Oversized mushrooms, free-floating spores, expansive waterways, ambiguous horizons. These are just some of the fantastic environmental elements comprising Roger Dean’s universe: a hallucinatory flip-side known to many as simply ‘Yes World’. Here the venerated Brighton-based artist translates this visual language – one that has adorned tee-shirts, album covers, concert posters and the walls of countless dormitory rooms as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum – and traces its etymology to methods of storytelling and children’s experiences of space.
Jeffrey Inaba: You’re known for using organic-shape landscapes and architectural forms in your paintings. Was that a response to an urban reality at a particular moment in time?
Roger Dean: Well, the thing that interested me about architecture as a student at the Royal College of Arts in England was that built spaces didn't seem to accommodate the human psyche very well. I was interested in why people found it difficult to sleep in strange buildings. Was it just the strangeness or was there something fundamentally wrong with the space?
My original research was very disappointing, because people basically wanted to talk about their aesthetic responses to space. But my girlfriend at the time was teaching children and I started questioning them. I discovered that children have an entirely more intuitive response: they're making dens under tables and in cupboards out of cardboard boxes and blankets and on a very intuitive level, without the constraints of an aesthetic inhibitor. So I asked a bunch of children, ‘If they were making a house, how would you like to sleep?’
I discovered they had a pretty consistent list of things they didn't like about rooms. It was easy to isolate the elements that were not liked, but it was much harder to find the positives. In the end, I took it from children's rooms to the whole house, to the way communities work, and I made long lists of things that bothered both children and adults, and a slightly shorter list of attributes they found positive.
The organic look of my designs came about from a child’s description of a space. He did it by waving his arms and we just literally designed the child's room around these waved arms. As I extrapolated that into the rest of the house, I got very positive feedback. So I kept it, but I didn't set out to do it that way. I suppose in the end, I had a list I had tuned down from about a thousand things that were concerning people to about a hundred. I had about a hundred elements of design people would be much happier to have included. Of course you can’t get all the elements right, but if you aim to get as many as possible, you make a space that feels much more comfortable, private and tranquil. It seemed to me that was the way people should design buildings. It should be about how people felt when they were in a building.
JI: To what degree did this research influence the Yes album covers? There seems to be a story to them, right? Beginning with Fragile there is a planet that fragments and takes off into outer space…
RD: That is correct, yes. Normally if I do a painting I start with sketches, but when I did Fragile I sketched out a story with my brother Martin Dean. That story was the origin of the paintings that went from Fragile to Close to the Edge, Yessongs into Tales from Topographic Oceans, and on.
JI: What is the story?
RD: It's a creation myth – I guess sort of a Noah's Ark story, really. It's about a boy who dreams about the world breaking up and how he persuades his friends and neighbors to help him build a space ark so they have some means of escape.
JI: So fragments of Earth break apart and they relocate into another space?
RD: Yes, into another world.
JI: When you developed the story what were you imagining that other world to be?
RD: I would describe it as an ‘alternative now’ – it's not the future and it's not the past. It's just a different now.
JI: Were there particular attributes you wanted to portray in that alternative place? Let’s take the painting with a stairway that winds around a very naturalistic form, for example?
JI: In Arrival there’s a fish in the foreground. It seems to be on something different from the fragmented pieces of the world. They’re more mushroom-like, more curvilinear whereas the fragmented world pieces have flatter tops and more stalagmite-like bases to them. What were you trying to achieve in the differences between the two elements?
RD: I was looking for a family of shapes. You see it with trees on the horizon and with the mushroom. I guess that triangular shape balancing on its point was the key to these things.
JI: Regarding the spore elements in Awakenings, they have nature on them, but humans are not yet present at this point in the story, is that right?
RD: Yeah, I guess that’s right. What we’re looking at is not the humans yet. The humans come in the final picture, Pathways. Even then, they’re not really necessarily there.
JI: In the Tales from Topographic Oceans series, it’s ambiguous whether the fish are swimming around in water or whether they’re floating around in the air. It seems that the fantasy world is a place that lacks gravity or it’s a space where water and air are indistinguishable?
RD: Well, the subject of the painting really was patterns in the landscape, but a lot of other ideas are explored there too. One is that you can look at a body of water like the sea and know that there are currents – there are paths. At times it isn’t obvious, but at other times it is. And I like the idea of there being rivers of water within the water.
JI: In the series there’s also a painting with two children sitting on what look like fantasy trees. What were you trying to explore with the trees? Was it again a pattern in the landscape that interested you?
JI: One might speculate that the gnarled, entangled nature of those trees is translated into cities and architecture with Relayer. Was that a continuation or were they separate?
RD: Separate, but they all come through me. So I’m the connector, I guess.