Feature: A conversation with William KeihnJuxtapoz // Thursday, 20 Oct 2011
Depending on who you ask, chewing mushrooms and holing up in your room isn’t exactly an A+ idea. But among all of the posters that could possibly melt off your wall, William Keihn’s psychedelic foray into low-culture is the kind of simulacra you want in your peripheral. The Midwest-San Francisco transplant made a name for himself with his album and poster work, particularly for local darlings Thee Oh Sees, and subsequently graced the American garage rock boom with its own visual aesthetic. Despite being synonymous with the reverb-drenched underground, Keihn’s work, complete with muted palettes and eerily familiar iconography, stands entirely on its own. —Tyler Curtis
Tyler Curtis: Where did you go to school?
William Keihn: Herron School of Art and Design in Indiana.
What can you say about your time there?
I think when we spoke before, I mentioned that going to school was a chance to use certain expensive tools that would have otherwise been unavailable. That was really appealing to me, to have an environment where I could use certain printing techniques that would be pretty expensive to do on your own. But you know, I think I went looking, like I said before, to find more of the avant-garde in school. But coming out, I realized that a school, by the nature of it being an institution, can’t provide that for you.
Other than providing facilities for you to explore with these tools that otherwise, as a kid, you probably didn’t have lying around at home, what did your time there give you?
I think that technique with certain processes were definitely enhanced by having more tools. I also think having a peer group, even if I never conceived of them being in my peer group, it provided sort of an example of the other way of making art, from what I was used to doing.
Coming from punk roots, doing things on your own, coming up with your own identity, and conceiving of your own art without prompting, without guidance or structure. Then there was being in classes with kids who never really made a lot of art on their own, except for really rigid coursework in high school. So that was the predominant makeup of the school, you know? There weren’t a lot of kids who worked outside of that institution.
Didn’t it also help you to articulate the ideas you put into your work?
Art school gives you a lot of time to look inward and try to come up with the words to put a buffer in between your audience and your work. It gives you a lot of time to formulate your opinions on what you’re making outside of technical concerns, but with regard for technical concerns and how they can enhance your ideas. So art school gives you a lot of time to be really selfish, and be really self-centered, and self-absorbed with what you’re making, because you’re working within a bubble.
How do you engage in that avant-garde?
Taking tools of the past and recontextualizing them. I try to purpose in the present for nostalgic ephemera and repurpose that, so that it finds use again in illuminating the perversion of our obsession with that nostalgia. I think that, avant-garde or not, things that people make should be there to lampoon conventions and institutions that already exist. I think that if you’re doing that in any way, you’re tapping into a sense of avant-garde.
What can you say about socks and blood packets?
Any sort of performance work where you’re attempting to illicit a reaction out of somebody, there’s a way of doing that that’s absurd. When working with the absurd, you take the purpose out of the high and put it on a much lower peg, and you’re just getting guttural reactions from people. Shooting from the hip is important, and just seeing what you can make out of that. When I was doing performance work in school, the point for me was shaking up that institution in a way that could possibly make people uncomfortable, and therefore question what it was that they sought out of that community for their art, what they sought out of other people. Getting people out of a private space and putting them into a public space. Having to answer to more than just a few people and making work that really confronts your audience in a really direct way causes people to shed some of their safety barriers and makes them have to react more directly. I wanted to simulate the sense of danger. That is, create a sense of danger without really putting anyone in danger. So I made up some fake blood packets, stuffed them into a sock, and I weighed them down with a brick or a stone. Then I put on that C&C Music Factory song, “Everybody Dance Now,” and I sort of just let go and I started smashing the sock around the room during this critique. The blood started exploding out of the packets, spraying on the walls and on the ceiling and on the floor and getting on my classmates. And you know, some people were very stunned. Some people got up. A few people left the room. A few people got pretty shaken up by that. And after that, my heartbeat was racing pretty fast. And you know, I really felt that fight-or-flight mentality, like there was some serious danger going on because I was performing an act of aggression.
So you were appropriating institutional violence, with some irony of course.
I guess you can look at these institutions as all the same. A prison and a school, a set of rules and a set of standards. Sometimes performing a violent act or performing an act that’s really shocking or intense for others is a great way to get the blood flowing and making people think about what they’re really doing with themselves.
On nostalgia, your work is really prevalent in the music scene right now, having done a number of album covers, fliers, and shirt designs. Ray Pettibon’s illustration was synonymous with SST and the early hardcore punk bands in the 70s and 80s, as was Glen E. Friedman’s photography. Winston Smith and Dead Kennedys, Jamie Reid and the Sex Pistols. How might that tradition of band art and collage inform your work?
Very much so, and I would go back even further to Hypnosis, Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett and T. Rex album covers, the entire tradition of album art design and rock poster design that came from the past. The collective companies that existed at that time, that sort of stuff, really inspires to me. The fact that you could solely make graphic design work in a realm of music product is really appealing. From the 60s and 70s, that moved into the punk era, with bands having their friends make the artwork for their albums and posters. I definitely feel like I’m a part of that lineage. And once you move into punk rock, and you see that a lot of these bands were using one or two artists to come up with their work, you see how much they shaped the visual identity for bands and musicians.
Music is a really accessible medium, and for a long time before the internet and art magazines, it was much harder to disseminate visual art than it is now. What can you say about the relationship of the two, from your experience?
There were so many cases growing up, pre-internet, where I saw album artwork and posters for bands before I ever heard their music. The entry point into certain musical forms and styles was directly linked through the visual promotion for that music. So I think that they walk hand-in-hand with each other. When we’re talking about the dissemination of information, I look at music and print media as being on pretty equal footing. Nowadays, both have gone the way of the digital realm. I think they’ve always shared a really direct link to each other throughout history, and really have an equal importance. But both can stand on their own, too. They have their autonomy because you don’t need the visual representation or the promotion to make the music appealing to someone. But it enhances what’s already there in the same way that the music enhances the art.
Almost like the visual creating a new aesthetic for the music.
Yeah, sure. Sometimes the art compliments the music, sometimes it runs in contrast to the music.
Do you think your work is a translation of the music you represent?
I look at the work I do for bands and musicians as just as valid an ending point as a gallery. In the context of showing your work to the public, I look at it as being just as much my experience as the experience of whomever I’m working for. It’s something that I’m putting my message into, and I’m tacking onto something that’s already been made. But sometimes I think there is a collaborative relationship.
With The Master’s Bedroom…, Castlemania, Reverse Shark Attack or your poster work, one common motif I’ve noticed is the face. You’ve got any number of faces and masks, distorted with color, shape or assembled by collage of other objects that take on a quality bordering horrific and absurd. Are you trying to invoke that kind of disturbance in your audience?
I’m trying to bring to light the perversion of nostalgia I mentioned before, and dealing with the bridge of life between birth and death. That sounds really heady, but what I mean is, you formulate your identity via your past experiences. And a lot of times for me, growing up, it had to do with the things I experienced, the icons and relics of my past. So to bring those things into the present and use the imagery I do, is really trying to bring about the humor about the imminent demise of all of us. We’re all going to die, and it’s all directly linked to my first experiences with death, which were funerals and slasher films and horror movies as a kid. So it’s sort of the mad reality and the science fiction around death and the exploitation of that through different genres. Monsters and cartoons, monster cartoons, they were my first schooling on death, and that’s something I’ve always kept with me.
We talked about Hanna-Barbera being a huge influence on you, and that tradition of cartoons reimagined in the 90s on Nickelodeon, The What a Cartoon! Show, and Ren & Stimpy. Where do you fit that into your imagery?
With Hanna-Barbera, I was always drawn to the color palette that they used in their cartoons. Coming out of the psychedelic era, moving forward, they just had really wonderful background colors. The splashes and the looseness of it all. Seeing Hanna-Barbera compared to Warner Bros. or Disney, they were working with so much less. And they did a lot of repeats in their cartoons and they had to cut a lot of corners. At the same time, they infused a lot of silliness in the work that they were making, and didn’t seem to take themselves quite as seriously as the other major players at the time. There’s something really charming about that.
There’s an obvious psych quality to your work, and it seems like that lineage of cartoons, sci-fi, horror movies, really the underbelly of pop-culture is speaking through your art, too. But without revealing anything too incriminating, what other inspirations or experiences might account for that highly aestheticized psychedelia?
For me, the psychedelic experience isn’t just something you can replicate. There isn’t a template or a format. Much like the avant-garde, there aren’t textbooks or rules on it. You can only conjure up the psychedelic experience by having that experience. So for me, making work that engages people on more than one level is really important. Having hidden messages or subtle secrets in the work that I do, for me, defines and represents a psychedelia. And mixing the duality of humor and sadness, of charm and horror, having a multilayered experience is most representative of the psychedelic.
There’s a lot going in the Burger print, in particular. You situate a lot of subliminal texts among the images. What can you say about that? Are you trying to create a tension between the various scary faces and random “Fuck You”s floating around the print or what?
With so many of my prints, in using symbols and icons and phrases and logos and sayings, it’s an amalgamation of different aesthetic reference points in my life. Living in a really saturated visual world, you latch onto certain icons that have just as much meaning as others. So using a baseball mascot holds just as much weight as a peace sign for me, and it’s just as useful as a character in an alphabet or a word in a language. And what you’re doing there is writing out a code or a message, and hopefully people understand it.
There’s a lot of time spent in conjuring up iconography that holds a special place for you. You went to the Muppet Show Live recently, that’s pretty tight. Muppets, Labyrinth, or otherwise, is Jim Henson’s work something you still latch onto?
There are certain characters, conventions, cartoon characters, and drawings that represent an aesthetic peak of purity, because they move through time and can still tell it up. They’ve meant so much and so many different things, vastly different things, to different people. I think there’s an inherent dumbness, a celebration of dumbness, and silliness in that kind of work. Those characters really hold up over time. But I think there’s a multilayered sadness in those happier things, and that’s what they really draw from. Like looking at Kermit the Frog as the everyman who’s trying to empathize with the world, but is definitely locked into an existential crisis of being who he is.
In a violent relationship with a talking pig.
Yeah, and as much as the Muppets and any of those older characters were made to entertain and delight children, they also served as an example of what to expect as an adult: that sort of the mental wrangling that everyone goes through in life, and finding their purpose and place, fleshing out their identity and actualizing their future.
You’re doing a children’s book. Are you paying it forward?
I don’t think it’s leaving a legacy. It’s making work for a more critical audience. I don’t think I would be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for all the burners and acid cases that made artwork for kids, but imbued it with a larger and more profound meaning than just being an idiot. So I feel some sort of duty and responsibility to make work for a younger audience.
For Mushroom Necklace, you work with your friend Dustyn Peterman. At what point does it morph into a collaborative entity, something apart from your solo art?
Dustyn and I provide a competition for each other. Between he and I, it’s a conversation and at the same time, we’re telling jokes back and forth with each other, and we’re trying to one-up ourselves and pull out something surprising. We’re both competing for the same psychic real estate, working to build a similar identity for the work we make. We grew up together in Indiana, and went to middle school together. Actually, back in the day, when we were around twelve years old, we’d make drawings for people for like 50 cents. We’d do Grateful Dead bears and aliens, we’d do typography and characters and names. Having this design blog, for us, calling it Mushroom Necklace, is working back into our past when one of the coolest things to have, one of the coolest relics of that time, was a psychedelic mushroom necklace. And at that point in the 90s, there was a resurgence of jam bands and psychedelic culture. So it’s sort of a silly fad from our past that we’re referencing. And a lot of times, what we’re trying to do with our work is illuminate these ridiculous relics from our past and make those useful once again. The work that we do is really dumbed-down design.
“Dumbed-down” might be a bit demeaning, don’t you think? It’s still, like you said, a very multi-layered experience despite its toying with “low” culture.
I think, for us, we have a strong desire to keep it primitive. And looking back at our primitive times of being twelve or thirteen years old, and just seriously making facsimile of characters that were created by other artists, or just using very generic iconography, that’s something that’s just as important to us now as it was then. It’s sort of fighting the waves of progress and using all the trash that you already have, looking around you and wondering why you should add to that heap of trash when it’s way better to pull from it. There’s already a pre-established language through recognizable characters and certain design flourishes and typography. There’s a common familiarity with these images and characters that people are already predisposed to. I guess for us, it’s just about keeping it simple and keeping it dumb. And if there’s an intelligence in dumbness, then I guess that’s just a bonus and an added pleasure.