Cathy Fenner & Arnie Fenner’s Spectrum 15: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art

cover, Spectrum 15Sometimes the best way to approach Spectrum or any of the other “art directors’ annuals” is to wander through and see what strikes one’s fancy. So, wander we will.

One thing that gratified me about this year’s selections in Spectrum was seeing the covers submitted for some of the books I read before they had covers, something that happens to reviewers with appalling regularity. Stephan Martiniere’s painting for Dragons of Babel was suitably moody and ambiguous, reflecting Michael Swanwick’s story very nicely. I noticed Mark Craste’s graphics for Varmints, a book I hadn’t read, but perhaps I should make a point of it: his cover and interior illustration are quirky and appealing. Another I didn’t read is The Golden Rose, but Donato Giancolo’s painting is both beautiful and painful — I suspect there’s quite a story behind that cover. I’m not sure I was all that taken with Paul Youll’s Hell and Earth: the portrait of the Mebd is regal enough and beautifully done, but there is much more to the story.

Of course, one runs across the classics in these collections: John Picacio’s elegant pencil rendering of Elric the Damned is both refreshing and poignant — one of the most sympathetic renderings of Moorcock’s great antihero that I’ve seen. And I have mentioned before Raymond Swanland’s riveting covers for Tor’s omnibus editions of the works of Glen Cook. An eyecatching synthesis of style, mood and story, his Books of the South captures Cook′s own hard-edged and expressionistic storytelling perfectly.

The Advertising category, which can usually be counted on for arresting images, offered Brom’s Hellbent, an unsettling image of Death on a steed that’s half horse, half motorcycle: perhaps another view of one of the Four Horsemen? Joao Ruas came up with an image for Dissenson Records, Chromo, that I don’t quite understand but that stops me every time I leaf through the book: the focus is a child’s pouting mouth under a bloody nose in a highly painterly rendering. Cryptic and fascinating. Rusty Zimmerman’s Dracula calls to mind some of the late nineteenth-century back-of-the door still lifes of Hartnett or his colleagues, or perhaps Joseph Cornell’s collages: enigmatic and evocative objects arranged carefully on a field with its own character, but no particular identity. And one wonders if the irony in the title of Jeff Wack’s Happiness Factory was intentional: the client was Coca-Cola.

Comics seem to have gotten terribly literal, although I have to hold up Brian Jon Haberlin’s stunning graphic for Spawn #117 as a sure winner, another reason to catch up on that series. Likewise Jerrel Conner’s Revelations: The Prophets Chapter 1: reductive, stark, and arresting. Daniel Dociu takes top honors — both the Gold and Silver awards — for Defeated Dragon and Carnival Season in the Concept Art category; both images are mysterious and fascinating. And add a point for Justin Sweet’s Lucy and Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia: haunting and quite beautiful.

One generally looks to Editorial submissions for the most challenging images, and this year is no exception. Gold Medalist Phil Hale’s The Interrogator — well, the title says it all, I think: it’s a chilling image, subtle and reticent but scary as hell. John Stamos’ Burlesque is delightfully evocative of turn-of-the-(last)-century French posters.

The image that not only stopped me cold but cracked me up was from Deseo, in the Institutional category. Titled Ninja Printer, it combines contemporary technology, classic Japanese imagery, and a comic-book hero into a sharp and very funny picture. (Maybe my fault: I’ve been reading a lot of manga lately.) Likewise Jonathan Bartlett’s O Is For Orange, although the humor of the image — a tiger playing with a ball of yarn — is low-key and the black-and-white rendering is spare and beautifully done. And I can’t forget Brian Despain’s weird and delightful The Exchange, a happy meeting (?) between nature and machine (echoed in his unpublished A Vexing Quiet — I can’t explain how someone manages to pack emotional content into a creature that looks like it’s made of old buckets, but he does).

The Unpublished works are often the most interesting — it’s what people do just because, I think. Lawrence L. Ruelos’ A Bold Gesture is indeed bold, a strongly graphic treatment that could be an ad for a James Bond film, although why he’s shooting at birds when there are helicopters bearing down on him is beyond me. At the opposite extreme is Lisa L. Cyr’s Self Awareness, a beautifully executed and richly tactile mixed media work with tremendous appeal. Karmala Dolphin-Kingsley’s The Wisely Undisclosed Inlet is a cartoony, strongly rhythmic little fantasy of a forgotten Eden — or maybe it’s the bayou country. And Richard Anderson’s Gunfighter #1 once again combines images of guns and birds in a striking mixed-media work (for some reason, guns and birds seem to go together a lot this year). And let me finish this wander with one of the best works by Dave McKean I’ve seen, The Blood of a Poet; it’s that back-of-the-door format again with that uneasy McKean edge to it. It’s gorgeous.

I would be terribly remiss not to mention this year’s Grand Master Award, which went to John Jude Palencar. Whatever you may think of Palencar’s work — and I’m often ambivalent about it myself — you have to admire his uncanny ability to fuse the real and surreal into overlapping realities in a flawlessly executed visual presentation. Mutability seems to be his basic concept, and I, for one, am not going to argue this time.

So there we are: it was fun, wasn’t it? And we got to see a lot of things we wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise — and after all, that’s the point.

(Underwood Books, 2008)

[Update: Spectrum is now up to its 25th volume. It us now an imprint of Flesk Publications.]

Robert M. Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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