Thursday, December 6, 2012

Iconography (Part 1): Intro

Here's some expanded notes + visuals for a lecture I'm giving this weekend on the topic of iconography that focuses on two particular images. Part Two will be posted later this morning, and Part Three + a sample homework assignment will be posted tomorrow.
I was given the option to choose from a list of "mini-lessons" and while mulling over which one to pick, I noticed a recurrent theme emerging from the various incubating ideas. One possibility was to “Present a lecture on use of historical artwork in your own original work.” So “PeaceableKingdom” (1826) by American Folk painter Edward Hicks immediately came to mind:

Which had in turn inspired the creation of my “Alaskan Peaceable Kingdom” (more backstory on the piece here):

Another option arose when considering the possibility “Select a classic work of art and present a lecture appropriate for an art appreciation and history course.” An obvious choice would be to talk about “Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)” (1876) by Winslow Homer:

... which was subsequently remixed into "Simpson’s Homer" (previously posted here):

But signs kept pointing me to a different direction, one that would touch upon aspects of much of my work and that of many other artists - historical and contemporary - and frame them within the context of a much more interesting perspective: "Present a lecture on use of iconography appropriate for a mid-level studio art course."

Aside from an opportunity to combine highlights from some favorite themes I frequently lecture on in classes, this is something short and fun at the end of a grueling semester that also appeals to wide range of interests and abilities. Since this is targeted to an Intermediate class - the actual critique assignment is a variation on a standard Beginning art student's "Master Study" - there is a tacit assumption is that folks have had the benefit of some additional preparatory studies, namely basic design, figurative studies (and caricature) plus narrative art (including sequential art). Regardless it will be an inspirational set of images and interesting ideas to consider for anyone.
This also being ostensibly a “Studio” art course, the implication is that the emphasis will be in creating works in class, and thus the time allotted to talking about it versus doing it is inversely proportional. In other words, as per my usual style, there's only a brief overview, establish the rubric, show samples + a demo, then it's time to roll up the sleeves and get to work. Additionally, in lieu of there being an actual textbook, I supplemented the presentation with a handout containing some key terminology - which are hyperlinked in this mirror post.

And so, back to iconography...

Well, no - not in the colloquial sense of, say, religious icons per say...

…and not in the sense of the ubiquitous desktop icon either.

But it should be pointed out here that there are iconographic elements to both of those. In fact, all the images I've shown so far can be deconstructed and analyzed for their symbolic content, which is the underlying point of the entire academic exercise. This is invaluable when it comes to not only one's own art, but is a critical aid in understanding and interpreting the works of others in our highly visual culture. Along with the obvious Sociological implications, it applies directly to Film and Media Studies, Art History and Appreciation, Semiotics and so forth.

Case in point is to pause here for a second to compare and contrast this panel above with the one posted at the start of this essay that also displays the word "iconography." Note how the additional elements of a particular typeface and an appropriately matching background enhance the depth and subliminal reach of the second panel. The font is “Lithos,” designed in 1989 by Carol Twombly for Adobe Systems to specifically mimic the aesthetics of Ancient Greek inscriptions, and in conjunction with the marble backdrop recalls a sense of Weighty Importance and implies Very Serious Subject Matter. So pay attention.

Another genre that excels at iconographic representation is editorial illustration: pictured here are samples by the American cartoonist Clay Bennett (based in Tennessee with the Chattanooga Times Free Press). The particular effectiveness of this medium in scoring points and pushing buttons hinges upon the skillful manipulation of symbolism and usage of visual metaphor.

Indeed I would go farther and link the formal definition of iconography (Greek εἰκών ["image"] and γράφειν ["to write"]) with a functional definition of modern Sequential Art: image + text juxtaposed to tell a story. This immediately evident when studying the specific and deliberate imagery employed within graphic novels such as the Pulitzer-awarded Maus created in 1992 by Art Spiegelman.

Further along the comics continuum are the unique pop icons of the superhero. Again, here it is important to remember we aren't so much concerned with the considerable evolution of stylistic conventions within the genre (as seen above), but the context through which these depictions are seen and utilized. The psychological (Jungian) and mythological (as per Joseph Campbell) dimensions of how and why superheroes fill a societal and cultural need can also be decoded through the character's iconographic portrayal over the ages. The hero motif, a Champion for Justice confronted with moral dilemmas, speaks to a basic human condition, and appeals to one's desire for concepts like justice, empowerment, or simple entertainment. Consider the Batman, originally created by Bob Kane in 1939 and currently undergoing a revival with director Christopher Nolan's version in the Dark Knight films.

And of course the cornerstone of archetypal heroes, Superman (by Joe Shuster, 1938 and
Jim Lee/Scott Williams/Alex Sinclair, DC Comics 2004). Which leads us to the first of the two particular subjects we will focus on in this series:

Alex Ross 2008

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