By John Hertz: We’ve long known Michael Whelan was among our best.
He was first a Hugo Award finalist in 1979, for Best Pro Artist. Next year he won that, and since then twelve times more, plus Nonfiction Book for his Works of Wonder (1988) and Original Artwork for The Summer Queen (1992), an unequaled 15 Hugos; 31 times a finalist.
He was Graphic Artist Guest of Honor at the 56th World Science Fiction Convention and (with Amano Yoshitaka) at the 65th.
He’s been voted Best Artist in 31 Locus Polls, most recently in 2016; 44 times a finalist.
He has 13 Chesleys (Ass’n of S-F Artists); 53 times a finalist. More honors too.
Now the Riverside Art Museum, Riverside, California, is holding an exhibit of his work, as announced (with links) here. It opened on February 11th and runs through May 25th.
That’s news. In the wide wide world our graphic art is not well-known. People familiar with Chen Ju-Yuan or Salvador Dalí or Tamara de Lempicka or Paula Rego or Andrew Wyeth aren’t acquainted with Michael Whelan. He is not in the New York Museum of Modern Art, or the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Vincent Di Fate’s superb and still indispensable survey Infinite Worlds is not on curators’ shelves.
The Riverside Art Museum is a pioneer in staging an exhibit of a leading S-F artist.
I went to the opening-night reception. Here’s the banner outside the front door. You’ll recognize the striking 1984 cover illustration for Asimov’s Robots of Dawn.
Whelan seems to have adopted the term alternative realism; see it on the banner. It suits him. It may be a good name for the mode of which he is such a master. The greater the reality, the better the fantasy is elemental to S-F.
I found him surrounded by admirers – which was as it should be – wearing a Revolver necktie and answering questions. When I remarked on the tie, a man said “Oh yes, old Beatles.” I said “Old-fashioned is old-fashioned.”
The Museum has done well by him. A gallery of 1,560 square feet (146 square meters) displays 54 pieces, some time-honored, some new.
The exhibit, and a Kickstarter commemorative book, are called Beyond Science Fiction. This may be wise.
Before I went, I winced. Did we need another apology? Another variation on Robert Conquest’s theme “‘S-F’s no good,’ they bellow till we’re deaf. ‘But this is good.’ ‘Well, then, it’s not S-F”?
Looking at the pictures I saw a different perspective.
Most of them were book covers (I’ll get to “palette gremlins” in a moment). They were, they had to be, indeed they were proudly illustrations. Whelan is an illustrator.
Kelly Freas would never let himself be named anything else; he declined artist (over my protest, among others), and viewed with suspicion what he more or less privately called “easel painters”.
Of course an illustration has to illustrate – which means shed light on. It had better be good art – but what’s that? not that it means nothing: we’d not keep using it if we thought it meant nothing: but it’s fiendishly difficult to get a grip on. Kelly Freas (that was his surname, folks) used to say an illustration has to make you want to read the story.
Superficial? Maybe so, in a way. If you think it’s only superficial, think again.
The best illustration (1) satisfies the illustrator (2) satisfies the author (3) sheds light on the story (4) makes people want to read the story – and, if you will, (5) makes the publisher think it will make people want to read the story.
Down that road is the possibility that the very best illustration, in addition to and without in the least failing (1-4) or (1-5), may also reach people who run into it apart from the story, have never heard of the story, don’t know there is a story, don’t know the picture they’re looking at is an illustration.
Does that necessarily follow? I don’t know. Ask again later. But it came to me from pictures at an exhibition.
Of course read and story needn’t be literal. A Kelly Freas picture was used by the band Queen. Whelan pictures have been used by the Jacksons and by Meat Loaf.
In that sense I applaud the title Beyond Science Fiction. Yes, maybe it’s a lure, maybe a needed lure to draw people who might not otherwise – I’ll say it – dare to come here and look. Also I think it says These images are science fiction; certainly they are; we don’t hesitate [I hope] to say so; in addition to which and not failing it in the least they reach farther and are worthy for themselves.
That’s why they’re in the Riverside Art Museum.
I said I’d get to “palette gremlins”. They are – I’ll quote Whelan,
small creations found in random shapes … errant fingerprints and paint smears … usually on a palette or the mat board I use to protect my drawing table…. I added a touch here and a brush stroke there until the abstract elements began to resolve…. Passage: The Red Step was suggested by shapes in the over-spray left from a complex airbrushing session…. when they spark an idea that leads to a larger work, it feels like a gift from my Muse!… The point of it all, however, is to play with some paint – and see what happens.
One wall has a dozen. One of them, Amethyst Fantasy, I saw was lent by Shaun Tan.
You know some of the pictures. You have books they cover, or prints, or Infinite Worlds or one of Whelan’s own books – which I recommend – or you can summon them from Electronicland. See the originals. See them often and long. Each medium is different.
Study originals. Go to this exhibit if you can. Bring what you have with you and compare. Bring a sketchbook and copy them, or an easel (in a good cause, Kelly) and a paintbox; get permission. Beethoven wrote out a Mozart string quartet; he was perfectly able to read the score, and he intended to write his own music, but he wanted to get into his fingers what Mozart had done.
And if you ask “What has Whelan done for us lately?” cast a Cottleston on this, “In a World of Her Own” from 2016.
Cottleston pie, that’s your eye – no, wrong slang – wait, I’ll have it in a minute – wait –