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Tabloid Tableaus: Mike Shinoda and the "Glorious Excess" of Celebrity Lives

As a leading member of the Grammy Award-winning rock band Linkin Park, Mike Shinoda knows something about fame. But he believes that he’s learned the most about fame by studying famous people he’s never heard of.

“(While traveling with Linkin Park) I was watching foreign celebrity tabloid shows in London,” recalls Shinoda, who sat down with Swindle Magazine founder Roger Gastman for a public conversation at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). “The tabloids treated each person like they were the most important person in the world. But I didn’t know any of them. I noticed that tabloids in other countries were the same—Germany, France, Japan.”

Shinoda was fascinated by how the notion of celebrity seemed to transcend cultures, and the idea stuck with him. “It didn’t seem like it would work as a song so I did a few paintings, which became the start of a show.”

For Shinoda, an accomplished painter and visual artist, that show became the provocative and well-received exhibition Glorious Excess (Born), which premiered in 2008 at JANM. Shinoda’s new sequel exhibition, Glorious Excess (Dies), concludes the two-part series, which loosely follows the story of an unnamed celebrity character, depicted as a skeleton often clad in flashy clothing.

“Vanitas is a 16th-century European style of painting, a kind of still life with social commentary,” explains Shinoda, noting that the image of a human skull is a common vanitas symbol. “The Glorious Excess character symbolizes poison, anorexia, other aspects of celebrity life. He was ‘born’ in the first show, and now he’s dead.”

Thinking in terms of lifespans is one of Shinoda’s recurring themes. “I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid. When I was three or four years old, my parents would give me a pen or pencil and a napkin or placemat to draw on during meals.”

Shinoda’s love of drawing led him to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he majored in illustration and was a highly driven student. “I took it upon myself to take graphics,” says Shinoda. “I was the youngest graduation they’d ever had at the time, in 1998. I was 21. I had powered through school to keep my expenses low, and I played in a band at night.” In an unexpected twist, Shinoda’s nighttime musical hobby turned into an extraordinary career as Linkin Park signed with Warner Bros. Records and became an international sensation.

“Art Center was a fast-paced school, and I took a rigorous schedule of classes—sometimes seven or eight classes at once,” Shinoda remembers. “I learned a lot there—craftsmanship, attention to detail, and staying focused. We critiqued each other’s work—tearing into each one. We’d tear every idea into shreds before we were done with it. You have to learn quickly to leave your ego at the door. I took a lot of that into my music.”

How does someone used to leaving his ego at the door define excess? “I don’t know. Everyone defines it for themselves. It’s a balance between commerce and artistic integrity. Everyone sits somewhere on the spectrum. I think this (Glorious Excess) character is on the farthest end of that spectrum.”

To evoke the extremes of celebrity excess, Shinoda used bold, even garish colors and images designed to shock. He combines painting with computer graphic design techniques, but is hesitant to describe his style. “I avoid labels even with music. I don’t want to be locked into terms, which can come and go.”

“I’m a product of the digital age,” says Shinoda. “I grew up on the computer. We were lucky to learn computers in grade school. I’m totally in favor of getting that into kids’ hands at a young age. In art I tried to get it into the computer as quickly as possible—scanning, changing colors.” Shinoda says he has no “general method,” but uses software programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter with a variety of types of paint, including spray paint.

One of the exhibition’s most striking aspects is a quartet of portraits of four iconic celebrities: Andy Warhol, Kurt Cobain, James Dean, and John Lennon. “They represent the four seasons of celebrity martyrdom, and each had an effect on mainstream popular culture. They each died in a different season and represent four ways of dying—a breadth of celebrity death. Each had certain myths and conspiracy theories surrounding his death.” Shinoda says he had started with an initial list of about 60 celebrities before selecting the final four for portraiture, but notes that Glorious Excess is a composite of many celebrities.

“Tupac, Beckham, Paris Hilton are all parts of the Glorious Excess character,” Shinoda says. “He ultimately overdoses on himself. Paparazzi shoot images from 100 different angle which go to different publications that bombard you with the same thing.”

“There are certain rules of celebrity; one is that any press is good press,” Shinoda adds, commenting that the skeletal image is deliberately repeated through the exhibition in a relentless way. “For the Glorious Excess character, a constant reinvention of his look is essential.”

Shinoda also incorporated collages of hundreds of images from actual tabloid publications, and admits that he had a “learning curve” in understanding the world of celebrity tabloids, which he didn’t ordinarily read. He knew some, but not all, of the celebrities the tabloids exploited.

“I took a poll with friends for the funniest celebrity baby name,” Shinoda muses as an aside. “‘Pomegranate’ was the winner—that came from Brad (Delson) from our band.”

“People who do these tabloids are awesome at grabbing your attention with words, colors, and typography,” says Shinoda. “Most people who buy these magazines either don’t know or care that they’re being manipulated. Linkin Park isn’t in the tabloids much, as they tend to focus more on actors rather than music.”

The exhibition’s finale features a highly stylized coffin that ultimately came from the same company that made Michael Jackson’s coffin. “I wanted to find the gaudiest thing you can find,” says Shinoda, who remarked that the timing of the famed pop singer’s passing presented an interesting moral dilemma for the exhibition.

“Forty-eight hours after the Glorious Excess press release, Michael Jackson’s death was announced,” says Shinoda. “There was a lot of exploitation. But it ended up being a good reality check for being fair. It was definitely a good thing for the show.”

Ultimately, Shinoda explains, the Glorious Excess character “pimplodes” as a result of his emptiness. He chose to leave the details of the character’s death abstract and open to interpretation, but he offers a parting thought about the nature of celebrity.

“You may not be able to change what other people are doing but you can control your own actions. Your attention supports a certain work.”

© 2009 Japanese American National Museum

art artist exhibition Japanese American National Museum Mike Shinoda