Throughout history, humanity has sought to resolve the mysteries of life and shed light on the unknown, but sometimes there is neither enlightenment nor discovery, only darkness and a struggle with logic that turns existence into anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. The extraordinary and the monstrous have been present since the dawn of human existence. Mysteries have been fuelled since our most primitive times by a contradictory need to surrender to them and exorcise the incomprehensible. Songs, tales, paintings, and dramatic recreations have perpetuated the most irrational myths and stories of all time. It is unsurprising therefore, that the first filmic representations of mystery and terror were known as Phantasmagoria. All this tradition roams freely and inhabits the creations of Dave McKean.
As if our darkest myths were his home ground, he enjoys ripping them open and recreating them, and that is why the pieces included in this exhibition, Nitrate, take us on a journey through the most disturbing art inspired by the dark stories of silent cinema. His unmistakable personal style is rooted directly in the expressionist aesthetic, in its dark tales and spine-chilling characters, half-beings, scraps of creatures screwed, glued or sewn together, following the trail of the early filmmakers, marked by the legacy of shadow theatre, with its projected solid shapes and powerful blinding chiaroscuro that left us dazzled and dazed. Like them, McKean composes his works by playing and experimenting with emotions, building pieces that unhinge the senses and fuel fears by enveloping the observer in an exquisite form of suffering.
Dave McKean was born in Taplow, Berkshire in 1963. He attended Berkshire College of Art and Design from 1982-86 and, before leaving, started working as an illustrator.
In 1986 he met author Neil Gaiman with whom he has collaborated on many projects since. Their first book, Violent Cases (1987), has been printed in many editions worldwide, and adapted for the stage. Since then they have produced Black Orchid (1988), Signal To Noise (1990) for The Face magazine and Mr. Punch (1975). Dave has contributed all the cover illustrations and design for the popular Sandman series of graphic novels, and a collection of this work, Dust Covers, was published in 1998.
Arkham Asylum (1989) written by Scottish author/playwrite Grant Morrison, still the single most successful graphic novel ever published, was also illustrated by Dave. 1995 saw collaborations with the Rolling Stones (The Voodoo Lounge), and Rachel Pollack (The Vertigo Tarot).
Between 1990 and 1996, Dave also wrote and illustrated the 500pg. comic novel Cages, which won the Harvey Award for Best new comic and best graphic novel, the Ignatz Award, the International Alph Art award and Italy’s La Pantera Award.
His collection of short stories in comics form, Pictures That Tick released in 2000, won the Victoria and Albert Museum Illustrated Book of the Year Award, and several of McKean’s books are in the V&A collection.
Also in 2010/11 an erotic wordless novel called Celluloid was released by Delcourt, Fantagraphics and other publishers across Europe.
In 1995 he produced the image to launch The Sony Playstation, and in 1996 was one of four photographers chosen by Kodak and Saatchi’s to launch their new colour film with a book, video and global ad package. He has also produced campaigns for Smirnoff, British Telecom, 3dfx Voodoo, BMW/Mini, Nike, the British Government’s Social Work Department, and Eurostar.
He has contributed many illustrations to The New Yorker, Playboy and other magazines, and promotional work for the films Blade, Alien Resurrection, The King is Alive, Dust and Sleepy Hollow. Also, a set of Mythological Creatures stamps from the Royal Mail. He has created concept illustrations for the 2nd. And 3rd. Harry Potter films, designs for Lars von Trier’s interactive project in Copenhagen, House of Zoon, and films and production design for Elton John Broadway musical Lestat for Warner Brothers. The National Theatre of Scotland/Improbable musical theatrical production of Wolves in the Walls opened in Glasgow and London, before transferring to New York.
He has won various awards including the international Amid Award for the best album cover of the year, one of over a 150 covers designed, illustrated and photographed since 1990, including releases by Michael Nyman, Tori Amos, Roy Harper, Delerium, Project Mooncircle, Real World, Altan, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Bill Laswell, Alice Cooper, Dream Theater, Counting Crows, Front Line Assembly, and Bill Bruford.
In 1996 he composed and performed the music for the BBCRadio adaptation of Signal to Noise with saxophonist Iain Ballamy, with whom he has recently initiated the Feral Records label. Feral has released two Food CD’s (Ballamy and Thomas Stønen) and three Little Radio CD’s (Ballamy and Stian Carstensen).
Dave’s Hourglass studio and Allen Speigel Fine Arts in California have also co-published three collections of photographs; A Small Book of B/W Lies, Option:Click and The Particle Tarot which includes an introduction by legendary director and Tarot master Alejandro Jodorowsky.
He has exhibited in America and Europe including solo shows at The Four Color Gallery (New York), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Madrid), and The Maritime Museum (Carlisle), Galerie Martel (Paris), Galerie BD (Paris), Galerie Petit Papier (Brussels), and Galerie Artizar (Palma), has put together two touring exhibitions with Graphicus Touring; the retrospective show Narcolepsy which continues to show throughout the UK and Europe, and a collection of photography.
Dave has illustrated several children’s books. The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls (NY Times Illustrated Book of the Year), MirrorMask and Crazy Hair, all written by Neil Gaiman. Varjak Paw (Smarties Gold Award), The Outlaw Varjak Paw and Phoenix written by SF Said, and The Savage (Liverpool Reads book of the year), Slog’s Dad, Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf by David Almond.
He has illustrated and designed several books for adults. Wizard & Glass and Night Shift (Stephen King), The Homecoming and Skeletons (Ray Bradbury), What’s Welsh For Zen and Sedition & Alchemy (John Cale), and books and TV films with Iain Sinclair (Slow Chocolate Autopsy, My Favourite London Devils, Landor’s Tower, Asylum and The Falconer). Dave illustrated editions of Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and American Gods and The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman) which won the Newberry Medal, the Carnegie, and many other awards
Dave began an ongoing working relationship with Heston Blumenthal on The Big Fat Duck Book and Historic Heston, and has contributed murals, package design, wallpaper, maps, and various other graphic works to The Fat Duck and the Hinds Head in Bray, Dinner in London and in Melbourne, and is Director of Story at the Duck.
In 2011 Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality was released, profusely illustrated by Dave. A book that encourages imaginative, critical, sceptical thinking, and introduces young readers (and anyone really) to the awe-inspiring real world of science.
In 1998, Dave decided to make some films. The Week Before and N[eon] are short films that played the festival circuits worldwide and N[eon] won First Prize at the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival. These films brought Dave to the attention of Lisa Henson from the Jim Henson Company, and together with Neil Gaiman and Dave’s small crew from the shorts, they embarked on MirrorMask, a feature fantasy film for Columbia/Tristar. Premiered at the Sundance Festival in Utah, and officially selected for the Locarno, Sitges, London, Edinburgh, Sarasota, Hawaii and Dublin film festivals, it won 9 awards (including the Inaugural Black Tulip at the Amsterdam Festival) and was finally released in cinemas in 2005. Three books were released to tie in with the film including The Alchemy of MirrorMask, a lavish art book which includes all the paintings, designs and photographs made for the film.
At Easter 2011, Dave travelled to Port Talbot, Wales to direct the film version of Michael Sheen’s epic three day live theatrical event the Passion of Port Talbot. A contemporary, secular re-imagining of the Passion play. Staged by Wildworks and National Theatre Wales, 20,000 visitors took part in the outdoor scenes, and a core company of nearly a 1000 locals contributed to one of the most important artistic events of the decade. The film was called The Gospel of Us, and was released by Soda Pictures in 2012. It won 2 Bafta Cymru Awards fro Michael Sheen and sound wizard Ian Sands.
In 2013/14 Dave finished a new collection of short comics called Pictures that Tick 2: Exhibition, featuring several large gallery and interavtive narrative works including the Coast Road and Blue Tree (Rye Art Gallery) and The Rut (Pumphouse Gallery, London). He completed two travel sketchbooks (Perugia and Bilbao) to add to an ongoing series (Brussels, Paris, Barcelona, Vienna), and after seven turbulent years of production, his third feature film, Luna. Luna premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and won Best British Feature at the Raindance Festival, and the Raindance Award at the British Independence Film Awards. Luna has played at many festivals around the world. A collection of all Dave’s short films, music films and trailers for features, was released on blu-ray, with a lavish simply called Short Films, from Dark Horse Books.
In 2015, Dave worked with Bill Mitchell and the Wildworks Theatre Company again to create Wolf’s Child, a site specific outdoor play, for the Norfolk Theatre Festival. Dave wrote the script and lyrics, and is currently compiling the footage into a new feature film. He also wrote the story, lyrics and created films for the Manchester Jazz/Literature Festival commission An Ape’s Progress, with Iain Ballamy and poet Matthew Sweeney.
In 2016, Dave wrote and illustrated Black Dog: the Dreams of Paul Nash. This book and accompanying performance work, was a commission by the 14-18Now Foundation, The Imperial War Museum, The Lakes International Comic Art Festival and On a Marché Sur la Bulle. It was published as an artists edition in the UK, and worldwide by Dark Horse Publishing and Glénat. Dave transferred the book to a series of projections, and wrote an hour’s worth of orchestral music and songs. This performance occurred at the Somme Memorial in Amiens, and, after several festival performances, at the Tate Britain opening of Nash’s retrospective.
Recent book projects include Caustic, a collection drawings inspired by silent erotic cinema, Colorado Kid (Stephen King), I Am legend (Richard Matheson), Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist (David Almond), Postcard from Venice (sketchbook), and Apophenia (art book).
Dave is currently finishing a book of paintings inspired by silent cinema (Nitrate), more travel sketchbooks (Prague, Tenerife and Naples) and a couple of new graphic novels (Caligaro and Raptor). Also, illustrated books by Joe Hill (Full Throttle) and Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment).
He lives on the Isle of Oxney in Kent, England with his wife, studio manager and musician, Clare.
DAVE McKEAN at Artizar Gallery: NITRATO