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The Art Of Rowena
Rowena Morrill
Paper Tiger softcover £14.99 / $21.95

review by Paul Higson

Rowena Morrill has been producing fantasy art since accidentally stumbling upon her gift in the mid-1970s. Necessity meant that much of the portfolio is commissioned work for novel covers, calendars, games, cards and portraiture, often with the directions written into the finished image. Rowena does not appear to have argued too vociferously or stridently, enough room remaining to satisfy her creative urges. The limitations of the proscribed commissioners, however, are such that it takes its toll, especially when collected together as it has been for this book.
   There is no disputing the artist's ability, there is something to appreciate in each example of her art, but in virtually every image there is also something that jars, a discrepancy, an imbalance, a polluting factor. In most the fault lies in the balance of the finished product (and it taunts that a product many undeniably are). It might be in the colours that do not mingle, or weigh too heavily in particular corners of the canvas. If not that it is the failure to centralise the image or the collage effect that has resulted from her technique; the piecemeal accumulation of elements that will make up the final picture. The figures fail to interact; their sightlines drawn away from the object that we expect and are informed has been drawing their attention. Perspective is shot, not casually findable. At times the paintings resemble one of those 'spot the ball' photo paste-ups.
   The comments accompanying the images, slight relations by the painter author, throw up more opportunities for disagreement, betraying the artist further still as often being far from her original intentions, too familiar with the painting and the history to see the true flaws. Can she really believe the central character in her painting Flight of the Raven resembles an Indian? And how can she remain convinced that the voluptuary of Unless She Burn remain the focal point of that canvas when the male faces us, is larger than she and has the curiosity value of being handless? The footnotes are so brief and contradictory to the impressions made upon the observer that unavoidably one begins to ponder how often the artist has been mistaken as to unperceivable successes in her pictures and at more hidden failures beyond the obvious, hidden by successful renderings, that she may one day impose on the work.
   The Hildebrandt brothers make matters worse in their foreword by declaring their love for the life that Rowena has breathed into her dragons and fish monsters when they are in fact each and every one comic and nonsensical. Realism is rejected outright.
   There is wonder at the details but there are cancers in them too. The hard bodies on which the genre thrived in the period are sexy, beautiful marvels, but they strike poses that mean nothing, often a wrong mime in a landscape less important to the artist than a conjured flame or wave imbued with an especial eccentricity. There are signs that the artist lost her interest filling in a rocky terrain, a still ocean or a cloudless sky. The coiffured specimens are sometimes placed in unkindly coloured future wear that is blatantly the ski apparel of the artist's confessed liking, resulting the worst of 1980s' sci-fi kitsch. Neither is her humour mine, though amusement is derivable in one of the most workable paintings, Fascinating Flames, with its curvaceous moth girl attracted to a he-man composed of orange and blue flames. She fails to identify with Tolkien's world. It is not grungy enough, closer to My Little Pony that middle earthiness.
   There are possibly a dozen paintings in the entire book that might hang on a wall without bringing prompt infuriation. Stone Demon, a personal painting, is well understood to be one of the best examples of her work and none too surprisingly it doubles as the cover painting. Her Isaac Asimov portraits must have been a pleasure to the renowned science fiction novelist and a number of images with a pitch black background are particularly bold, such as the Hans Bok style cover she ran up for a re-issue of The Dunwich Horror, and Twilight Terrors, designed for a Halloween edition of National Lampoon magazine, a work worthy of repeat smiles. Other work that broaches the standard and quality that might equate them with the most enchanting of pre-Raphaelite art are the Garden of Stone, Crimson Demon, Forbidden Fragrance and In Nomine, in all of which she discovers the necessary balance. In line with those Victorian romantics fabric, hair, skin, beauty and light are so successfully managed it is maddening that she blunders the compositions as frequently as she does. Is she the victim of her own exhaustion?
   The fact that the most rewarding of Rowena's work deems from early in her career when expectations may have been lower and more recently when she was in a position to acquaint herself with comfort suggest that the learning is drawing to a close and that the remaining work may more frequently attain perfection. But the supporting words are snarled, just within understanding, the humour misfiring and the recall questionable, suggesting that she is as prone to her fancies as she ever was. The early book cover art for Ghosts I Have Been is dark if harmless, the foreground beauty balanced and cancelling out the background borderline cartoon-ish. But then the words of the artist inform us that the girl in the picture is vulnerable, when in my purview she is calm as if with reason to be unafraid. Supporting information for Aztec Sacrifice bemoans the fact that the legs of the prone model are too short, yet this discrepancy is unnoticeable to anyone but the artiste, the angle and only the artist's knowledge of the occasion haunting it. What offsets this outrageous, beautifully rendered painting is the instruction on the ensuing victim to cast her lovely eyes out of the canvas to seduce the viewer. It is absurd. The captions needed more and at the same time less information. As in an auction catalogue we would like the size of the canvas put into perspective, it never is, and the technique explained, or does she feel that she is in the end a cheat with the endless transparent glazing, a trick sheen creating a false radiance in the work. There is cliché that the artist has fallen into and there is cliché that the artist has engendered, though for this I blame the artist less than the decade in which she came to prominence. A smaller more selective gallery than this maddening lot could install a better impression of the artist and her work, but she is at peace with herself and requires no idolatry, so it would appear not to matter. For all the endless, frustrating complaint it is a fascinating ogle.
The Art of Rowena
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