"Oh ye of little etc..."
Over the last two decades, Illustration's high profile (as a mirror for the immediate concerns of the Media and the Design Industry) has meant that the very individual roots of many illustrators' work may go unacknowledged. Contemporary illustrators' career niche in the Media, alongside would-be journalists, celebrity chefs and boy bands, can obscure the fact that many of us initially get into this business out of a genuine, longstanding need to make, draw and communicate, which is as powerful for illustrators as for any other artists, however categorized. As a result of this creative imperative, many illustrators have a huge and valid range of ideas, obsessions and fancies which do not find expression in commissioned work which is often hedged about with other people's corporate concerns.
Alongside the desire to explore such ideas, many illustrators experience an ongoing fascination with form: the physical artwork. Rewarding though it is to see one's imagery in print or on screen, the experience carries with it potential limitations of scale, format and surface. This sequence of exhibitions allows Gary Powell and Andrew Foster to by-pass such intellectual and physical culs-de-sac. While both artists work successfully as illustrators, and are respected teachers in the subject, both illustrators prove here that they are also artists of power and originality. Pragmatically recognizing certain differences between Illustration and Fine Art, they establish a relationship between the two forms and, largely, enjoy it. Nothing intrinsically new there, but at this point in Illustration's evolution an undertaking like this is both unusual and important.
There is much contemporary Illustration, particularly within authorial fields like the children's book and the graphic novel (a phrase which has long outgrown its erstwhile adolescent associations) which allows its makers to exhibit autonomy, intelligence and sophistication. Artists as diverse as Chris Ware (a current Guardian First Book Award nominee), Peter Blegvad, Wolf Ehrlbruch, Dan Clowes, Lisbeth Zwerger, J. Otto Siebold, Sue Coe, Lane Smith, Ben Katchor and Sara Fanelli produce a range of work to satisfy the most hyper-critical observer. Outside of these fields, individuals like Mark Ryden, Jonathon Rosen, Michelle Thompson, Brian Cronin - and, indeed, Powell and Foster themselves - manage to transcend the limitations which commissions and deadlines can sometimes impose. But alongside this visual and conceptual breadth lies a highly-visible genre of contemporary work, defined by and accessed via the mainstream Media, which can seem sterile and impersonal. As long ago as 1999, Rick Poynor identified a tendency within (but undercutting) a resurgence in Illustration, which he labelled "The New Anonymity". This school of work, which takes its influences from a very narrow gene pool (information graphics, 50s/60s/70s popular culture, manga, Patrick Caulfield), continues to largely hold sway in the supplements and style mags. Its prevalence is bolstered by the fact that its aesthetic commonplaces are easily achieved using current softwares - THIS fact allowing equally easy, and often uncritical, usage by art directors and designers. While a seamless digital chain of commissioning, creating and reproducing Illustration has been established, no mean feat in under a decade, the end results are rarely as impressive or personal as they might be. For every intriguing individual, like Alex Williamson, Shonagh Rae, or Simon Pemberton, there are dozens of young wannabes, apparently intent on very short careers, busily rendering scanned-in stock photographs into flat colour, with or without the addition of some minimalist (and usually inert) linear drawing.
Foster's, and Powell's work represents the antithesis of this sometimes
dispiriting scenario. Their emphasis on demanding physical processes, and on
themes drawn from their most personal concerns, could hardly be more
different from the perceived image of most(?) contemporary Illustration.
This fact, underpinned by their status as leading illustrators, makes these
exhibitions highly relevant both to younger illustrators and to those
commissioning Illustration. The physical form of their work here, involving
(largely) printmaking for Powell, drawing and painting for Foster,
challenges current cliches in Illustration practice yet avoids anachronism.
It makes reference to influences like Rauschenberg, Tapies, early Hockney
and Cy Twombly, and to non-Fine Art fields like "psychotic" art, icons, and
popular culture in many forms. For both artists, processes of collage and
montage are crucial: post-it notes, school badges, wildly-varied paper
surfaces, found imagery referring to labour, entomology or football, and
much else besides is integrated into their imagery. While much collage, both
digital and physical, and particularly within Illustration, has become
predictable, these artists succeed in personalizing and integrating it into
their work. They establish an intrinsic link between process (which may be
anyone's) and content (which is theirs alone). While montage as a process
might be said to be the overriding artistic and cultural legacy of the
Twentieth Century, omnipresent in art, design, film, music, literature and
architecture, for every Schwitters, Varese, Lee Perry or Burroughs there are
scores of others who - lacking authentic ideas of their own - recycle
endless lick'n'stick cliches to less and less effect. Foster and Powell
avoid this trap by linking demanding definitions of 'montage' to their
personal experience; to their equivalent of, say, Charles Ives' childhood
memories of marching bands, or Burroughs' narcotic experimentation. They
allow content to influence outcome: nothing cosmetic here. This successful
combination of form and content is further lifted by its integration with
sophisticated usages of drawing, colour and scale, to produce two bodies of
work which are unmistakably individual yet complementary.
What of the themes, the flesh and bones which differentiate this work
from everyday commissions? You could say it's about all the Fs: Faith. The
Fall. Fundamentals. Family. Father(s). Friendship. Frustration. Fine Art.
Fear. The Future. And Football, of course. A highly serious range of
concerns, approached with an almost Victorian, masculine earnestness
reflecting both artists' Christian family roots, which is so unusual in a
period of easy irony and faux-sophistication that it could easily teeter
over into po-facedness and a paradoxical gaucherie. That it doesn't is a
measure of both artists' instinct, flexibility and fluency with their media,
contemporaneity and, perhaps surprisingly, humour - the overall seriousness
is shot through with conceptual and visual jokes, irony and self-deprecation. This is an exhibition from two individuals working at the top of their form, spurring each other on to discoveries which may feed back into their Illustration, or may stand alone. Either way, it represents both a demanding and a refreshing alternative to the anodyne nature of so much
contemporary Illustration - or, indeed, Fine Art. But that's another story....