While there was no end of controversy and speculation around the title of Kanye West's seventh studio album, far less media attention was directed towards its artwork (unless you count the spate of tools allowing you to create your own that emerged shortly after its release). So how much do you really know about the cover art for The Life Of Pablo? Or, more importantly, the man behind it: Belgian artist Peter De Potter.
For most people, the answer is likely “not much.”
Although De Potter himself gained some wider attention when he collaborated with fellow countryman Raf Simons in 2001, his presence is certainly not as widely felt as someone like George Condo (who produced the artwork for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), or Takashi Murakami (another regular Kanye collaborator). De Potter's work is inherently niche and underground, so don't feel like a total caveman if you've never heard of him before...
Known for his distinctive style of collage that combines photographic imagery with poignant and obscure snippets of text, De Potter sources much of his imagery from personal accounts on social media sites. His work I Am An Image Machine (2011) is a commentary on how our current generation is obsessed purely with imagery, and that authorship and context are frequently rendered unimportant.
In an interview with Brent Randall, De Potter explains: “The only thing people respond to is the emotional resonance of an image. Any image.” Unsurprisingly, he is notorious for showcasing much of his artwork through Instagram and Tumblr.
But how did such an artist get on Kanye’s radar? Almost certainly the link lies with Raf Simons. It’s no secret Kanye is a huge Raf fan, citing the designer as a key influence in much of his fashion work. In 2001, De Potter provided Simons with input on designs and graphic corporate imagery, and was a Research Coordinator for The Fourth Sex — an exhibition co-curated by the Belgian fashion designer and Francesco Bonami.
In typical Simons style, The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes is a collection of iconographic material that tracks youth culture and subculture from the 1960s to 2003. De Potter’s role was “to come up with examples and visual quotes from the more hidden layers of pop culture — not so much cult, more the unsung heroes, the little gestures, the B-sides”.
While De Potter’s imagery is often charged with homoerotic sexual energy, it’s not what some would call “queer art.” The portrayal of men through male iconography or explorations of vanity, envy, and tenderness are all evident themes in his work. However, in an interview with Husk, De Potter insists his work is not necessarily about masculinity: “My work is not about masculinity. It’s not the subject…All the images, all the people in my work, all the pieces and samples are tools to construct a new visual story. Or a specific feeling. Or a state of mind. Or a moral statement.”
Exactly what the story, feeling, state of mind or moral statement was in the case of The Life Of Pablo hasn’t been made explicitly clear, although there’s every chance Kanye will elaborate at some stage. At present there's no information available on how long Kanye and De Potter have been working together behind the scenes, so we have no way of knowing whether the artwork would’ve looked any different (aside from the words) had an alternative title been chosen.
Still, one thing that most people can agree on is it was a new and unexpected turn for Kanye’s art direction, and the collage-like nature of De Potter's work seems to reflect the disparate nature of the album. Whether it will result in anything further remains to be seen.