Addicted to Noise

Armed with old mag­a­zines, an X-acto knife and glue, the man behind the Dead Kennedys’ and Green Day’s most (in)famous album jack­ets fights to make you think.

At a glance, it seems harm­less enough. Pleas­ant, even. A smil­ing father gazes lov­ingly up at his happy, well-coifed wife; their son leaps joy­ously in the back­ground. At a glance, “Nuclear Fam­ily”, part of the vast body of work by the in turns respected and reviled mon­tage artist and punk rock illus­tra­tor Win­ston Smith, is a peace­ful peek at the per­fect Amer­i­can Family.

Green Day Insomniac album cover by Winston Smith, 1995Look more closely, how­ever, and this bucolic scene turns grue­some: Dad’s got two ears — on the same side of his head. Mom’s jaw is hor­ri­bly dis­torted (way beyond talk-show host pro­por­tions), an appalling fea­ture matched — if not sur­passed — by her three baby-blue irises. And the boy’s seven-fingered hand no longer seems glee­fully out­stretched, nor does his double-wide mouth look much like a smile any­more. “Nuclear Fam­ily” sud­denly car­ries a whole new message.

Such is the nature of Smith’s col­lages. He takes beloved and famil­iar Amer­i­can images–from Santa Claus to Ronald Rea­gan to Nor­man Rockwell’s illustrations–and, with the help of an X-acto knife and some glue, strips them of their mytho­log­i­cal aura and replaces it with a hefty dose of real­ity. All the bet­ter to see them more clearly.

A lot of my images are from pub­li­ca­tions from the ‘50s and ‘60s. They’ve got all these fan­tas­tic illus­tra­tions that depict a fan­tasy world,” Smith explains, his gen­tle voice becom­ing slightly more agi­tated. “There was some silly remark [Newt] Gin­grich made about look­ing at mag­a­zines from the ‘50s, and how that was the Amer­ica we want…Beaver Cleaver, Ozzie and Har­riet, that’s what we want to live up to. No men­tion of the racism, the sex­ism of the era. We’re sup­posed to keep up with the Jone­ses, but the Jone­ses never existed.”

Smith, who two decades ago took on the name of the pro­tag­o­nist from George Orwell’s 1984, finds it ridicu­lous that we should model our­selves after an era that thrived on inequal­ity, manip­u­la­tion and denial. In order to get that point across, he uses some pretty potent imagery, har­vested from post-war mag­a­zines and cut-and-pasted into some­thing alto­gether dif­fer­ent. Dozens of his works address­ing this divi­sion have been gath­ered in his 1993 book, appro­pri­ately titled Act Like Nothing’s Wrong.

Dead Kennedys' In God We Trust, Inc., album cover by Winston Smith, 1981

You’ll also find the pieces for which he is prob­a­bly best known: the Dead Kennedys’ logo and “Idol”, a cru­ci­fix of dol­lar bills, which was used for DK’s In God We Trust, Inc.. “Idol”, much to Smith’s (and, one would assume, Jello Biafra’s) plea­sure, gave Pat Robert­son con­nip­tions. Shops dis­play­ing his work, and DK’s album, were shut down in England.

Smith is again design­ing the album jacket for a pop­u­lar punk band — this time for Green Day’s lat­est, Insom­niac (see image at the top of this page). And again, his work is strad­dling the line between what is and isn’t accept­able for the main­stream. An ani­mated ver­sion of the cover for Green Day’s “Stuck With Me” had to be altered before it aired on MTV. A gun was removed and replaced with a cir­cu­lar chain­saw. The change of weaponry was oddly appro­pri­ate, though. The orig­i­nal work, from which he designed the album cover, was enti­tled “God Told Me to Skin You Alive.”

Neg­a­tive responses like these don’t bother Smith. In fact, he’s flat­tered by them. “It feels just as good as if they’re wildly enthu­si­as­tic about it,” he says. “If they rabidly don’t like it, then that’s sincere…my pieces are like Rohr­shach inkblots. Music and art are cat­a­lysts for emo­tions, so even if they react unfa­vor­ably, I’m pleased.”

Smith’s art is the visual coun­ter­part to punk rock. It’s crowded and chaotic and seeks to explode the myths of the Amer­i­can Dream. On the sur­face, they may seem harm­less. Pleas­ant even. But they aren’t, and that’s the dan­ger Win­ston Smith wants to warn you about. And he does so, in ways some­times sub­tle, some­times bla­tant, but always–always—powerful.

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 Next Mag­a­zine Illus­tra­tion — Red Her­ring (July, 2000)»>

Spin Magazine illustration by Winston Smith, November 1995

Win­ston Smith cre­ated an illus­tra­tion for the arti­cle Apoc­a­lypse How? — Every­body talks about the end of the world, but we’ve actu­ally asked the big ques­tion: What will it be like? in the Novem­ber 1995 issue of Spin Mag­a­zine.

With quotes from Moby, JG Bal­lard, Matt Groen­ing, and Jaron Lanier.

Avail­able as an Iris print
Signed & num­bered
Edi­tion of 50
34/75″ x 29″


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Green Day — Insomniac Album Cover

On October 10, 1995, in Discography, by admin

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Green Day Insomniac album cover by Winston Smith, 1995

Win­ston Smith designed the album cover to Insom­niac, the fourth stu­dio album by the Amer­i­can punk rock band Green Day, released on Octo­ber 10, 1995, through Reprise Records. This album reached num­ber two in the United States and went double-platinum.

The col­lage on the album cover was cre­ated by Win­ston Smith and is called God Told Me to Skin You Alive, a ref­er­ence to Dead Kennedys first album, “Fresh Fruit for Rot­ting Veg­eta­bles”.  Inter­est­ingly enough, the cover art con­tains an image (the den­tist) that was orig­i­nally used in a col­lage fea­tured in the insert book­let art of Dead Kennedys’ album Plas­tic Surgery Dis­as­ters.  There are also three skulls on the entire album cover– one for each mem­ber of Green Day. One of the skulls requires you to view the piece at an angle. The hid­den skull is taken from Hans Holbein’s 1533 paint­ing The Ambassadors.

Insom­niac was reis­sued on vinyl on May 12, 2009.


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