Art: Populist fantasy with veneer of legitimacy

Mark Zug's "Sands of Gorgoroth," 2011, is based on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It's in the Allentown Art Museum's "At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic show, which dips back in history but mostly features fanboy illustration.
Mark Zug's "Sands of Gorgoroth," 2011, is based on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It's in the Allentown Art Museum's "At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic show, which dips back in history but mostly features fanboy illustration.
Posted: July 29, 2012

Any art museum that desires to attract adolescent males (that is, males up to the age of about 25) might follow the lead of the Allentown Art Museum and stage an exhibition like "At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic."

In a catalog statement, the museum's president and chief executive officer, J. Brooks Joyner, calls this extensive display of fantasy art "the first of its kind and scale to be undertaken by a museum of fine arts in America."

I can believe it, because art museums traditionally consider art of this kind to be beyond the pale - overtly commercial, lurid, and devoid of serious aesthetic character.

For the most part - and the exceptions, which I'll address presently, are significant - we're talking about the images one encounters in science-fiction films, video games, and comic books, and on hard-rock album covers.

Generically we're talking about Conan the Barbarian, Star Wars, the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, knights slaying dragons, space aliens, and, in an earlier age, damsels in distress. We're not talking about art you'd expect to encounter at the Museum of Modern Art or the Tate Modern.

This show is mostly about illustration, not art for ultrasophisticated aesthetes. It's guest-curated not by an art historian but by a couple from Altoona named Patrick and Jeannie Wilshire.

Patrick, director of the Association of Fantastic Art in that city, and his wife founded an annual symposium and exhibition called IlluXCon that attracts collectors, artists, and students. This show serves as a prelude to the fifth edition, scheduled for early November (see box below).

When I say that "At the Edge" consists mainly of popular-culture illustration of a kind that appeals mainly to boys and young men, I'm describing only its most sensational quality.

The exhibition is constructed around a tantalizing dichotomy. It's anchored in visionary high art and benign classical illustration that gradually and inexorably projects into futuristic, and often violent, hallucinatory daydreaming.

As Joyner and Patrick Wilshire point out, fantasy has a long pedigree in Western art. It traces at least as far back as Hieronymus Bosch in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Henry Fuseli and Arnold Bocklin produced paintings such as The Nightmare and Island of the Dead that prefigure depictions of horror and fear that "At the Edge" offers in abundance.

Historicizing fantasy proliferated in the 19th century, especially in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Then came the enigmatic dream visions of the symbolists, followed by the illustrators of the Golden Age such as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, who popularized romantic adventurers like pirates and knights in armor.

The exhibition includes a number of works by artist-illustrators that most art museums are proud to exhibit, such as Pyle, Wyeth, Arthur Rackham, Frank E. Schoonover, Gustave Dore, Alphonse Mucha, Edmund Dulac, and William Blake.

Yes, it's "Tyger! Tyger!" Blake, the English religious visionary, who is represented by an engraving from the Allentown museum's collection and a watercolor lent by Muhlenberg College.

Inclusion of Blake is designed to establish the show's conceptual legitimacy, to signal that fantasy art isn't a recent, juvenile craze but an established genre. It achieves this up to a point, yet there's no escaping the fact that this show is essentially a populist attraction.

The exhibition refers to fantasy art alternatively as "imaginative reality," which Patrick Wilshire characterizes as "worlds that have never existed but could have - or yet might."

By conflating imagination and reality, the term becomes self-contradictory. All art is to some degree imaginative, religious art being a prime example. Art is by nature a fiction; fantastic art is simply the most fictional of all.

The exhibition's earlier works, through illustration's Golden Age, are generally gentle, sentimental, or fey. Fairies, mermaids, sorcerers, chivalry, that sort of thing. It occasionally generates a psychological edge - Edmund Blair Leighton's 1915 painting Footsteps, a man stealthily creeping up on an anxious woman, is a good example.

If you're looking for an era when illustration rises above simple storytelling, you'll enjoy the historical section. The most impressive example is the most delightful picture in the show, a large oil of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf by the French academic painter Gabriel Ferrier.

The wolf snarls, but Red doesn't flinch. She smiles demurely while hugging a loaf of bread she's taking to Grandma. The scene is amusing, but also mildly disturbing, perhaps because of sublimated violence or eroticism.

As the show moves into the mid-20th century, however, fantasy begins to take on a harsher edge. Large-breasted women, naked or nearly so, and sword-wielding musclemen enter the picture, initially courtesy of Frank Frazetta (1928-2010), a role model for several generations of fantasy and science-fiction artists. A small section of the installation is devoted to his work.

Science fiction in particular becomes more prominent, through images created by Frank K. Freas, Frank R. Paul, Stanley Meltzoff, and Chesley Bonestell. This efflorescence coincided with the rising popularity at midcentury of sci-fi novels and short stories.

As fantasy art enters the contemporary period, it seems to leave behind even tenuous connections with ordinary human experience. It becomes pure sensation and technically virtuosic, which accounts for a good deal of its appeal.

Particularly in terms of elaborate compositions, the work is dazzling - precisely drawn, vibrantly colored, and designed to transport viewers light-years beyond the quotidian. Emotionally, it's flat.

A 2011 painting, Sands of Gorgoroth, by Mark Zug, seems like a bit of a throwback to 19th-century academic painting. Based on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, it depicts a band of orcs (grotesque humanoids) and their big-horned bovines trudging across a desolate volcanic landscape as they flee a titanic battle.

The scene is more than just imaginative speculation, suggesting the plight of war refugees in all cultures since the dawn of time. It has the suggestion of a heart.

Generally, though, the current examples of fantasy art on display in Allentown appeal mainly to the eye and the more archaic regions of the human brain, rather than to the intellect or to aesthetic sensitivity.

By the end of the show, which occupies all the second-floor galleries, I had become aware that almost all the creators of all these improbable superheroes, horrors, monsters, and cataclysms are men. Should I have expected otherwise?


Art: If You Go

"Át the Edge: Art of the Fantastic" continues at the Allentown Art Museum, 31 N. Fifth St., through Sept. 9.  

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 Sundays.

Admission: $12 general and $10 for seniors, students, and children 6 and older. Free Sundays.

Information: 610-432-4333 or www.allentownartmuseum.org.

This year's IlluXCon symposium and exhibition will be held at the Heritage Discovery Center, 1421-27 12th Ave., Altoona, Nov. 8 to 11. The public is admitted only on the last two days. The event will move to the Allentown Art Museum in fall 2013. Symposium information at www.illuxcon.com.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

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