Monolith 1: An Interview with Steve Quenell

“I'm not exactly sure when it happened but at some point in the 60's the hippy culture embraced the occult.”

Steve Quenell is a collage artist based in Seattle who has cultivated a distinctive visual style that combines heavy psychedelia, occult motifs and anthropological imagery. He has designed distinctive posters for Six Organs of Admittance, Black Mountain and The Black Angels and has also provided stunning album art for The Warlocks, amongst others. Aside from his poster work, Quenell continues to produce personal works that re-cast the ambience of the late-1960s into strange, hypnogogic landscapes.

Riley: Let’s talk about the word ‘psychedelic’. I read an interview with you in the Seattle Weekly that used the term in relation to your art. Elsewhere you’ve described your work as  “psychedelic collages”. What do you take that word to mean? Are you linking your work to the experience of altered states of consciousness and ‘mind-manifesting' experiences, or are you using it in a more panoramic sense to refer to a particularly resonant aspect of 1960s culture?

Quenell: In the 60's 'psychedelic’ was used to describe music, art, films, etc., during a time when certain artists began to link their experiences of altered states of consciousness directly to what they were creating. I use the term more in homage to the spirit of that time. I draw a lot of inspiration from the 60's and early 70's. But I also feel the word ‘psychedelic’ (as it relates to art) is a term that can be used when the fantastic meets the weird. Bosch, the Symbolists, the Surrealists, even sci-fi paperback artists (like Richard Powers) were psychedelic. I know that some people feel the word should only be used to describe black-light head-shop posters but I think it's much bigger than that.

Riley: With that in mind, are there any specific artists who you see as having a significant influence upon you work?

Quenell: I've been making this type of art for almost 10 years now and my influences have fluctuated but I always have my go-to guys...many of the 60's San Francisco poster makers (especially David Singer), Nik Douglas, James Koehinline, Harry Smith, and Polish film posters from the 60's. With the advent of the internet there's a constant stream of new and inspiring artists. I started a Tumblr account just to keep track of them all.

What really influences me is the feel of the late 60's and early 70's, from the vibrant print ads and the art-house films (especially the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky) to the widespread appropriation of occult imagery and ideas. These are the touchstones of my aesthetic.

Riley: I've mainly encountered your work via album covers. Do you work in collaboration with musicians to develop an image or do they request existing images?

Quenell: I've actually done both. For Heavy Deavy Skull Lover I already had several pieces done when a friend of mine heard through the internet that The Warlocks were looking for art for their new album. She thought my work would be perfect, gave me their email address, and they bought the pieces. Alternately, when I work with Ben Chasny (of Six Organs of Admittance) he has an idea ahead of time and we work together to come as close as I can to the vision he has for his cover.

Riley: I love that Warlocks cover. It does indeed seem perfect for the band and the tone of that album: intensity, animal ferocity but also a kind of beauty... Could you talk about this image in more detail? What’s being suggested through the juxtaposition of the animal mouths and the naked torso? When I look at it, the image seems to be suggestive of transformation, as if we are seeing a shamanic transmutation from human to animal at mid-point. Also, because there's a photographic quality to the image it seems as if it’s a still from a bizarre, long lost late-60s movie. Were these ideas that you were going for at all?

Quenell: Oh, thanks so much. The cover of Heavy Deavy is actually a cropped version of my collage Weird Scene at Dusk. Having just finished a very painstaking, meticulous piece, I decided I just wanted to construct a collage as spontaneously and off the cuff as I could. With this in mind I went through a stack of old magazine cuttings and found a burlesque body, wild dogs fighting, and a goat head. Everything fell into place and the piece made itself. The original art actually shows the full body with the goat head and the dogs fighting at her feet. Looking at the finished piece, it had a similar feel to the Hammer film posters of the 60's (especially the Dennis Wheatley series).

It, like most of my collages, has that balance of weird and beautiful that I strive for. I thought the vibrant colors of the stripper and her necklace were really beautiful. These juxtaposed with the ferocity of the dogs at her feet and the cropped goat head created a perfect composition. I always try to get that symbiotic relationship in every piece I construct.

Aesthetic is the key--an aesthetic that at its very essence is beautiful and wicked. I find aesthetic is more important to me than any overt message I might try to convey. I want my art to be open to interpretation. I really like your take on this one.

Riley: The edition of the Warlocks album I have also has another image on the inlay which your website identifies as Coronation of the Plague King. What’s the story behind this one?

Quenell: I had these patterns that I drew with Prisma pen and pencil lying around my apartment and I decided to cut them up. I noticed a shape forming from what I had cut out so I placed it on top of a bit of watercolor that I had done. Next, I added the hands then some flower patterns and then the skull. To this day I still love that piece. Its completion surprised me and forever altered the way I did my art because it was the first time I had ever used illustration, water colour, and collage all in one piece. Up to that point I was doing some illustration and a few simple collages but this was something entirely new for me.

Many of the artists I admire have this amazing balance of beauty and wickedness. In amongst them there are a select few that take it to yet another level that makes me question what I'm seeing. That combination of factors is a huge inspiration. For me, it doesn't get any better than beautiful, bizarre art that makes me do a double take. Francis Bacon, Moebius, AJ Fosik, Max Ernst, Bob Pepper, and even poster duo Seripop are a few of the artists that exemplify this.

Riley: It’s interesting hearing you talk about one of your own pieces surprising you once completed. It seems as though you were in some kind of trance. Is that how you see your creative process? Is it a kind of meditative exercise?

Quenell: I wasn't in a trance but I was definitely in a zone. When constructing a collage I sometimes have a basic idea in mind as I search through old magazines but sometimes I'll have no preconceived notions at all and I'll just rifle through my archives, putting pieces aside that look good. Then I'll start to take other aspects under consideration. Is it for a band or a show poster? What are the aesthetics of the band?  With these things in mind, the pieces just emerge. I have done rough sketches beforehand but almost every time the end product looks nothing like the initial sketch.

Riley: Why do you find that collage is a particularly effective medium for you? Is there an 'archival' or more ‘de-contextualising’ interest at work in your use of copies of National Geographic?

Quenell: I think I was drawn to collage because I found that I couldn't pay homage to the art I loved any other way. I don't like to paint and I feel confined by illustration. Nothing looks more of that time than the actual photographs from the 60's and 70's.
I don't consciously de-contextualize any image. The beauty of collage is that you can take just part of an image and get something completely different than if you used it in its entirety. That said I find that I am drawn to holy or ceremonial imagery because these images are often both beautiful and sacred.

Riley: Your work could be described as quite ‘dark’. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s unpleasant but the images seem to veer towards skulls, sinister creatures and foreboding landscapes. To return to the idea of the ‘psychedelic’, do you see this material as different from ‘traditional’ psychedelic images, the kind that that highlight peace, transcendence, pastoral imagery etc.?

Quenell: The darkness is the weird or eerie visuals that I'm drawn to. As far as what is traditionally psychedelic, I guess I'd refer back to how I define that term. To me those images are the building blocks of my psych compositions which I suppose aren't traditionally psychedelic but then again, what is?

Riley: In the Seattle interview you mentioned something that I found particularly interesting, the fact that when you were growing up, ‘a lot of the hippies were getting into the occult’. Could you expand on this a bit? I see a lot of occult imagery in your work, obviously with your Tarot images, but there's also your piece The Temptation of Kenneth Anger. Do you think there was a general shift in the late sixties towards an interest in the occult? If so, why do you think this occurred?

Quenell: I'm not exactly sure when it happened but at some point in the 60's the hippy culture embraced the occult. Maybe it was a hearkening back to pagan ideals; maybe it was an acceptance of all things weird, who knows. So by the time I was a kid growing up in the 70's the residual effects of this paranormal acceptance was everywhere--and (as someone who was drawn to the weird even at an early age) I loved it. Book stores had an occult section, department stores started carrying Ouija boards, etc. My own aunt bought an encyclopedia of the supernatural. So I still have an interest in the imagery of the occult (probably because many of the images make me question what I'm seeing) but I don't subscribe to it--I find it all kind of silly. That said, nothing tops a collage off better than a mandrake root or a hand of glory.

Riley: Kenneth Anger said that for him the process of making films was like casting a spell. Would you say that making a collage has similar implications for you? Jodorowsky also springs to mind here. Is he an artist you admire?

Quenell: Jodorowsky is one of my biggest influences but only in terms of composition and imagery. He has a very methodical, masterly eye for the symbolism he incorporates into his films (so did Anger). Personally, the final aesthetic of a piece is more important to me than any contextual symbolism.

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