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Science Fiction Art From the Frank Collection”
At the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, College Park to March 4
In perhaps the most devastating line from the Beastie Boys’ 1986 anthem “Fight for Your Right,” the band exclaims: “Your mom threw away your best porno mag!” With so few pleasures to be had in adolescence, the loss the Boys describe is a drag, indeed.
That same excising of the naughty bits happens in “Possible Futures: Science Fiction Art From the Frank Collection” on view at the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, College Park. Rest assured, we’re still allowed an eyeful—we are adults now, after all. The 64 works dating from the ’30s to the ’90s—made to be slapped on the covers of Philip K. Dick books or pulp mags like Amazing Stories—are often lusty appeals to the id. But this exhibit aims to inch the work closer to the art-historical canon by clothing it in a respectable, Gap version of cultural critique, and sometimes the fun gets lost.
The show’s accompanying texts—plastered on the walls between double-D space babes and written up in the catalog’s six essays—treat paintings like Edward Valigursky’s Slaves of the Klau with the kind of awed respect given the Old Masters in general-interest art history texts. It’s as if the popular connotations of science fiction art—as immature and sensationalist, the stuff of pimply boys’ sexual fantasies—were the only nail in the genre’s coffin, and this revisionist examination would pry it free to slip in next to Helen Frankenthaler’s The Bay in Janson’s History of Art. With this show, which will travel to three more venues before the year is out, curators Terry Gips and Dorit Yaron, along with gallery staff, aim to wipe off the hormonal sweat and open the works for cultural analysis like so many Trobriand Islanders. Following the lead of cultural studies departments nationwide, the show wants to legitimize popular culture as fodder for cultural critique.
The catalog’s six essays, issued from the trenches of feminism and cultural studies, encourage us to look at the work as if eating a particularly healthy, if overcooked, plate of okra—and we chew with dogged duty, knowing it’s good for us. In an essay titled “Alien Place, Alien Race: The Western Roots of the Final Frontier,” American Studies Ph.D. Greg Metcalf briefly acknowledges sci-fi art’s horny, oily audience, but then goes on to describe how “[p]ulp represents an enduring nationalistic discourse, or the supposedly factual stories that have shaped America’s sense of itself.” But even as the curators and essayists encourage us to sit up straight and put our thinking caps on, we take a quick glance around the room and sex beckons: Every spaceship is a phallus, every moon crater a vagina. How can we think seriously amid so many temptations? Taking wrenches from the academic’s toolbox to this suite of sensational images is a struggle, and we can only conclude, after much analysis, that they are created to sell books. Yes, these images can be analyzed for their views toward women or folks with dark skin, but only to a point. This stuff is meant to be hot, escapist, and juvenile. Puerile longings are the show.
Take the images of women. Variants of the Madonna-whore dichotomy are well-represented here, but hormonal surges—not misogyny—are their primary inspiration. Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s Biomechanoid II, Work #521 is a lithe space-babe cyborg—all T&A curves—rendered in a monochromatic Helmut Newton-esque futurama. With hands secured behind her back and eyes closed in supplication, she sucks on the phallic tube of a generator. This is a full-service discipline fantasy, perfect for a good wank. There’s a reason a Giger image graces the cover of my Danzig III: How the Gods Kill CD: The artist paints the typical 16-year-old boy’s view of women.
In a typically deflating paragraph from the catalog’s essay, American Studies Ph.D. Dabrina Taylor describes the subject of Biomechanoid II, Work #521: “A configuration of parts rather than a person, her status is confirmed by the fact that her eyes are closed. She does not see; she is not a subject who acts but an erotic object that is acted upon.” Undeniably, she’s a boy’s toy. But in the context of this show full of flip, cartoonish images, it’s pointless to be outraged.
Then there is this show’s palpable desire to show how un-PC life circa 1950 was, in a self-congratulatory, thank-[deity of choice]-for-’90s-cultural-relativism kind of way. Take Allen Anderson’s oil-on-canvas War Maid of Mars—undoubtedly a juicy story, to judge from this 1952 Planet Stories magazine cover. A buxom She-Ra wields her laser gun as a club, not even needing her full firepower to take on the alien adversary cowering below her. Funny thing about this picture is that, according to Anderson, Martians have mohawks, run around bare-chested revealing their brown skin, and house their knives in scabbards studded with eagle symbols. Sound familiar? Combine him with the Anglo-Saxon warrior princess, and we’ve got How the West Was Won, albeit with extra estrogen. Couldn’t this guy think of a more original way of expressing alien battles? No, he couldn’t. Which is precisely the point.
The show aims to elucidate the limited ways that the artists portray women and conflict, and examine their total reliance on familiar vocabulary and stereotyping derived from myth, Westerns, or whatever. Wall text describing these human-alien encounters stresses the way artists resort to cultural and gender stereotyping to create their scenes—how the human mind is limited in picturing the future by using only familiar vocabulary. Indeed, you can easily read War Maid of Mars as a cautionary tale: Given free rein to depict a universe or a future they don’t understand, many will be able to express it only in familiar terms, perhaps adding an odd flourish or two to make it “alien.”
There are some places where the frontiers of the human imagination make for curious parallels. In rendering lunar and space landscapes, artists like Chesley Bonestell rely heavily on conventions of 19th-century landscape tradition. Hudson River School painters’ ideal renderings of rocks and rivers often included ant-sized horses and men to underscore the massive scale of mountains and valleys; four space-suited astronauts stand around like little ants in the corner of Bonestell’s Picnic on the Moon. Just as 19th-century landscape artists used the power of America’s topography as symbolic of the embryonic nation, so Bonestell creates an awesome territory just beyond Earth’s atmosphere. And in this world, depictions depend on familiar geography—in Bonestell’s Lunar Landscape, a crater is ringed by mountains with cliffsides that look suspiciously like Sedona.
While the curators were craning their necks over their dissertations, they forgot to analyze the technical and intellectual limits of the artists they examine. These are science fiction artists—not Miro, not Braque, not Picasso—a bunch of guys we’ve never heard of. When cubists parsed reality into so many planes, they invented a whole new way of seeing and thinking. Anderson was still rubbing sticks together while Picasso fired up a Zippo to light his Gitane. CP