases may seem totally unrelated. Sometimes that can be more interesting. You don't want to be blatantly obvious with the pairing of album titles and covers.
When did you start showing your art? What are the differences and similarities between doing a gallery show and playing a concert? I did my first show in NYC at Michael Imperioli's studio/gallery/theater about five or six years ago. It was a blast. They all are. I've only done about five or six shows. To me, it's like playing a concert without actually ever having to come out of the dressing room. In other words, it's like a pre-show party.
What's your process for doing a collage, technically speaking? Do you still make the pieces using physical cutting and pasting, or do you work on a computer these days? How long does it usually take? I work exclusively with found, printed material. I don't Photoshop. I like original sources, preferably very old. Early 1900s to 1970s. I like the differences in the photography and use of color techniques. I only use portions of art that is art for hire, nothing someone might consider a work of serious art or sign his or her name to. A collage can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few days. Sometimes longer.
You're famous for being prolific. How many pieces have you done, and how many do you show? I imagine I've done 600 or 700 pieces. At one of my own shows, I typically show about 30 or 35 framed pieces, and then I have a portfolio of non-framed pieces.
Do you have any philosophy about your artwork? If art were a means of emotional expression, what would you like to say? Making art is addictive. It beats boredom better than anything else and gives one a feeling of accomplishment. When I come up with something that I consider to be really good, it puts me in a very positive mood for the rest of the day.
How many shows have you done, and do you have any others in the works? Is this a good sideline for you? Or rather than looking at it as a sideline, do you see the art as being equal with your music? I've done about half a dozen shows. I consider my collages and music to be equal. Both are part of the same process, although my music reaches a lot more people. Those people may not be completely aware that I also make a living at visual art. But that being said, I'm sure they're probably pretty amused by some of the covers.
Which pieces are your favorites, and why? Without going into detail or description, my favorites are the ones that have depth and composition. Ones that almost look like an actual painting or photograph. For example, One Planet (Fully Stocked) or The Astral City Slicker (the cover for Mag Earwhig).
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As a musician, you've collaborated with a lot of different people. Are there any artists you'd like to collaborate with, or do you see art as more of an individual process? It's more individual, I think, but I have talked with Toby Sprout, guitarist in Guided by Voices, who does amazing photo-realism painting, and writes and illustrates children's books, about a possible collaboration at some capacity.
And just in passing, do you have any new musical projects in the works? Will you be touring anytime soon, with Guided by Voices or otherwise? Guided by Voices just released an album called Motivation Jumpsuit. We have another album called Cool Planet coming out in May, and then we're gonna tour the U.S. to support those records (including a date in June at Crescent Ballroom). I finished a side project where I clumsily play every instrument, called Teenage Guitar, which will be out in August. A Circus Devils album with Todd and Tim Tobias comes out in October, and I'm writing songs for a solo album.
"Chimerical," curated by Perihelion Arts, opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, April 18, at Modified Arts and features work from Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard, Matt Dickson, and Annette Hassell. The show remains on view through May 10. See www.robertpollardart.com or www.modifiedarts.org for more information.