Saturday, August 23, 2008

THE LANGUAGE OF FORMS

I love this picture from an old reference book about birds.



The anonymous artist could have presented the same basic information a thousand different ways, but he chose to emphasize the design. When you look at the shape, the colors, the negative space, you know right away: this was an artist who understood the language of forms.

In previous posts about the enduring importance of design, I have shown pictures from the Museum of Modern Art or recent graphic novels that are not as concerned with design or other aesthetic qualities. For example, one famous graphic novelist wrote, "if one tries to look at my strips as 'good' drawings... they're not, but ... I'm able to write with pictures without worrying about how I'm drawing something."

I always thought it was the job of an artist to be "worrying about how I'm drawing something," but my narrow minded attitude has only provoked scorn from readers who believe that "good," well designed pictures are no longer as important, especially for sequential art. Samples of their feedback:


Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware are geniuses and should not be judged by old fashioned standards for drawing.

The drawings in Panter's comics... are not meant to be studied like... paintings..., they are meant to tell a story.

You are completely on crack. I have never seen such a misguided discussion in my life.... the art world is horrifically driven by vacant aetheticisms...

I think you are mistaking the sequential storytelling of comics with illustration.... If the focus of your blog is ILLUSTRATION ART, perhaps you should stick to that and not try to include Chris Ware in a category he does not belong.

A couple of suggestions for you Dave; grow up & wise up.

Sorry, David, but you have no idea what you're talking about. Go back to reading batman; you're totally out of your depth in trying to understand why Ware is a great artist

These artists make images that could be called bad drawings by someone looking for something pretty, but in actuality have great ideas behind them... Maybe because the drawings are essentially "bad drawings", it is hard to distinguish what is actually good from what is bad.

But good design doesn't limit an artist to pretty or ugly, detailed or simple, realistic or abstract, fast or slow. Any of these approaches can be either well designed or poorly designed. Ever since art began, the challenge for the artist has been to marry content with "good" pictures, not to surrender one for the other.

The map maker who drew this 15th century map of the world could have displayed accurate information without worrying about composition, style or color. Yet, he obviously felt that a visual medium demanded attention to aesthetics as well as content:



The same could be said about this Tibetan image explaining the "wheel of law." The artist could easily have ignored considerations of form and resorted solely to a technical diagram. He did not.



Egyptian wall paintings tell complex religious and historical narratives. Yet, after overcoming dozens of obstacles not faced by artists today, the artist made sure that his images were also beautifully designed, right down to the smallest little figure in the corner:



Artists who can speak the language of forms are sensitive to the balance, the rhythm, the harmony and aesthetic designs of nature, and are capable of employing those magical powers in images. The artist who drew that bird understood he was in the presence of sacred things.

Artists are of course free to grant themselves exemptions from any standard or challenge. There is no law preventing an artist from saying, "I don't care about making good pictures because I have other priorities and I can't handle both at once." But 30,000 years of art history proves that good content is not incompatible with good form. Artists who lack this ability, or who lack the drive to do things with this ability, will always be second rate to me.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

WILLIAM A. SMITH



During World War II, the illustrator William A. Smith was sent by the OSS to China, where he spent time behind enemy lines working on the propaganda war. It was an eye-opening experience for a boy from Ohio, and he drew everything he saw.



He drew soldiers on a bumpy flight in the back of a C-47 aircraft. He drew Chinese children playing in the street. He drew vanquished japanese prisoners in camps. You can see his thirst for knowledge in these wonderful drawings.














I find it uplifting that, in the midst of war, an artist retained such curiosity about the world around him and such sensitivity for his subjects. There is a lot of humanity in these drawings.



It is especially interesting to contrast Smith's personal drawings with the propaganda drawings he was doing at the same time (caution: some of these are a little raw).









Smith's personal drawings were clearly an educational process. He learned a lot from keeping his eyes open. On the other hand, his propaganda drawings demonstrate none of the same effort. Great art enriches us by exposing us to the complexity and nuance of life, but in times of war complexity and nuance can be a hindrance.

These twin sets of drawings are a good example of why William Butler Yeats said, "We make rhetoric out of arguments with others but we make poetry out of our arguments with ourselves."


Friday, August 01, 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.