Monday, December 1, 2008

Different, but the same

Ilustration in a Synoglyphic Visual Culture
by Colleen Schindler-Lynch

left:Sara Cerilli, sewing and paper, 2005
right:Kim Hyun-Ji, Mixed media collage, 2008

From the Beginning

Visual culture is constantly undergoing shifts in the perception of traditional norms. There exists, a rather large indefinable grey area between the fine art world and the world of illustration. Throughout the modern history of visual communication, illustration has often flirted with the other side of artistic expression– crossing back and forth over established categories of image making, blurring distinctions and cross-pollinatingwith the other for a time, confounding critics, academics and even the public.

There was a time when watercolour was considered low art. Printmaking and photography in their infancy fought the same uphill battle against historical precedent and preference. So to, does illustration. It has long been defined by the allegory and its supportive role in publishing, providing images to accompany a story. Amusing pictures intended to grab a reader’s attention – truly, an early form of info snacking - read the pictures rather then the story. From humble beginnings illustrations were made to be printed alongside adverts, visually describing products or scenes to an illiterate public. Shop owners and newsmen soon discovered that images sold more products and papers. It is here that illustration became relegated to a submissive genre of art – not charting new ground – text is the driving force with illustration along for the ride.

Without its commercial attachment, illustration stands alone, freed it from its obligatory shackles. Time and again, illustrators are proving that intent is a better barometer – a stronger measure of the medium, and that the label is far broader then the restrictive definition allows. Perhaps, a new, expanded and more open definition is in order.

Illustrators are using traditional media that usually fall into the realm of fine art such as paint, pencil and multi media. They are not just delivering client-based work but developing bodies of images with thesis driven explorations of subject matter. Far from the origins of the discipline in depicting quaint scenes for advertising, we find visually challenging, thought provoking, morally questioning and engaging images. Like fine art, illustration can be rich in subject and masterful in technique, yet it is commercial by nature and it is here that we see the divergent path illustration typically takes from the intent of fine art. Or is it where we wade into a grey zone between the two - playing bumper cars with the world of fine art, sometimes crashing head-on into it and sometimes falling in line with the flow.

Illustration’s recent renaissance, burgeoning in the 1980s, owes much to the fashion industry. The collaboration of Barney’s and Jean Philippe Delhomme’s illustrations for the retailer’s ad campaign put illustration on the map again as a viable, important and useful genre. The playful illustrations for theI am, campaign were the perfect reaction against the slick, technological, over prevalent use of photography. Illustration has grown broader in its context – new media, old media, traditional and non-traditional ¬– championed by artist/illustrators who soldier on.

Expanded Vision

Today we see exhibitions, festivals and events present the category of works called illustration on a fine art platform. The sister exhibitions of Illustrative 07 in Paris and Berlin presented illustrative material in gallery settings akin to fine art exhibitions and in London, Designersblock: Illustrate 2007 offered both conventional and experimental forms of illustration as an interactive and performance based event, enriching our visual culture. Freed from its commercial intent, the work transformed and commuted its restrictive definition – blurring, blending, and even embracing the ambiguity, while simultaneously separating the disciplines of art. Together, these events presented visual material in a context and with a vocabulary that we recognize as belonging to illustration’s prestigious counterpart.

The purveyors of this visual language are at the same time dividing the disciplines by defining themselves as illustrators rather than artists – working both in an artistic pursuit and for commercial endeavors. The politics associated with the labels of illustration and fine art need to come under question.

This multiple approach to roles and definitions finds a lot of illustration practitioners and visual material crossing what seems to be, at times, a chasm between the disciplines. Not unlike the 1970s when Pluralism was initially defined, we are experiencing its resurgence. Globally we see the questioning of established values and institutions. In North America, giants of industry, like Enron and Nortel, see their executives serving time in prison for unscrupulous business practice, while the occupation of foreign lands and the questionable tactics of governing bodies call our collective morals into question. Events such as these fracture singular viewpoints and expand pluralist opinion. This recent paradigm shift also affects the practice and perception of illustration. Therefore, alogical first step in developing a new definition is to examine the pluralist visual climate.

There isalso a shift in the perception of what constitutes art. We find a segment of illustrators using media relegated to a DIY craft aesthetic exploring a resurgence of the decorative arts – surely a humanistic response to our technologically bound and mechanized world. As most of us try to tabulate our carbon footprint, there is a global awareness of our presence on the planet. An awareness of the individual singled out from the collective (your community, your city, your country, your continent), craving perspective on our ever-shrinking planet – a planet that is noticing dwindling supplies and resources and the prevalence of technology replacing human contact and connection.

The Janus-Effect

With one eye on the future and one eye on the past, Neo-craft illustrators are charting new or should I say old, ground. They have a long history to follow – William Morris’s vision embodied in the Arts and Crafts movement was a response to the dehumanization of the industrial revolution and is, of course, extensively documented. The Decorative Arts and Feminist movements of the 1970’s, yielded artists such as Judy Chicago and Faith Ringgold, whose practice involved working in media typically relegated to women’s handwork. Quilting and embroidery possess a tactile quality and speak to a human history – a connectedness with the hands that fabricated the work. Now the Neo-crafters are revisiting similar media, maintaining evidence of the hand as a response to the dehumanization of our technological age. The physicality of the media attracts not only the hands of the maker but also the gaze of the viewer with an appreciation of slight irregularities and imperfections that speak to our humanity and inherent flaws.

From around the globe, artist/illustrators such as Sandrine Pelletier, Claire Ann Baker, Laura McCafferty, Eleanor Bowley, Borja Uriarte and Jenny Hart utilize hand stitching, machine embroidery, fabric and photo collage in their work. Sandrine Pelletier’s work possesses both a modern perspective and an antique heirloom feel – brocades and lace coupled with the controlled chaos of twists, knots and tangles of threads. In works such as her “Experimental Faces,” Eleanor Bowley’s technique could easily be mistaken for a digital line drawing with spot colour. A closer examination reveals fabrics and stitching. Both Eleanor Bowley and Claire Ann Baker have a collage-like nature to their work incorporating found objects, photographs and reclaimed garment details. Jenny Hart’s embroidery is reminiscent of kitschy souvenirs collected from places like Niagara Falls and Nashville – embroidered images that impart a note of nostalgia. All have reinterpreted old-fashioned techniques and re-fashioned them with a contemporary edge.

The broad range of styles and techniques that make up Neo-craft illustration is unified by a common exploration of simple materials transformed into captivating images. Peter Callesen, Robert Ryan, Robert Sabuda, Sherril Gross, and Pierre Louis Mascia, cut and engineer simple paper beyond its intended function. Peter Callesen makes quiet, contemplative, delicately exquisite pieces out of simple, unassuming A4 copy paper. Flowers fall and drape, buildings stand sturdy and structured, no longer part of a two dimensional existence they occupy a physical presence in our space. Robert Sabuda engineers marvelous works for children’s books, creating remarkable images in the tradition of the pop up book. Pierre Louis Mascia’s figures can be characterized as the ultimate chic fem. The folding, cutting and re-assembling of a variety of papers, including common paper doilies and lace, coupled with his use of positive and negative space creates vogue figures for the fashion industry. The cut lines in his illustrations are every bit as sensitive and interesting as in an image rendered in pencil or conté. The material manipulation by these paper pushers is sophisticated, direct, poetic and whimsical. The simplicity of their work is captivating despite its lack of technological ties.

Anti-Body Aesthetic

Appearing to be at odds with Neo-craft illustration is the fodder of the Nouveau Surrealists and Neo-Constructivists. Subject matter exploration involves the dissolution, deconstruction and disappearance of the human form. With the global population soaring, there is a perceived disinterest in physical identity. We are defined by and distilled down to a set of numbers that make up our presence on the planet – bank accounts, passwords etcetera. The domination of digital technology in every field, establishes the fact that the emphasis is not on the individual. Deconstruction, a theoretical position popularized in the 1980s & 1990s had a global effect on all aspects of art and design ¬– fashion, graphic design, architecture, literature and fine art. Currently, it is being revisited and has morphed into the mainstream becoming a style unto itself.

Reinvestigating the academic methodology, contemporary designers and illustrators are utilizing its theories, structures and details to communicate visually. This form of figural representation in illustration is characterized by a lack of figural components ¬¬– realistic or believable representations of ‘the body’. Edited into anonymity, by diminishing its visual impression, the role of figural identity is heightened by its lack of appearance. This faction’s usage and cognizance of the figure in illustration does not infer disinterest, rather the images convey a celebration of the body by removing it from the quotient – dissolving and deconstructing it altogether. By removing the conventional depiction of a figure – by contorting, deconstructing and recomposing – this breed of illustration underlines a use of disparity in the balance structure of illustration particularly the relationship between garment to figure and figure to environment.

The historical underpinnings of these “Anti-body” illustrators, resembles Surrealist and Russian Constructist theory.

“…Surrealism would liberate the unconscious, reconcile it with the conscious, and free mankind from the shackles of logic and reason…”1

We end up following charted territory provided by art history. Fragmentation of conventional drawing rules in this annex of illustration, forces an acute awareness of what is wrong with the composition or subject. It compels and cajoles your logic and rationale. You are pressed to search your history of visual experience to fill in the missing information, thereby creating a new whole. The Surrealists epitomize all that is illogical. Maren Esdar’s quasi Victorian, contortionistic figures remain beautiful in spite of their twisted dreamlike existence. Marie Gibson’s Giraffe Woman (2005) is reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s work Elephants (1948). Her figure has long stretched legs and a body type that follows the standard fashion figure formula. However, dwarf elephants with butterfly wings trail her. Gibson utilizes other Dali devices such as the low horizon line and barren landscape.

“Down with art! Long live Technology!”2

The constructivists believed that humanity was second to technology and so it is logical that this branch of illustration usually finds its manifestation in the digital environment. Ingrid Baars’ images embody whiplash energy and dissolve in a fluid-like form. Similarly, Shiv’s figures fade in and out of our focus occupying several dimensions or realities. Tied to an environment and eking out a temporal existence. Whereas, in the work of Redouane Oumahi, the body becomes line based and simple shapes assemble together in a rather Mattise meets Calder manner.

Different, but the same

To come to the end you started at the beginning, and so, although seemingly disparate, these analogue and digital initiatives in illustration share a commonality. A pluralist viewpoint does not yield an easy and compact definition. At face value they are polar opposites – one emphasizing the evidence of the hand, the other stressing its absence, both figuratively and metaphorically. They are synoglyphs of our visual culture – images that appear different but mean the same thing. At their core, both areas of illustration – whether rendered by hand or by technological means – celebrate the essence and the presence of humanity in our visual culture but from opposite sides of the table. The marginalized, often trivialized role of illustration is expanding its scope under multiple gazes and so has more freedom to flow across that indefinable grey area – a trepidacious line drawn in the sand, between fine art and illustration. The broadening of the definition helps to elevate the profession and proliferate visual culture.


1. Demsey, Amy. “Styles, Schools and Movements.” pg.153 Thames & Hudson Ltd. London. 2002
2. Demsey, Amy. “Styles, Schools and Movements.” pg.108 Thames & Hudson Ltd. London. 2002


left:Sara Cerilli, sewing and paper, 2005
right:Kim Hyun-Ji, Mixed media collage, 2008

Colleen Schindler-Lynch finished a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Windsor in 1990. She continued with graduate studies in printmaking at Louisiana State University completing her degree in 1993. She teaches in the Faculty of Communication and Design at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, instructing both accessory design and illustration. Her research in current thematic directions in illustration, led her to present at the IFFTI conference in April of 2007. Entitled “Lost Innocence.” The paper examined the global presentation of sex and violence in illustration. Her next area of research focuses on digital mimicry. She is studying the use of digital technology as medium or tool in her search for humanity in our visual culture. Additionally, she is an award winning jewellery designer translating garment details such as cuffs, collars and pockets, into couture accessories for her company, Coco’s Closet.


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