Magazine article Artforum International

Wonder Bred

Magazine article Artforum International

Wonder Bred

Article excerpt

Here is the reason why the gouaches, etchings, and oils of "speculative fiction" are so consistently evocative: they tap into a childhood font that used to be called wonder - now, of course, a frayed, heinous cliche, an Encyclopaedia Brittanica relic.

It's hard to believe there was a time when scabby-kneed kids could be startled at the sheer size of a particular full moon; while a Bradbury-esque summer breeze seduced hairs of the neck, they'd have the sudden startling sense of themselves as temporal, temporary beings on a wildly moving place (certainly not the only creatures in orbit). Such a child might lie on the ground with his recumbent DNA, staring at the nebulae; an ontological frisson would star them for life. And what would these nebulous children of paradise see? Well, someone has finally put together a wonderbook of those imaginings: at long last, something wickedly gorgeous this way comes - Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art has faithfully, lovingly assembled the transcendently limpid deep-space tempera of the finely executed chimeras that have bedazzled the covers of science-fiction magazines, novels, and storybooks for over sixty years.

If I could, I would dissolve bodily into these epic, witty, bone-numbingly lonesome fantasias abundantly served in Vincent Di Fate's new catalogue raisonne of celestial musings. Along with picture-perfect reproductions, this utterly essential collection provides terse, literate, well-observed biographical information on the contributors who built thousands of brave new worlds from the ground up. Its author and scholarly editor, Vincent Di Fate, is fortuitously one of the pantheon's own, a luminous body himself in the cosmology of illustrators. He has dreamed interstellar dreams for clients as diverse (or alike) as IBM, NASA, CBS, and National Geographic.

Fanning through the peacock's tail of Infinite Worlds is a polymorphously perverse delight: there's something for everyone. Mr. Di Fate unfolds the varied genres of sci-fi illustration with tender thoroughness. My favorite mise-en-scenes depict the unflagging enormity of the universe and the paltry yet sublime presence of intrepid Man/Woman, whose humble business it is to bear awed and minuscule witness; such paintings usually portray landscapes or moonscapes or scape-scapes of humongous scale, with poignantly lilliputian figures in the foreground watching in stupefied reverence, something akin to Journey to the Center of the Earth's cavers when they round a corner and find themselves toe-to-toe with a vast subterranean ocean. Michael Whelan's 1983 Trantorian Dream is an absolute stunner; from the wreckage of an alien civilization, a lone warrior climbs atop a pillar to stare with shredded hope and magisterial dignity into the yawping cosmological eye. (One cannot help but think of Caspar David Friedrich.) Whelan excels in creating dead worlds that are tentatively beginning to flower again. In a companion piece, Armenia, 1990, a cerebral, white-robed beauty stares at us with timeless, petulant ennui. At her feet, fledgling fauna nibble at body-bud flora; behind her, the cockeyed ruins of a once floating city is frozen in a still and sulfurous sea.

Those visions give way to ones of interplanetary war: impossibly enormous weapon-craft hover just above ground, disgorging troops from their maws while the opposing land armies advance like warrior ants. …

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