I'm not the first one to say this, but this year in film has been quite, (to put it politely) peculiar. From the urban live-action/animated fantasy film noir, Detective Pikachu, based on the Pokémon game of the same name, to the direct-to-video SyFy horror adaption of The Banana Splits, it seems any type of adaption can easily get greenlit regardless of how absurd it can be. In a sense, these ideas are rather interesting solely for their weirdness. I don't expect any of them to age too well, but it's still fascinating to consider how this year for movies will be remembered years from now. However, as far as film adaptions of 2019 go, I think we can all agree that the one that left everyone the most perplexed is the upcoming live-action adaption of the 1981 Andrew-Lloyd Weber musical, Cats. Ever since it was announced in mid-July, the film has received a mostly negative reaction from spectators highlighting how uncanny valley it looks. From its bizarre blend of CGI and live-action, to its overall aesthetic and just the mere presentation of the characters along with the universe they inhabit, the look and feel of this movie leaves an unpleasant imprint on the viewers' visual senses.
You can view the trailer here and see for yourself how uneasy this film looks on the eyes. I can safely tell you, that 'unsettling' is a bit of an understatement. The movie is slated for release on December 20th, but it's already obvious why the aesthetic choices don't do these characters or the story any favors. First off, at the beginning of the trailer, we see two of the characters in the middle of the streets wandering about. At first glance, they look like humans emulating cat-like behaviors, which comes as no surprise as that's what the cast of the Broadway musical did, too, except in the next scene, the viewer gets a glimpse at how the characters are costumed. The shot introduces us to this version of Victoria (Francesca Hayward), but unlike the Broadway show, where the costumes look organically blended with the actors, the costumes look oddly intertwined with the actress's body. It doesn't look like a costume. The CGI effects make it so that the fur is part of a human body, rendering it (no pun intended) to look like a mutation between a person and a cat. The next shots showcased in the trailer don't get any better as it goes on. In the following scene, we see Victoria and Mr. Mistofflelees (Laurie Davidson) running to a gate to meet another cat, revealing what the rest of the cast of characters all look like. They all suffer from the same problem: The costumes look way too much mutations than cats! I think the designs of Macavity (Idris Elba), Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) to name a few of the more elaborate characters in their appearance add another layer of blurry confusion of where the costume, the CGI and the live actor begin and where they all end. By the way the rest of the cast is outfitted, the costumes appear more skin tight to the point it becomes difficult to discern what is what, which all those factors lead to an uncanny valley foul taste. In addition, the perspective is another aspect of the film that doesn't sit very well with audiences and with good reason. Given the fact that the characters look like a bad combination of both human and cat, the locations and sceneries where they interact are just way too strange and quite unsettling on account of how small everyone appears to be. To match the size of a cat, the actors are set in a way where everything looks relatively as big as it would to the eyes of a cat, but given the character designs, the perspectives come off as incredibly wonky, making it slightly nauseating to lay eyes on.
Admittedly, the soundtrack and vocal sound very promising, but unfortunately with all those factors ruining the overall appearance of the movie, I highly doubt very many music fans, much less die-hard Broadway buffs are going to be too enthused to obtain a copy either physical or digital. The movie in comparison to the Broadway show brings me back some fond memories (so to speak) of when I went to see the musical in 1999 as a pre-teen. I remember being impressed with the choreography, the songs and the layout of the streets the Jellicle cats (as they are referred to) would all gather in. I liked how the costumes naturally suited the performers and how the make-up was done that it presented the characters' personalities and traits so well. You also have to figure that while the premise of Cats is quite simple, there is a certain depth and meaning in the story that adds to its timeless quality like its source material by T. S. Eliot and why the film adaption is just going to end up being a product of its time.
That's actually not to say a film adaption of Cats can't come into fruition, that is, if done correctly. In fact there was an animated version planned. It has been confirmed that in the early-90's, Steven Spielberg's now-defunct company, Amblimation had an animated version in the works, but was scrapped upon the studio's closure. According to the catsmusical.fandom.com site, Spielberg "decided to set the show during the Blitz in London (1940-1941)" and veteran animators, Hans Bacher and Luc Desmarchelier posted some concept art on their blogs. Hans Bacher was responsible for the look and feel of the film and "spent a lot of time researching some rather 'unusual' London environments". Part of the task involved seeking the "trashiest spots [the team] could find" and scrolling down after a photograph of the creative team are some rough sketches and other related art by Bacher himself. In an additional post, Bacher writes about when he came on aboard with the rest of the team, which at the time they were a few months into the project. At the time, the idea was to blend miniature models with traditional animation. However, Steven Spielberg envisioned the animated world of Cats during the Blitz, so Bacher "started fresh with [his] designs" and thus began the research and reimagining of the film. Hans Bacher adds that in London, "behind all the sightseeing tourist area, there were 'backyards', a hidden world of trash and destruction" and that he "still [had] a map of '[his] real [L]ondon' where [he] marked this reference world". He adds that after 17 years, most likely, there's nothing left of the trash and war torn environment. (Mind you, he posted this on October 19th, 2008).
Luc Desmarchelier adds his various pieces of concept art to his own blog, which not only does he do an outstanding job of highlighting the vision for the film, but the audience gets a sense of how the cats themselves might have been animated. Character designers, Carlos Grangel and Nico Marlet worked various pieces consisting of how the characters would have been reimagined for the film and certainly, their art captured the personalities and traits associated with each of the prominent characters spot on! Old Deuteronomy looks as grand as one would have imagined an animated counter part of him. Grizabella looks just as worn down and shabby as she's portrayed in the musical, that the viewer instantly sees how past her prime she is. Macavity looks just as sinister as his musical depiction.
With the abundance of concept art and potential the film could have had, it's unfortunate it never came to be, but upon simply examining it, it's no surprise that it had more visual appeal to audiences than the 2019 film does. To this day, an animated adaption of Cats can still be a viable choice with the right art direction. The key is not only garnering an understanding of the stage show itself, but making the sceneries and character designs more organic. Put simply, the team behind the live-action film appears to understand the stage show very well, but the combination of CGI animation and live-action, coupled with the wonky perspectives is what throws the audience off. You may know the ropes of the source material and nail it perfectly in that regard as well as having a solid cast, but if the visuals don't mesh well, it fails to resonate with the audience the way it was intended to. Unfortunately, this is what happened with the live-action film. Had the audience gotten the planned animated movie by Steven Spielberg or something similar to it, then the reception would yield more positive results.
The concept created by Spielberg works in every possible way because it doesn't try to emulate the live performance the way the live-action film does. From what can be gathered about the production of the animated Cats movie, the environments the characters inhabit would have been far more appealing to look at for a variety of reasons. For one, the characters would have blended better with the perspectives more. At the time, 2D animation was still commonplace in the animation film industry and the trend in 1990's theatrical releases were mostly animated musicals, so designing the characters and sets best suited of a 2D setting is accessible. Once the environments are designed, deciding how the characters should look is easy to decipher. Knowing how a film looks gives the character designer an idea as to what type of character designs would be fitting for the environments created.
This brings us to the second reason why an animated movie would tip the Cats story in its favor. It's common knowledge that when designing a character, the final product should tell the viewer on a basic level who the character is and what their role might be based on visual cues. Putting it into action is easier said than done. Taking live actors from a stage show and deciding on what their animated counter parts should look like is a daunting task, one that requires multiple drawings as with any other animated project. In the case of Cats, it's a matter of understanding the characters and making sure the animated versions showcase those basic traits in their overall appearance. A major flaw of the live-action film is that it lacks showcasing character personality and/or leaves little room in the designs for audiences to get invested in the characters, which we'll compare and contrast in a moment.
Finally, it's the story itself. Cats the musical is a very simple story with a relatable moral. While we all get so caught up in things of glamour, those are things that fade over time and thus, will never bring true happiness. Grizabella, an aged cat, the best years of her life long passed, reminds the other Jellicle cats that in her iconic musical number, Memory. It was easy for them to reject her just because she's old and lost much of the charm of her youth, but if they welcome her back, they will remember never to take the best years of their own lives for granted and that the moment they are presently living in will someday be a memory just like her glory days. Simple stories with thought provoking themes don't need over complicated designs and sets to convey a narrative. Animation is a visual medium that if well written, drawn and directed, it can speak volumes to its viewers. The character designs and layouts of the animated Cats do what animated movies are often known to do: know the story and let the visuals tell it. Both story and visuals should go hand-in-hand and what Spielberg had in mind conveyed this spot on! This applies to any visual piece, especially if it's an adaption of a pre-existing stage show, so these creative decisions are very important to take into account.
The character designs in the live-action lack what this animation could have been because there seems to be less focus on who the characters are and more on trying to create impressive visuals while trying to look like the stage show. This doesn't work because on one hand, these designs fail to resonate with the viewer. If your interest is geared towards taking advantage of modern technologies and less on letting your characters tell a story visually, that is a fundamental flaw in which will prompt your audience to be less engage and rather more perplexed. As stated before, the character designs in the live-action film blurs the line between CGI and the costumed character. This could easily work if there was a proper balance of CGI, live actor/actress and costume (rotoscoping, maybe?), but in this case, it's clear the emphasis was geared towards visual appearance a little too much. The designs became over saturated with CGI and live action, thus creating an uncanny valley mess with little to no focus on designing a character that says who he or she is at first glance. Surely you can spend so much time on CGI in hopes it will match up to the quality of what you hope to achieve, but if your end result is being discussed less about who the characters are and their story and more about how their design is unsettling, your intent to grab the audiences' attention becomes futile. Viewers complained about the character designs in the live-action Cats for that reason. Pair that with the perspectives of their environment and that just adds to the problem. Making visuals too overcomplicated when they don't need to be doesn't encourage audiences to be invested in a story. Sometimes it can easily drive people away or be less invested in the story because there's something too distracting about the visuals. The animated movie on the other hand makes use of the simplicity of Cats by coming up with a specific idea of what their world would look like and how to properly fashion the characters. All of those factors are important to take into account because at the end of the day, each component will be a major factor in what draws people into the story, relate to the characters and (in the case of Cats being a musical), get into the soundtrack.
The main question I had going into this post was if Cats could ever have a more effective retelling and if so, what would have been better suited for it than the live-action film?. In order to answer that, it just takes a specific understanding why the live-action film fails on so many fronts, understanding what worked for the stage performance and how the scrapped animated movie demonstrated a more ideal alternative. Aside from its musical numbers, the show relies so much on character and setting. While visuals are important, they go hand-in-hand with the characters and their environment. If making a live-action film was of the interest of the directors, it would have made more sense to focus on choosing CGI animation over live actors or rotoscoping than trying too hard to blend the two. The reason the canceled 1997 project would have done the story and characters of Cats justice was because the environments and character designs were carefully taken into consideration in regards to story. With the right combinations and less emphasis on just visuals, the goal shouldn't be trying to be the stage performance of Cats, but let it be its own thing. It's an adaption of an iconic musical, but it should be created to stand on its own. By doing so, this is how the final product resonates with audiences. With each and every puzzle piece put together to create a visual motion picture that best fits the tone and ambiance of the story, you'd be bound to latch onto the audience's attention for the right reasons. This is true with any animation or visual medium for that matter. In an era where CGI has become prevalent in both animation and live-action, it's no surprise Hollywood easily abuses it at times to a saturation point, causing the quality of movies to suffer a great deal. If studios begin to return to their roots where their focus is equally attentive to story and art direction as seen with the potential Steven Spielberg's version of Cats would have been, think of countless possibilities that could come of musical films and other forms of animation and live-action.
In the age of online shopping via Amazon, the traditional American shopping mall has gone down a death spiral year after year. However, as the rate of dead malls in the United States continue to increase, so does a growing community of urban explorers on YouTube and other platforms who venture from state to state to visit and document these ailing malls for future generations to see and learn about. Among such talents in the dead malls community include Jack Thomas of www.deadmalls.com, Anthony at Ace's Adventures, Nicholas M. DiMaio of The Caldor Rainbow, Ron and Kristen of UniComm Productions, Anthony from Faded Commerce, Adam from The Vintage Spaces Channel, Ashley, The Neon Explorer on Instagram, Pat and Heather from Raw & Real Retail, Jon Rev of [jonrevProjects], and Salvatore 'Sal' Amadeo of Quite Studios, all of whom are active members of the Dead Malls Discord.
In his video, Century III Mall In Extremis, and Le Flâneur de Beaudelaire, the 36th of his Expedition Log Series and sequel to another video about Century III Mall, Sal and other members of the dead mall community meet at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania for the Inaugural Dead Mall Summit of 2018. It was an event open exclusively for the members of the Discord sever and it mostly took place in the area where Century III Mall is located due to the over-saturation of malls in the area. Therefore most of them were in stiff competition. The main focal point of this video is an analysis of the philosophy of Le Flânuer, which was introduced by 1800's poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire in 1872 and how it relates to the explorations of dead malls (or urban exploration in general), some of which these theories influenced the ideas of Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. Although the ideas Sal expresses in the video are speculative, he brings up some very interesting points and details as to how Le Flânuer relates to urban exploration and the art world, (specifically during the time period of the Impressionist painters such as Degas, Monet, Caillebotte and Renior) as well.
Early on starting in the 11:35 minute mark, Sal talks about how he got into the urban exploration community. He mentions that his interest in urban exploration peaked "quite sometime ago" and that he would venture out into the woods with friends, not to film, but solely out of intrigue. When he discovered Dan Bell's channel, "the interest really kicked into high gear because [he] learned that people were gathering and doing [urban exploration], that there were more people out there that were doing it and since then, [Sal] wondered why? What draws us to that? And if this is a new thing or not?". This is an important question to consider because although dead malls and other such urban exploration videos have gained popularity during the late 2000's and the 2010's, the concept of sharply observing society's urban areas, even in the most obscure corners dates back much further than it would seem.
I won't go into the history of how shopping malls came to be, since it's not the point of this blog post, but the history provided is still worth noting. It starts at the 13:10 mark. Later, around the 30:29 mark, Sal discusses the role Le Flânuer plays in the history of urban exploration. Starting in the nineteenth century, the world began to flourish with urban growth, mainly noted in Paris, France and in the United States. All over Europe and the United States, arcades opened and this concept of indoor shopping centers began to accelerate all across the globe. As Sal highlights:
"This idea of a vast interior shopping center was gaining traction around the world. This intense expansion of commerce was causing social waves among the classes and philosophers were beginning to take notice of a new type of urban figure who reveled in the details of architecture and observing the less traveled paths in a city and within buildings. This new urban figure was coined by Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal or The Flowers of Evil, and refers to somebody who observes a newly industrialized city and its structures while just taking a walk, pondering the philosophical implications of what these new passages and arcades have on society and looking for the secrets that common passers-by would otherwise miss."
This is where the term, Le Flânuer originated. In Sal's opinion, this term might have paved the way for today's urban explorers.
At the 40:50 mark, he goes on the explain that the French verb means to stroll as the noun is used to describe someone who strolls and "wants to discover the secrets of public passageways, arcades, tunnels backstage areas and the like and to see what the general public might never notice". Anywhere most people never walk, le flâneur will step just to take in every little detail one might not ponder on. As a result, this concept became prevalent in Paris, even among professions throughout the Impressionist period, such as the artists of the time. Monet, Caillebotte, Renoir and Degas were all deeply immersed in the concept, that they would venture down less visited paths to paint images of areas and scenes viewers rarely noticed, if at all. Sal offers an analysis of the Caillebotte painting, The Young Man at His Window (1875) as an example of how Le flâneur is depicted in the works of these painters:
"[R]ather than the view of what the man is seeing, you see the man, the man's pose, an orange, velvet upholstered chair and the marble guard just past the window. The idea is that you are now the spectator, gaining an intimate view of something you wouldn't otherwise see. We don't see the man's face or what he sees because he's not the focal point of the composition. The idea of spectating is the focal point".
The backstage areas of performing art centers depicted in the works of Degas are another instance we learn about in this video. Degas painted what happens behind the curtain, all of which is invisible during a stage show. Monet also took his easel and art utensils, ventured into the back of a train station, went behind the rails and illustrated what passengers almost never see. These famous painters might just have been the first urban explorers in Sal's point of view. Given the similarities between today's content creators capturing these mostly abandoned places on camera and the Impressionists painters painting subject matters most people don't typically consider, the commonalities are very uncannily striking. In Sal's narration, he goes on to say the following:
"These in my opinion were the first urban explorers and they brought the idea of preserving a scene for purposes of exposure and archival to mainstream audiences. These people were exploring places that passers-by would never see and they were painting these places. They were capturing that moment and showing other people what they aren't noticing in their daily travels. How fascinating is that that these people were going out and doing urban exploration well before this ever became a popular thing? And now their art is selling for millions".
Next, we hear about Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher from Germany. Before World War II broke out, Benjamin wrote about Le Flâneur, describing it as a representation of modern strolling into the urban culture, walking through the crowds at the arcades and coming across every brand new, shiny thing behind glass. Benjamin believed that because of the rapid growth in which urban culture was increasing along with the changes in socio-economic leanings in Paris at the time, Le flâneur as a trend began to soar. According to Sal's commentary, "[t]his change, which was rooted in budding capitalism, involved the creation of the of the arcades, which again, were the passageways through neighborhoods, which had been covered with a glass roof, embraced by marble panels, so as to create a sort of interior exterior for vending purposes". From Baudelaire's observations, the reason the passageways in which the arcades were designed with such style and grace especially in their shops, was because the concept behind the shopping arcades was to be seen as a small scaled city or a new world. On a social level, he perceived the arcades as a means for visitors to find a relief from the complications and/or monotony of daily life. Taking a leisurely stroll, he'd observe everyone and everything for both pleasure and gaining new insights into what is beyond the surface level.
After describing the feeling of going inside the active JC Penney and then returning to the lifeless mall, Sal delves a bit further into Walter Benjamin's philosophy, pin pointing that "Benjamin laments on the extinction of Le flâneur, who disappeared as the commercial world slowly deserted the interior exterior of arcades for the carpeted, artificially lit department stores that were to replace them". He then quotes Charles Baudelaire in which the main point was that even as the arcades would soon fall out of favor to department stores, Le flâneur will still roam even through such changes. From Benjamin's perspective, the more commercialized, the less Le flâneur would have an incentive to stroll whereas, Baudelaire's saw it as regardless of changes, the explorer will always have a reason to stroll the walkways.
In any case, as arcades evolved into department stores and from department stores to the major shopping mall, the idea for the places in which the public shopped was for them to be pleasing on the eyes and offer a delightful experience for the customers. With the rapid rate in which shopping malls are dying, Sal reminds the viewer that "the same notion of Le flâneur captured the minds of modern day urban explorers" and that the buildings they set out to explore "were something that the public would no longer see because they were being demolished and removed from our everyday lives". Like the mindset of the artists of the Impressionist period, today's urban explorers "felt an urge to capture [the structures'] last moments or moments that society either forgot about or will never see again to preserve what once was for future generations". Just like how the painters of 1800's would use their art to delve into and preserve what the general public didn't see or didn't realize they were taking advantage of, the urban explorers of the 21st century are always capturing what people miss through the lens of a camera.
Sal concludes his observations with this statement:
"While Le flâneur was the rise of interest in seeing these places, Le flâneur gave rise to the Impressionists, who went out and found places of interest that nobody saw and painted those things so that we can see them. Their senses were then dulled by the artificial department stores, which were just bland and bleached out inside until you got stores like Wanamaker's and such, which were gorgeous.
But, for the most part, in the rural sections of the department stores were pretty boring and Le flâneur didn't want to see it anymore. But once these places started crumbling and growing mold and trees inside of the mall where the carpet was, this was a wholly fascinating experience and a cathartic one, too because as the urban explorers were seeing these things, the mall was closed, the department store was closed and nobody would see it, so they began capturing these events as the Impressionists did back in the 1800's and showed the public because it was fascinating. The pedigree of modern day urban explorers in summation comes the idea of Le flâneur and the urban expansion in the 19th century. Urban explorers get their roots from Le flâneur and the Impressionist painters of the 1800's"
While Sal makes it clear that this is just his own speculation based on his own research, it's easy to see the similarities between the Impressionists and today's content creators on YouTube. As someone who shoots to write and draw her own stories that dispel expectations and strives to offer new insights into expected ideas, I find Sal's analysis not only insightful, but accurate. As both the Impressionists painters and urban explorers show spectators of their art new insights into the things they take for granted or don't usually give a second thought to, they utilize creative means to expand the boundaries of their expectations and challenge their perceptions. Our perceptions might deceive us into seeing only what is on the surface without questioning if there is more beyond that surface layer. Once the spectator takes a moment to remove that surface layer, uncovering the underlying details, the spectator can't help but discover new insights into what they thought they knew. Urban explorers, through the content they produce use video as a means to communicate such ideas as the Impressionists did through painting. Works of art indeed are supposed to invoke, not only emotions, but new insights as well. If an urban exploration video inspires a viewer in such a way that offers the new insights and suspends what was perceived early on, the modern day urban explorer successfully accomplishes what the Impressionists accomplished centuries ago.
For this post, I'm going to write something a little different here. I'm going to share a personal story about my trip to Italy last month and what I got out of it. I went to Rome and San Giovanni Rotundo in the middle of October for ten days with my family. We visited many historic locations, such as the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the resting place of San Padre Pio in San Giovanni. Even so, we met San Padre Pio's photographer, Elia Stelluto, who also gave me a few pointers in taking photos. One month after the trip, I got thinking about what contemporary artists can gain from visiting Italy and getting to know its rich history.
For Part One, I'll start with the Sistine Chapel in Rome first. What stood out for me the most in Rome was the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Painted by Italian painter and sculptor Michelangelo (1475-1564) in 1508 and completed in 1512, the ceiling is highly renowned as a staple of the Renaissance era. Upon observing depth and detail that went into every aspect of the piece, I could not help but be utterly amazed by how one person could have taken the time, skill and patience to create such a colossal work of art. Given both the time it took and the intense level of craftmanship (as Michelangelo was known for), this is one sight you just can't miss visiting. It got me thinking about art in the modern world and how craftmanship has been regarded overall since the early 20th century, specifically with the Dada movement. While I don't dislike all art from the 20th century, nonetheless, it was the time period when high skill level was often mocked, ridiculed and looked down upon as 'outdated'. In addition, I also got thinking back on the rules of stylization, -a topic that comes up often in the art world- when reflecting on the art of the Renaissance era to the rise of Cubism. If artists intend to deconstruct a piece and stylize rather than make it look realistic, it's always important to practice and understand the skills behind drawing from life as well as learning about the craft behind the old masters. I've mentioned in a previous blog post about stylization according to fine artist, Stan Prokopenko and how learning the basics helps refine our approach to style.
That said, finally getting to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling in person further extended my appreciation for the high level of craftmanship the likes of Michelangelo was famous for. There are a couple of reasons as to why contemporary artists should observe pieces of the time period and take them to heart. The main reason first and foremost is our historic roots. When the Dada movement emerged, it was a major shift in the art world, but it seems that as the 20th century went on years afterwards, craftmanship was starting to seem like a joke. Aside from the fine attention to detail, even subject matter became increasingly superficial. With the high level of craft, beauty and strong desire to seek deeper meaning in our human existence, the art world accomplished such significance through the classic works. Upon examination of the fine arts, the exploration into the human condition is expansive and the time focused on that craft is as a result, what gives the spectator an immersive amount for self-reflection and evaluation. The artists themselves sought meaning through their craft and viewers can learn a great deal about themselves.
The second reason artists will benefit from observing something like the Sistine Chapel ceiling goes back to the stylization practices. As expert artists say, aspiring artists must know the basics before they can develop a personal style and develop it well. Even so, they are encouraged to learn from the old masters. I'd go another step farther to add on that there is something extra to gain from studying both that will help artists hone, not only their technique, but getting to know their true potential and individuality. As practicing from both life and the old masters goes hand in hand, it was also that the old masters sought their inspirations from life and its greater significance. Although it might seem unrelated at first, it's as classical Greek philosopher, Socrates (470-399 BC) famously stated, "[t]he unexamined life is not worth living". The statement is interpreted to mean that a life without self-reflection is fruitless and therefore, lacks the meaning and potentiality it could have or could have had. The way I see it is if artists want to develop a personal style, something that should say something about the artist as a person in some form or another, those steps are always going to be crucial to the learning experience, but it's also significant for artists to learn more about themselves as well. Artists could know all the fundamental foundations that are encouraged and necessary to enrich their craft. When comes time to develop a personal style, is should also be encouraged for artists to self-reflect on their lives such as the mistakes they made, the struggles they been through and the things they learned from them as well as individual exploration and what they gained out of it. Sometimes artists start on a path that seems like its the one they truly want to take, but through hardships, challenges and growing stronger because of those experiences prompt change.
Although tone and style are different, tone being the attitude the author displays in his/her work and style is the format the piece is designed with, both always go hand in hand and compliment each other. So, without experiences, your tone can express one thing an thus, influence the style you are known for. But when new experiences shape you as a person and you grow from them to better yourself, you learn more about your true self, about others around you and garner a better outlook on life because of the obstacles that come and overcoming each one. You then garner a greater appreciation for yourself and others around you that you count your blessings more than take things for granted. It's also important to note that as time brings about change and your outlooks on life change, your taste also changes, too. Art is based also in one's taste and of course, but styles change as attitudes do. In other words, aspiring artist shouldn't just learn from the old masters from a technical standpoint, but on a philosophical one as well.
When in Rome (no pun intended), if you visit the Vatican, definitely make a trip to the Sistine Chapel. As you browse all the way to the end of the chapel, give yourself permission to ponder the time, skill, practice, craftmanship and thought that went into such a marvel. If you're an aspiring artist, definitely keep the lessons your instructor encourages you to study in mind as well as making room for reflection. I'll discuss my visit to San Giovanni Rotundo in Part Two after the Christmas and Holiday season. Until then, keep exploring beyond your boundaries!
Photo credit: Larry Estes
Last July, I wrote a blog post about Cool and Eclectic, a store located inside the Pembroke Mall at Virginia Beach. It's one of those rare and unique stores where you can come across all kinds of neat nostalgic items and find yourself exploring their selections for hours on end. I interviewed Mark and Diana for last year's post about the store and while it's been relocated in a new space at the mall, the variety the store offers continues to flourish and deliver on its slogan, "Where it is Usual to Find the Unusual".
This year's trip was an extra special treat. As part of a continuing series of giveaways, Cool and Eclectic was giving away prints of an original comic strip, Artchilles, illustrated and signed by store owner, Larry Estes. The story is about a Virginia Beach native who works at a factory owned by Kempsville Building Materials. As he continues to work there, he desires to keep his artistic dream afloat and goes out of his way to keep it alive, so he takes on the journey of the individual and puts his salvaged drawings together, revealing his story. I spent an afternoon chatting with Larry about the project and the themes he explores via its narrative and its imagery. The character, Artchilles reflects the journey Larry experienced (and continues to experience). We see that Artchilles takes a series of drawings, pieces them together like a puzzle and thus, we see his journey take shape. As stated by Larry himself in his video, Drawings Survive to Tell a Story, he is "piecing together this extraordinary journey, using copies of actual drawings from the journey to authenticate its unfolding". Through mixed media, Larry goes from a standard illustrated page, which is crafted similarly to that of the classic comics of the 1950's and 1960's and then on the next pages, he incorporates the copies of the drawings into some of the panels and arranges them to match the narration. For example, on page 2, we see a copy of each drawing laid out with one flat in the center of the first panel. The perspective of the ones on either side of the drawing are morphed to appear facing inwards. They are apparently going into the direction of the one in the center and all together, they are close to fading into a black hole. The letter boxes in yellow are from the narrator's perspective while the ones in white delve into what Artchilles is thinking. "Initially, Artchilles created sketches of random subjects he was to make into large paintings..." the narrator highlights. "[B]ut, as the prospect of acquiring a studio grew dim, drawing took over. Focus turned to his own life." The use of perspective in a panel painted pitch black accompanies this narration so effectively, especially with Artchilles' own words below the drawing in the center saying, "I yearned to paint..." The sentence is incomplete as if fading into the abyss along with the drawings. It highlights the sense of being on the brink of obscurity.
The next panel is a close up of the drawing on the right hand side, focusing on Artchilles' narration: "But the brush kept eluding my grasp". The drawing depicts the brush falling out of his reach as a foot steps on his hand. An onomatopoeia that reads crunch! is belted, all together demonstrating how limited in his options Artchilles really is.
In the third and final panel of the page, the narrator describes the monotony Artchilles is locked into. With six drawings of a man boxed in lined up in a perspective that gives the illusion of ascending forward, towards the reader's right hand side and descending into obscurity looking into the left, we see the repetitive nature of the job. Even so, Artchilles' words above the drawing facing the viewer boldly say "I Was Stuck!" This use of perspective fittingly gives the sense of endlessness.
Onto the next page, which as the title implies, "Taking the Leap", Artchilles does precisely that. He is seen surrendering and then dives into the unknown. Afterwards, he sees a vision of a muse, who guides him to his desired destination. When delving into the significance of this page (and the entire story at large), Larry offers a question that prompts readers to ponder for a moment over what might be holding them back from seeking his/her own journey: "Have you ever seen a more poignant expression of that pivotal moment before taking the leap? With arms raised, you have surrendered to the unknown". With that said, the third page not only serves as a rising action, but it also invites the readers to assess a time when he or she was confronted with such a moment. And if they haven't already done so, it encourages them to seek it. As Artchilles raises his hands to the sky before taking the plunge, the text in the yellow boxes is no longer written from the third person perspective. It transitions to Artchilles' point-of-view as if he's finally taking control once again. The next page depicts how Artchilles fares trying to balance out his work at the factory and listening to the muse, which eventually results into a sudden halt. It is then revealed in a typed text in yellow boxes that he conceived this series of drawings thirty years ago while he was still working in the factory, which eventually became a homeless center. With the old drawing board destroyed, Artchilles then resorted to using invoice paper to illustrate on. Below the drawing of the building, we see a real-life sample of the invoice paper.
The fifth page depicts Artchilles gradually freeing himself from the grip of the factory work. Although its a very small start, it serves as a spark to grow and flourish. All he has at this point is a brush and coffee. From there he lets his inner individual out as much as he can, but realizes he needs more to continue that journey of growth. "Duality continued to manifest. The path was filled with ups and downs. I needed more than a brush..." This gets us to think that while we are maintaining the endless cycle of monotony without taking the time to seek out our individual journey, eventually the desire to seek it starts to break through in some form or another. We may not be aware of it at first, but when we become too accustom to a routine, somewhere in the corners of our minds we are called to seek beyond that repetitive nature and consult every means possible to fulfill our individual journey and find who we truly are to reach our true potential.
Taking a moment to step back, the story of Artchilles is indeed the story of Larry's own journey. It's told in ways that simple words could not express. Through its imagery, the way mixed media is utilized and how text accompanies and plays into the narrative in unison showcase the journey. It's true that it's highly difficult to make art a full-time career and it's important to obtain a good paying job, but at the same time, being so caught up in an endless cycle where you function like a factory machine without any time for self-reflection whatsoever is detrimental. It will eventually lead to that craving for self-reflection. The desire to seek the individual journey, whether we are 100% aware of if or not will gradually make its way to our conscious mind and when the timing is right, we will seek our own journey of self-discovery tenfold. Taking such a concept into account, even as you go about your everyday life, I highly encourage you to take the time to reflect on your own journey. When you have some time free of monotony (and distraction), think of something that is inspiring to you or something you've written or pieces you've made that can be put together to tell a story. Experiment with those ideas and see what kind of story unfolds. That there is the road to discovering your journey as an individual.
Once again, huge thanks to Larry for his time and sharing his work with me. To learn more about Artchilles and Larry's other works, check out his website and his Instagram.
To learn more about Cool and Eclectic, visit their Facebook page.
Blending the Traditional with the Modern according to Takashi Murakami. Post MFA Boston Visit Reflections
To say that the art of Takashi Murakami is eccentric is without a doubt a huge understatement. With a fine blend of traditional Japanese art and modern day pop art, Murakami mixes, not only the old and the new, but elements of the high art and the low art in ways that leads spectators to another level of imagination. From October 18th, 2017 to April 1st, 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston presented an exhibition entitled Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics, which featured a selection of traditional Japanese art from the museum's own collection and a selection of pieces created by Murakami himself.
At first, it seems like the most unlikely combination one could dream up of, but given the context of the rich history behind the arts of Japan and how it shaped the Japanese pop culture of the 21st century, the meaning behind the art of Murakami becomes clearer. The exhibition, fittingly titled Lineage of Eccentrics showcases the heritage Murakami's art depicts through a display of his own works and which traditional pieces influenced them. On one side, museum visitors will see a piece of traditional Japanese art and next to it, a piece created by Murakami himself that borrows from it, mixed with vibrant colors and his signature cartoon (anime) character art. For example, the 17th century folding screen, Poppies from the School of Tawaraya Sōtatsu is among the featured pieces from the MFA's collection. The materials used to create it consists of gold-leafed paper, ink and color paint. Looking to the wall on the right, viewers would see Murakami's rendition, titled Kawaii - Vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden) circa 2008, in which one of the materials similarly consists of gold-leafed paper. In contrast to Poppies, the flowers are made with acrylic. Also, the flowers depicted in Poppies are rendered with a slight sense of simplicity, yet more realistically detailed while set in front of a spacious golden background. Murakami's Kawaii - Vacances flowers are arranged in a similar fashion as the ones from Poppies in that they are also in front of a golden spacious backdrop (with clouds behind them in contrast). Unlike the more realistically rendered Poppies, Kawaii - Vacances features flat lined multi-colored anthropomorphic cartoon-like flowers with smiling faces.
So what is it about the collection that makes it so appealing? What possible sort of cultural significance could an art form known for blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer? Why does something 'commercialized' even need to draw from traditional art? For artists who want to learn how to create his/her signature style, Murakami sets a superb example of how to do it. Because he is both a fine artist as well as a commercial artist, he knows how to build from the arts of the past and offer new insights into them with a modern twist. Without drawing from the traditional arts of Japan as a foundation, the response to post WWII Japan would be very disconnected. To delve into specific detail, when taking Murakami's early career into account, it's known that he is a fan of anime and manga. Even so, at one point, he had dreams of working in the animation industry. Although initially he went to school to garner the skills for it, his career focus shifted and thus majored in the art of Nihonga (traditional Japanese paintings dating back to 1900), instead. Despite earning his Ph.D, he became disenchanted with the art of Nihonga due to its overtly political nature. As a result, he went on to expand his artistic boundaries. The main set back he could see in modern Japanese art was that there was a major focus on incorporating Western trends, which his 90's projects would satirize, receiving less favorable reviews in Japan. Murakami did however, receive a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in 1994 and traveled to New York City as part of a studio program from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While he was living in the city, he discovered modern Western contemporary artists and became influenced by their works. The works of Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer stood out the most for Murakami. Upon his return to Japan, Murakami defined his signature artistic practices and showcased his recent works at major exhibitions in Europe and the United States. By establishing a cultural foundation for himself as an artist both in the West and Japan, Murakami could take full control over his work and build his own market.
Once he was already well rooted in the high arts, he started to blend the "low" arts of Japanese subculture such as manga and anime into the mix. Eventually, he coined the term, Superflat in 2000, which is a term to describe the 2D flatness of traditional Japanese art and anime and manga. The term, Superflat also takes on an array of other meanings as well, such as the superficial nature of the consumer culture in Japan. It also represents Japan's post-war society, where according to Murakami, trends and various social classes were geared towards flatness, by which he means that after WWII, tastes regarding what can be defined as 'high' and 'low' art have been blurred. When asked about the over commercialization of today's art market in a 2007 interview with BLOUIN ARTINFO, Murakami's response is as follows:
"It's always funny when people say this, because it sounds like they don't understand what a "market" is. Isn't it a place to buy and sell? Personally, I think that the more commercialized the art market, the easier it is to understand strategically. I do appreciate all different kinds of art, though; just like I appreciate all different kinds of people. There are some people who compete in the commercial arena and there are some who abide by more personal, spiritual or idealistic guidelines. If done well, both can be equally satisfying".
And when asked if there is a risk involved in 'straddl[ing] between art and commercial products', Murakami replies:
"I don't think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I've been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the past-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of "high art." In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that's okay - I'm ready with my hard hat".
To summarize Murakami's statements as well as his experiences throughout his career, whether artists are meeting the criteria of 'high' art or 'low' art, either way, they are all in it to market and sell their works. Regardless of their values represented in their art, all artists are marketing and branding themselves every time they put their work out into the public eye. In either case, if the art the artists are selling display a level of craftsmanship and a solid understanding of stylization, the end results that come of their efforts are truly rewarding. As for the 'straddling' effect, Murakami deftly puts it that in port-War Japan, both 'high' and 'low' art intertwine and receive an equal amount of respect and acceptance. Blending the 'high' and 'low' art in the United States on the other hand, often receives a negative reaction and thus, are seen as separate.
Returning to the question of what possible cultural significance could art blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer and why would commercial art even be drawn from traditional art, it all boils down to a deep rooted connection to one's own heritage and that the commercial world would never have existed without such a rich history. As bizarre as the works of Takashi Murakami tend to be, when given context from the traditional art of Japan, the branded art contains a deeper meaning behind it. Murakami demonstrates that without that connection and understanding of cultural heritage, what is defined as commercial art wouldn't have a platform to stand on. Even so, in order for artists to come up with a signature style, (as discussed in my previous blog post), understanding that lineage is what gives the artist's effort a significance. It is truly quite surprising to see how much of commercialized art came to be as a result of art history and Murakami as both a branded business man and traditional artist proves it best.
Early this year, Chris Oatley, founder of the Oatley Academy, interviewed animator and fine art painter, Stan Prokopenko for the 107th ArtCast podcast. The podcast, titled How Distractions Help You Become a More Focused Artist delved into topics regarding some of the major potholes artists easily fall into, such as ‘why speed feels like a waste of time’, ‘why being “self-taught” can be a problem' as well as a particular topic that often appears to be the elephant in the room, ‘how to avoid “The Beginner Style”. On the discussion of being ‘self-taught', Stan describes some of the reasons behind art students’ reluctance to attend art schools.
“Some people have a thing about that academic style…People would say, ‘oh, the people from [Watts Atelier] or wherever, it all looks the same’…They all look like it’s the same artist that did this thing, because it looks like reality. There’s no style to it. And so, some people might avoid that and try to be self-taught or some people might not have access…or they just don’t want to be part of a school and they say they’re 'self-taught' and it’s like a good thing…That always kind of bothered me.”
On the surface, it would sound liberating for someone to say they are ‘self-taught’, but Stan and Chris speak from experience about why this mentality can be very troublesome. Chris highlights how artists want to have their art done in a specific way, but when artists don’t practice or learn the proper technique, the defense reaction of ‘I wanted it that way’ is the excuse that usually comes up during critiques. But, are these ‘self-taught’ artists truly pleased with their skill level? Mostly likely they’re not. To play around with the rules of reality, artists must understand how the real world works. In other words, to experiment with things like color, lighting and shapes, artists should observe how they look in the real world, practice and refine their drawing skills before making style their goal. Attempting to stylize without the basics can result in creating something quite untidy. As an example, Chris describes a critique from when he was still attending art school. On of his classmates presented a piece, depicting a character wearing a robe. Although, the drawing technique of the figure was somewhat adequately refined, the folds looked incredibly ‘soupy’ rather than stylized. Caricaturist and illustrator, C.F. Payne, who was the instructor from that class pinpointed the problem with the robe and how it was lacking the realism the student was trying to depict. The student’s reply was very simple: “that’s my style. I wanted it that way”.
So, why is the ‘self-taught’/’that’s my style’ excuse easily brought up? According to Chris, the reason behind this reaction is because “human beings in general lock into this thing where we start telling ourselves a story that feels comfortable enough to help us avoid growth...and avoid change and I think that’s what’s really going on there.” On that note, when it comes to being ‘self-taught’, Chris says “[n]obody’s 100% self-taught. You don’t actually learn in a vacuum, even if you’ve learned from books.” Stan replies in agreement, indicating that artists are “taught by the people that wrote the books. They’re still communicating stuff.” Stan then highlights what people actually mean to say when they say they are 'self-taught'. What they really mean is that they didn’t attend art school or receive formal training. The problem he sees is that these aspiring artists use that term to solely credit themselves for what they learn.
As someone who's main struggles are with form and technique in attempt to stylize and has received similar feedback, I can totally see where Chris and Stan are coming from. It can be hard to admit it at first, but there is a certain arrogance about claiming to be ‘self-taught’ that puts one’s own skills above those who attend art schools or have formal training. Stan reminds listeners “you’re taught by the many masters that have come before us”. That said, everything you learn on your own, you are drawing from knowledge of the past that is being passed down onto other aspiring artists. These established artists, however already understood/understand how to draw from life and then bend the rules of reality to create something visually distinctive. Every renowned artist who is known for having a distinctive style in history started by drawing from life before creating their signature style. In fact, that’s how their style came to be. Even so, an unpolished drawing reaching out for a personal style, does not make the art stand out from the craftsmanship of traditional art. The goal is to avoid creating art that all looks the same, yet the ‘Beginner’s Style’ produces the opposite effect. By practicing traditional art, artists can expand and explore beyond their boundaries.
Understanding basic drawing techniques as well as drawing from life go together before stylizing, not against it. And as far being ‘self-taught’ is concerned, it becomes more of a stumbling block for artists than empowerment. The sense of pride that tells artists to skip ahead and take credit for what they learn gives them even less freedom to pursue the skills they would need to bring their visions to life than taking up formal training. Artists are always growing and developing. As Chris himself always says, we are all lifelong learners. Stan states in his bio that "[a]t the age of 13, [h]e pronounced [him]self as a lifelong student of art" and still sticks to that student mindset to this day. Whether you’re a still life artist who wants to bend the rules of color, a portrait artist who wants to draw caricatures, a cartoonist or a manga artist, it never hurts to explore art schools, consult experts for feedback and attend classes that can be of help to further your growth.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.