Detouring Into the 1990s w/ R.E.M.

April 28, 2019

Growing up, I have enjoyed various styles and genres of music, both classic and contemporary...but there are few musical artists I have taken the time to try portraits of past the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. Although the 1990s are now a ways in the distance and musical acts of the era now also get the "classic rock" tag,one of the things that strikes me about the 90s as a decade isn't just the nostalgia of the time and the fashions and trends that go along with it, but something else more distinctive. For me, being a teen in the 90s ( a very confusing and formative time period for most people) had a clear feel, an identity, and an atmosphere that the 2000s and 2010s haven't had. Maybe it was because, at the time, the internet was just beginning to arrive and still felt like an abstract idea, even if the future was pointing that way. Maybe it was the fact that cell phones hadn't become commonplace items for youth as well as adults to carry and use daily as essential tools for modern living. Perhaps it was that there was no social media, and no distraction in its absence. Without those diversions, it allowed people (even those in transitional phases of life) to be more present and aware of what was happening around them, and not in terms of the microcosm of the web or of posting constant status updates of their lives. As a result, the 90s, for me, was the last decade where I recognized and remember clearly distinct musical trends and movements in the culture because there was less distraction, and so the chronology of memory, culture, style, trends and current events seemed shaped into a sharper clarity.  The line that divided where the pre internet age left off, and the dawn of the internet age began in retrospect is very apparent, and discerning where movements and resurgences from grunge to alternative, to new punk and pop and the Indie scene all began to rise. For my latest project, I thought I would explore some territory I never have with my portraits, and tackle a popular band from the 1990s and one of my childhood favourites: American alternative rock band R.E.M.

 

** R.E.M.  Mixed Media (Sepia Version) 16x20 Inches

 **R.E.M. (Sepia Version)  framed

 

Consciously, I have long desired to begin integrating multiple portraits into a single image in order to come up with work that is more unique, complex, and varied, and so as I see it, a natural place to begin that pursuit would be by doing portraits of rock bands. Although R.E.M. was a band that got its beginning in the early 1980s, they had achieved great critical and commercial success even before the album Out of Time and it's single Losing My Religion exposed them to a wider audience. It was their varied and constant musical presence on MTV, Much Music, magazine covers Rolling Stone and Spin, and inclusion on movie and TV soundtracks during the 1990s, however, that put them on my radar.

 

Although grunge was a dominating musical force in the 90s, and bands like Nirvana, Peral Jam and Soundgarden were spearheading that movement, R.E.M. was especially distinct for me because they always seemed to exist on the periphery of that and still remained relevant. I remember Everybody Hurts being played at a a high school assembly for suicide prevention after a student in my school had taken her life. I remember hearing Shiny Happy People all over the radio on a family road trip to California. I remember Man On The Moon educating me on Andy Kaufman and his strange comedic theatricality while Automatic For The People got me deeper into acoustic music. I remember when grunge was moving into the mainstream with full force and R.E.M. answered in their own way with What's The Frequency, Kenneth? and Bang and Blame. I remember when it felt like glam rock was being  resurrected (although I couldn't define it until I later heard David Bowie) on the band's albums Monster and New Adventures in Hi Fi and songs like Crush With Eyeliner, The Wake Up Bomb and Bittersweet Me resonated with me in the angst and confusion of my teen years. Mostly, I remember taking comfort in the sound of Michael Stipe's vocals with bassist Mike Mills backing him up, Bill Berry laying down the most tasteful and thoughtful drum fills and backbeats, and the jangle and feedback of Peter Buck's guitar playing  providing the music with both a no frills classic feel and yet a fresh, modern edge. Their music made me feel joy, feel reflective, feel nostalgic, and occasionally even scratch my head...but most of all, it remained honest and that's what made it special. The idea of the garage band wasn't a new one, but R.E.M. always seemed like a perfect example of it. They served as a keen reminder of the importance of a balanced band dynamic, and the importance of all band members in composing and playing good music. Some might argue that they lost their way with Bill Berry's departure by 1998, and perhaps in a way they did, but I loved them right through to their end in 2012.

 

** R.E.M.  (Grayscale Version)  Mixed Media  16x20 Inches

 ** R.E.M.  (Grayscale Version) framed

 

I haven't done many full band portraits over the years, but this project really made me fall in love with the process. It encouraged me to shift into using an alternate horizontal format for more of my work, provided and opportunity to continue exploring collaging various references and portraits together, and also experiment by testing out multiple colour approaches and versions within the same design. Grouping such different faces and characters into a collective piece, really lends itself to creating art with even more depth and personality, and this R.E.M. project has signalled a new approach for me with future images and designs. To Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe: thank you for the inspiration, the beautiful music, and the irreplaceable memories.

 

-G

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