Sunday, 9 May 2021

Eric White's surreal world

Eric White was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1990. 

From his artist's statement: 'His approach to figuration is both beautiful and disturbing. Whether expressed blatantly or in a subtler manner, his work attempts to tap into those realities and dimensions that exist beyond the fringe of our perception. Referencing found imagery (often that of 40’s era Hollywood), his own photographs and his unpredictable imagination, he creates 'paintings about films about dreams about the neighbours.' Painstakingly rendered with impeccable craftsmanship, White’s work often emulates the varying planes of focus and multiple exposure of the photographic process. This combination of themes and technique produces complex, refined environments that are at once multi-dimensional, two dimensional, perilous and inviting.' 
His website is here and Instagram is here.

Willie Cole's high heeled art

Artist Willie Cole juxtaposes readymade footwear and African tradition to make sculptural masks. The figurative assemblages stack women’s heels into clusters that are expressive and distinctly unique, an effect Cole derives from the shoes’ material, colour, and pattern rather than a preconceived plan or sketch.
Each piece is layered with cultural and societal markers, including those that comment on mass consumerism, fashion trends, and notions of femininity. This context is situated in time and place. 'I have discovered that high heels purchased in New York are very different than high heels purchased in Georgia,' he says. 'I guess you could call the high heel both an anxious object and a readymade aid. ‘Anxious’ because as a symbol, it is fully loaded with history and a story all its own even as just a shoe. ‘Readymade aid’ because that history adds so much to your interpretation and/or reaction to these pieces. As for fashion, these pieces speak about the abundance of discarded high heels in the world as well as the various styles and trends.'
See more from his expansive body of work on his website and Instagram. Douce: Colossal

Pick of Punch

A handful of cartoons culled from the pages of a Pick of Punch book I picked up in a charity shop. The Thelwell illustratin i superb. And I love the art cartoons.

Dali's in Wonderland

Since first publication in 1865, Lewis Carroll's adventures of Alice in Wonderland and through the looking glass have never been out of print. And the books have attracted the cream of illustrators from Sir John Tenniel to Arthur Rackham to Ralph Steadman and Chris Riddell.
But perhaps one of the strangest - and least known - versions of the books was that illustrated by Salvador Dali.
In the 1960s an editor at Random House commissioned Dalí to illustrate an exclusive edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, of which Dalí signed every copy. That's why they are not very well known. Who could afford a copy? And they rarely turn up on the auction block. 

However, for the books' 150th anniversary in 2015, a facsimile of the Dali version was finally made available to the public at an affordable price. The deluxe edition, published by Princeton University Press, features an introduction explaining Dalí’s connection to Carroll by Lewis Carroll Society of North America President Mark Burstein, and an exploration by Thomas Banchoff of the mathematics found in Dalí’s work and illustrations.
It's available in hardback and paperback from pretty much anywhere that sells books.

Nature has all the best aliens

Okay, so this post isn't strictly about art. But it is about imagination and design. And it's about aliens.

Back in the late 1980s, my good friend John Coppinger and I pitched an idea for a book. The book was an attempt to challenge Hollywood's presumption (based on many alleged encounters with aliens) that beings from other worlds would be humanoid. The whole idea is a nonsense. 

Of course we realised that, in those pre-CGI days, part of the problem was that actors had to fit into a costume. They weren't going to lose a limb for their art. John knew this better than most as he was a sculptor and special effects guy for film and TV. For example, he sculpted Jabba the Hutt for Return of the Jedi and the Diva costume for The Fifth Element, among many others. That was why nearly all of the aliens in Star Wars, Star Trek and even in franchises like Alien and Predator were all guys in rubber suits. If a director was brave enough to try a non-human form, it still had to fit an actor inside so that it could interact with the rest of the cast. Jabba was a good example of this. So were the visitors in It Came from Outer Space, It Conquered the World and even the character Alpha Centauri in Doctor Who's Peladon-based stories.
They may look laughable now but you must remember that technicians didn't have the budgets, techniques or materials we have now. Skip forward a decade or two and we find characters like the Vorlons in Babylon 5, which look infinitely better than poor old Alpha Centauri but are, in essence, the same thing - a one-eyed alien costume draped over an actor. 

The book deal didn't happen sadly. We had a good bite from Dorling Kindersley but, by the time we'd completed the main bulk of the manuscript and John had built several of the model aliens, the editor who had liked the idea had moved on and our new editor wasn't so keen. 

But the experience had been useful and informative. And we'd made some great contacts, most notably the prolific author Dougal Dixon (see here) and the late Professor Jack Cohen who would go on to co-author Designing the Alien and The Science of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Jack made much of his research available to us and John and I both became pretty knowledgeable about the science of aliens. We got involved with an episode of the Channel 4 science series Equinox and, in the wake of the success of the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs, we pitched a Walking with Aliens show. Sadly, they said that they'd already committed to a similar-ish idea with Dougal Dixon (which the BBC eventually passed on and it became the series Extraterrestrial made by Channel 4 and National Geographic). After this, John and I let the idea lie. Here are a few of our aliens, drawn by me and modelled by John:

Spin forward to the Noughties and I'd started to work the lecture and festival circuits doing talks on a range of topics from art and creativity to problem solving and behavioural insights. And then I started playing the Skeptics in the Pub circuit - a grass-roots organisation that sets up meetings for free-thinking individuals to discuss fascinating topics in convivial surroundings. The Skeptics also have a large annual event - QEDCon - which attracts the cream of speakers such as Jon Ronson, Robin Ince, Jim Al-Khalili, Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins, Natalie Haynes, Adam Rutherford, Rose Shapiro, Richard Wiseman, A C Grayling, Helen Arney, Hannah Fry, George Hrab, Sophie Scott, Dallas Campbell, Helen Czerski and many more. 

For my annual Skeptic 'tours' (which took in over 100 dates each) I did talks based on my previous lectures and, in 2013, I was a keynote speaker at QEDCon. But then, in 2014, I did a kind of mini-series about Intelligent Design versus Evolution called Designed by an Idiot. I used my own body to point out the many design flaws it has that could only be accounted for a slow process of evolutionary change and adaptation. Things like only having one of all the most vital organs, limbs and organs and appendages that don't grow back, a pelvis too narrow for problem-free childbirth, a voice box positioned so that we can speak but also choke, sinuses not draining unless you're quadrupedal, or the fact that our reproductive and waste disposal systems share the same 'equipment'. 

This talk became quite popular and every show finished with a spirited audience Q and A that inevitably involved discussion about life on other worlds. Just how likely was it that evolution would follow exactly the same path as it has on Earth? Consequently I expanded the talk into a new show - Mr Green and Mr Grey won't be visiting us Today and toured it around the UK (including dates at the Glasgow and Cheltenham Science Festivals and the Edinburgh Festival).
You only have to look at the bewildering variety of different forms on this planet to realise that life can take on an almost infinite variety of shapes and sizes. We are about as far from being like a centipede or a toadstool or geranium as its possible to be. And yet everything on Earth is carbon-based, oxygen-breathing,  and has a DNA-based biology. Who knows whether that's the only set of options? Life elsewhere in the universe could be stranger than we can imagine. 

It used to be the case that when scientists looked outside of the Earth for planets where life might exist, they looked for ones just like ours within the habitable 'Goldilocks' zone around a star. However, we're daily discovering life on Earth that exists in insanely hostile environments - extremophiles - that defy this simple idea. Astronomers and exobiologists are no longer looking exclusively for planets like ours that could support life. They're looking at any planet, no matter how extreme its environment, and asking 'What would life have to be like to survive here?'

All of which rambling leads me back to imagination and design. 

Nature has thrown up some extraordinary life forms in the past 4 billion years. Part of the reason that the dinosaurs and their ilk fascinate us so much is that there's nothing like them around any more. Mammoths were impressive to be sure, but they are familiar - they're just bigger and hairier elephants. But there's nothing that looks like a T Rex or a Pteranodon or a Diplodocus. And if we go even further back in time we find some of the strangest animals you could ever imagine ... like Hallucigenia:

Or the five-eyed and tentacle=clawed Opabinia:

Or, to my mind, the strangest of all - a cyclops called Cambropachycope, which looked like a torch strapped to a prawn in flares:


The human form is the result of millions of years of constant adaptation, and trillions of tiny incremental changes and spontaneous advantageous mutations. As the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said, if we could rewind life's tape and play it forward again, the likelihood that we end up at Homo Sapiens is as near to zero as makes no difference. The fact that our closest relatives haven't also turned into humans is proof of this. And there's a big dollop of luck involved too - if just one of our ancestor species had suffered the same fate as most of the dinosaurs, you and I wouldn't be here.   So the likelihood that alien life would follow the exact same path that leads to humanoid shape is pretty much impossible.  

So now that we have CGI and are no longer restricted by the need to cram actors into suits isn't it time we finally did away with the humanoid alien? Admittedly, some Hollywood directors are getting braver. The aliens in the 2016 film Arrival are wonderfully different. 

And concept artists like Wayne Barlowe are always pushing the envelope when working on films like Avatar, Hellboy 2 and Pacific Rim:

Come on concept artists! Let's see more of the same.