Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Lineage: Frazetta > Jones > Williams

A word about these articles - take them with a grain of salt:
In these articles, I'm simply freely stating my own thoughts and opinions - I don't claim to know enough to make definitive statements, I haven't done meticulous research, and these are not meant to be unbiased journalistic pieces, but rather my own very personal views and observations concerning the art that's important to me as I grow and develop as an artist myself. In fact I have a very bad memory and a tendency to occasionally re-write history a bit to make a better narrative of it, so take it all with a grain of salt. I'm not interested in arguing any of the points I make and feel no need to since I'm not posting these entries publicly but only in my own personal journal which I share with a few friends. So don't think of this as me making definitive statements as a historian or art scholar or anything, but more like visiting in my studio and getting my own personal take on the topics I'm interested in.

Original intro:

This morning I wrote up a quick draft of a partial paper on fantasy art of the 60's/70's and beyond, focusing on depictions of sexuality and masculine aggression. Now I want to do a more personal paper looking at artistic differences/similarities especially in relation to my own efforts to paint in a similar way. 

With Frazetta was born a particular way of immediately apprehending/conceiving a powerful composition with a figure in extreme action of some kind with a minimal, almost abstract background not oriented on details or naturalism, but serving mainly to give form to a certain force flowing through the figure and animating his environment. In Frazetta's case this was a very masculine force, asserting itself through aggression and strength and will, and forcing everything to conform to it. 

In opposition to Frazetta's very Apollonian forms, Jeffrey Jones's far more Dionysian forms also animate very abstract backgrounds but in a different way - less aggressive and domineering, more graceful and flowing and elegant. It's not a powerful warrior imposing his will on his surroundings, it's grace flowing outward from a quiet interior of a sexually conflicted man who's femininity comes from within rather than being external. And in emerging and issuing forth, that grace brings harmony to the surroundings. Sometimes it seems to be somewhat negative - I assume this is natural for a sexually conflicted male who draws comfort at times from his inner femininity but is also plagued by it in terms of embarrassment and ridicule from others and who battled against the fact that he's not going to be accepted on anything like normal terms by anyone, but he needs to express himself this way and suffers more if he fails to. 

Williams isn't near either of these polar extremes, but somewhere in between. He is a powerful sexual persona himself. They're all very attractive people who surround themselves with other attractive people and act as their own models as well as drawing their friends and associates - at least this is true for Williams, and to some extent Frazetta. I know Jones often drew himself from polaroids. In many ways the paintings are self portraits - in addition to frequently looking like the artist they also reflect his values and worldview - his life as it were. 

There's a particular lineage of fantasy painters that I'm mainly interested in - it starts with Godfather Frank Frazetta and moves through Jeff Jones to Kent Williams. 

Each is the artistic offspring directly of his predecessor - started out practically copying and then found his own voice and grew into a powerful artist with his own style. 

Frazetta seems to have singlehandedly forged the 60's/70's fantasy painting scene (drawing heavily of course from J Allen St. John, but powerfully altering his approach and creating the trademark hypermasculine warrior look). Thinking about St. John I seem to recall he was already doing what I call the swirling mist technique - I'd need to check on that to male sure but at least he was already doing much of what Frazetta would capitalize on and make his own later. But his figures were emaciated and slender - which was apparently a thing in 20's and 30's fantasy/pulp artwork (when men were often depicted as very feminine, with cupid's bow lips and delicate features). Lol, it's almost as if St Johns's heroes were sxrawny guys getting sand kicked in their faces at the beach, but suddenly, from the back pages of the 60's comic books steps Charles Atlas making Frazetta's heroes big and buff - meaning of course that it's largely thanks to the influence from superhero comics and probably the new type of pro wrestling that Frazetta was responding - a new type of pop culture depiction of the heroic male that would find it's ultimate expression in the steroid-fuelled bodybuuilders and action heroes of the 80's). 

So the tropes that Frazetta used to define the new fantasy painting genre had been around - hell probably  since the Renaissance! Colorful swirling mist used to simplify a background and figures to their absolute essentials, shadow mapping to divide the composition into distinct areas of light and shadow - these had been staples in painting for centuries actually, but Frazetta found a new more powerful and singularly simple way to apply them that allowed him to work extremely rapidly and actually create a painting in one marathon session of maybe 8 to 12 hours over a caffiene-drenched weekend or even a single night. 

It's specifically these techniques that Frazetta's followers picked up on, some more perceptively than others (some used them rather heavy handedly with little finesse and created a ghettoized caricature of the genre even while it was still in its early phase). To name names, Ken Kelley was one of the lesser artists who essentially copied Frank's approach but hadn't developed a great deal of facility at art - especially when it comes tp the human figure. His robots were always better than his humans, which were always awkward and wooden and funnily enough had shiny highlights on their skin as if it was hard plastic or metal! That always freaked me out a bit - I wondered if maybe they were supposed to be sweating really bad, but then the clothing and hair would be dark with dampness, and it wasn't. 

But Jeffrey Jones was the best of Frank's followers, absorbing his techniques and after a brief period of being an imitator developing his own variations. I believe it was while he was at the very beginning of his painting education that Jones discovered and latched onto Frazetta (not at all sure of that - it's just a hunch) and I assume that's why those techniques seem to comprise the majority of his painting knowledge (though he did supplement it later with lessons garnered from Howard Pyle and Gustav Klimt as well as a few Impressionist and post Impressionist tricks). Somehow Jones wore his influences on his sleeve, always making it quite obvious who he was emulating at a given time, which often made people consider him a very derivative artist (fairly I would say, though I love his work). 

Which brings us to Kent Williams. As I understand it, he lived very near Jeff Jones and as a child would visit his studio and watch him paint, talk about art with him and the fantasy painting scene to which he belonged - I can imagine the stories about hanging out with Kaluta and Windsor-Smith and the occasional run-ins with Frank himself. Jones' influence is quite clear in Williams' early work, in particular in his landscape paintings and his Wolverine. Williams' Wolverine seemed practically a clone of Jones' Tarzan, with those somewhat distorted arms and thick Popeye wrists. And like both of his predecessors, Williams earned his early training in the comics medium, in his case in the early 80's with Marvel's Epic line of graphic novels and high quality comics, and moving to DC for at least one venture, an eerie moody graphic novel called Tell Me Dark, written by Karl Edward Wagner who had created the Kane character famously rendered by Frazetta a few decades earlier. 

A note about fine art:
All 3 of these artists have done fine art with varying degrees of success. In Frazetta's case I don't consider his attempts to be very successful, though maybe I'm being overly harsh. To me his attempts at fine art look too much like his fantasy work but just with less muscular figures - I don't feel he was able to throw off the onus of comic book muscularity enough to depict really evocative figures outside of fantasy work. Fine art in the figureative tradition is suposed to make profound and subtle observations about character and the human condition, but I feel Frank's work never really did that - like Clint Eastwood he made his definitive observations about the nature of testosterone-fueled masculinity and traditional conservative gender roles taken to an extreme. I want to say that Clint's filmic explorations of these same issues have been far more subtle and nuanced - that's not meant to be slam against Frazetta, just what I consider a fact. He wasn't trying to do subtle and nuanced, he was doing exploitative masculine fantasy and he did that extremely well. Frazett's paintings are meant for young adolescent boys to look at and say "Awww COOL!" - whereas Eastwood's films are aimed at an older more mature audience for the most part and meant to inspire some deeper thinking about traditional gender roles. At least in his later films directed by himself. 

Jones was far more successful than Frazetta IMO in fine art - his fantasy work was never really aimed at the same goal, it was itself a sort of rumination on the nature of those traditional hypermasculine gender roles - a sort of critique of Frazetta's more blatant exploitative side done by a young man who obviously was not fueled by testosterone and did not have a commanding masculine presence that made him a man among men and a lion among women like Frank obviously was. Jones in fact was plagued all his life with gender issues that resulted eventually in his decision to undergo a sex change operation (sorry, I'm not up on the current politically correct terminology - I suspect I got that wrong) and become Catherine Jeffrey Jones. So for him it really wasn't much of a leap to start doing fine art - basically he was doing that all along. Even his simple paperback covers and comic book work was never a cliched "fantasy" statement but rather an exploration from his own personal viewpoint of what the fantasy movement was about. 

It's harder to place Kent Williams. Frazetta and Jones seem to exist at the extreme polar ends of the masculinity scale, but I'm not sure what to make of Williams. He's a very attractive man, quite physically fit and could doubtless do the fantasy male thing if he wanted to with nobody raising a questioning eyebrow. But he's almost painfully shy, and apparently is very sensitive and thoughtful - two qualities that lock him out of the He Man Clubhouse eternally. He doesn't seem to suffer from any sexual or gender related issues - seems to have no problem attracting vibrant and sexy people as friends who are happy to pose for him, both male and female, and he has no trouble depicting female or male beauty and sexuality, and doesn't seem to make statements that might characterize him as anything but a normal heterosexual man. But there are elements of his art (the strongest ones actually - it seems to be the main thrust of his fine art ouvre thus far) of exploring ideas of sexuality and desire, and how they relate to family existence in the contemporary world. In other words you could say he's springboarded off of Jones' nuanced and critical examinations of the fantasy genre and extended them - expanded them into his own fine art universe. To me he's by far the strongest of the three in fine art. In fact, as much as I love his earlier comic/graphic novel stuff, I actually greatly prefer his fine art (some of it - much of it is a bit too grotesque and intense for my personal enjoyment). Whereas Jones drew inspiration and technique from Gustav Klimt, founder of the Vienna Secession (if I remember correctly) and sexual satyr who enjoyed a loving and openly sexual existence with many  beautiful women and was always eagerly accepted buy society, Williams favors Egon Schiele, Klimt's protege who was a tortured soul with a very troubled psyche who did pain-wracked self portraits and portraits of women which seemed to dwell on isolation and depression. 

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