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A Picture Book

By (August 1, 2014) No Comment

The Mind’s Eye: The Art of Omni

Edited by Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz
powerHouse Books, 2014

Laocoön fought alone to save his boys from the two sea serpents sent by Neptune. Laocoön lost, his boys were eaten, and he, in a serpent’s gullet, was carried to Minerva’s shrine, where he and his boys, tangled up in miniature versions of the two serpents, were assumed onto an eye-shaped space-ship. Three astronauts piloted the ship into orbit above the Earth. There, Laocoön, his sons, the serpents—turned marble, metamorphosed into the Laocoön, the statue found buried in a vineyard during the Renaissance. The astronauts, so as to better observe this miracle, or perhaps to distance themselves from it, left the ship, and watched, tethered, as Laocoön floated in agony.

How else to interpret the painting Rudolph Hausner made for the cover of the September 1980 issue of Omni magazine?

The painting is called “Laocoön in Orbit” and was “done in tempera mixed with resin and mounted on Novopan sheet.” The caption from which I quote explains that, “Vienna’s master of fantastic realism… visualizes the singularity of progress in space.” I guess that’s how else to interpret the painting?

The Mind’s Eye: The Art of Omni, collects artwork produced for the magazine between 1979 and 1993. That’s all it does. There’s nearly no text: a thousand words by Omni editor Ben Bova who barely mentions the art at all (“And illustrations of course, from the top visual artists”), a handful of bizarre quotes from Bob Guccione, Omni’s publisher (“There is a universal architecture of infinite elegance and logic, from which all things animate and inanimate seem to derive”), a hopeful and apologetic “Editor’s Note” (essentially a blurb for omnireboot.com, a digital repository for Omni’s print history and online store for SF collectibles and pornography), and captions that provide the artist’s name, the title of the article or story the painting is associated with, and the date of publication.

That’s enough of a lead for the curious reader who wants to know more: the caption to “Laocoön in Orbit” from which I quoted comes not from The Mind’s Eye, but from the inside cover of the September 1980 issue of Omni itself (which I read at Internet Archive [archive.org] ).

OMNI_NOV_1981_081This extra-textual field trip provided an opportunity to reacquaint myself with Omni, a new age response to more serious general-reader magazines such as Science and Discovery, paid for with Guccioni’s Penthouse moola—among Bova’s jobs, he writes, was “to convince potential readers, advertisers, and circulation outlets that Omni was not ‘Penthouse in space’….” Omni ceased publication in 1998. By then, there were cheaper and easier ways to read unfounded, science-ish jibber-jabber.

The Mind’s Eye lacks what I consider to be a bare minimum of information an oversized art book should include: the titles of the artwork and the media used to make the artwork. An index would be handy. Locating “Laocoön in Orbit” can only be accomplished by flipping through the book (it’s on page 33). Ben Bova’s introduction is amusing but slight; the editors, Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz, ought to have written a more relevant introduction, if only to detail the apparently difficult job of tracking down the artwork reproduced. Some of the artists are famous enough not to require an introduction—we can be expected to know who H.R. Giger and Frank Frazetta are—but otherwise, those of us not plugged into the world of professional illustration, might find useful the inclusion of brief artist’s biographies.

OMNI_MAY_1992_004As I read through the September 1980 issue of Omni I considered other missed opportunities. Quote the silly captions (“the singularity of progress in space”). Include abstracts of the articles the illustrations were commissioned for—or at least explain that “UFO Update” was a regular column in Omni. The Frazetta—opposite “Laocoön in Orbit”—is captioned “Frank Frazetta, ‘Fiction: Our Lady of the Sauropods,’ September 1980”; why not include the name of the author of “Our Lady of the Sauropods”? (It’s Robert Silverberg, a major name in New Wave SF. And, by the way, “Our Lady of the Sauropods” is dreadful.)

The Mind’s Eye fails as an archive, except that it does beautifully reproduce artwork briefly viewed by millions of readers, then tossed or filed away. I suspect much of it—the originals and otherwise—dumped by the publishers and the artists themselves. Art as paycheck. And it’s fun to look at, even if frequently dumb. The worst tropes of fantasy art are on hand here: big-breasted (or bare-breasted) babes firing laser pistols, space ships, “homages” to René Magritte and Hieronymus Bosch, robot dinosaurs, and—my least favorite—what would the world look like if it was ruled by cats? (“Witches,” the H.R. Giger reproduced in The Mind’s Eye, is like a parody of the cat-trope, while also like a parody of Alien, while also the worst Giger I’ve ever seen.) Overall, the art is generally as good as album cover artwork, which is to say even when it’s silly, it’s often fascinating, and encourages a similar kind of looking.

Though some of the art is familiar, only one illustration struck me as iconic, and that’s John Schoenherr’s painting of a sandworm from Dune, rising out of the sand, hooked by Paul Atreides and his men. Again, a more substantial text would be appreciated—to confirm or deny my impression that this image had an impact akin to, say, the painting of the shark on the Jaws movie poster, and isn’t just of import to SF readers.

What I enjoy most in The Mind’s Eye is the work that, in the context of a book of fantasy art and magazine illustration, looks a bit out-of-place. Before I knew the artists’ names, I stopped at the paintings by Wolfgang Hutter and James Marsh whose styles are somewhat folky, whose palettes are bright and cheery—even when the images are not (a monkey, holding a bright red fruit, sitting among bright green cacti, whose face resembles a human skull).

The strangest image in The Mind’s Eye? A painting by Grant Wood, a landscape, rural America, circa 1930. Grant Wood? The same Grant Wood who painted “American Gothic” provided an illustration for Omni magazine?

The book doesn’t say.

OMNI_SEP_1991_031 New
Adam Golaski is the author of Color Plates and Worse Than Myself and the editor of The Problem of Boredom In Paradise: Selected Poems By Paul Hannigan. His poetry has appeared in a number of journals including 1913: A Journal of Forms (#6), MoonlitLittle Red Leavesword for/word, and LVNG. Adam blogs at Little Stories.