Robert Pollard

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By Mark Guarino

Robert Pollard’s music is assembled from the junkyard of his imagination. His visual art is assembled from the junkyard in his living room.

The 50-year-old pop music auteur is best know as the beer-slugging, scissor-kicking, joke-spewing iconoclast fronting Guided By Voices, the Dayton, Ohio band that started out as a hobby in Pollard’s garage but, once leaked to the world, became one of the most influential cult bands of the last two decades.

Pollard built a 20-year song factory based on his passion for the British Invasion sound, bubblegum pop of the 1960’s and prog rock bands of the following decade. The songs, from riff-driven power pop to scratchy four-track howlers, operate on two levels: tough and mighty rock anthems that sound piped from the floor of a bedroom closet.

Guided By Voices became the emblem of homemade pop, but despite the continued endorsements by bands like Pearl Jam, Weezer and the Strokes, none have ever grasped Pollard’s talent for patching together lyrical snippets and joining them with hooks, a hemorrhage of extremes that together made his music abstract and accessible.

The reason it works, Pollard said, is because he doesn’t approach anything he does as a conventional songwriter. “I consider myself a collage artist,” he said.

If there was a doubt, it can now be extinguished with the publication of “Town of Mirrors: The Reassembled Imagery of Robert Pollard” (Fantagraphics Books), a 141-page hardcover book collecting over two decades of Pollard’s collage work, an art form he learned much like a child would: gluing together images torn from vintage magazines to create unexpected visuals embedded with political undertones and comic jabs.

Although his work has been exhibited in New York City and at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, his first public display were the 500 handcrafted cover editions of the 1992 Guided By Voices album “Propeller.” (The vinyl copies currently fetch over $2,000 each on eBay.)

The artwork follows the same prescription as his music. Rising at 6 a.m., Pollard spends the next six to eight hours in his living room, where he surrounds himself with guitars, notebooks filled with lyrical fragments and piles of old magazines he salvages from junk shops (he prefers the Technicolor glow of pictures found in old copies of “Look” and “Life”). While his day may sound like that of any kindergartner, Pollard trains his eye on insignificant details that may illuminate when cut and pasted with exactly the right match.

“My powers of concentration aren’t very good, I have A.D.D. probably,” he said. “It’s hard for me to sit down and focus, so I just blur my eyes and go at it. I keep a lot of different ideas around at the same time. I’m kind of a deconstructionalist type. I tear things apart and put them together.”

Much of what’s found in “Town of Mirrors” is purposely comic: “The Floating Babies in Space Program — Implemented” features a crying, diapered tot sitting atop a highway that circles the earth like the rings of Saturn.

But because of the Eisenhower-era images of dutiful housewives, automotive assembly lines, science labs and aviation, there are the inevitable clashes between order and violence, technology and helplessness. The result is ominous: Giant mosquitoes threaten a woman reading a newspaper, eyes peer out of horn rim glasses but have no body, large crowds examine a corporate meeting room of empty plastic chairs, a man grits his teeth in pain as a line of subway cars gags his mouth.

Subversion in the face of authority is the primary foundation of collage, said John Corbett, an adjunct art professor at the School of the Art Institute and co-owner of the Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery that specializes in mid-20th century American art. German Dadaist John Heartfield created collage to undermine Nazi propaganda in the 1930’s; Hannah Hoch used photomontage  — a primitive precursor to photoshopping — to address feminist issues in the 1920’s.

Both were “political artists straight out of a time when it was not the politically safe thing to be doing,” he said.

For musicians, “collage is an absolutely perfect thing,” Corbett said. The proliferation of magnetic tape after the Second World War transformed the recording studio into a tool for collage. “So you’re taking all sorts of things that were made separately and now piecing them together,” he said.

Pollard’s second life on the art circuit has not apparently affected his prodigious musical output.

He plays Double Door Monday to support “Brown Submarine” (GBV Inc.), his seventh solo album since 2004, when he retired the Guided By Voices name at Metro on New Year’s Eve.

“I just wanted to wrap that all up and tuck it away,” he said of his decision. Despite a pledge to release two albums a year, Pollard said ridding himself of the “burden” of the Guided By Voices name helped him clear his head to create new work.

“I’m never pressed,” he said. “I’m someone who chisels away at things.” Still, he’ll admit: “I’m working on three or four projects at the same time. If I didn’t have this entrepreneurial spirit, I’d probably have to get another job.”

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