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.
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!
When walking into a coffee shop or a store at a mall or a lifestyle center, some of these places might have a floor decorated with a pattern entirely made up of tiles. Sure, it's not the first thing we think about when walking in, but we might be aware that the color of the tiles are purposefully set up to match the store's brand color scheme, but could something as simple as floor tiles tell a story we often overlook? In an episode of NHK World Japan's The Mark of Beauty, hidden stories are not only told, but there is a level of craftsmanship that makes tiles into a true work of art.
The Mark of Beauty is an NHK World Japan original documentary series that centers around the arts and crafts unique to Japanese culture. It features the art of everyday life arts and crafts that go unnoticed at a first glance, but upon close examination, there is a greater depth and meaning which creates the beauty of such techniques. The episodes center around topics such as the craftsmanship behind embroidery, jade, kiriko cut glass and lacquer-ware. The episode delving into the art of tiles stood out the most to me because whenever one steps into a store or shop decorated with tiles, the last thing that comes to mind is how can it be seen as an art form. Within the three main categories, Style, Versatility and Art, the viewer receives new insights into how something so simple as the way tiles are set up can contain a greater story and craft than they realize.
As Part One of the episode starts with Style, we are introduced to writer, Eri Nishimura and photographer, Junichi Okugawa, who are traveling around Japan taking snapshots of the various tiles they come across. Impressed with the tile work, Okugawa takes pictures of the floor at a shopping arcade clothing store. The narrator then delves into his and Nishimura's fascination on the subject.
"Their love for tiles has culminated into a photo book. They put their feet in the photos for size comparison and also to show that the tiles are indeed on the floor! They say an old shopping arcade is a treasure trove of tiles. Nishimura takes us to a shop that has one of her favorite tiles."
Thus, she leads the viewer to a meat shop, which opened in 1936. It contains such vibrant tiles, shining with reds and oranges with white outlines, laid out in front of the display case. At that point, we hear a bit of backstory behind how such tiles were chosen. "The owner's mother laid these tiles around 1975. She chose this design in hopes of giving the shop a modern makeover" says the narrator. Shop owner, Masayuki Arai tells Nishimura and Okugawa that after plumbing work was being done on the shop, a few of the tiles were cracked, that they had to be replaced. His mother had hoped to find the same colored tiles as the original, but they were so rare, they are practically irreplaceable. Arai goes on to say that "they've been [t]here for so long, so [he's] attached to them". Okugawa "pays homage to the shop's history and snaps a pic", which features Arai's feet standing on the floor as well as another photo with Nishimura's beside his. "It's been taken care of, so the color is still there, not faded. And the cracks in them actually make them tasteful. I feel attached to it and I really adore it" says Nishimura. The narrator then states how much the tiles had supported Arai's shop over the course of four decades, which brings us to the first mark of beauty: "Aging Together". Aside from how long the tiles had been around for, the reason for their selection and what they had endured over the years, even within all their simplicity, they carry a meaningful story altogether. Upon hearing the story behind the tiles, it's no wonder Arai has such a personal attachment to them.
The narrator even goes as far back in history as the 6th century when tiles were transferred over to Japan from China with the example of the Todaiji Temple in Nara. Although tiles were ultimately used in temples to design the floors, it was after the earthquake of 1923 that prompted a more common use of tiles. Since the buildings were wooden structures, making them a fire hazard, this evoked a shift in the type of materials used to build buildings. From wooden structures to concrete ones, tiles became the norm. In the intervening years, they eventually became more and more artistic and stylish as seen in the Tokyo National Museum with a work created by Taishin Ikeda. The wall designed by Ikeda features a pattern of an imaginary flower, which is plastered before the tiles are applied. According to the narrator, "drawing a motif with small pieces of tiles was a revolutionary method at the time" the piece was made. Even in modern times, artisans are always developing new methods to designing with tiles. Contemporary artisan, Amane Shiraishi demonstrates his craft, process and the art behind them by demonstrating the making of a living room wall. The project was made for a client who wanted a 'happy and colorful wall', so Shiraishi explains that he made it colorful, but the important thing was to make it stylish. Citing the works he had been exposed to while being trained in Morocco, he highlighted his observations of tile work done on a mosaic. Along with the array colors used in the design, white tiles were always present between colors. As we often hear the phrase, 'less is more', the end results are a prime example of such. With the large curvy white tiles in the center of each triangular shaped color tile, the ambiance the of wall texture sets a different mood each time of the day. As the sun sets, the bumps in the white tiles change the feel of the setting in the living room than that of how it looks during the day. "And it will watch over this family from here [where it stands] always" says the narrator to conclude Part One of the episode. The tiles will all age together with their own story to tell for years to come.
Part Two, Versatility, as the title implies, delves into the various functions tiles are adapted to. In Kasahara, Gifu, the highest amount of tiles are produced as seen in their shops and cafés. The café featured in this documentary, for example contains colorful tables, decorated with tiles that immediately catches the eyes of visitors. What's even more fascinating is how the tiles are used to create various sections of the shop as if they were separate rooms. This is achieved by decorating the floor with a flower pattern on one section of the shop and using the same pattern, but with opposite colors on the other. The vibe of the pattern feels like a 'charming flower garden' as the narrator describes it. These small sized tiles are used to create a big picture. Café owner, Kumiko Tamesawa offers her insight by indicating that "[t]iles can be used to create designs in infinite ways" and that she "discovered that by just changing the colors you use, you can give a totally different impression". After the narrator highlights how the various combinations of tiles can display an array of expressions, the second mark of beauty is "Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities". Small sized tiles open a window of possibilities for artisans to create an assortment of new patterns as seen in the Mosaic Tile Museum, which is located in the town of Kasahara. The museum itself is a major staple of the town with its historic origins as a town known for its pottery making until the 1950's when manufactures shifted their focus to tiles. Since then, the tile factories produced creative new pattern designs, even drawing inspiration from fashion magazines. "I think most factories then did not have their own designers, so the President or the salesperson of each company were the ones who designed the tiles." recalls chairman of tile trading company and former tile designer, Kazuyuki Nakane "We used to always be thinking of tiles, looking at everything, thinking how they could be motifs for tiles. We were always looking to create new designs". In addition to finding innovative design methods, the traditional means of craftsmanship is still active even in the age of machines. The viewer is then introduced to a tile manufacturing company, founded in 1957, where traditional, hands-on tools are still in use. The viewer then meets a fifty-year veteran tiler named Masako Matsuyama, who demonstrates her process and showcases her craft as well as the reasoning behind her design choices. So, why is such a task still carried out to this day if with all the technology given at our disposal is an option open to designers? "When this is done by humans, you get a soft impression. It's more beautiful!" Matsuyama pinpoints. "When done by machine, it feels calculated". Indeed, there is an organic quality that goes into the craft of tile making that machines simply cannot capture or replicate. This goes to show that tiling is more than just applying a pretty pattern on a wall or floor to simply look nice, but it truly is an art form. This brings us to the final segment of the documentary where Style: Aging Together and Versatility: Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities start to come into full circle.
Art is the third and final segment the episode explores. At this point, we know that style is how tiles age gracefully and versatility is how tiny pieces can paint an even greater picture, but did you know that there are public bathhouses in Japan that contain murals made entirely up of tiles, forming a complete image? A public bathhouse located in Kamigyo, Kyoto has a scenery image on the wall, depicting a lake surrounded by grassy hills, snowy mountains, sail boats and a castle. The lake being placed in front of the bath gives an illusion of flowing water as if the water in the image is flowing into the tub. Because tiles are resistant to water, the mural is still in perfect condition even four decades later from the time it was created, once again highlighting how they age together as well as how such tiny pieces are formed to create endless possibilities. At another bathhouse, located in Itabashi, Tokyo, is decorated with an image of sea fairies, which was completed in 1953. In fact, a Japanese painting piece from that same year also served as an inspiration for its motif. A combination of the light reflecting on the image as well as the steam depicted in the image and coming from the bath give visitors a mystical type of aura. According to bathhouse owner, Shinichi Zenimoto, people post positive comments in their blogs about how relaxed they feel when they see this piece, much to his delight. People even come to the bathhouse because they really want to see the mural. That said, the third and final mark of beauty is "Art, Savored from the Tub". The viewer then receives a glimpse into the creative process behind one of the murals made by architect, Kentaro Imai. The piece he made for a bathhouse in Machida, Tokyo is based on a piece by Yokoyama Taikan. To differentiate his piece from that of the one made by the iconic painter, Imai limits his palette to twelve colors to keep it from being too over saturated in gold. He utilizes a select few yellows and variate with other colors to give visitors the feeling as though they are bathing in the clouds. With a simple color palette, there is a great deal of depth that creates a three dimensional feel. As Imai goes over his process and the reasoning for his design choices, the viewer can see how and why his efforts paid off in the end with comments from guests saying that the mural belongs in an art museum as bathhouse owner, Taichi Tsuchida mentions.
It's interesting and amazing how some of the most everyday structures can be easily taken for granted at a first glance. When taking into account how something seen in everyday life like tiles can be used to create so much more than a commodity, the possibilities start to seem endless. With an array of art styles, to creative techniques, to craftsmanship that can go into tile work, one can garner a new found appreciation of it, be it from the simplest of patterns to more complex variations, to those that form an image. So, the next time you come across a wall or floor with tile work that sticks out to you, don't be afraid to ponder its backstory and ask about it. You might be surprised by what you learn.
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.