Thursday, 31 July 2008

GARY PANTER: CHER IN JOHNNY ROTTEN'S CLOTHING?

Artist Gary Panter is all over the news lately. Hollywood gossip magazine Entertainment Weekly placed him on this week's "Must" List along with Cher's new Las Vegas show. The New York Times applauded the arrival of a fancy new two volume, boxed collection of his work.



His recent New York gallery opening was touted (by the gallery) as a "visual tour de force." And Panter's own website announces that Panter is
"possibly the most influential graphic artist of his generation, a fact acknowledged by the Chrysler Design award he received..."
It would take a lot of nerve to question the artistic judgment of Chrysler (which announced this week it had lost another half billion dollars due to its inability to design a decent car). Nevertheless, let's be brave and explore together:

Panter's web site proclaims that he "successfully broke down the barrier that separates 'trash' from 'art'...." Of course, previous artists have made similar claims. In 1961, Italian artist
Piero Manzoni claimed that he successfully broke down the barrier that separates art from shit.



But I'm still not ready to concede that the barrier is completely gone. Perhaps the more interesting question is: which side of the barrier is Panter on?

Panter is a "cyber punk" artist, most famous as the creator of Jimbo, "a post-nuclear punk-rock cartoon character" who first appeared in the LA hardcore-punk paper Slash and later in RAW. Occasionally Panter creates a fine, strong image:



But most of the time, Panter produces the kind of art you'd expect to find in a decent high school literary magazine:







And all too often, Panter's work is (in my opinion) downright awful:







I can hear the Gary Panter fans out there fuming, "the punk movement is exempt from bourgeois standards of taste and beauty." The New York Times didn't compliment the beauty of Panter's images, it complimented his "raw lunatic expression."

Genuine punk was never pretty, but at least it gained some legitimacy from its brute, energetic defiance. I love Johnny Rotten's response to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when it tried to honor the Sex Pistols:



What a fabulous message: "Were [sic] not coming. Your [sic] not paying attention." I doubt you would ever see Johnny Rotten bragging on his web site that the Chrysler Corporation had vouched for his artistic ability.

But the point of this post (and believe it or not, I do have one) is not to take a poke at an overrated artist or the the fans who fawn over such minor work. If "raw lunatic expression" is your game, artists such as Jean Dubuffet out-punk Panter by a mile.







Dubuffet's art embodied genuine rebellion. He preferred the art of the mentally ill to the work of classical artists. He wrote raging manifestoes about trashing all museums and abolishing culture. But despite his rebellious message, Dubuffet's drawings and paintings are still deeply beautiful. This is the most important difference between Panter and Dubuffet. Punk or no-punk, Panter is an artistic failure because he never seems to achieve (or even understand) some form of beauty. Regardless of the boldness of his color or line, his work is artistically anemic. He hasn't paid the dues required of those who seek to participate genuinely in form-creating activity.

And I'll even go one step further. For a man who is so eager to eliminate the barrier between art and trash, Panter repeatedly draws a bright line between his art and lowly "commercial" art. For this, commercial artists should be grateful. But it is a tired old cliche for Panter to suggest that illustration or other commercial forms of art can't be as raw as Panter's. Even within the straightjacket of commercial illustration, serious artists manage to look deeper into the abyss than Panter ever does. Panter's fans celebrate his "ratty line," but I don't find his line nearly as raw or unsettling as the truly scary linework in this spot illustration by commercial illustrator Robert Fawcett:



Take a close look at the violence and anarchy of Fawcett's line. For those with eyes to see, Panter is splashing around in a far shallower pool than Fawcett.

I have read the adulatory reviews of Panter's work, looking for help in finding what I am missing. So far, I cannot shake the conclusion that Panter is primarily an entertainer who tells amusing stories for people of a certain maturity level. Nothing wrong with that. But if that's the case, how do we explain all this attention to his work? My only explanation is that shallow, immature times call for shallow, immature art.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 21



This may be my favorite drawing ever.

I encountered it on the wall of a dark cave at Pech Merle in the Pyrenees.

20,000 years ago, humans were struggling for survival in a hostile ice age world. A desperate, hungry man prepared himself to hunt the dreaded wooly mammoth-- a lumbering beast that weighed ten tons, with tusks 15 feet long. The man's only weapons were a pointed stick, a rock... and this drawing.

He captured the mammoth with a line on the wall, and with a bold red color he struck a killing blow. Once... twice... twenty-seven times.

Other creatures were bigger and stronger, but only humans could give their hopes and terrors abstract form. In such dark places art was born.

This drawing contains the seeds of everything that would follow:

  • A design as beautiful as any modern abstract painting
  • A magical power over his enemies that was as illusory-- and a courage that was as genuine-- as that gained from the most persuasive religious art
  • A message as passionate and sincere as the content of any art form to come.
If this artist survived the ensuing hunt, the subtle hand that created this masterpiece (notice how the artist was careful to get the contours of the mammoth's hump exactly right) would soon be gouging and hacking through matted fur and thick hide so his family could feed on the bloody carcass and survive for another day.

There was a time when humanity was just one of nature's less promising experiments competing for survival. This ancient artist held on through an existence that you or I would consider intolerable so that today, trained artists can sit on cushions in air conditioned comfort and make pictures using highly sophisticated tools. But with all these advantages, I doubt you will ever see a more lovely drawing.


Saturday, 19 July 2008

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 20

I love Mort Drucker's drawing of General Patton:



Drucker clearly owes a debt to Arthur Szyk's famous portrayals of Nazi generals from the 1940s:



Yet, as much as I love Szyk's paintings, for me Drucker's is the stronger work. Compare these two details to understand how differently the two artists make decisions:





Szyk makes thousands of tiny choices, shading with color and small feathering brush strokes. None of these lines is particularly insightful or descriptive by itself, although the cumulative effect is splendid. By contrast, Drucker's bold line is an act of supreme confidence. Every time Drucker's brush touches the paper, he is making a thoughtful observation about an object in the world.

The great illustrator Austin Briggs offered the following wisdom about the benefits of working with the restrictions imposed by line:
Line ... is the most limited medium.... [I]t's necessary to know the limitation one is dealing with in order to use its positive qualities to the fullest advantage....[O]nce we know what drawing cannot do, we are on the way toward expressing [a subject] in the marvelously simple way a line can function....[I]ts real shape reveals itself because we must speak with such limited means.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

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Pond in Angeles Crest Forest. Watercolor on Arches cold pressed paper.
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Sunday, 13 July 2008

PART OF SOMETHING LARGER

Sometimes great and important art can only be achieved by disregarding the level of effort required.

The ancient historian Herodotus estimated that it took 100,000 workers 20 years to build one of the great pyramids of Egypt.



These workers had no labor union; they mostly led wretched lives and died unpleasant deaths. But at the same time, each of them played a role in the creation of monumental beauty. The pyramids, tombs and monuments they built have inspired humanity for all time.


Those Egyptians who did not work on the pyramids may have lived more comfortably and died with full bellies, but they disappeared from the world without a trace. All memory of them was quickly erased by the sand.

You could make a similar point about other major works, such as the great cathedrals of Europe, or Emperor Qin's army of 8,000 terra cotta warriors. These objects of great beauty could not have been created without an endless supply of cheap labor. Hundreds of thousands of underpaid peasants or slaves were persuaded (or forced) to sacrifice themselves. Perhaps by associating with something great, they were able to transcend their poverty and mortality. All I know is that anyone who tries to judge these works by weighing the number of hours spent against the result achieved is measuring with the wrong stick.

I think about early animation the same way. The great early animated films-- Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia-- were produced by hundreds of low paid artists drawing millions of drawings on an industrial assembly line. They worked under primitive conditions compared to today's computer animation. Just as Egyptian laborers learned to transport granite blocks weighing 60 tons apiece using nothing but strong backs and ingenuity, early animators compensated for the lack of multiplane cameras or photocopiers by working longer and harder.


Early Disney artists


Some of Disney's "ink and paint girls."

Like the slaves who worked for pharaohs or Emperor Quin, some of Disney's artists became quite bitter about their working conditions. Hours were long and the work was back breaking. Union unrest broke out and tempers flared, leading to the Great Walt Disney Cartoonists Strike of 1941.

It's doubtful that early animation could have been created without cheap labor. And whatever the disadvantages of working on the assembly line, each of these artists was part of something larger than themselves. At the end, they had a product of shining brilliance that stands as a landmark for future generations. Famed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called Snow White "the greatest motion picture ever made."




After the uprising at Disney, some of the animators who were fired or quit went on to accomplish great things. Walt Kelly escaped to create the comic strip Pogo. Hank Ketcham went on to create Dennis the Menace. a few animators went on to do great work at rival animation studios. Perhaps these gifted entrepreneurs should never have been on an assembly line to begin with. But for the vast majority, their work with Disney was their one chance to touch excellence. Sure, some of them might have made more money drawing spot illustrations of laundry detergent for a local commercial art studio, but looking back at the end of their lives, would the trade off have been worth it?

Today, you can still get a sense for the economics of animation from the fact that collectors can buy bundles of current animation art for shockingly low prices. Each of the following original paintings, reflecting some artist's hard work and personal craftsmanship, was purchased for about the price of a Hallmark greeting card:









I don't know what cartoons they are from. They tend to show up in sheafs, packaged with Asian markings that I cannot read:



In some far away country, new artists who don't get paid very much are working on another assembly line composing huge numbers of such paintings. They are pressured to work quickly but they still care enough about their craft to compose with precision and skill. I don't know if these artists even make enough to eat, but I honor them for the professionalism and commitment in these paintings.


Friday, 11 July 2008

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Eva. Gouache in a heavy weight craft paper sketchbook.
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Wednesday, 2 July 2008

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Something I painted for The Prince of Egypt way back when.

Copyright DreamWorks Animation SKG.
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WALTER EVERETT (1880 - 1946)

Walter Everett's life seemed to revolve around his artwork.

As a gifted child, he was preoccupied with drawing and painting. He rode a bicycle 30 miles to take art lessons from Howard Pyle, the father of American illustration. By his early 20's Everett was already acclaimed for his work in some of the most prestigious illustration markets in the country. He did this beautifully composed drawing for Colliers at age 20:



Everett was an excellent artist but he focused so much on art that he often ignored his other responsibilities. He spent so much time mastering his craft, he frequently forgot to pay his rent or utility bills. He devoted countless hours to cutting and reshaping his beloved brushes, and even designed his own easel (which he imported from France) but he neglected his wife and son, who tired of his obssession and left him in 1917. In pursuit of artistic excellence, he even ignored the demands of his clients, refusing to compromise his high standards to meet their deadlines.


This masterpiece by Everett is from the Kelly collection of American Illustration. Everett worked on it so long that the client did not have time to print it in color, and had to settle for black and white.

His personal pride in his art was apparent from his bold signature in the drawing above:



and the sign he painstakingly hand lettered for his studio:



Yup, it seems that Everett was prepared to give up just about everything for art. It was his reason for living.

Then, at the peak of his career, in an act of howling madness, Everett "gathered the bulk of his life's work," burned it to ash and disappeared from illustration forever.

Nobody knows why.