Album Art: 'Reality' check for David Bowie cover artist

One of the most interesting (and ironic) songs found on David Bowie’s 2003 release Reality is a track called “Never Get Old.”

As someone who’s been a longtime fan, it takes on a double meaning, as it may be taken that not only does Bowie not want to admit to aging, but neither do we as fans. I personally take it to mean that, while I may be getting old, I don’t have to live (and relive) the past, but, instead, I can use the experiences learned over time to live smarter, do better work and improve on things as time moves forward.

I remember at one point when Bowie announced that he’d never play any of his old tunes again in public. Ziggy Stardust had told us once before that he’d played the last concert he’d ever play, so while I wasn’t totally convinced that he’d keep to his word, he did have me worried a bit (what, I’ll never hear “Heroes” or “Space Oddity” live ever again? How can this be?”). Instead, it became clear that he simply wanted to try out new things, gain some more experiences and influences, and then come back with something that fans would find new, exciting and yet, somewhat familiar.

After waiting out the “Tin Man/Electronica” years knowing that we’d ultimately be rewarded, 2002 delivered us the “Slow Burn” of a new Bowie record — Heathen — and having reunited with longtime producer Tony Visconti, the pair again worked their magic bringing fans a modernized version of their classic “Berlin sound” and songwriting skills to 2003’s Reality. The result was well-received by both fans and critics and served as the launching pad for what was to be a 10-month-long major world tour (visiting 24 countries!) beginning in late 2003 and continuing through 2004.

Sadly, it may have been age (and, more probably, some of his somewhat overindulgent personal habits) that contributed to a sudden need for an angioplasty after an episode on stage in June 2004, and so the tour ended officially in late July (after 113 shows) so he could take care of this inconvenience. Fans who had perhaps missed the show were rewarded with a DVD featuring performances from early in the tour, and the set list was notably career-spanning.

Artist Rex Ray had impressed Bowie — himself an accomplished painter and patron of the arts — with his talents in the early 1990s while he worked producing posters for Bill Graham Presents. This soon led the two to collaborate on a myriad of fine-art projects, culminating in the somewhat controversial (“what, no photo!?!”) collage Rex created for the cover of Reality.

I caught up with Rex in April 2008 and asked him to help readers get a better understanding of the pair’s working relationship over the years and the inspirations behind the fantastic anime-inspired collage he created — was it Bowie’s music, art or some alien force that emanated from those famous eyes? Put on your aluminum foil cap, ground yourself and read on…

In the words of the artist, Rex Ray

In the ’90s, I freelanced for Bill Graham Presents designing posters for gigs — back when it still meant something — before the Bill Graham archives were sold and opened to the public as a strip mall.

While the pay was crap and the contracts crappier, I did these posters with the intention of building a strong portfolio to send around to record companies for music-packaging jobs. It worked, and after a few years, I was designing projects for major labels as well as art directing and developing branding for local independent labels.

n 1995, I did a mildly controversial poster for the David Bowie/Nine Inch Nails show. I’d been a huge Bowie fan in the ’70s, and it was while gazing at the cover for Aladdin Sane in 1974 that I dreamt about doing such things myself. The David Bowie/Nine Inch Nails poster was a computer-based collage of various body parts, meat and bondage gear, which upset some people at BGP but was printed after much discussion.

Then, in 1997, Bowie returned to San Francisco for three nights on the Earthling tour, and again, I did the poster for those shows. After they were printed, I asked the people at BGP if they could have Mr. Bowie autograph a poster for me but was told that “it wasn’t a possibility.” So I put on my stalker cap and set about getting a poster signed on my own.

Through some friends (spies!), I heard that Bowie was in a certain bookstore one morning, so I hopped on my bicycle and raced across town. I approached him as he was leaving and asked if he’d mind signing the posters for me. He was very gracious and accommodating and complimented me on my work. We spoke for a while about books, design, and I can’t recall what else, and he went on his way. I was beyond satisfied and thought that was the end of the matter.

Unbeknownst to me, at a sound check later that afternoon, the people at BGP asked Bowie to sign a poster for me. Bowie replied, ‘I’ve already signed posters for Rex, but could you arrange to have him come backstage after tonight’s show to sign posters for me?’ I arrived backstage after the show and was escorted into Bowie’s dressing room where we talked at length about art, books, what he should do while he was in town, etc., and I signed posters for him. Once again, I was satisfied and thought that was the last I’d hear from him.

About a year later I received a few curious e-mails asking if I’d like to collaborate on some projects, but they were signed only ‘db.’ It never even occurred to me that it might be David Bowie, so I ignored them. A few days later another e-mail arrived where he actually identified himself, and I was completely stunned. The first project we collaborated on was a limited-edition print to commemorate the upcoming 30th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust.

Bowie sent me a curious photo of some chattering wind-up teeth with eyeballs, and I incorporated hair, background and other subtle touches as my contribution. The next project was a poster to advertise the 1998 launch of Bowienet, Bowie’s official Web site and Internet service (http://www.davidbowie.com/).

Initially, I’d done several more minimalist compositions based on the two previous BGP posters and then came upon the idea for the post-modern collage of assorted Bowie personae through the years for the final version. Then, in 1999, I began working on designs for Bowie’s upcoming album, ‘hours…’. I’d received a cassette of three rough unmixed songs and a small sketch by Bowie as a guide for the album’s visual direction. Bowie also suggested that I have 10 different people write out the lyrics to the 10 songs.

Tim Brett Day provided the photography and the process of sending samples and ideas back and forth while working out the cover proceeded very smoothly. Just as we were finishing the package design, it was decided that a limited-edition lenticular (a 3-D process) cover would be done for the first printing, so I provided layered Photoshop files for the company in London that would produce the image.

I’d worked with many “divas” over the years and was braced for a difficult process. Part of being a designer is navigating the collaborative process through each individual’s personality while maintaining some measure of self in the process. Sometimes those personalities can be a handful. Some projects go quite smoothly; some projects are a constant negotiation, if not a downright battle.

The ‘hours…’ project, however, went very smoothly. Working with Bowie’s people and the art departments at Virgin Records, we put out the designs for the album package and the singles, as well as all of the promotional P.O.P. (point of purchase) materials.

I’m my own worst critic. Ten years on and I still think the ‘hours…’ package is a bit overwrought. The first and only songs I heard while working on the project were rockers, upbeat, and the previous album, Earthling, was very upbeat, so that was the visual direction I took. The finished music on the album was more subdued, and I would have used a lighter hand had I known the introspective and reflective nature of the whole album. This isn’t to say I’m not proud of the finished piece. I think it holds up quite well.

After the release of ‘hours…’ I worked on various posters and material to coincide with the small tour Bowie embarked on. Design elements from the ‘hours…’ package were elaborated on for the design of Bowienet. In 2000, I designed a bonus CD that was included in the collected BBC sessions release (Bowie At The Beeb), and the first “collage” Bowienet poster was resurrected in 2002 for use on the Best Of Bowie greatest hits CD and DVD packages.

In 2002, Bowie sent some images as directional material for his next album, Reality. Initially, Bowie asked if I knew any illustrators who worked in an anime style who could produce a Bowie character for use on the cover. I asked if I could take a shot at it and developed the character that eventually appeared on the final package.

While keeping the anime style in mind, I also used the paintings of Margaret Keane (http://www.margaretkeane.com/) as a reference and worked endlessly developing a face and hairstyle for the figure. I can’t begin to describe the enormous responsibility of coming up with a hairstyle for David Bowie.

The Reality package was a collaborative project between Bowie, renowned British designer Jonathan Barnbook, and myself [Editor’s note — Barnbrook had designed the spooky-eyed cover for the Heathen record]. I developed the illustrations and imagery, and Barnbrook created the amazing typographical work that appeared on the final package.

When Reality was released, the fans hated the cover. While visiting assorted Web sites, I was able to clock people’s reaction to the cover, and generally, it wasn’t favorable. Bowie has a long history of using a photo of himself on his covers, and this marked the first time that no photo appeared. From my standpoint, I love the cover and think it’s among my best. I was challenged to work in a specific style I hadn’t worked in before, and I’m quite proud of the results. There’s no better surprise than surprising oneself.

As I said earlier, I remember staring at those amazing covers of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs albums and thinking, “I’d like to design covers like this some day,” and, some 30 years later, that wish had come true. It was as though I’d reached my goal, and I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do in the field of graphic design.

I could also see the writing on the wall — the same writing the music industry can’t quite seem to understand. Album covers — at least the way I appreciate them — are becoming things of the past. The demands of marketing departments and the disappearance of the actual physical object of an album or CD led me to the conclusion that it was time to move on. I could have easily pursued other work in the entertainment industry, but the prospect of designing DVD boxes for reality-show anthologies and spending endless hours staring at a computer no longer held any appeal for me.

I still do graphic design work for a few longtime clients and old friends, but I’d rather be painting. After that great run with Bowie, I began phasing out the graphic-design work I’d been doing for so many years, not taking on any new clients or large projects and began focusing on the finer, more personal artwork that sustains me today.

However, if by some chance the phone rang tomorrow and it was Mr. Bowie asking for my design services, I’d happily hop on that old horse again…

About the artist, Rex Ray

Rex Ray is a San Francisco-based fine artist whose collages, paintings and design work have been exhibited at galleries and museums, including the The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, University Art Museum in Berkeley, San Jose Museum of Modern Art, The Crocker Museum in Sacramento, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Michael Martin Galleries, Gallery 16, New Langton Arts, and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.

A 1988 graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, Rex is also a celebrated graphic designer. He has created works for Apple, Dreamworks, Sony Music, Warner Brothers, City Lights Publishers, Matador Records, Serpent’s Tail, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, Rizzoli, Powerhouse, Mute Records and Crown Books. His package designs for David Bowie, as well as for Joe Satriani, Diamanda Galás, Matmos and Deee-Lite, have earned him an international reputation for his innovation in type and the use of original photographs, drawings, and collage. He has designed over 100 historic Bill Graham Presents rock-and-roll tour posters, including ones for The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, REM, Bjork, U2 and Radiohead.

In April, 2008, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art launched a Rex Ray gift line of 30-plus different products, including T-shirts, coffee mugs, scarves, puzzles, and many more items. These products are exclusive to the SFMOMA, but they can be ordered online at http://sfmoma.stores.yahoo.net/sfmomaproducts.html

Later this year, a new children’s book will be published titled “10,000 Dresses,” featuring a story by Marcus Ewert and illustrations by Rex Ray. It’s available for pre-order on amazon.com. Also available now is the Chronicle Book Rex Ray Art + Design. Find it at fine booksellers everywhere or at Amazon.

To find out more about Rex Ray and see examples of his latest artwork, visit his website at www.rexray.com.

To see all of the David Bowie-related items in the RockPoP Gallery collection, please visit http://rockpopgallery.com/items/david-bowie/list.htm?1=1

All images featured in this Cover Story are Copyright 2003 and 2008, Rex Ray — All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2008 — Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com ) — All rights reserved

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