Sonny Kay is a late 20th century and new millennial musical and artistic Renaissance man. He’s founded and run everything from bands to distros to labels and is currently taking a hiatus from his own musical projects to focus on his multi-textured digital collage pieces, many of which color the covers of your favorite band’s latest albums, but which also stand, in their own right, as amazing examples of contemporary, often somewhat psychedelic collage art. Effluvia Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Sonny, straddle the digital divide, and talk music, art and politics. Read on for Sonny Kay’s insights into art, information on his trajectory from post-punk innovator to fine artist and thoughts on the role of the artist in our post-industrial milieu.
Effluvia: Talk a little about your formal training in the arts as well as the more “practical” experience that you must have accumulated playing in bands, creating album art and participating in running the label you founded, GSL?
Sonny Kay: I studied printmaking at CU, though “studied” is a little bit of an overstatement. I was present, I did what they required of me, and that was about it. At the time, really establishing myself as a visual artist or developing my “thing” was not even remotely on my radar. I was aimless in terms of visual art, beyond the aesthetic purposes of the bands I was in. I had nothing to say or share that I couldn’t utilize song lyrics or an album sleeve design for. I appreciated design, but contemplating art and creating art were both something of a chore to me. I developed as a designer slowly, over the course of the 14 years running GSL (we closed the doors in 2007). It wasn’t until the label was done that I felt mentally prepared for the responsibility of “artist” and set about exploring exactly what that meant.
E: Did your “formal training” in printmaking in college inform your later work as you transitioned from doing music-centric art to developing as an artist with a more finely articulated aesthetic?
SK: My training in college familiarized me with the idea of embracing the process. In other words, none of what I was focusing on was very immediate. The various printmaking processes are a little tedious and time-consuming and that helped re-calibrate my sense of patience (or impatience). But outside of the purely mechanical knowledge required to get a lithographic print onto a sheet of paper for example, we were left to our own devices, conceptually-speaking. My development as an artist, when that eventually began taking place in what I consider a serious way, was galvanized by the possibilities inherent to digital formats. In that sense, my nuts-and-bolts printmaking knowledge was almost useless.
E: Much of your work has been featured on album covers and other music-related objects, how did music and GSL factor into your development as an artist?
SK: I guess that being into punk and hardcore, and DIY culture in general, I was far more focused on music than I was on art. My whole life revolved around music – playing in bands, booking shows, touring, and eventually putting out records. That was all I was interested in, for years. Eventually, I started a distribution company to get GSL stuff into stores more consistently, which forced me to focus on the business end of things a little more seriously. But from about 1995 until 2007, nearly all the art or design stuff I created was in service of either my own bands, or for GSL. My peers were other bands and labels, the “galleries” I visited were actually record stores, and when I did conceive of something visual I felt compelled to create, it was always in a square. I never imagined my work hanging on a gallery or museum wall, but I constantly fantasized about seeing it in LP racks.
E: Are you still active in music since the closure of GSL, if so, in what capacity?
SK: Yes, I am still involved in music in the sense that 90% of the art I create is coupled with music in the form of album covers, t-shirt designs, etc. I am the art director for Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s label, formerly the in-house art dept. for Sargent House (LA-based record label), and I’m routinely commissioned by bands (more than any other type of client) . I haven’t played in a band since 2008, the short-lived OPTIONAL BODY (who never played a show but actually have a 7″ finally coming out next month https://soundcloud.com/25diamonds/01-surviving-avalanches). My old band THE VSS just reissued our album on Sargent House. There was talk of some reunion shows, but it’s actually looking kind of doubtful now. Unfortunately. I’m not really itching to play music anymore, but I’ll never say never.
E: How did the transition from music-based visual art projects (e.g. GSL-related) to taking yourself more seriously as a visual artist, with more freedom to create, come about?
SK: Well, in so many ways, it was just an extension of the sort of “attitude” I’d been cultivating with my various bands, and with GSL, for the fifteen years leading up to that transition taking place. Thankfully, and crucially, I had the support of creative people close to me (ie. bands) whose work I respect, so I kind of had a leg-up in that I didn’t feel like I was out on a limb or anything like that. Maybe I’d even developed a small community of people (I hesitate to call it an audience) who were familiar with me already from one thing or another, who were somehow “primed” to accept me as a visual artist. The initial reaction to work I started doing at that point was very encouraging, so that kind of put the wind in my sails.
E: As you begin to develop a style and a refined methodology as a visual artist, and devote more attention to practice, do you find yourself moving away from music-inspired imagery and toward an aesthetic that feels closer to what you want to be outputting as a visual artist, regardless if it shows up on an album cover?
SK: Sometimes, yes. Naturally, I want to develop my abilities, and I enjoy that challenge. On the other hand, I still very much embrace the idea of creating visuals to accompany a non-visual experience, like music. I guess that might be because I was so thrilled by album art myself when I was young, I still romanticize that idea. Now that I’ve had the experience of seeing my work hang in a gallery, or on someone’s living room wall, I can say without doubt that the satisfaction for me is with the image itself resonating with someone, connecting with a viewer. The LP jacket or CD booklet is incidental. Having said that, I think the combination of a great album with a great album package creates a temporal experience unlike any other.
E: Here’s the inevitable “process question.” What various methodologies do you use to execute your art? Do you tend to work predominantly digitally, or do you prefer hand-crafted/painted or printed imagery… or is it more of an amalgamation?
SK: Most of the art I create, at least that which people might be familiar with, is digital. I collect photographs and collage them together, but I employ all sorts of digital methods to achieve different kinds of results. Occasionally, I do ink washes on watercolor paper, then scan those and layer them in as backgrounds or that kind of thing. Lately I’ve begun drawing with pencil again, something I haven’t done with any regularity since I was in school (so a long-ass time ago). I’m not sure what’s going to happen with it, but it’s good exercise and provides a kind of satisfaction that the digital work just doesn’t. It’s sort of the artistic equivalent of going for a long hike.
E: Where do the majority of your source your images from initially? I’ve read that some are the result of scanned thrift store books? Is all media fair game when it comes to visual sampling and digital collage? Do you ever hand-paint or draw your own elements and situate them amidst the other elements from your image archive?
SK: Almost entirely from the web. Like any good magician, I won’t reveal my tricks, but a little common sense and creativity with your search criteria goes a long, long way. People just assume web images are tiny and pixelated, and for the most part, they are. Nothing worth anything comes quickly, there’s an enormous amount of time invested in searching for source material. And yes, I scan old books and things occasionally, but those are normally to achieve a certain kind of texture since printed images are generally half-toned and poorer quality than digital photos. As for what’s “fair game” or not, well, that will be for the judge to decide. I change the images and their context greatly. I think there’s a lot of historical precedent for the spirit of my work, and the technique, in all sorts of mediums. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” to John Heartfield to sampling and everything in between. As for hand-made elements, I don’t use many aside from the india ink washes I mentioned, but that could always change.
E: Do you separate “fine art” from “commercial art” or is it all just about executing a vision?
SK: Exactly, executing a vision is a good way to put it. I don’t really classify my work as one or the other. If someone perceives something as commercial, I suppose that might result in me getting paid for it somehow, which I very much support. But what I do is what I do, regardless of whether there’s a client or not.
E: You are well-known for the vibrant digital collages discussed above, work that has often functioned as album cover art in the past, but that stands just as well on its own visual strength and that serve as arresting visual objects in their own right. More and more these days we are seeing artists’ work displayed in “digital galleries.” Additionally, I’ve seen some interesting objects that you’ve turned out lately (e.g. throw pillows) that might seem surprising even to those familiar with your work, especially given its occasional counter-cultural cues or, for lack of a more concise description, an aesthetic that disrupts or challenges some of our society’s economic values and commercial norms. Can you discuss these more commercial objects and place them with respect to your overall artistic output? Where can peoples find quality prints of your work available for sale? Are archival prints available on the web?
SK: You mention the throw pillows. Those aren’t something I take very seriously and, honestly, I’ve never even seen one in person. I use that site (society6.com) because it allows people to pick and choose what product they want to have my imagery printed on. It’s very convenient, costs me nothing out of pocket, and the accounting is very straightforward and simple. The throw pillows are just the newest item they’ve come up with. I thought it was kind of funny seeing my images on their mockup, but it’s not a product I necessarily endorse – it’s just something fun and kind of ironic (to me, anyway). Overall, I sell very little “merch”, although the society6 sales are certainly picking up. I also have some shirts and things (such as the iPhone cases) available from hellomerch.com.
I did some giclée print editions a couple of years back, some of which are still available online from Hello Merch, who also sell a few t-shirts for me and some other odds and ends. Last year I began putting my work on Society6 which seems to be more useful for younger people and has all sorts of options since they don’t print editions, but rather one piece at a time. They do archival prints on paper, t-shirts, tote bags, and like you mentioned, throw pillows!
E: Is there anything more that you would like to say about art challenging cultural mores and societal norms, especially given your roots as a hardcore/punk/DIY participant? How do you feel visual art (or sonic art for that matter) should function in a post-industrial, consumer capitalism-driven culture where visual objects (especially higher-end gallery art) often seem to be valued more for their financial status, or ability to appreciate as investments, rather than their aesthetic, information content and the dialogue that they help create?
SK: Well, I think art is as useful a tool as anything when it comes to influencing peoples’ thought processes and attitudes. On a mass scale, it probably isn’t really competition for corporate media and television, but on an individual basis, I think it’s quite powerful. The thing about art is that it’s different things to different people. It can serve one function for one person, and an entirely different one for someone else. People spending thousands of dollars to collect work in order to turn a profit aren’t juicing the same kind of purpose from it as, say, someone who may print out a jpeg of the same work and pin it to their cubicle. I don’t know which of those is right or wrong, if that even applies, but I do know I respect the sentiment in the latter far more. In recent years, I’ve begun to understand that, in a sense, all art is magick (with a K). The simple act of creating something and putting it out into the world creates an energy that is nobody’s property and that carries with it the ability to affect human thought, and ultimately, to affect the holographic consensus reality we each contribute to. If anything, I think art (especially in this country) should be valued for its inherent worth, rather than systematically disregarded and marginalized.
E: What do you think the proper role of the “artist” is? How does this role relate to your personal artistic process and aesthetic agenda? Your pieces, while often somewhat abstract (in the sense that repetition and a sort of psychedelic quality – that comes out in their attention to color, placement and geometry – pervade and infuse the images), are also quite representational (simply by virtue of being collages), occasionally including explicit features (e.g. a soldier) that serve as pointers to the culture at large and remind the viewer of political or social context. What feels most urgent for you to communicate with your audience? As the creator of your work, are there specific narratives being told, or is your dialogue with the viewer more loosely fabricated, allowing for them to bring more of their own ideas and stories to the interpretation of the pieces? I suppose what I am really asking about here is narrative distance…
SK: I think the role of the artist – beyond the innate, simple act of self-expression – is to seed ideas in the culture at large. Television and media do it, with great degrees of manipulation and a consumerist/imperialist agenda. Artists, musicians, and authors wield the same sort of power, on perhaps a smaller and more “human” scale, but ideas are ideas regardless of the media amplifying them. Worthwhile concepts tend to percolate upwards. As for my own process and how it relates, well I guess that in many ways, the medium is the message. We live in an age when old rules are becoming obsolete and I think work like mine helps redefine possibilities and expand peoples’ cultural and aesthetic vocabulary. I prefer to think of my art as open to interpretation rather than delivering any specific agenda. You can never predict someone’s interpretation of an image. For example, “Confession” (the image of the soldier and the enormous ostrich head) was intended – for me – to be critical of the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hung a print of it in a bar in San Diego, along with a dozen others. As I understand it, the only person to show interest in buying it, was a soldier from Camp Pendleton. (Ironically, it was stolen from the bar before that could happen.) To me, that says it all. Who knows what kind of discussions might have taken place in that guy’s apartment, simply from the presence of that image?
E: In closing could you tell us a little about the various projects that you have been working on recently that you are most excited about?
SK: First and foremost, I’ve been piecing together a comprehensive book of my art that will, hopefully, see the light of day sometime later this year. In the meantime, I just got back from a month in El Paso where I was set-designing for Omar’s current film project, Sharks in the Gene Pool, though there’s no telling when that will be finished, much less released. Currently I’m working on the packaging design for Bosnian Rainbows’ debut album, which is an incredible record and something I’m very pleased to be involved with. Not sure what’s around the corner…