Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Seems like old times.

I was out walking around Kannapolis the other day when I met some other people from Signal Mountain, Tennessee, where I grew up! At least I assume they were from Signal Mountain. They were leaning out of an idling car, addressing me as "faggot," and speculating about my sex life, which is behavior I associate with Signal Mountain residents. If they had then started whining about how the government takes their money and gives it to people who are too lazy to work for a living, that would have confirmed the Signal Mountain origin of these future meth cooks.

It was a nostalgic moment. It's nice to find that things which were regular parts of one's youthful days haven't entirely faded away, and can still be experienced when one is a grownup.

Speaking of asinine youthful activity, some friends and I have been talking about the perniciousness of immersive fantasy computer games, the kind that give one the sensation of going places, meeting people, solving problems, accomplishing things... all the things one wants from a life. Several of us, myself included, got pretty fixated on these games at points in our lives when we felt that we weren't going anywhere, meeting anyone, solving anything...

Well, look what I found! It's a vision statement for a game called Planescape: Torment (originally called Last Rites, apparently) which I spent pretty much all my non-subsistence time playing for many months. I always considered the game to be one of the more artful, thoughtful, and respect-worthy such games I'd experienced. But this vision statement thing showed me another side of the game:

"We gots Gold, Glory, Power and Hero Worship. Why save a world you know nothing
about and have absolutely no attachment to? F*** that. We know what you really
want to do – you want to run rampant in a world where you are a god. You want
the power to change your environment, slaughter all who stand against you, and
be a hero worshipped by the masses – everything you don't get pushing
paper or suffering through school 40 hours a week."

and

"Sure, you may be a fat dateless loser in real life, but in Last Rites, you get
the women and respect you've always craved."

and

"We will work hard to try and include positive relationships within the game –
relationships that the player may not have in real life or may desire from
watching movies. The player can have buddies that will lay down their life for
the character, Betsies and Veronicas/Gingers and Mary Anns fighting over his
affections, mentors, loyal servants, and so on. They will thank the player for
his help or fawn for his attention, giving the player additional ego-stroking."

Oy. I hate to admit it, but all that puerile wish-fulfillment jive was a big part of the appeal. It's a bit of a shock to learn that the makers of this habit-forming cultural junk food are knowingly trying to get lonely people to form those habits.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Superflat in the Back Bay

I was considering doing another review of another kitsch art book, but I can't do it now because I've been hanging out in Boston's art museums and galleries for a week, and off-brand Frazetta just can't bear the comparison. One thing about galleries: in the South they assume you're broke until you indicate otherwise, and they're fine with that. Places in Boston, though, are terribly huffy about all these nonpaying looky-loos. I would have paid a reasonable admission fee to see (and sometimes resee) the art, so perhaps they should switch to a ticket-price-refundable-with-purchase-of-art model.

Miro gets closer to my idea of the Fantastic than more representational fantasy art does. He's joined Klee and Kandinsky in the first rank of my fave nonrepresentational artists.

New respect for Salvador Dali. His overexposed famous works are by no means the whole story; I've now seen a slew of his little funky drawings that gave me fresh appreciation for his skills and imagination. I've failed to find the image I want online, but the Martin Lawrence Gallery (Actually fairly friendly about the whole looky-loo thing) had a small etching or something on a Biblical theme in which little stick figures acted before soft, lovely colored background... then on closer inspection the background revealed itself to be towering angels looming over the action, some in the foreground rather than the background as a first glance suggested. A remarkable shift of perception, but also an intriguing theological statement.

Cubism works better for me live than in reproduction, and Picasso's cubism especially. He did for portraiture what Charlie Parker did for pretty tunes.

Also new respect for Warhol. I never noticed this before, but in some of his silkscreens he's hand-drawn a tracery of lines over the figures in his shaky hand. I've always liked his sketches of shoes and whatnot, and when he incorporates it into his silkscreens it really makes the images pop. So to speak.

Scroll down here till you get to "Jellyfish Eyes - Black 4" and you'll see my favorite of the images I saw that were made within my lifetime. What isn't visible at this resolution is the way each pupil has many rings of color, pupils within pupils, or multiple rings of coronas around an almost microscopic core pupil.

Oceanic art is inspiring to me in a way I'm not sure I can articulate. Currently a lot of the dreamier nerds out there are terribly excited about Transhumanism; Oceanic peoples took such polymorphing of the body for granted, at least at a symbolic level. I recall being hypnotized by the Oceanic collection at the museum in Birmingham, Alabama as well.

Cornelia Parker's Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson) was my other favorite contemporary art discovery. A sort of mobile made of blackened burnt wood, suspended by thin lines tied to rough nails and pushpins in the wood. It looked like the fruit of a Clive Barker/Katsuhiro Otomo collaboration.

Also got to see some Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman photography. They both seem so necessary and so close to the truth while being so different in their approaches. Goldin is pure documentary, while Sherman is pure artifice, yet they both understand so much about our era.
***

Other delightful things about our trip to The Back Bay:

Meeting and dining with Laurie's friends (hello!) I hope to see and hear more from all. (For those who came in late: "Laurie" is my online to-protect-the-innocent pseudonym for my wife.)

Boston, or at least the Back Bay, is so pedestrian-friendly that it's driver-unfriendly. It completely inverts the Southern car culture thing where the attitude is "Why are you using the legs you were born with when you could be using a loud stinky expensive deathtrap? What's wrong with you?" In the Back Bay you can just cold stop in the street in order to focus in the conversation you're having with a fellow stroller, and all that the cars you're blocking can do is fume and honk. You could probably lie down on the nearest vibrating hood and take a nap if you chose, such is the cultural deference giving to pedestrians. My Wife's heedless jaywalking and complete disregard for driver's right-of-way finally makes sense to me. I've gotten a lot more arrogant about crossing the street.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Guide to Fantasy Art Techniques, edited by Martyn Dean

I still own this thing?

I bought this book in high school, mail order from Paper Tiger Books if memory serves, and I’m a bit perplexed that I still have a copy; I thought it had been lost in my hasty move from B'ham. Each chapter profiles a different artist (all white guys coincidentally) with interview snippets and slick reproductions of the profilee’s art. If I had a scanner I’d post some samples, but instead I’ll try to link to the appropriate websites so you can engage these artists as they present themselves 26 years later. Any quotes and such come from the book, though, not the websites.

Incidentally, back when I bought this book I actually got two copies. I was enamored of a fellow student who dabbled in art, and gave her the second copy as a Christmas gift. What she made of the nerd-fantasies and buxom pinups I’ll never know, but I did come across a copy at the local used bookstore a few months later, and always wondered if she’d traded it in.

JIM BURNS.

Science fiction book jackets, near-photorealistic representational art, spaceships, aliens. Lushly textured and polished surfaces; spaceships and costumes that look like they’ve been produced as art objects. I’ve occasionally attended showings of furniture-as-art, and Burns’ props remind me of the lacquered grainy beauty of wooden furnishings designed to beautify the way sculpture is expected to beautify.
To my untutored eyes his sense of color is rich; he knows how to make color pop for the marketplace, but he isn’t afraid of densely textured monochrome. The humans are pretty, but there’s a bit of the “I’m a conventionally attractive, highly airbrushed model who’s been glaringly photoshopped onto this illustration” syndrome that plagues book jacket illustration.

Quotes-“I put on layer after layer of thin color through the airbrush. I end up creating colors that are unavailable in tube form-there’s a transparent sequence of colors coming through. As with Maxfield Parrish’s blue-which he built up with glazes. I find that with the thinned down acrylics through the airbrush you start to get the same kind of vibrancy.

“I want my pictures to have a general appeal to ordinary people-I can’t stand artistic posturing.

“I particularly want to… convey artifacts which are the products of truly alien minds and different sets of perceptions. And to suggest materials other than wood or metal or plastic-somehow!”

I’d suggest that the opposite of “general appeal to ordinary people” isn’t necessarily “artistic posturing,” but be that as it may.

IAN MILLER.

A thicket of spidery penlines, colors that glow with the drabness of age and overcast days, ornate constructions and unsettling figures. In the 80s I was genuinely afraid of Ian Miller’s work. An artist friend described Miller, only half-jokingly, as Satanic. Today Miller is the artist in the book for whom I have the most non-nostalgic enthusiasm. Of these eight, he is the artist closest to the heart of my kinda fantasy.

Quotes- “I think that most of what I do has a very primeval root. I’ve been told that I’m medieval, but I think I’m more primordial. I have a fetish-cum-totem attitude toward images…I’m inclined to draw in a ‘frontalistic’ style, I suppose, after the Ancient Egyptians.

“I identified very closely… with the Japanese concept of ‘The Fleeting, Floating World’ and with he directness and unsullied perception of Japanese artists. Their stoicism and single mindedness is a great pointer for us all. It’s magic from sweat.”

PATRICK WOODROFFE.

I got two books by this guy; the first, Mythopoeikon was a delight to me. Sadly it fell apart after much perusal. Woodroffe was all over the place, cartoony yet capable of rich detail work. When I think no one’s listening I sometimes say “I AM BIG AND STRONG” in honor of a Felixesque cat Woodroffe drew who said those straightforward words. The later book, Hallelujah Anyway, was a bit of a letdown. Lots of photos with painted paper dolls, reminiscent of the Cottingham Fairies, but the same dolls in different little backyard contexts wear a bit thin when one’s shelled out for a coffee table edition. The full-on paintings had developed a settled style, unlike the jittery let’s-try-this attitude of his earlier work, and it wasn’t a style I loved: Twee Grandeur, like a veddy English and veddy psilocybin Thomas Kinkaide. Unlike his early stuff, which wasn’t afraid to be alarming while being charming, Woodroffe had lost his stomach for rot, decay, damage, all of which had been present in the early work. Once he would have shown us a field that looked lovely yet had all the browning and withering one finds in nature; later he expelled the serpent (or real toad) from the garden, to the detriment of his work.

Quotes:-“ Doing what reality can’t do makes the art stronger. I like to skirt the edges of kitsch because I think that’s where some of the best art comes from.” (editor’s note: if you think fairies in lingerie flying on dragonfly wings over England’s pleasant pastures constitutes anything less than a headfirst plunge into kitsch, you might be Woodroffe’s kind of person.)
“…a lot of artists make the mistake of believing that correctness is important. I build on the fact that it’s wrong. A lot of painters have done that in the past-particularly in mediaeval times, I suspect.

“I’m not acceptable in the art-establishment fields, but I have the compensation that a lot of people out there like what I do.”

PHILLIP CASTLE.

His famous Clockwork Orange poster isn’t in the book; for some reason a bunch of his reference materials are pictured, but only a few of his images. All the paintings we do see show an artist thinking “Pinup girls are sexy, and fighter jets are sexy. What do I feel like painting today?” Answer: fetishy pinup-girl/jet amalgams. The stuff is slick, but like a lot of fetish art that isn’t to one’s own tastes, this might be nauseating.

I konked out trying to find interesting quotes. Moving on…

SYD MEAD.

An industrial designer whose specialty is technologically plausible conceptual art. He designed those flying cars for Blade Runner. I admire his work, but his illustrations are more about means-to-an-end communicating possibilities to clients than about end-product entertainment for nerd eyeballs, so it’s a bit like looking at blueprints: interesting, but it rolls right off my brain.

I just looked at his website and I take it all back. I implore you, look at these cartoons. God bless you, Syd Mead.

“…get beyond the burning of fossilized petrochemicals-that’s a primitive way of doing it. We’re not so much advanced from the people who burnt oil in a lamp in Babylonian times.”

CHRIS FOSS.

Hey, it says here he did the happy hippie funtime illustrations for The Joy of Sex, but you won’t see any of that in this book. It’s all spaceships, all the time. As a youth I found his lumpy ships off-putting, but now I think they’re pretty exciting. Foss is a sort of abstractionist-he certainly isn’t into the material-as-material approach to abstraction that the Ab-Ex crowd made famous, but an artist friend of mine once described Foss’s work as “painting a cloud and calling it a spaceship,” which I would repeat, only as a complement this time. Wonderful clouds with clownfish colors. Constructivist parade floats.

No quotes this time, although he cites Picasso, Turner and Schiele as inspirations, and he rhapsodizes about dirty old trains. In high school I had no use for those artists or dirty trains-today I love them all. No wonder Foss’s work has grown on me. Please buy some art so he can afford a less drab website.

MARTIN BOWER. A spaceship model maker for stuff like Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blake's Seven, and Space: 1999. An impressive resume of SF movies and TV; he's clearly a go-to guy for spaceship models. He says he also makes miniature hobbits for fun, and the book includes a picture of a disturbing cyborg woman figure he’s made. She looks like a buxom latex, er, toy. Ewwww. None of these cyborg women on the website, but I got the proof that he made them right here. YOU CAN'T HIDE FROM YOUR SORDID PAST MARTIN BOWER. (Who am I kidding? If I'd had the skills I would have whittled a few girlfriends myself back in the lonely days.)

BORIS VALLEJO. Somewhere along the way Vallejo decided to play The Monkees to Frazetta’s Beatles, and he’s sold a lot of calendars that way. Buxom women in chainmail seem to strike a chord with a lot of working-class nerds, female as well as male, as proven by his hot musclebound wife Julie Bell, who came into his life some time after the interview in the book. I'm tempted to make fun of their art, but I won't because either one of them could clobber me with one hand while painting a buxom barbarian with the other hand.

Vallejo talks up the old masters, particularly Murillo and Velasquez.

An indirect quote from Boris struck me as a youth: “…yellow (is) brighter than white on canvas because it creates a greater illusion of brilliance, and black can be made to appear darker by adding red to it to produce a sense of depth.” This led me to consider the hard-to-notice subtleties of life around me. It’s sad when the person giving you a subtler, more nuanced understanding of life is Boris Vallejo, but you never know from whence wisdom will come.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Book Larnin'

I recently finished Plus by Joseph McElroy. It's bit like 2001: A Space Odyssey as reworked by Samuel Beckett. It's a demanding text, formally complex, but I was close to tears by the end. The protagonist Imp Plus has been voluntarily disembodied, then reembodied in a mysterious bioengineered form that he/she/it must explore in an accelerated and alien version of the exploration we all make of our bodies as we grow and change. His changes happen quickly, and eventually he comes into a three-way conflict with his "parents" on the earth (Imp Plus is in orbit around the earth in a satellite) all of which leads to a Star Child transformation. I checked this out from the library, and hope to have my own copy someday so I can mark it up with crabbed, incomprehensible marginalia. I came close to giving up on the daunting text, but I'm awfully glad I stuck it out; the demands of the style force one to undergo a perplexing journey which parallels Imp Plus's journey. I don't know when I've felt so glued to a character; each page took as much effort as 3-5 pages of the average novel, but this became one of those "I don't want it to end" reading experiences. The good news is that McElroy has written a great deal more.

I've also started reading two old paperback novels I enjoyed as a teen in the Eighties: Stinger by Robert R. McCammon and Glory Lane by Alan Dean Foster. The former is about a dried-up Texas town that gets invaded by aliens; the latter is about a punk, a preppy and a valley girl type who wind up on a Spielbergian space adventure. I'm not far into either one this go-round since I've decided to restrict my reading of them to a specific context: to keep our neurotic cat happy I occasionally put him in harness and take him for strolls around the back yard (any more outdoor freedom than that and he tends to wind up having to go to the Vet.) Paperbacks are an ideal reading format for these strolls, so... once or twice a week I'll spend an hour or so with one of these adolescent favorites. I suppose I'm trying to crack the code of what I liked about these entertainments; they're both greasy kids' stuff, but I think I can glimpse some seeds of my later interests in these books. Stinger so far puts a lot of effort into setting up a dying Texan town; the author may be trying to entertain kids with a corny good vs. evil monster story, but he's interested in small-town angst, a subject I find much more interesting than monster fights nowadays.

Glory Lane's opening follows Seeth, a listless punk, as he wanders another small town, looking for fun and commenting acerbically on all he perceives. Since the days when I read this book a hundred times I've touched down with more deeply rooted punk sensibilities than a pasteurized portrayal like Seeth, but back in the 80's something with the stink of real punk would have sent this privileged Presbyterian fleeing to the exit. Seeth made me laugh as a high schooler, though, and left his mark: protagonists who can't stop with the witty social commentary still figure in my reading, from Humbert Humbert to his cousin Charles Arrowby and Martin Amis's own Self. I recently enjoyed Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand, who blends punk sensibility, social commentary, small-town (or village) angst with a remarkable rumination on art, memory, rebirth. I suppose my reading of it was made possible by my enjoying of those earlier entertainments.