'I see narrative happening in different kinds of ways. You make associations because you need to make associations. You will make that the link.'
Stanley Donwood & Thom Yorke
The Crow Flies: part one
4 Cromwell Place, London SW7 2JE
6 - 10 September 2023
Book tickets here
TIN MAN ART is proud to present ‘The Crow Flies’ - a series of new paintings co-created by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood, which began as cover artwork for A Light for Attracting Attention (2022), the debut album from Yorke's rock band The Smile. The wider series will be presented alongside a Flemish woven tapestry commissioned by the artists in London to celebrate the album’s one-year anniversary.
This exhibition marks a significant moment in a 30-year artistic partnership for Yorke (b. 1968) and Donwood (b. 1968), who worked on it together in Oxford and Brighton between 2021 and 2023. It takes its name from Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Crow’ (1966-69), from which the band name The Smile is also derived, and draws inspiration from the Bodleian Libraries’ collection of Islamic pirate maps and 1960s US military topographic charts. The works comprise a mixture of gouache, tempera and powdered mushroom on canvas and feature an extensive language of signs and symbols developed by the artists and codified via supporting imagery.
TO WORLD’S END: Words by Francesca Gavin
‘Where am I going?’ - one of the fundamental questions in existence. It is also
the starting point for a new body of work by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood.
Innately intertwined with our desire to know our place in the world and our route
beyond it, the word ‘map’ emerged from the Latin mappa mundi, meaning ‘napkin of
the world’. The birth of these unique diagrams is unknown but some of humanity’s
earliest examples are tusk and stone etchings in caves made up to 25,000 years ago.
When Yorke and Donwood visited an exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford,
they became fascinated by the aesthetics and symbolism of topographical maps. In
particular they were drawn to the breadth of approach, from those made by Persian
pirates in the 17th century to others created by the US military in the 1960s.
Initially, the pair used the lyrics of The Smile’s debut album, A Light for Attracting
Attention, as inspiration for a map’s legend (the box that explains the symbols),
creating almost 30 small drawings of objects or things mentioned in the songs. These
elements were later set aside, though some are stamped under layers in
the finished works. They then moved towards a more abstracted take on maps -
something far closer to a fantastical landscape, an invitation to a journey.
Yorke and Donwood have worked together for decades, creating an extensive archive
of visual material for Radiohead’s record covers and internet projects. There is an
innate sense of conversation in how they work. Past series, however, such as the work
made for Kid A and Amnesiac, were both darker and more digital. While previous works
have been made with acrylic paint, the new paintings draw on historic
techniques of oil tempera on vellum. This fluidity of material transformed what they
created. “That was what I found incredibly exciting. It just stays active for so long,” says
Yorke. For him, this sense of freedom reflected the process of music making itself. “I
became so conscious of the fact that the two processes are almost exactly the
The paintings emerged as explosions of colour, perhaps marking a shift away from
the political commentary and emotional weight of earlier work. These largescale works
– done during lockdown – were made by the duo side by side in the studio. They
laughingly refer to themselves as ‘a two piece’. The imagery feels exploratory and
positive, about dreaming of movement and freedom - a fusion of styles into a single
thing. Recurring visual motifs, such as stylised clusters of mountains and twists and
curves of rivers, also reflect the paint’s fluidity. These works seem to sit somewhere
between geological surveys and the stylised backgrounds of early Renaissance
painting – inclinations that have emerged intuitively throughout their process. It was just two artists focusing on something physical and gestural - their bodies making actions. As Yorke puts it, “It’s an event rather than a word trying to tell you something.”
Riffing on the sense of history innate in their materials and techniques, one of the
series of fantastical, topographical landscapes has been transformed into a tapestry, a
shift of material partly inspired by Donwood’s visit to the Bayeux Tapestry. “There are at
least three stories happening at the same time. It’s really modern and takes about the
same amount of time to look at as it does to watch a feature film. And it’s
very upsetting,” he explains. In the works by Yorke and Donwood, however, the story is
neither restricted nor violent.
The series touches on the inherent basics of narrative – the path from A to B.
Novelistic references were in their mind. “I’m a big fan of imaginary maps,” Donwood
points out. “I feel that with painting I’m always fighting against telling a story. And
then it just happens anyway.”
Yorke agrees: “I’m completely incapable of creating anything without a kind of
narrative.” Yet he sees that form of communication as perhaps something non-linear, or
unexpected. “I see narrative happening in different kinds of ways. You make
associations because you need to make associations,” he says.
The paintings’ sense of movement also represents the speed and unstructured
approach of The Smile’s music. “Because it is a three piece, things would happen
extremely quickly and you didn’t really know what it was until you came back. It’s very
fast. It’s very fluid,” Yorke observes. The duo’s visual collaboration had the same ease. In
the past, they had each drawn separately, sending or faxing imagery and notes between
them. In this current work, there was a more hands-on communication. Less Dadaist
disorder, more a shared common goal. “I’m probably happier with these than anything
ever before,” Donwood admits.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote about maps in his paragraph-long short story of 1946, ‘On
Exactitude in Science’. He describes maps so large and ideal that they were almost the
scale of the landscape they depicted: “The Art of Cartography attained such Perfection
that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the
Empire, the entirety of a Province,” Borges begins. “In the Deserts of the West, still today,
there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land
there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” Yorke and Donwood’s canvases
exist in a similar fictional reality. They are diagrams of the imagination. They illustrate
the timeless and spacelessness. They are charts of perception and experience.