Art versus reality – The Electric Sublime #1

The Electric Sublime #1,

W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Mat Lopes,

IDW

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I really enjoyed W Maxwell Prince’s unusual, thoughtful and intriguing Judas: the Last Days back in early 2015 (reviewed here), and Morazzo I was familiar with from the fascinating Great Pacific (first volume reviewed here), so I’ve been looking forward to this. We open with a guide conducting a tour through the Louvre in Paris, leading them towards that great museum and gallery’s crowning glory, La Jaconde – da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and vainly trying to persuade the flocks of tourists to put away their cameras and phones and instead actually look at all this art with their eyes, and, please, no flash photography, it isn’t good for the art (a long-lost war, I fear, tourists from every nation stand right in front of priceless paintings flashing away without a care in their heads, sadly).

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But their tour ends abruptly – something is wrong, very, very wrong. La Joconde still has her enigmatic smile on her small painting (it’s remarkable when you see it in person just how small this most famous artwork actually is), but now, somehow, she is winking at her admirers. The art guide runs, shocked, from the scene shouting “we’re going to need the Dreampainter! We’re going to need Art Brut!” The latter turns out to be an actual painter – in an asylum – called Arthur Brut, a nice little bit of word-play on an artistic term. Director Margot Breslin of the Bureau of Artistic Integrity has come to see this strange man, “dreampainting” in his padded cell. On various medications and art therapy, he seems to be out of touch with reality, mind warped by artistic excesses, unanchored in the real world, drifting, sifting, exploring the imaginary (some especially nice touches by Morazzo here, the way the asylum is almost monochrome, the colours so subdued, except for the vibrant art Brut is creating).

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But Breslin is desperate and even this seemingly wrecked psyche could be of some help, he may, in his fractured, kaleidoscope lensed view of the world have more understanding of what is going on than her team. Because it isn’t just that the most famous painting in history has suddenly, inexplicably altered to depict a winking Mona Lisa, there have been numerous other incidents around the entire globe, suicides, bombings, in one memorably horrific incident a couple who cast their own children in bronze, literally, killing them as well as transforming them into art, “claiming Neo-Dada conventions as their only defence.” And in each case a very simple image was found, the same image at each scene, in different nations, continents, a very simple line drawing of a human face, winking… Meanwhile we are also introduced to a young woman with a troubled child, Dylan, taking him to a new therapy home where art is used to help youngsters with mental health issues. There may be a connection growing here to what is happening in the wider world.

I really don’t want to say too much more about this first issue because I’m trying to tapdance around any potential spoiler landmines. And also because this is one of those stories that while I can summarise it a bit for review purposes to give you a rough idea, it is only the very roughest, this is really one of those works that you simply need to experience. It is only a first issue, so we’re only getting the briefest glimpse into what promises to be an unusual tale, but already it is pretty darned compelling – the idea of taking notions of what constitutes art, how we make it, how we react to it, the power it has, are all fascinating (as is the idea of using an artform – here the comic – to explore other ideas of art), and it reminded me in the good way of Doom Patrol-era Grant Morrison. Art has always been connected with ideas of power and even magic – even our oldest artworks, cave paintings some thirty to forty millennia old evoke not just our visual senses and our emotional states, they whisper of magic, of somehow capturing and conveying the power or essence of something else. And there’s also the sense of life within some art, or sometimes whole vistas of alternative realities.

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It is strange how sometimes the universe throws up variations on closely related themes around the same time, occasionally. In recent months I’ve been reading Shaun Simon and Mike Allred’s Art Ops for Vertigo (first issue reviewed here), and just in the last few days I have been lucky enough to be reading an advance copy of China Mieville’s next novel, The Last Days of Paris (out from Picador in February, James and I will be doing a joint review/discussion of it in the near future), in which resistance fighters in occupied Paris also interact with and use Surrealist art manifested into the real world in the desperate fight, the Surrealist art and manifesto being invoked like magical summonings almost. And then this first issue of Electric Sublime arrived on my desk… Of course all three would have been created by those different creators around the same time, without knowledge of the others, and by coincidence they would appear within a year or so of one another. Perhaps the art world is tapping on our window and trying to tell us something…

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Dazzled

A few weeks ago I took a photo of an old ship which was being readied for a new paint job down in the harbour at Leith, half covered already with a fresh coat of primer, the floating scaffolding for painters moored next to the hull:

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I looked up the ship, MV Finagal, and found it was an old lighthouse tender for the northern lighthouses, long retired. And it wasn’t just getting a new paint job as such, it was being primed for Edinburgh based artist Ciara Phillips to work on, with a modern interpretation of the WWI dazzle camouflage as part of ongoing events around the UK for the 14-18 Now campaign marking a century since the Great War.

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Since you can’t camouflage a ship on the high seas the way you can a tank or an infantry position on the land, the idea, developed by Norman Wilkinson, was to use vivid colours and abstract patterns (informed by then modern art) to break up the outline of vessels. Imagine looking at this through the periscope of a U-Boat as it heaved up and down on the open seas, struggling to make out what type of ship it actually was, its size, direction, bearing, distance… I’ve only ever seen dazzle camouflage in old photographs, quite remarkable to see it on an actual vessel with my own eyes. Part war memorial, part art installation, this is also a part of the Edinburgh Art Festival and will be moored in Leith for several weeks.

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Kelpies in Edinburgh

Kelpies in Edinburgh 02The remarkable – and apparently huge – statues of the Kelpies have been a great success since they were erected by the canal near Falkirk, rapidly becoming a landmark as well as an artistic installation. For a short time the original maquettes – the scale versions the actual statues would be based on – are on show in the West End of Edinburgh’s New Town, quite striking even at this scale. I’m looking forward to eventually seeing the full scale versions at some point. As ever, click on the pics to view the large versions on my Flickr.Kelpies in Edinburgh 01

The man who walks

I got a brief chance to catch up with an artist and comics creator I’ve known for years online but never met in person earlier this week. Oli East has created some fascinating and unique works based on his long walks, often following railway lines, and his new project sees him retracing the steps of Maharajah, an elephant from the 1870s. Bought from a circus Maharajah was to travel by train to his new home in a zoo in Manchester, but made his displeasure known in spectacular fashion (wrecking the freight train carriage he was to go in), so he and his keeper had to walk the whole way from Edinburgh to Manchester. I met Oli early in the morning in Edinburgh’s huge Waverley train station where he was getting ready to set out on his journey, creating sketches as he goes on his ten day walk following the same route as the elephant and his keeper, our very own comics Hannibal. The journey is being filmed for a documentary and the finished artwork by Oli will be shown as part of the third Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal this autumn. (more details of Oli’s walk and project over on the FP blog)

Lanterns of the Terracotta Warriors

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For only a few days starting this week to mark Chinese New Year, there’s a wonderful art installation by Xia Nan. Originally created for the Bejing Olympics and now touring the world, they are inspired by the famous Terracotta Warriors but here they are done like Chinese paper lanterns.

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The artist decided that the original Terracotta Warriors were a bit lonely, so for these paper lantern sculptures he also gave them some wives and kids to go along with them – including a pregnant wife as you can see in this one above. A trio at the back must have been more important than the others, they had their own raised platform above the others, and with the lights they cast these huge shadows over the old stonework:

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The exhibition is in the quadrangle of the historic Old College building of Edinburgh University each evening for just a week or so (handily right across the road from my work, just strolled right over after finishing up). Beautiful location and what a magical sight to see on those long, cold, dark winter nights, glowing in the darkness. I noticed the other day that I’d had a huge spike in views on Flickr, with two photos I’d taken of this exhibition especially going bananas. In fact the one below had just under 3000 views in a single 24 hour period, turned out it had been put into a gallery on Flickr of photos celebrating Chinese New Year, resulting in a huge number of views in a brief period, which was quite rewarding (click on the pics to see the larger versions on my Flickr):

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Beauty

This short film by Rino Stefano Tagliafierro is stunning – working through centuries of art in a few moments and using some subtle animation to bring it to life it raises questions about how humans perceive beauty; as it progresses it becomes darker, even the lusciously painted nudes start to become a little disturbing as they hint at more than beauty but a darker sensuality, and as it moves into scenes not only examining external beauty but within the body it also becomes a little horrific. But it’s all fascinating…

B E A U T Y – dir. Rino Stefano Tagliafierro from Rino Stefano Tagliafierro on Vimeo.

SHIELD by the great Steranko

SHIELD by Steranko: the Complete Collection

Stan Lee, Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby et al

Marvel

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Don’t Yield! Back SHIELD!

Nick Fury. SHIELD. Steranko. Three words that are sufficient to give goosebumps to many a comics geek. Starting life as Sgt Fury, fighting the good fight in WWII, the Swinging 60s and the era of such uber-cool superspy productions like James Bond and the Man From UNCLE saw him become Colonel Fury, the eye-patch wearing, cigar-chomping comics king of the superspy genre. There are wonderfully – sometimes ludicrously to modern eyes – over the top plots, conspiracies, crazy supervillain agencies – notably the green-clad HYDRA (“Hail, HYDRA!!”) – amazing action, sardonic wisecracks, sexy, deadly femme fatales and of course, this being the 60s superspy era, the gadgets.

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Oh, the gadgets! From rocket packs to the massive SHIELD Heli-Carrier, oxygen pills concealed inside shirt buttons, wrist video communicators, impeccably sharp 60s suits a Tarantino gangster would kill for and which have bullet-proof linings sewn into them, weapons even concealed inside Fury’s trademark cigars, the list is as long as it is fantastically inventive. Sometimes those gadgets even prefigured something we now have for real today – take a big splash opening page with Fury diving through the sky in a suit with wing membranes between the arms and legs, just like the ‘squirrel’ suits some skydivers use today (of course Fury still holds a lit cigar in one hand while skydiving in this suit).

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To modern, adult eyes some of these stories – often quite short, rapid-fire, all-tension and action throughout – may seem a bit on the simple side, but it has to be remembered that when these were penned in the mid-60s they were, like many mainstream comics, aimed at a far younger audience than reads these sorts of titles today. We’ve effectively grown up with these. But you make allowances for this and then simply let yourself go and just enjoy the sheer pleasure and adrenalin rush of these madcap tales of daring-do and international espionage and world saving the same as you do for a classic Bond flick. It was a different era and it sometimes shows – Fury’s cry to his team of “We got us a female to rescue!” may seem sexist to modern eyes, but this was the 60s, and it was the superspy genre…

In other spots though it tackles this sexism of the age, when an irate, wounded Fury shoves a shapely female agent away declaring he doesn’t need any care or help from a dame she sharply tells him just for that he can address her as “Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine”. It may be the sexist 60s, but as with TV’s The Avengers and Mrs Peel there were some female characters who may be sexy and alluring (Steranko’s depiction of the Countess’ rather pert bottom drew the ire of the Comic Code Authority) but they were also quite certainly strong and independent, the equal and often better at some tasks than the male superspies. Long before Xena or Ripley we had attractive but powerful – not to mention ass-kicking – women characters setting the stage for the strong action heroines who would emerge in their wake.

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The real joy of this collection though isn’t those crazy 60s superspy stories and mad villain superweapons to destroy the world, or even the relentless action and constant wisecracking comments from Fury. It’s Steranko’s art. This is some of the most influential work in comics, and rightly so. The layouts, the splash pages, the double splash pages, hell Steranko creates a four-page splash scene! Kinetic, colourful, full of dynamic energy, not to mention Steranko gleefully pulling in influences from all around him, from comics influences like Wally Wood to the Pop Art of the 60s, psychedelia, Surrealism, anything which caught his imaginative eye and he thought would work on a page. Steranko doesn’t sit back and think, hey this is a young readership, I should make it simple, he treats the readers in a more mature fashion, trusting them to follow and luxuriate in his art, even if they were too young at the time to get all the references (I wonder how many had their first exposure to a wider art world through Steranko’s references?).

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And oh ye four colour comics gods, that art is simply fabulous, from a simple, wordless (save for a few lines in a dialogue box in the first panel) sequence in a cool 60s bachelor pad, man, woman, music on turntable, a rose, romance (it looks like it could have come from Jim Lawrence-era Bond strips) to glowing, colourful, psychedelic effects, montages, and more, astonishing sets for bases that look like Ken Adam’s amazing Bond sets on acid, fabulous aircraft and cars (ohhh, that grand prix racing sequence… incredible bit of comic art) and so much more to simply indulge yourself in here.

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The collection includes extras showing some art before it was altered and naturally those covers, including that utterly iconic origins issue cover, Fury, guns in hand, with an visually astonishing black and white Pop Art background that is one of the best bits of graphic cover design of all time for my money (see here for an amazing animated version of that cover by Kerry Callen). This isn’t just nostalgic tripping back to those crazy 60s superspy tales, this is watching a master at work, showing just how far you could push the envelope in terms of how a comic could work, inventing new visual comics languages and styles that are still influencing creators half a century on. Sheer, utter brilliance.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The dummy in the park

Spotted out of the corner of my eye in park near me this afternoon, a woman sitting on the bench in the wee park – bit unusual when it is raining. Even if you do have an umbrella. But didn’t want to stare. Passed by that way on return from shops, same figure in same spot, hadn’t moved an inch, paused, look properly this time – it’s a cardboard figure dressed up in clothes, sat on the park bench, with an umbrella strapped to the back of the bench to give ‘her’ a little protection from a rather dismal, gray, wet day:

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Why? No idea, perhaps someone just did it for the pure fun of it, a bit of guerilla urban artwork. Well, it worked for me and made me smile on a dull, wet day. On a related note a couple of weeks ago I saw this ‘ghost bike’ on a cycle stand by the Tron Kirk:

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even the tyres gone, everything white, from rims to frame and even the d-lock. I don’t know if it is an official installation piece of street art, but doubt it since there is no sign saying who did it or which agency sponsored it etc. So I think more likely that one of those sad sights – poor, old bikes that are left locked to a bike stand in town for months and months and never claimed, eventually bits being stripped off them – was spotted by someone who decided to turn it into some impromptu art to brighten the place up (and see who noticed – some folk gave me odd looks as if to say why is he taking photos of a bike rack? Because I actually look at things, that’s why!). But again I was quite delighted to see it, a little bit of fun brightening up the street (click to see larger pics on my Flickr).

One of my photo chums on Flickr left me a comment on the pic saying there was another one not too far away from this, so I have been keeping my eyes open for it then saw it a few days ago. This one on the bike racks by the Sheriff Courts, right across from the Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. It still has its tyres (also painted white) unlike the previous one, again no sign to say what it is about or who did it or why, although photo friend thought there may have been a small note on them originally but they have vanished now. But regardless, it’s fun when people do things like this and brighten up the streets a bit. I just came across these on the walk home from work, made a routine plod home after work much more fun.

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Poet’s Pub

I enjoyed a visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this afternoon, the first time I have been in for years as it was closed until recently for a huge refurbishment. Many spots now much more open and lighter, including the nice room they have an old friend of mine, in an old favourite from before the refurbishment, Sandy Moffat’s Poet’s Pub. Always loved this piece depicting some of the most important and influential writers of mid 20th century Scottish culture (including, as you can see on the far right, Captain Picard!). In the new display room it is in an airy, light filled space with a comfortable big padded seat right in front of it so you can sit there and regard it, with a touchscreen interface angled into the armrest so you can tap it for more information while sitting comfortably in front of the painting, touching the individual writers lets you hear them reading some of their own work in their own voice. Lovely.

The work itself is a composite as they were never all in the same pub at the same time and the location itself is a combination of elements from three different Edinburgh pubs, the Abbotsford, The Cafe Royale and Milnes. All still exist, although sadly Milnes these days is an awful chain-operated place with lousy service that I long since gave up on (complaints to company who runs it made it clear they never gave a damn about standards or customers so sod them), although the Royale and Abbotsford are still firm favourites of mine. In fact I was in the Abbotsford just a few nights ago and bumped into a number of contemporary Scottish writers I know, including two of our bestsellers, Ian and Iain:

 

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar

Hope?

This reworking of Obama’s iconic election campaign poster to show his utter hypocrisy in being a Democratic leader presiding over a country where young teenage student girls get pepper sprayed in the face on their own campus simply for peacefully exercising their right to free assembly and speech, or signing legislation (and very sneakily doing it over New Year when he hoped most wouldn’t notice) that will make it possible for the authorities to arrest and detain not only those pesky foreign radicals and terrorists without proper judicial oversight or charges, but also US citizens. The Land of the Free my fecking arse in parsley sauce…I thought back at election time that the euphoria over Obama’s election was foolish – sure it was better than having Bush there but I thought the hopes people piled on his administration were unrealistic, not to mention foolish and sure enough he has disappointed endlessly since then. Sad to think at the next US election I wouldn’t prefer to see him re-elected because he deserves to be but simply because he is a lesser evil (just) of the rampantly right-wing, Tea Party numpties in the Republican Reptile Party… Sigh…