If Rene Magritte were alive today, chances are he'd have been obsessed with the CGI version of the Polar Express. Magritte, with his plastic approach to portraying the human body, and keen sense for subtly and horrifically distorting the mundane, would have had a field day with Steven Spielberg's all-too-real digital representations. If Magritte's bread and butter involved playfully violating the familiar, musician, record label head, and album artist Keith Rankin seems to think on very similar terms.
Alongside Seth Graham, his friend and bandmate in electronic duo Cream Juice, Rankin runs the underground music label Orange Milk. For all intents and purposes, most people would dub Orange Milk an experimental label, as its catalog is so vast, and so idiosyncratic on a release-to-release basis, that the sounds are not really classifiable in any other way.
EQ Why, for instance, is a member of Chicago's footwork scene–a dance movement from the South and West sides of the city that blends hip hop and ghetto house at breakneck tempos. His Chitokyo Mixtape is a dense collage of Drake, Rick James, Nicki Minaj, and more, set to frenetic rhythms. In contrast, Nikmis's Nicht Mass sounds like a MIDI-keyboard symphony, and Larry Wish's Free Willy Style is a lo-fi pop album which recalls, in equal parts, Captain Beefheart and Steely Dan.
The common thread? Keith Rankin's art adorns the cover of every Orange Milk release. Perhaps the Free Willy Style album cover best sums up his current set of techniques. Rankin states that he simply wanted to draw a good room, so, as he is wont to do these days, he found a suitable picture on Google Image Search and proceeded to emulate it in Photoshop.
He figured it would be fun to have a door opening to darkness in the background, so he added that, and this ominous flourish, in turn, made him realize that the room needed to be a bit less of-this-world. Placing a floating, silver orb in the middle of the room, and some pink goop flowing out of that door-to-nowhere, Rankin's album art was finally complete.
One can envision a similarly casual, “let's get weird”-style approach to Photoshop guiding his very Magritte-like cover for Jerry Paper's Big Pop for Chameleon World, which features another GIS reproduction (the wooden cane chair), and a floating head before a pentagonal window.
Given the complexity and breezy bizarreness of his work, one might think that Rankin a savvy, well-groomed artisté. But Rankin only confirmed what his partner in crime, Seth Graham, casually mentioned to me once: essentially self-taught, with the entirety of his institutional rearing occurring at “a few art classes at a community college in Dayton, [OH] which helped me with painting,” Rankin admits he's still not even, “Very good.”
We'll have to agree to disagree; the fact of the matter is that Rankin developed his skills by drawing prodigiously from a young age. After his father turned him onto Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, Keith would draw the story's characters as he imagined them. As comprehensive physical descriptions in Tolkein's writing are spare, Keith felt compelled to bring these characters to life, manifesting whatever his mind's eye saw in the prose.
When I ask about artistic influences, specifically hoping that he'll name a contemporary artist who informed his canny style, Rankin shares his earliest memory. Administered a spinal tap, a three- or four-year-old Keith comes to in a hospital room. Recovering from the painful, invasive procedure, he looks up and sees The Flinstones on television, imparting a deeply hallucinatory state on his young psyche. Ever since, he says, “cartoons have always been serious business to me.”
But where one might imagine Rankin scribbling away his conceptions of Middle Earth and its players to be reminiscent of a prepubescent Henry Darger, on the mental health and social integration scales, Rankin is doing a lot better than the prolific reculse. Looking at Rankin's art for the Orange Milk catalog, one gets the overwhelming sense that Rankin is also trying to craft some equally skewed, parallel version of reality. In fact, before the Google Image Search reproduction method, Rankin's process even bore similarity to Darger's; Tunnel Mind, a cover for his own album as Giant Claw, displays his old process of collaging found and self-drawn elements to create what looks like an Omni magazine cover for the astrally-projecting.
Although he left collaging behind in favor of digital art, Rankin never lost his propensity for illustrating realities so near, but so far from our own. Looking at his recent cover for Scammers' American Winter, with its cosmic egg cracking over a virtual Alpine vista, one realizes that his dominant visual obsession is a kind of geographic uncanniness. He describes the process for illustrating the EQ Why mixtape as reproducing a skyscraper in Chicago that he found on Google Image Search. As before, the “final touch was as easy as slapping [on] those orbs.”
Some chefs finish garnish their final dishes with truffle oil and parsley; some footballers dance in the end zone. Keith Rankin, on the other hand, is done when he inserts the orbs.
Check out more about Keith Rankin's awesome album art on the official Orange Milk Records website.