Degenerate Art, Dennis Dread, Drew Elliott, Ed Repka, Entartete 'Kunts', Erik Danielsen, Joe Petagno, Kristian Necrolord Wahlin, Sean Taggart, The Ajna Offensive, third eye cinema podcast, underground comix, underground metal cover art
Bet you weren’t expecting this. Honestly, neither was I.
When offered a chance to review a collection of artwork by no less than 42 artists, most or all of whom are or have been associated with the creation of cover artwork for bands across the metal and punk spectrum: black metal visionaries, death metal delineators, thrash veterans, hardcore punk artists, I jumped at the opportunity. I knew and loved some of these guys from my teens, after all, and bear some of their creations on a succession of shirts I still proudly sport publicly on a daily basis.
So…how did I get what I have in hand?
As the foreword informs us, “This “art book” contains the creations of schizophrenic hallucinators…Scandinavian melancholics…and left hand path necromancers…these are “outsider artists”.” The author’s introduction further clarifies the book’s title is a pun on the term “entartete kunst”, or what English speaking audiences will recognize as the old fascist disparagement of “degenerate art”, here used in a celebratory and tongue in cheek spirit (though the utilization of a Nazi-associated motif and fonts throughout for the chapter headers is more than a bit questionable, regardless of intention).
So what does this all entail? Well, you do get some recognized and often quite excellent underground and extreme metal album artwork from the likes of Ed Repka, Kristian “Necrolord” Wahlin and Erik Danielsen of Watain, which is pretty much what I was expecting, and awesome as ever.
Ed Repka’s art for Death’s Scream Bloody Gore – not represented herein
However, an inordinate percentage of what fills the remainder of the tome, and more apropos to the twin classifications set forth above, is a plethora of the sort of angry, scatological, psychologically disturbing and somewhat unbalanced scrawls peppered throughout Metalion’s Slayer Diaries, from Arne Babb to the often bizarre page border work and sketches from the late Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin. Yeah, it’s pretty messed up, and won’t fit most sane people’s concept of what the term “art” encompasses – much less the aesthetes among us.
The very fact that foreword scribe Patrick Rosenkranz sees fit to compare some of this material to the underground comix of the hippie era should say something in and of itself. If you’re into that sort of thing…well, perhaps you should visit another website in regards to the merits of this one. But thankfully, that’s not the whole story in this particular case, so hang in there.
A collection of what originated as three exhibitions held in Portland Oregon a few years back, Entartete “Kunts” (the exhibition) at least ascribed to an interesting if somewhat selfless business model where the artists received 100% of the profits on any sale of their artwork. Quite honorable, though perhaps a bit self limiting – like the many punk and indie labels we grew up with in the 80’s and 90’s, its very DIY and support-the-scene ethos carries within it the seeds of its own demise, for without profit, how can the label (or exhibit, or concern) continue? It circles back to square one, and the bands, or artists, or what have you are left without a venue to market their ideas and materials through. Again, hats off to the idea, but it’s a bit of a head scratcher in practical terms.
Further to that point, it may in fact be a bit telling that the book proper opens with a quote from Austin Osman Spare, pointing out in bold letters the fact that this is not necessarily about art for art’s sake, much less for financial gain…and enough said on that point. Read into it as you will.
Kristian “Necrolord” Wahlin’s art for Dissection’s The Somberlain – not represented herein
There are numerous familiar images peppered throughout the book, like Andrei Bouzikov (who does art for such acts as Municipal Waste, joke band Cannabis Corpse and S.O.D.), legendary thrash and death metal standby Ed Repka, Blood Feast and New Renaissance cover draftsman Drew Elliott, Motorhead / Sigh / Hawkwind artist Joe Petagno, and as might be expected, these are by far the highlights of the collection.
Dread himself, known for producing a few covers for Darkthrone, could arguably fall under the same category, but the fact that he seems to dwell on variations of the same theme time and time again proves somewhat limiting, much like Voivod’s Michel “Away” Langevin, who’s produced more or less the same cover
repeatedly for the band’s respective releases over the course of more than two decades.
There are further a few artists whose work is at least interesting if not deserving of a larger audience, such as Sean McGrath (whose “Stormcrow/Coffins” reminds one of the strangely absent death metal cover artist Dan Seagrave, though much of his other work fails to approach this piece in either quality or intensity) and Nor Prego Argibay, who presents an eroticised Blind Dead piece; Musta Aurinko, whose “Vortex” appears to have been used for Watain’s Lawless Darkness, and especially Paul Henri Toorenvliet, who seems to be tapping into both Pieter Brueghel and Heironymous Bosch.
Other artists of some interest amidst the juvenalia, bathroom wall scrawlings and calculated “shock effects” that take up the bulk of the page count include Finland’s Timo Ketola, H.R. Giger disciple Paul McCarroll, Sleep artist Arik Roper, and perhaps most surprisingly, Sadistik Exekution cover artist Kriss Hades, who delivers two rather well done pieces, “Electric Funeral” and “Goddess, the Mechanical Orgasm” amidst his more typical level and style of production. Who the hell knew the guy could actually draw?
But as for the rest, it’s at best a mixed bag. There’s a surprising amount of cartoonishness here, and that almost goes across the board, from the likes of Luisma Quiroga, Rueben and Jason Storey and Autopsy drummer/founder Chris Reifert to folks whose efforts we’ll speak to shortly like Aaberg, Taggart, Taylor, Smith and Dread, and hardly limited to those.
Much of the work presented proves somewhat maddening in its seeming haphazardness. For instance, we get famous Cramps artist Steven Blickenstaff, whose cover for Bad Music for Bad People is followed by a plethora of further imagery that would be more familiar to fans of Metallica. So if you think Pushead is the apotheosis of fine arts in the modern age, this is definitely your bag.
Further, we have a category of artist whose work appears designed exclusively to shock and disgust the viewer, like the pseudonymous Ross Sewage, some of whose images seem all too real and fit to turn the hardiest of grindcore aficionado’s stomachs. I’m not sure how to even take some of these images, in all honesty – and I don’t mean that as a positive, as in “yeah! That Fulci film was COOL!” – I’m saying that I’m seriously wondering about this guy after seeing a few of these.
Not everyone represented here is so backwards, however – legendary Whiplash/Agnostic Front cover artist Sean Taggart delivers the seasonedly wise aphorism that:
“New York is a unique city, so of course our skinhead movement would be unique to ourselves. There were racists among us, but in general, we had a scene made up of every race and religion. Our deal was more about taking the silly clownishness out of the punk scene, which in retrospect is what ruined it. We lost the ability to laugh at ourselves and the rest of the world…Self-righteous indignation can lead to great acts of unconscious evil.”
In keeping with the questionably disturbing end of the equation noted earlier, Manson family member and Lucifer Rising scorer Bobby Beausoleil delivers a few pieces which range from a near-Forbidden Evil piece (“Speed”) to a disturbed Van Eyckesque portrait of “Louis Leroy of the Revolutionary Tribunal” featuring the man in question with his own neck showing the mark of severing under the guillotine of Reign of Terror France that marks the backdrop. Nice. But disturbing nonetheless. What’s interesting about Beausoleil is that he is actually an accomplished artist in the proper sense of the term – check out his erotic graphite pieces like “The Editor Redresses” to see what I mean.
Several of the artists definitely seem to be tapping into the old “underground” comix vein Rosenkranz noted, with punk veteran Sean Aaberg, Jeff Gaither and Clay Wilson clearly paying homage to Robert Crumb, Melinda Gebbie and the like, or at least, like Glenn Smith and Strephon Taylor, to the Joe Coleman / Disinformation / Apocalypse Culture style underground performance art vibe that proved so strangely ubiquitous back in the dark days of the 90’s (appropriately enough, as Apocalypse Culture editor Adam Parfey also works alongside the Ajna Offensive and Feral House in publishing Process literature). I was half expecting to find Peter Bagge in here, it’s that sort of “who cares if it’s totally inaesthetic or patently sophomoric?” vibe to be sure.
Others, like Jim Blanchard, seem to be straddling the schools of that sort of hippie nonsense and modern art per se, with pictures of private parts alternating with Warholian acrylic homages to movie posters and suchlike – a strange dichotomy to be sure. While such artists as Picasso were noted for their sideline in producing (for lack of a better terminology) “dirty sketches” as much as for their more accepted and popularized gallery efforts, this is an oddity of split focus on an entirely different level, akin to having R. Crumb spend half of his time producing Lichtensteinian lithographs, if not Dali or Magritte level pieces. It’s wholly unexpected, and more than a bit bizarre, in the end.
Ultimately, it boils down to a pairing of aesthetics or the lack thereof (one is designed to be visually appealing, the second, like much of what is being celebrated herein, merely calculated to be obnoxious and to effect some measure of shock reaction in the viewer) and intent (one is meant to make a statement, and bears some measure of philosophic meaning; the other is juvenalia, meant to produce chuckles amongst the likeminded).
Or if you prefer, one is art. The other…is “comix”.
And outside of the rather specialized and particularly audience-tailored province of head shops and comic conventions, never the twain shall meet.