A new exhibition in Holland celebrates the artwork of Stanley Donwood. Often described as the unofficial sixth member of Radiohead, he works closely with Thom Yorke on the band’s sleeves and has been credited with providing a visual outlet for Radiohead’s political instincts.
Donwood has designed the cover art on everything from the band’s 1994 EP ‘My Iron Lung’ up to ‘In Rainbows’ in 2007.
Stanley Donwood met Thom Yorke while they were both at studying art at Exeter University. The artist jokes about his first impressions of Yorke, stating that he seemed “mouthy, pissed off, someone I could work with”.
The artwork to ‘OK Computer’ features a combination of computer-generated images by Thom Yorke and hand-drawn artwork by Donwood. Yorke explains it thus: “Someone’s being sold something they don’t really want, and someone’s being friendly because they’re trying to sell something. That’s what it means to me. All the artwork… it was all the things that I hadn’t said in the songs.”
Unusually for a sleeve designer, Donwood is present during the recording of each Radiohead album. “I hang around throughout the recording,” he told The Independent in 2009. “I just try to absorb what’s going on. I usually get it hugely wrong to start with and then adjust what I’m doing.”
Donwood continued: “I hear what they’re doing and they see what I’m doing and the two collide in some sort of incident. It’s great working with other artists. I don’t understand music, but I love the way that it can suggest things to you.”
The current exhibition, titled ‘Red Maze’, draws on Downwood’s fascination with the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. Visitors to the exhibition will have to follow a red trail starting outside the museum to find their way to the heart of the exhibition, via a maze of subterranean rooms.
The exhibition will also draw on Donwood’s short stories, audio and visual work. The artist hopes it will have a stream of consciousness quality, reflecting the human mind’s ability to jump from one topic to the next without any rationality.
Donwood, however, is wary of people being over-analytical. “I kind of dislike it when people over-analyse art or writing,” he says. “It’s OK when they do it at college or whatever, but it gets a bit annoying when you overhear people talking shite in galleries.”
Away from artwork, Donwood has had some of his short stories published. His first was called ‘Slowly Downward’, and the first 200 copies were published on hemp paper by a man he met in the pub.
Downwood is a private, almost hermitic, individual. He works from a printing studio located in a derelict dancehall in Somerset (“a bit like the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining'”), and rarely gives interviews.
So reclusive is Donwood that some have speculated that he is in fact Yorke working under another pseudonym. More likely, though, is the theory that Donwood is the moniker of Dan Rickwood, a fellow Exeter alumnus and old friend of Yorke’s who began working with the band when he was on the dole after graduating.
‘Fleet’ – an intricate, medieval-style linocut that shows Fleet Street submerged beneath the waves of a flood and burning to the heavens. A stark warning to the media, it was printed on the last remaining printing press on the Street, dating from 1844.
‘Baghdad Better’, another painting from the same batch of artwork as ‘Hail To The Thief’.
The cover of Thom Yorke’s solo album ‘The Eraser’, a linocut by Stanley Donwood, depicts a figure in black hat and trenchcoat standing in imitation of King Canute, trying and failing to command the ocean. The final version also featured London landmarks. The images were inspired by a large flood both Donwood and Yorke witnessed in Cornwall in 2004.
For ‘In Rainbows’, Donwood experimented with a photographic etching technique, putting prints into acid baths with various results, explaining: “It’s a sensual record and I wanted to do something more organic. It’s very colourful – I’ve finally embraced colour! It’s a rainbow, but it is very toxic; it’s more like the sort of one you’d see in a puddle.”