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.
Look 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.
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.