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The Why of the Beholder

By (January 1, 2010) No Comment

Spectrum 16

Edited by Cathy Fenner and Marty Fenner
Fantagraphics Books, 2009

Last summer I took a friend of mine to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, over his objections. He’s very young and very beautiful – a work of art himself – but he knows as little about so-called high culture as a cat does about Copernicus, and his patience was correspondingly limited. “I’m really dumb about this stuff,” he said, leaving unspoken his obvious corollary, and this stuff is really dumb too.

I insisted. We had the afternoon at liberty, and I’ve played the droning docent in more art museums than I care to count. And for once, I found myself not lamenting the state of public education in America (and its various allied but fractious independent nations, such as Brooklyn) but rather gamely thinking about the validity of the vast collection awaiting us. As he checked our bags and I made our donation, I looked at the soaring marble staircases and stolid entry ways and thought, Well, old girl, here you are! He’s eighteen and doesn’t want anything to do with you – do you have anything to say to him? Do you still possess the power to snare such creatures?

I feared the worst, and I got it right away. In the rooms of ancient Greece and Rome, where I’d been surest of an early triumph (they worshiped picturesque youth in a way modern American culture explicitly, though unknowingly, apes), I met with an indifference no amount of Antonine facts and figures could overcome. As we moved on, I diagnosed the problem: my young friend wasn’t seeing the works of art before him – he was concentrating entirely on how little he knew about them. His sense of exclusion was making him mulish.

So I tried a game. We drew close to a long Chinese painted scroll, and I asked him what he thought when he looked at it. He shuffled a bit and offered, “Well, it’s really old.” No, no, I reassured him, no museum-facts. Come at it completely fresh, almost without words at all – when you simply look at it, what impressions does it make?

“Well,” he said, and then, to my happy amazement, it worked: “It’s big. I mean, the painting is really long, there’s lots of trees and tall mountains, and the people traveling through it are these little specks. And it’s kind of beautiful, with the mist in the valleys like that. It’s like the whole thing is an ad for something, an ad for this place.”

He was entirely right, and we then read about it together: Wang Hui’s 17th century silk handscroll commemorating the emperor K’ang-his’s tour of southern China – a work specifically designed to advertise the sprawling glories of the realm overseen by those little specks riding through it, and very likely meant by the artist as an invitation for the prince to feel a little humility in the process. My friend walked away feeling a connection with that work, an understanding of it that had nothing to do with book-study.

We repeated the experiment all afternoon, and it worked every time (we steered clear modern art; for the variously-contended glories of Ellsworth Kelly or Richard Diebenkorn or Cy Twombly or the like, he’ll need someone more open-minded than I, who continue to think painting should be the product of skill, rather than the ostentatious flaunting of its absence). Looking at Hans Holbein’s Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family: “Wow – he looks like a real person! Like we’re looking at a photograph, even though it’s so long ago” (yes, welcome to the wonder of Holbein); looking at Tiepolo’s Allegory of the Planets and Continents: “Wow – it just keeps going up and up! You almost get dizzy” (yes, the finished picture tops the staircase of the palace in Wurzburg and gives – and was intended to give – the impression of dizzying height); looking at El Greco’s View of Toledo: “Wow – the city looks so fragile! It’s kinda frightening” (yes, Toledo is represented as a thin grey string of stone caught between a landscape of lush greens and a skyscape of violent blues). By the time we reclaimed our coats, my friend was willingly, happily ensnared.

I envied him; I’d had Antonine facts and figures drilled into my head long before he was born, and sometimes I feared I could never recapture the experience of seeing art without them. Where, for instance, could I go where art history wouldn’t follow me? The tiny art galleries of Boston’s chic Newbury Street, with their avaricious silences and the black-clad artist standing right there, malodorous and angry? No.

I was pouring through the latest in Fantagraphics’ Spectrum series – an annual collection of contemporary fantasy art – when I thought, here you are! Nine-tenths of the great works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were commissioned items, carried out on deadline for a fee. We do them a disservice if we forget that – we let them put on airs. And what better term than ‘fantasy art,’ for a building full of gods cavorting with mortals, or pregnant virgins, or demigods nailed to crosses? As I flipped the pages in Spectrum 16, I saw these works afresh, in light of the summer’s experiment. Editors Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner have once again assembled a staggering array of pieces in all moods, all media, all methods of execution (including some that were done for the hell of it, with no deadline and no fee), and the obstacle to enjoying them amounts to the same thing my young friend felt: the exclusion of knowledge. Readers who don’t know an orc from an Inhuman might worry that they’re really dumb when it comes to artwork like this – and they might suspect that artwork like this is really dumb.

Neither is the case. Just as so many of the works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art use shared cultural icons as a kind of common language (stories from the Bible and Greek mythology were that common language, until the Internet showed up), so do the hundreds of works in Spectrum 16. You may not read fantasy novels, but thanks to the movie blockbusters of Peter Jackson, you’ll likely recognize the Lord of the Rings allusions that inevitably crop up in every Spectrum collection. Likewise with Conan the Barbarian, or King Kong, or Godzilla, or even Captain America. And surely every lingua franca in the world starts with pictures of a young woman’s breasts?

And dragons. Lord help us, all the dragons. But art genres don’t get to pick their conventions, and snickering cognoscenti should beware: take all the angels out of your local Museum of Art, and you’ll be left with a couple of clay pots and a janitor’s closet. So there are dragons, and the point is to care about how they’re rendered, not to carp at their inclusion.

The editors kick things off with a fairly standard ‘Year in Review’ essay looking over the trends in fantasy books, films, comics, and of course artwork throughout the year. These essays always do more harm than good, but this one is at least brief – then the various categories in which Spectrum hands out awards are introduced, also perfunctorily, since even the most observant readers will be hard-pressed to discern any inherent difference between, say, “Concept” art, “Editorial” art, and “Institutional” art. You suspect at once that these categories exist so that more awards can be handed out to more people, but it’s a harmless suspicion in any case.

The real attraction here, of course, is the artwork, which contains universes. There are simple cartoons, elaborate dioramas, advertisements for comic books, video games, anime, movies, books – and almost every piece, no matter what its level of accomplishment, tells a story. Some tell their stories lazily, but no lazier than framed Fragonards that have been studied by many an earnest art student. And some tell them impenetrably – a girl coughing up a semi-liquid reflection of herself is a Moebius strip of self-reference that can’t show us anything about anything except the artist’s need for higher doses of medication.

Quite a few of them this year – as every year – are quite formidably good. Whether it’s the warm, openly sentimental oil paintings of Scott Gustafson (the rich interplay of avian personalities in his Parliament of Owls is very amusing) or the precise watercolors of Severine Pineaux (the merging of biological and mechanical in his Tinie Cricket is uncannily natural) or the acrylics of Nicholas McNally (his The Bite is an excellent representative of the humor that runs throughout this collection), the artistry here is generally of a high order indeed. The superhero world is amply represented, with excerpts from comics, cover art for graphic novels, display pieces like Tim Bruckner’s painted resin statue of Aquaman erupting from the surf, and a generous helping of fan-favorite industry pornographer Adam Hughes’ buxom heroines (all of them in playful moods, as is his Cat Woman). There are vampires, zombies, fairies, goblins, giant animals, wizards, and a few different takes on Elric of Melnibone (long-haired albino sorcerers having an undeniable appeal to many fantasy artists), but the classics are represented too – as in Steven Kenny’s, shall we say, energetic rendition of Leda and the Swan.

Every year, the variety of media represented grows, and every year, artists manipulate those media with greater and greater skill. Only two or three volumes ago, the mood and finesse of something like Jaime Jones’ Photoshop work Progenitas or Daniel Doclu’s digital piece Broken Ring wouldn’t have been possible – the technologies hadn’t progressed far enough, for one thing. In this volume, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with media that have been around since the ancient Egyptians – that’s the singular glory of the Spectrum series.

Broken Ring, by Daniel Doclu

No reader coming to this volume will know the back-stories of every work in it; no reader will know the life-stories of the many artists who’ve chosen to create entirely sui generis flights of fancy. Instead, you’re forced to see each work, to take it in solely on its own visual and visceral merits, to do your level best to behold and appreciate the stories these pictures are trying to tell. Expertise can sometimes annotate enjoyment, but the Spectrum series – like any good museum – can snare any open mind. My young friend from the Metropolitan Museum would feel welcome. You will too, I’m guessing.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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