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I hear so many songwriters describe their songs as their children. . . . They're your parents, they tell you what to do. -- Bono

Inside The 'Dark Mind' of U2 Imagemaker Matt Mahurin

@U2

Matt Mahurin calls himself an imagemaker.

And he considers that calling a profound responsibility.

An imagemaker’s role, he said, is “to evoke emotion or provoke thought, to strengthen or shatter an existing idea, to cast light on what is unknown or bring truth to what is misunderstood. Sometimes to answer a question — sometimes to ask one.”

He’s been doing all those things for his entire career, starting with political cartoons he drew in high school growing up in the California suburb of Simi Valley, eventually moving on to provocative sociopolitical illustrations and photo essays for Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire and other publications; and music videos, including several for U2.

Mahurin, whose photographs are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, creates images that transcend and mix genres, styles and purposes: drawings, paintings, political cartoons, journalistic illustrations, book covers, photographs, animation, 3-D objects. He combines all those mediums in his music videos for artists as diverse as Disturbed, Josh Groban, Sturgill Simpson, Metallica, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits — and U2.

His first video for the band was one of the alternative versions of “With Or Without You," followed by “Love Is Blindness." More recently, he created the videos for “Song For Someone" (a different version from the film-length version featuring Woody Harrelson); and the nine-minute “Liner Notes” documentary, featuring Bono reading the liner notes from Songs Of Experience set to Mahurin’s haunting videography.

An exhibit of Mahurin’s images and objects is on display in Venice, California, at ARCANE Space, the art space co-directed by Morleigh Steinberg, The Edge’s wife. The exhibit, called “California Son,” will be up through Nov. 18, with Mahurin (self-portrait above) offering a talk and painting demonstration on Nov. 17.

(Matt Mahurin images on display in "California Son" at ARCANE Space; photo by Mahurin)

The exhibit doesn’t include anything directly U2-related. But the subjects Mahurin has explored over the years — domestic abuse, 9/11, torture, the prison system, endangered species, addiction, homeless people, AIDS patients, circumcision, psychology, software — could certainly find a thematic fit in U2’s world.

Mahurin’s work is dark, in a disarming way. It has a surrealistic, dreamy, and beautiful but barbed look. And sometimes it’s whimsical. It’s no surprise that the first artist he attempted to mimic as a child was Salvador Dali.

Bono apparently likes Mahurin’s darkness.

Mahurin described the genesis of the “Song For Someone” video.

Mahurin, who lives in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon with his wife, children’s book author-illustrator Lisa Desimini, said he got a call from Bono, who happened to be in nearby Laurel Canyon. The band, Bono said, was working on a video for “Song For Someone” and thought Mahurin would be a good creative fit.

“I want to see what’s in that dark mind of yours,” Bono told him.

“It was just me and Bono in a room with a green screen,” Mahurin said. “I shot several takes of him doing the song, and he asked me to do some concept stuff behind it.” The black-and-white video shows Bono on parched ground and sand; with swirling clouds, lightning and barren branches in the background; and at the end with a light in the distance.

Mahurin’s first encounter with U2 was actually a photo shoot of one of their concerts around New York in the 1980s (he doesn’t remember the exact year or which concert tour it was).

He was inspired both by their music and “that they had such a message and meaning behind what they did, commenting on bigger things they cared about in the world.”

At that point in his career, Mahurin had done several journalistic art projects including a series for Time magazine on “private abuse” (domestic violence, child abuse, rape), and photographs of the Texas prison system for Texas Monthly.

He brought a portfolio of his photographs to the concert and asked if they could be delivered to the band. “Someone took it backstage, and then The Edge came out,” Mahurin recalled. “He said he loved one of my photographs of the Texas prison and wanted to buy it. I told him, ‘I’ll let you have it for free if you let me film the whole show.’” (Press photographers usually only get to shoot the first few songs of a concert close up, then have to leave.) “In five minutes I had an all-access pass.”

The band liked his photographs, Mahurin said, then asked him to design the Wide Awake In America EP artwork, and to shoot footage for the “With Or Without You” video.

Mahurin had met Steinberg in the mid-1980s when he was working on a video that featured her dance troupe. When U2 asked him to do the WOWY video, he wanted to include her. The video that Mahurin shot ended up mixed with footage from director Meiert Avis, but Mahurin’s full alternative video is available on YouTube.

“I was brought on to add a more poetic, moody aspect,” Mahurin said. “I was taken with Morleigh, the way she moved and her look. I was questioning who that ‘you’ was in the title. I wanted to portray her as the romantic interest in abstract poetic terms, almost a dreamlike kind of apparition. She’s never really seen clearly.” 

Mahurin appreciates the creative leeway the band has given him. “The key to working with them is they have a strong aesthetic,” Mahurin said. “Edge himself is a photographer, and they’re very visual in pushing the experience for the audience. On projects, they hire people with very original points of view, and give them a tremendous amount of freedom.”

For the “Liner Notes” project, Mahurin said, “the band wanted to do something cinematic with the album liner notes. It was a very personal album, and there was a lot of stuff that was pivotal, especially for Bono from his point of view.”

Mahurin, who describes Bono as “the angel and devil rolled into one,” said that when he came up with a concept for the video, he wasn’t sure how to incorporate the liner-notes text.

“At first, I didn’t know if if would be words. I explored using Bono’s handwriting. But then I told Bono, ‘It’s got to be you. Listen to the storyteller you are: your voice, your inflections. You don’t have to be in front of 50,000 people singing to make an intimate connection to people.’ And he went along with it.”

Mahurin said he edited 17 minutes of Bono reading the liner notes (some of which Bono recorded on his iPhone) down to nine minutes. Producer Jackknife Lee (who lives near Mahurin in Topanga Canyon) supplied Mahurin with minimal music from the songs Bono references in the notes.

Mahurin — a one-man music video maker who serves as cameraman, editor, animator, costumer and prop maker —  said creating “Liner Notes” “was a very powerful experience. One of the greatest rock poets of my time trusted me with this, where he’s talking about his love of his wife, his connection to fans, the state of the world, his mother’s death, his near death. It fills me with pride, but it’s also very humbling to be trusted with that.”

He used live found footage, photojournalistic imagery, video of the band on The Joshua Tree Tour that he shot himself, animations, and green screens with actors.

The opening image in the video, a sort of ghost-like scarecrow, is a real thing he saw on the side of the road driving to Northern California with his wife. 

He carries his phone with him everywhere and captures lots of found footage that makes its way into his art or videos.

Mahurin talks frequently about “sharing” rather than “creating” art, a mindset he adopted after creating his series of illustrations for Time. “I got a lot of letters from people who were victims of abuse and were touched by it,” he said. “At that point I shifted from the idea of creating to sharing my art.”

Mahurin’s desire to share his work with a wide audience means he doesn’t often show his art in galleries. “There’s nothing like looking at original art on a wall, but I love the mass appeal: the magazine covers, the music videos,” he said.

Mahurin agreed to do the exhibit at ARCANE Space, he said, because he trusts Steinberg’s aesthetic and collaborative spirit, and liked that the space isn’t a traditional gallery setting.

“Through all the years I have known him, his vision has remained undeniably his own, rich and reactionary, unveiling sometimes the bleak beauty in often difficult subject matter," Steinberg said.

(Matt Mahurin images on display in "California Son" at ARCANE Space; photo by Mahurin)

When creating the exhibit, Mahurin said, “I wanted to go against the grain. Other shows I’d seen were so formal. I thought, what would it be like to cram the walls with as much as possible. My 10 favorite illustrations or paintings would be kind of boring.”

During a recent tour of ARCANE Space followed by a painting demonstration (in which he created a zombie clown), Mahurin talked about some of the demons in his life that have influenced his imagery. He didn’t have a horrible childhood, but has suffered from ADHD and alcoholism (he’s been sober now for many years).

“The only thing more powerful than all those things is my refusal to be taken by my afflictions,” he said. “The last person I want to defeat me is me. I’ve been humbled by sobriety. It’s strange how much power and passion can come out of one’s faults and weaknesses.”

The exhibit of Matt Mahurin’s work, “California Son,” will be up through Nov. 18 at ARCANE Space, 324 Sunset Ave., Venice, California, with Mahurin offering a talk and painting demonstration from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Nov. 17. Mahurin’s website is www.mattmahurin.com.

(c) @U2/Lindell, 2018