The Art of Bryan Proteau
In a modern world where fine art can seem obsessed with message at the expense of beauty, it’s no surprise that many artists choose to align themselves with traditional styles of illustration. Rejecting over-theorizing in favor of perfecting delicate pen and ink technique, decorative embellishments, and elegant compositions, these artists hearken back to the golden age of 19th Century illustration. The work of artists like Gustave Doré and Harry Clarke, whose work in turn bore the influences of Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, is echoed in this emerging new school of artists.
This style of artwork, with its rejection of mainstream ideals, finds a surprising but ultimately natural marriage to heavy metal, a type of music that in many ways eschews traditional values. Though frequently loud and aggressive in comparison to the delicate art produced by neo-traditional illustrators, creators in both realms share a deep concern with non-mainstream aesthetics.
San Francisco-based artist Bryan Proteau, also known under the pen name Cloven Hoov, is a perfect example of this connection between neo-traditional artwork and underground music. A photographer, illustrator, and tattoo artist, Proteau’s work blends his passion for art history with his love of heavy metal.
After arriving in San Francisco to study art, Proteau found himself seeking a way to apply his skills to the Bay Area metal scene. He had taken a hiatus from drawing in order to explore other elements of self-expression. Seeing an opportunity to document the many shows he attended, he began photographing the bands and fans. His work soon caught the attention of Cvlt Nation, who brought Proteau on as a photographer. His intimate involvement in the scene gave him opportunities to speak to musicians and label heads alike, but it was his enthusiasm that led to the formation of strong friendships.
One such connection was established between Proteau and the members of post-metal powerhouse Deafheaven. Proteau explains:
I met the band after shooting them at one of their early shows opening for the band Nails. I’d photographed a lot of shows by that point and their performance definitely stood out to me. I sent them a link to the photos via MySpace, continued to go to their shows and shoot, did a little interview with them, and even took their first promo photos.
When I started drawing again, vocalist George Clarke expressed interest in using one of my drawings for a shirt and we’ve worked together on things here and there ever since. Also, Trevor Deschryver from the doom metal band Lycus was drumming for them at the time, and I got connected with him and did the demo art for Lycus. In the beginning of our careers, it seemed like our lives were closely intertwined. I even got George a job in the dining room of the retirement home where I was working breakfast shifts five days a week.
I think what makes us work together so well is our friendship, and the mutual respect for each other’s work. We believed in each other from the beginning and still support each other after the huge changes we’ve been through since first meeting. It’s been so crazy and awesome to see how far they’ve come; I’m extremely proud of what they’ve accomplished. And I’m also baffled and amused at the amount of ire they’ve garnered from certain outspoken “metalheads.” They’re one of my favorite bands to draw for, and I hope we continue working together well into the future.
Proteau’s artwork has captured the attention of bands that the artist has admired from afar. He discusses some especially memorable projects:
Working with the bands Mamiffer and Sumac has been a tremendous honor for me. When Faith Coloccia formed Mamiffer, I was instantly drawn into the mystique surrounding the project, and I fell in love with her photos and ash paintings. Working with Mamiffer has been huge for me. Similarly with Sumac, the new heavy band led by Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom); when I was asked to make something for them, I felt extremely honored and incredibly nervous. Here is someone whose art and music I’ve closely followed for a decade asking me to work with him on a project. I almost didn’t want to do it for fear of it not living up to my own standards of what kind of art I would want to see paired with such a powerful band. I also really enjoyed making the poster for the second Gilead Fest, the weekend music festival held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin put on by label Gilead Media. Those weekends were filled with so many bands I love and memories I’ll cherish. Also, the art for the Fórn album “The Departure of Consciousness” I think is a high point in my illustrations. Those guys have always let me do whatever I want when designing something for them, and it’s always really enjoyable.
The development of his signature style—a combination of graceful linework and occult symbolism—was an organic process:
The technique was developed through trial and error. I did some etching in college which partially informed the way I draw. I’ve always loved rich, detailed art the most so that’s what I strive to create. I use a variety of india ink pens, brush, and nib pen for my work. Early on I was inspired by Goya’s black paintings, with their intense black backdrops with figures looming out of the darkness. I also looked to the obvious greats like Doré and Dürer for engraving style inspiration. I’m also a huge fan of Bosch and Bruegel. But the one contemporary artist I’d say really made me realize that pen and ink drawings have the potential to be beautiful, fine works of art was Aaron Horkey. Horkey works with a lot of musicians that I like, creating insanely detailed compositions using only line. I’m always striving for a Horkey level of excellence in my work. He makes me inspired and want to quit at the same time.
In addition to his photography and illustration work, Proteau is also studying the art of tattoo. This highly intimate craft comes with its own challenges:
The stakes are a lot higher with tattooing versus illustrating. There are no redos with tattoos. Working with tattoo clients takes a lot more patience because you’re getting a much larger section of the population. With illustration, people are familiar with my work and have like-minded aesthetics. This isn’t always the case with tattooing, where someone could just walk in off the street wanting something I would never choose to draw in my entire life. My teacher Josh Visher is a very patient and accommodating man, so I try to channel him when dealing with someone who doesn’t have the most fun ideas.
Diverse influences and references combine in Proteau’s artwork. Esoteric themes of nature, alchemy, and the cycle of life are prominent, and at one time the artist worked under the business name Natvres Mortes, a reference to the memento mori tradition. His preferred pen name, Cloven Hoov, was chosen as an evocative reference to the supernatural element lurking beneath the surface of his imagery. He has created a personal visual vocabulary that leads the viewer on a journey that resists being locked to a single geographical or chronological space.
In a single page of Proteau’s portfolio, one can recognize elements of Greek Orthodox Christianity, 18th Century French, and British folk revival iconography. Proteau elaborates on this characteristically American tendency to select elements from other cultures:
Honestly I’m just taking in and filtering all the imagery that resonates with me, and I’m trying to transmute it into something that hopefully resonates with others. I’m participating in artistic tradition that goes back centuries, simply by making art. When I was at San Francisco City College, I took an art history course (not my first) and was asked to come back the following semester as a Teacher’s Assistant. That means I was doubly exposed to hundreds of years of different styles of art. I was compelled to examine them closely, and that’s when I really started to notice the things I liked about certain types of art, and that’s when I ended my hiatus from drawing and started doing work as Cloven Hoov.
Proteau continues to explore new ways to present the imagery he creates, and is continuing to collaborate with other artistic spirits. When asked about upcoming projects, he had this to say:
I’m a big fan of the art object, and making art pins is my answer to creating that art object for people to tangibly enjoy. It started as an experiment, and I was really pleased with the results in terms of both the quality and people’s reception. I’m going to continue making them, I’m always trying to outdo the last one. A dream project for me would be to make a really nice, ornate wooden box with either laser engraving or a laser engraved metal inlay decoration to house the pins for collectors.
I will be attending and tabling at Migration Fest in Olympia, Washington this summer. It’s a festival put on by Gilead Media and 20 Buck Spin that I’m looking forward to. I’m also going to do a collaborative print with my UK friend/kindred-spirit illustrator Sin Eater. I can’t say what it is, but it will be paying tribute to one of our favorite albums ever.
It can be a challenge to look to the past while creating artwork that doesn’t drown under the weight of its influences. Bryan Proteau’s combination of intellectual curiosity and ability to connect with like-minded artists mean that his work will continue to evolve as his worldview expands. His is a creative journey that will be exciting to follow.