God Told Me to Skin You Alive
by Rebecca Gwyn Wilson
With a stack of old periodicals, a sharp blade, and an unlimited supply of glue, one man has managed to refine the art of the collage into … well, a bona fide art form. Rebecca Gwyn Wilson finds out why.
The name Winston Smith first entered pop culture consciousness in George Orwell’s ominous novel 1984 as the moniker of a character futilely attempting to escape Big Brother’s reach.
Nowadays his real-life counterpart has made a name for himself as a counterculture montage artist, with work appearing on everything from Dead Kennedys and Green Day album covers to Playboy to his two recent books Act Like Nothing’s Wrong and Artcrime (both published by Last Gasp). Armed with an Uhu glue stick and an Olfa stainless steel razor blade, Smith brazenly composes his colorful works out of mid-twentieth century Americana imagery dissected from vintage magazines. The result is an inverse portrayal of romanticized American traditions such as Christianity, war, and family life.
In his work, Smith is carrying on a tradition of political protest through collage/montage art begun by early 20th century artists like John Heartfield, who risked his life creating protest art against the Nazis. Ironically, Smith did not see Heartfield’s work until 1984. In reference to the artist, Smith enthuses, “I love his work. He was different because he was actually taking his life in his hands. In America if you do agit-prop work or protest art or if you make cartoons or collages that point out the ironic incongruity of the ruling class, government will blow it off. The cops really aren’t going to come to your door and drag you away like they were going to do to Heartfield.” Although Smith’s work is politically and socially conscientious, it is not burdened with the weight of political correctness. Instead, Smith gleefully perverts images of classic whitebread Americana into a twisted yet more realistic view. “I was there in 1955 and it wasn’t nice and clean if you were black or Latino or a woman,” he explains. “For anyone who was not a white male, it wasn’t so good.”
Raised in Oklahoma by churchgoing parents, the artist learned early on about the plight of the working class from his father, a railroad worker and union man. From his mother, a pretty housewife and artist resembling a woman out of a 1940s Coca-cola ad, he learned about art. In particular, Smith recalls having seen collages by Max Ernst in one of his mother’s art books as a child.
Smith’s confrontational tendencies surfaced early on, and school didn’t help mold the budding provocateur’s attitude into a more positive one. In class he was often branded a communist for questioning simple matters such as why it was necessary to do homework when the world was going to end because of the Cuban missile crisis. Regarding his supposed pink leanings, the artist explains, “I watched Groucho Marx, but I never read Karl Marx. I’m ideologically ignorant; I guess I come by whatever attitudes I have towards social progress from inspanidual experience, and I don’t think I could back up any of it in an intellectual way.” By age 17 in 1969, he finally had enough of life in middle America and left ot attend school in Florence, Italy at the Academy of Fine Arts. “I thought anything that would get me out of Oklahoma would be a good me,” he recalls.
At art school, Smith learned little more than that he was colorblind (certain yellows and greens look the same to him although he can tell blue and red apart), but he recalls his life truly blossoming while in Italy. He loved the wine, women, and spirit of the Italian people, and while there, managed to catch a glimpse of a UFO above Piazza of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Inflation and police beatings of Italian protesters sent him back to the States in 1976.
Upon his return to America, Smith recalls feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle. “When I left America in the late ’60s there was rioting in the streets and radical changes; everyone kept thinking, well, it’ll get better and better and better until everything gets freer and more open. Instead, after Nixon got re-elected, it got worse and worse until it all caved in and became more and more repressive. I hadn’t been here to watch the changes happen gradually. It was like night and day, and most of the people I knew to be pretty progressive had just given up their ideals mainly because it was too hard to pay the rent.”
Smith’s time abroad was the key to his ability to appreciate his homeland objectively. “I was outside the fishbowl,” he explains. It was exactly this culture shock that motivated his montage art. Smith explains that although he had done collages earlier in life, “It became an obsession with me when I contrasted what I had left to what I’d come back to and how things were represented in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and how things became in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
After moving to San Francisco, Smith caught the eye of the underground with fliers he made listing fictitious nightclubs and bands (the Dipshits, PTA, Anonymous Technicians) that he hung all over town. The artist also designed fliers for early punk bands at the same time such as the Fried Abortions. Around 1979 Smith met Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra through a mutual friend and ended up designing the ubiquitous DK logo and numerous album covers and t-shirts for the band.
One of his most famous designs is Christ hanging from a dollar-bill-encrusted cross, which graced the cover of In God We Trust, Inc. In England, cops raided record stores that carried the album. At home, evangelist Pat Robertson declared it sacrilege. Smith found this interpretation of his work ironic, since his intention was to criticize the people making money off Christ rather than the figure himself. Smith says of the piece, “It was just an obvious idea, although a lot of people were shocked by it because they attach a lot of emotional weight to imagery. That’s what people in our society do: pay attention to imagery more than content.” Smith had shown the image to Biafra at an early meeting and the singer was inspired to conceive a record to match the power of the image.
In reference to his early work, Smith explains, “I try to point out the glaring incongruities of our system — be they political, social, economic, or personal. Straightniks sometimes criticize my work, calling it unpatriotic because I criticize the government. On the contrary — people who criticize their government are exceptionally patriotic. When you do that, it’s because you want it to live up to its principles and ideals. That goes for local government as well as the national government. If you care about it , you’ll want it to work right.”
Often, the artist’s montages inspire reactions in stark contrast to his original intentions. Force Fed War, for example, depicts a mother nursing her baby with a missile bearing the number 666 – an ominous numeral already in place when Smith cut it out. The piece was originally created to satirize President Reagan’s transfer of money from school lunch programs to the Pentagon war machine. When the artist tried to have t-shirts bearing the image made, however, the printer refused, admonishing Smith for advocating “the mistreatment of infants.”
This type of misinterpetation is something that smith has grown accustomed to over time, as viewers of his work often devise myriad interpretations of his art, misguided as they may be. “I don’t generally do this work to please others, or to try and second-guess what someone else might want to see,” he explains. “I just do it for myself. To me they’re like dreams. I make them first and then spend hours, sometimes years, trying to interpret them.”
As his style evolves, Smith has come to describe his present work as straight “montage” rather than the looser collage style of his early punk pieces, “What I do is better described this way when you fit these things together and make them fit proportionally.”
Other projects in recent years have included editorial illustrations for SPIN magazine, and most famously, a cover for the Green Day album Insomniac, depicting a vision of “flames, horror, and normalcy” orginally titled God Told Me to Skin You Alive.
In addition, the artist has begun making limited edition Iris prints (the computerized equivalent of a lithograph or serigraph) on paper and canvas at rocker Graham Nash’s personal company, Nash Editions.
But make no mistake, Smith’s current career path is not a strictly commercial one. The artist continues to create political work; and one of his biggest current political gripes concerns San Francisco, where Mayor Willie Brown and supervisor Barbara Kaufman have threatened to outlaw his brand of public display by attempting to ban flier-hanging unless one registers at City Hall and pays a $50 fee. “It’s an attempt to stifle the voice of the people,” Smith decries. “They want to obliterate artistic expression in a public environment.”
Smith’s most recent political work is an album cover for the release Contra Revolution Ave by Mexican punk band Tijuana No!, who, among other things, sing openly about their support of the revolutionary Zapatista movement in Mexico. For the piece, Smith juxtaposed stereotypical images of Mexico and its people against violent images of “what’s really happening”. As one of his most potentially controversial images, Smith approaches the piece with typical aplomb. “The only images available in old magazines,” he adds with a laugh, “are stereotypes.”