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Unearthly Visions: Approaches To Science Fiction And Fantasy Art
editors: Gary Westfahl, George Slusser, and Kathleen Church Plummer
Greenwood hardcover £48.95
Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery
edited by Paul Barnett
Paper Tiger artbook £14.95 / $21.95
reviews by Steven Hampton
Here are two very different books that, together, form an enthusiastic survey of both genre art history and a snapshot of the field as it stands today. The first is a volume of academic essays focused on the general themes and specific content of genre art. The second book is a collection of interviews with 25 artists, lifted from the popular electronic fanzine, Paper Snarl.
Unearthly Visions reflects a broad enough range of viewpoints on the subject matter to deserve unstinting praise for its trio of editors, but some of the writing is mired in the wretched jargons of academia and overburdened with footnotes (often nearly as long as the article they follow), so at least a couple of these texts are barely comprehensible to the general reader. Still, I hasten to add that most of this book's contributors have sufficient writing experience to realise that intelligent or intellectual criticism does not mean the writer has to alienate the potentially wider readership of SF fandom. Gary Westfahl knows this trick, but co-editor George Slusser hasn't figured it out yet. Westfahl's opening essay 'Artists In Wonderland: Toward a True History of Science Fiction Art' suggests Gernsback's Amazing, especially with covers by Frank R. Paul, can safely be regarded as the point of origin for science fictional art of the most popular varieties. And, in spite of some playful dissembling, Westfahl is at his most compelling when breaking down the varied and subsequent developments of SF art into recognisable phases complete with suitable explanatory labels (although he succumbs to using table diagrams, and includes three whole pages of notes). However, Slusser's densely written introduction, 'The Iconology of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art', is staidly pedantic and overweening by comparison.
'The Northrop Continuum: Science Fiction and the Flying Wing Aircraft' by Howard V. Hendrix references The Gernsback Continuum, a classic short story (see collection, Burning Chrome, 1986) by William Gibson. In this brief but fascinating piece, Hendrix explores the aeronautical history of American bomber planes and their curious relationship to alternative worldly visions and themes of utopian futurism in literary SF. The essay also considers the recurring images of flying wing planes in sci-fi movies, which seem to present the concept of streamlining as a goal not as a process. The importance of design as a factor in artistic creativity and aesthetics is then addressed in respect of architecture and furnishings, in Kathleen Church Plummer's intriguing, 'Less Is More: Empty Space, Invisibility and Modern Design', establishing the principle that what you see is not all you get. The link to SF art is often tenuous, but not without relevance.
Gregory Benford reminisces about his 1969 meeting with famous space artist Chesley Bonestell, and considers the rather different style and content of artistic expression in Soviet astronomical art, in 'Getting It Right: A Reflection on Titans and Technology'. According to the next essay, 'The Vision of Space: The Artist's View' by Samuel H. Vasbinder, science fictional space art can be divided into the overlapping categories of 'pure space' (attempts to glimpse infinity?), 'near space' (depicting off-world activity from a more human perspective) and 'implied space' (astute symbolism and surreal imagery). This conflicts with Westfahl's more pragmatic groupings and temporary 'post-it' markers but merits attention, and is arguably compatible with the signature affect of SF art (favoured by Slusser, and others) which places a morally assertive human figure into wholly strange or alien backgrounds. Closing the SF-related section of this book, Kirk Hampton (no relation to your reviewer) and Carol McKay champion the work of talented painter Richard M. Powers in their partly biographical essay, 'Shapes from the Edge of Time'.
John Clute gets the second part off to a good start with 'Notes on the Geography of Bad and Good Fantasy Art'. This chapter re-opens the old debate about fantasy art's seeming enslavement to the tropes of Tolkien. A sense of humour is required to fully appreciate the next article; John Grant's highly amusing 'Archaeological Fieldwork in the Paper Tiger Stacks Report #43: A Short Happy History of Fantasy Art' offers wittily constructed vignettes about the work of such genre giants as Bosch and Disney that contain much food for thought - albeit in nuggets served by a mischievous waiter.
'Wisdom and Clemency: The Collaborations of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd' by Lynne Lundquist and Gary Westfahl is a longwinded but engagingly thorough study of Brown's books for children, which were illustrated by Hurd, and our essayists liken that author/artist partnership to the team of Lewis Carroll and Sir John Tenniel on the Alice In Wonderland books. From the relatively minor work of Brown and Hurd, we return to the key genre text of The Lord Of The Rings, as Beatrix Karthaus-Hunt's article 'And What Happened After' surveys the work of several artists' visualisations (Tolkien included) of the denizens of Middle-earth. And, finally, there's 'Conan the Oxymoron', David Hinckley's critical assessment of how artist Frank Frazetta helped to popularise the sword 'n' sorcery adventure tales of Robert E. Howard's noble savage. A bibliography of relevant titles, and a comprehensive index ensure this book is a valuable tool for researchers. The major quibble with Unearthly Visions is that it's a book about art without a single illustration.
Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery offers far more than its uninspired title implies. Paul Barnett is unmistakably passionate about his job as the chief editor at Paper Tiger, and his unequivocal zest for this important subject brings out the best in answers from this book's interviewees. This is a book to savour, not just for its careful selection of genre art, but also for its rare insight into the professional lives of more than two-dozen creative individuals.
The line-up begins with the award-winning Tom Alba, whose quirky puppets in the 'Of Clockwork Men' series are, by his own admission, influenced by Paul Berry's brilliantly stylish 3D animated short, The Sandman. Despite the inherent darkness of Brom's brand of "gothic fetishism," there's a luminous quality to his fabulously menacing creatures and brooding sword 'n' sorcery figures. Checkout this formidable artist's Darkwerks collection! Spanish painter Ciruelo Cabral produces inspiring work and, like many genre artists, he's also a musician. It's quite intriguing to hear that he's managed to combine visuals and soundtrack in a CD-ROM version of The Book Of The Dragon. Steve Crisp's art usually has a vividly colourful style, so it's a surprise to read that he did movie poster work on Aliens (1986). Joe DeVito does remarkable character studies (such as covers for Doc Savage books), and is also a sculptor happily obsessed with King Kong and Harryhausen's fantasy movies. His enthusiasm for the worlds of superheroes and dinosaurs makes an appealing interview one of my favourites in this book.
Although there's been some talk in genre fan circles about if or when the SF art field's traditionalists will opt for the hi-tech medium of digital art, Bob Eggleton has moved in the opposite direction, switching from airbrush techniques to oils on canvas. His explanation for this change is interesting, and so is the list of his influences, and thoughts on the fantasy content of paintings by the likes of Turner and Magritte. Fred Gambino is one of those SF artists who has embraced the computer as an invaluable creative tool. His photo-realism pictures have a dramatic sheen regardless of their lack of brushstrokes, and his interview reveals the tech specs of his current system, as well as mentioning his conceptual work on the animated movie Jimmy Neutron. The interview with John Harris is, perhaps, the highlight of this book. There's an in-depth discussion here about one or two of his paintings that's essential reading for fans of his work. If you are unconvinced that Harris is one of the greatest SF artists alive, buy his fantastic collection, Mass. It won't change your life, of course, but it will change your mind about what SF art can accomplish as Harris picks up where Chris Foss left off.
Unlike typical genre artists, whose work tends to embody peculiar dreamlike virtues, hard-SF painter Chris Moore [see his book Journeyman] maintains a distinctively realistic approach, and this pays off handsomely in many striking compositions. At the other end of the fantasy spectrum there's the spiky faerie figures of newcomer Marc Potts, who explains how to get a zillion shades of brown in one piece of art. One of the mobile sculptures by Lisa Snellings called 'Crowded After Hours' is a carnival wheel ride with 'characters' attached to it that resulted in the original anthology of short stories, Strange Attraction, edited by Edward Kramer. This delightful spinoff book includes fiction and poetry by big names such as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, inspired by characters from the ferris wheel, and Snellings produced 2D illustrations to accompany the texts. As she says here: "It ended up being an immense creative circle" in more ways than one.
Apart from famous names such as Britain's own David A. Hardy, and American legend Vincent Di Fate, this book is notable for showcasing the work of lesser known artists such as Slovakian Martina Pilcerova, and Australian Nick Stathopoulos. Both are producing excellent work, and it appears that it's only their respective difficulties in getting commissions from US publishers that's preventing these overseas artists' greater deserved success. Like Di Fate, Ron Tiner is a writer as well as an artist, and his expertise in both fields led to The Encyclopedia Of Fantasy And Science Fiction Art Techniques, co-written by John Grant. Knowing that editor Barnett is Grant's real name, it's fun to read Tiner's interview as these two old friends skate around the pitfalls of such a potentially awkward situation.
One of the last couple of interviewees featured here is Ron Walotsky, who sadly died at the end of July 2002, aged just 59. It's particularly intriguing to read about the inspiration for his series, 'Ancient Warriors from Lost Civilisations', which are elaborately painted masks using horseshoe crab shells! Barnett's sometimes-facetious chapter titles ('Di Fate Smiles Kindly', 'Land of the Freas', 'Let the Good Tiner Roll') aside, these interviews and the astonishing variety of artwork brought together here makes Fantasy Art Gallery undoubtedly one of the finest books of the year.
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