Torche - In Return (album art by John Dyer Baizley)
John Dyer Baizley is balancing a fine line, one that he is all too aware of and one that he doesn’t plan on crossing - the line between overkill commercial artist and immensely popular contemporary artist. His most recent work has focused on album artwork for his own band, Baroness, as well as other bands in the metal circuit, with a smattering of original, personal artwork and. This type of exposure brings both rabid fan-bases and fine art criticism. A double-edged sword in many respects, this growing exposure allows his work to be seen by audiences not obtainable by traditional struggling artists. It also risks him losing credibility as a fine artist with such commercial work under his belt. Yet despite the clear difficulty, Baizley has found himself masterfully balancing the line between overexposed commercial artist and respected fine artist.
Friends began discovering John’s potential in Savannah, Georgia, in 2001. They were blown away by the images in his sketch book - bizarre bulbous-head people, contorted faces, enigmas, sex and brilliantly detailed figures. All they could think was “why isn’t this guy in art school?” The answer was that he had already been to art school. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design for three years on a full painting scholarship, but he just didn’t talk about it that much. Ever mum on the subject, John, even with friends, tends not to dwell on his past and instead focuses on the present and his future. His bout in art school was not something he really cared to talk about. But John’s talents were obvious and his time at RISD seemed well spent.
A few years after, John began to paint again (he had taken a short break after leaving school and moving to Georgia) and the results were intriguing - large oil paintings, many nudes, featuring expressionist brush strokes, deep, moody colors, the layers creating a fleshy sensation that screamed tormented from the canvas. Many of the faces were partially or entirely muddled, one has a face that exploded away, as if a strong wind had come and blown it away with fluids, muscle and tissue spraying from the body. The work was always heavy handed, dark and menacing which, in large part, comes from personal expression, and in some parts simply due to the media he was using. Once he delved into album art he began using watercolors, pen and ink, and with that change his work took on a whole new life. It is now much riper with complex stories, symbolism, and visual splendor that leave viewers awestruck by the complexity and mastery of his craft.
Kvelertak - Kvelertak (album art by John Dyer Baizley)
Growing up in rural Virginia, Baizley listened to a diverse body of music including blues and southern rock, but it was metal, punk and hardcore that resonated with him, as was the artwork that accompanied it. The late 1980s album artwork of Pushead for such artists as Metallica, The Misfits, and Dr. Octagon, was not just an inspiration to Baizley but it was representative of a musical movement of the time. Pushead’s work became so entrenched in the musical genre and movement that it became synonymous with punk rock, metal and all things beautifully gruesome in album art.
Pushead’s work has always focused on the morbid with skulls, flowers, decay and death a common theme, and his approach to both the fine art and graphic nature of his work leaves many art critics sluggishly admitting his talent, despite his rejection of the art establishment.
There are many recurring themes between Baizley and Pushead that include skulls, flowers, grass or leaves (organic materials). This could be attributed mostly to Baizley’s work in album art and the demand for such iconography. He recently noted in an article that he is “really just over [skulls]. A lot of times I’ll submit something, and somebody goes “oh, we were hoping there’d be some skulls in there.” It should be said that many of these genre-specific icons are also in his work due in part to the alternative symbolism that these images represent to Baizley himself and not necessarily for shock or morbid factors.
Another strong influence of Baizley’s artwork is Alphonse Mucha. Mucha’s brilliant work is often said to be the start of Art Nouveau in France, as his work with pastels, oils and framing of his subjects had not yet been seen at the time. The movement of fabric worn by the subjects, the presence of flowers in bloom and nature, and various framing techniques utilized by Mucha make his work so recognizable. As with Mucha, Baizley’s work tends to focus on the female, though the reasons for this vary. Mucha was often commissioned for portraits while Baizley is using the female for alternative, symbolic reasons that include the mother figure: mother earth and life-giver, as opposed to simply being a Madonna for which to fill the space.
There are clear indicators of Mucha’s influence in the way that Baizley chooses to pose his subjects – often with the hands by the face, hands holding up the head or hands fondling something in the lap. Interestingly Mucha, like Pushead, also worked in commercial settings including painting for advertisements, posters and commission portrait work and continued to be seen as a foremost fine artist despite this.
The work of Vania Zouravliov is a newer influence on Baizley. Perhaps the most risqué of the three influences, Zouravliov’s work focuses again on the common themes of life and death and includes the element of sex and sexuality into the mix. While many of the characters in Zouravliov’s work tend to be explicitly sexualized, Baizley steers clear of that type of symbolic objectification, yet their work does imply robust sexuality with both the use of the form and the use of symbols in nature.
Baroness - The Blue Album
(album art by John Dyer Baizley)
Baizley’s personal style has been evolving since he emerged as an in-demand album artist. This is most clear by examining the evolution of the Baroness album art. As Baizley continued to work on other band pieces, it was the deeply personal and heavily symbolic Baroness artwork that most clearly shows his point of view as an artist as well as being the most poignant of his commercial work.
The Blue Album, Baroness’ fourth album and sophomore full-release, was accompanied with a masterful work of art. In it we see two women, often referred to as Reuben-esque but in reality represent a pregnant woman. Woman number one, seated on the left hand side of the painting has a necklace of cracking eggs around her neck with the final pendant dripping into the shape of a phallus. While her sexual organs are barely hidden, the symbolism is clear. A small uncracked egg floats gently by her round belly posing as the child’s origins within her. On her head we see the rooster, surrounded by a massive array of blooming flowers, vines and feathers. When examining closer we see a familiar sign – the halo – behind her head, in a clear reference to the work of Mucha. While plumage is a common icon in his work, John is tight-lipped as to the meaning behind it, as for other symbols and icons saying “the real themes that I work with are the underlying themes. A skull as a metaphor or as an icon – how many ways can you stretch that and where can you take that…what I try to do is subvert the norm…[my work] can be enjoyed on an outward level, but if you’re a prying mind that really digs, I put much more into it than that.”
Notably, The Blue Album, a name derived by members of the band relating to their emotional and physical associations with the color, is his first entirely blue artwork. While many of his commercial pieces for bands have been in varied tones, the Baroness album art has focused recently on one thematic color and specific motifs. Baizley notes “the women…are the same totemic muses from all of our releases, whose particular meaning and origin I tend to eschew in favor of individual interpretation…I asked all the members of Baroness to give me one symbol, or idea from themselves…[one] that came with some personal difficulty, and that the reason for the symbol not be explained fully to me.”
With this admission, no matter how cryptic, we see how Baizley unites both personal meaning and symbolism in his work while maintaining enough mystery to allow viewers to project their interpretations, desires and needs onto his work. He is successfully drawing in the audience on a personal level while maintaining his individual artistic values and pursuits without sacrificing either. Most importantly Baizley has cleverly picked projects that will not only garner international fine art attention, but also encourage a cult like following. Not only do his commissioned commercial works get promoted and purchased by people who do not yet know who Baizley is (new listeners of Pig Destroyer, for example), but he also sells monochromatic prints of many of his works at the Baroness live performances, and only at these live performances. As to not seem too accessible, Baizley’s original prints have sold for upwards to $7500, again solidifying him as both attainable to the masses, yet respected enough command fine art prices at his exhibitions.
Phantom Limb by John Dyer Baizley
Though too much album art will undoubtedly stunt Baizley as a “band artist” as opposed to a fine artist, his recent gallery exhibition at Philadelphia’s Metropolis has helped secure his place on both sides of the line. He has taken a moratorium on commissioned album artwork, and instead is focusing on building his brand as a fine artist. By choosing to focus solely on his own work, Baizley will continue to grow as an artist without the overexposure he is at risk of reaching. He is a brilliantly talented artist, managing to walk the thin line of which so many artists fall to either side.