Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Leslie Ragan's Visions of Progress

Though this doesn't fall in the realm of "pop surrealism" or "lowbrow" or "phantasmagoric neo-romanticism" or whatever you'd like to call the art movement generally addressed on this blog, I thought I'd introduce a painter from the early 20th century whose work I nevertheless find captivating.

Leslie Ragan painted trains – heroic trains from an Art Deco fantasy of travel, epic landscapes pierced by sleek battering rams of potential, magical realist visions of progress from the Machine Age. Yet Ragan was just a commercial artist who specialized in transportation, and none of his work was very highly regarded during his lifetime. In recent years, however, auction prices for vintage posters of his New York Central trains have skyrocketed.

This powerful Art Deco poster, painted in 1938, is perhaps Ragan's most famous. Travel by Train, a great book which surveys 80 years of train advertising art, describes it better than I can:

"Significant in subject, setting and style, this work depicts the 20th Century Limited, the nation's foremost passenger train, as streamlined by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss in 1938... 'One of the most distinctive pieces of machinery ever seen on any track,' bragged New York Central System publicists... Recognized today as a defining American machine age poster image, it is often compared to the work of renowned European poster artist A. M. Cassandre. Set along the Hudson River, famously promoted as the "Water Level Route," the image focuses on the locomotive's hallmark aluminum fin (meant to recall a Roman Centurion's helmet) while deliberately masking mechanical details in shadow."

For New York Central's 1945 calendar, Ragan painted this surreal winter wonderland in which to set the 20th Century Limited passing through the Mohawk River Valley along the Water Level Route, the first four-track long-distance railroad in the world. For some reason, I have always been certain that this image inspired Chris van Allsburg's illustrations for The Polar Express. We'll have to wait to hear from van Allsburg to know for sure, I guess. It also reminds me quite strongly of a scene in Mark Helprin's wonderful magical realist novel Winter's Tale.

Some have suggested that this image, "For the Public Service," which Ragan painted for New York Central in 1946, would make a terrific cover for Ayn Rand's transcontinental railroad fantasy Atlas Shrugged. It does inspire one to believe that these heroic engines have mighty hearts beating with the desire to pull mankind forward into the future. As one auction catalog described the image:

"This powerful calendar cover design, set at Chicago's La Salle Street Station with the Ceres-topped Board of Trade Building towering in the background, proudly displays each engine model of the Central fleet, from the old-fashioned steam engine to the postwar marvel of the Diesel and the Streamlined Steam marvel, the 20th Century Limited. This inspired Ragan image promotes the both the glitz of passenger service and the bread-and-butter of the freight lines."

Born in Woodbine, Iowa in 1897, Leslie Ragan went to the Cumming School of Art in Des Moines and then to the Art Institute in Chicago. Afterward, he had a studio in Chicago and taught at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute for several years before moving on to New York, California, and Europe – eventually settling on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

In 1927 and 1928, Ragan created at least six South Shore Line posters, and between 1929 and the late '40s, he produced more than one hundred posters for the New York Central Railroad.

During World War II, Ragan joined the Office of War Information, where he worked painting war recruitment and propaganda posters like this one celebrating the newly minted United Nations.

Travel by Train describes this Ragan wartime image as "a poster produced during World War II by the railroad company to indicate their commitment to the war effort. Leslie Ragan takes his art one step further here and adds a propagandistic element, creating a powerful, proud and evocative image of a New York Central Line locomotive coursing through the night (working around the clock) beneath the eternal vigilance of the Statue of Liberty."

Travel by Train informs us that this amazing view of Chicago, painted in 1929, was Ragan's first poster for New York Central.

"Ragan's New York Central poster style represented a maturation of his earlier work. During the late 1920s, as one of a half-dozen artists who designed posters for the Chicago South Shore & South Bend, an interurban line that traversed the scenic Lake Michigan coast, Ragan painted landscape views that showed the influence of his peers, as he experimented with color and form. In particular he was influenced by Oscar Rabe Hanson (1901-1925), whose golden colors and pastoral images evoked heartland contentment...
He also drew inspiration from the work of pioneering American illustrator N. C. Wyeth, to create images characterized by strong contrast and vivid color.

Ragan's early New York Central work was formal and traditional in conception; it focused on architecture, the outstanding example of Modernism in America. His first NYC poster, a cityscape of Chicago's Michigan Avenue dominated by a towering midday thunderhead, was produced late in 1929; its interplay of reflected light and building mass only hinted at what was to follow."

Many of Ragan's paintings of the New York Central fleet are now thought of as iconic visions of the Machine Age, but the railroad simply used this one for the cover of a brochure. Though it must have been intended to convey the scenic allure of autumn splendor, this image has always given me the impression that the state of New York must have some glorious desert badlands hidden away somewhere.

Soon after the war, the train poster petered out as an art form, and the work of commercial painters was mostly relegated to the pages of four-color magazines, menus and brochures. After his work for New York Central was completed in the late '40s, Leslie Ragan continued to glorify mobility and progress for other transportation companies, including Norfolk & Western, Seaboard Air Line and the Budd Company, until his death in 1972.

In the foreword to the 1927 Annual of Advertising Art, W. H. Beatty summarized his view of the impact commercial art should seek to create in the viewer:

"Advertising art must be and is lively art, not to be confused with the reposeful static kind of expression that one expects to find in museums pungent with historic camphor. These pictures represent much experimentation and daring, much reaching out for the new, as they should, for they reflect the same churning endlessness that competitive business does, if not American life itself. Perhaps when a future historian of this American scene has relegated such things as business profits, quotas and earnings to footnotes on the bottom of his page... it will be bits of pageantry like this that will appeal to him."

Intrigued by these bits of pageantry? Find out more here:

Moonlight in Duneland: The Illustrated Story of the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad by Ronald Cohen and Stephen McShane, Quarry Books, 2004.

Travel by Train: The American Railroad Poster, 1870-1950 by Michael Zega and John Gruber, Indiana University Press, 2002.

As a special treat for those faithful readers who've bothered to get this far, here are a couple of extremely rare New York Central posters by Leslie Ragan that you won't see elsewhere:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Scott Belcastro's Blue Soul

This week, I was lucky enough to happen across Scott Belcastro's blog shortly after he had finished one of the most powerful and eerily magnificent pieces of art I have ever had the opportunity to purchase. I had bookmarked Scott's website months ago, thinking that he had an interesting style which might develop into something that appealed to me – and it did, much sooner than I expected.

The title of this painting is "As Blue as my Soul Will Go," and in it Scott has captured a dreamlike, otherworldy atmosphere. The black stag pausing to scent the frosty air beneath the blaze of the aurora borealis must be a dark forest god passing in the night. The majesty and awe of this frozen moment is like a silent symphony.

This painting marks a sudden and profound new direction for Scott, who has been concentrating on whimsical, childlike works with a twist of impending doom. While many of the stylistic elements of this piece are present in his earlier work, this shift in tone has gelled into something cathartic and epic with a strong undertone of animism. It may be the first time Scott has concentrated so completely on the natural world – albeit a rather strange, Lovecraftian vision of it – and perhaps that has brought out something previously unexplored in him.

I spoke to Scott about "As Blue as my Soul Will Go," and he said it was the end result of several months of creative frustration. To him, it felt like a breakthrough, and I imagine almost anyone would agree that it is a great step forward. Scott said that when he's painting, he usually feels like he's screaming, but with this painting, he wanted to convey silence. For him, this piece is about coming to accept that you are a part of the world, with all its madness, not above it or separate from it or superior to it. He made the stag share the same value as its surroundings to express that sense of integration into the whole, but outlined it in white to suggest hope.

Here are a few of Scott Belcastro's earlier pieces:

"Suicide Doors"

"You Tell that Mean Ocean, Todd"

"No Winners"

While on the surface, "As Blue as my Soul Will Go" might seem to be darker than Scott's earlier work, I would contend that it is so awestruck by beauty that it is inherently imbued with optimism. Much of his work previous to this piece seems to share the common theme of loss of control in the face of insurmountable threats. While there is an element of playfulness and natural beauty in all of them, their lonely, diminutive subjects are under threat from churning seas, falling ordnance, faceless juggernauts, monster armies and onrushing fire. In fact, fire seems to be a recurring obsession in his work. "I am not happy about the destruction the fire causes," wrote Scott, "but I am put at ease by the visual of it."

There's not much that's been written about Scott out there, but he did share a few words about his art in an interview recently:

"I kind of feel like it's a children’s book without a storyline. I try to keep my art in the area of daydreaming. I want people to be able to relate in some way. It's kind of like watching it snow – it's beautiful and you don’t have to figure anything out."

According to Scott and Beau from project:, we will be seeing more explorations of this new direction before long.

"We Deserve Better than This"

"The Forecast"

"1% for Peace"

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kelly Vivanco's Evocative Enigmas

I'm guessing that for you, life may seem a colorless and shopworn thing, because you have not yet discovered the World of Kelly Vivanco. I've hesitated to write about Kelly because her work means so much to me, and I certainly won't be able to do justice to it. With that caveat, here I go... Kelly grew up in suburban SoCal and now paints (and draws cartoon rodents) in North County San Diego. She is a studio artist at Distinction Gallery in Escondido, and she will be part of an upcoming show at Thinkspace called "Uncommon Gardens" that opens on May 9, 2008.

Once upon a time, I happened across one of Kelly's paintings at Thinkspace, and I just couldn't stop looking at it. It was beautiful, mysterious, and slightly surreal. The colors were otherworldly and the technique was masterful. It combined the classical qualities of a turn-of-the century fairy tale illustration with an environment reminiscent of ruins on a distant planet. To me, this combination was utterly delicious, so although I had come to Thinkspace to check out something else, I couldn't leave without buying "Alcove." As it happened, that purchase kicked my art addiction into a new gear, and by the end of the year, I had a house full of Kelly's work.

Unlike many artists you'll encounter these days, Kelly Vivanco doesn't have a narrow specialty – she paints portraits, tableaux and scenarios; women, children and animals; fantasies, dreams and enigmas. Emotionally, she covers a wide territory – whimsy and silliness, wonder and longing, apprehension and daring, sauciness and pride. Though her technique varies quite a bit from piece to piece, her work is distinctive and instantly identifiable. In a recent interview with the webzine Creep Machine, Kelly spoke about how her style came together.

"I used to think my work looked a bit schizophrenic. It took an effort to eventually congeal. I am inspired by old photos, vintage things, quirkiness, decay, animals, colors and moods… if that makes sense. I try to get a certain feeling going in the look and atmosphere of a painting."

In many of Kelly's paintings, it is the eyes that grab you first – they are liquid pools of emotion that lend a storyline to even the simplest portrait. Looking into the eyes of the heroine in "Her Favorite Red," one can't help but conjure up explanations for such naked expression.

Creating images is an intuitive sort of experience for Kelly. Though she takes inspiration from children's books and vintage photographs, the animal world and dream imagery, she doesn't seem to be entirely sure where the scenes she paints arise from.

I have been drawing and painting and making stuff since I was little. I would make a nest of paper, crayons, markers and other materials wherever I sat down. I used to draw subterranean cities and space warrens at home and in class and was fed by praise, I guess because I drew well.”

“I guess people are surprised that I don’t have some elaborate back-story for my paintings. They take shape spontaneously and organically and aren’t full of fancy meaning. I like to paint and see where it goes. I often don’t have answers to questions posed by my finished works. People ask me what a painting is about, I just ask them what they think it’s about. Their answer is as valid as mine, in my opinion.”

Kelly's "Constellation" is a piece that always elicits a strong response from those who view it. From the moment I first saw the painting, I felt an affinity with it. I immediately recognized in it the surreal logic of dreams, and I am always on the lookout for dream paintings that resonate on my frequency. It also reminded me of one of Sir John Tenniel's illustrations for Through the Looking-Glass, yet when I mentioned it to Kelly, she said she didn't remember that drawing from the book.

"New Growth" is another dark, enigmatic piece that is part of Kelly's "Dispatch from the Peppermint Forest" series. The nestlike swirling grass is mesmerizing, the light effects are amazing, and the scene is so mysterious that it invites endless speculation. One can't help imagining what sort of strange, harshly lit underworld the peppermint seedling is emerging from. This painting hangs next to my bed, so it's the last thing I see as I turn out the light. I enjoy interesting dreams!

One of the most impressive aspects of Kelly's work is the quality and variety of expression in her subjects. "Sky" instantly brings to mind speculations about the person who has left this young aviatrix behind, seemingly having flown away, probably in a biplane. I speculate that he is heading to a dangerous place and will be gone for some time, because she looks rather worried and wistful already. Kelly says she based this face on a sculpture she saw in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the comparison is striking.

I have always been intrigued by this young woman's bold attitude and eye for adventure. She is clearly ready to take on all comers, as they say. I think she may be undertaking an arctic expedition to retrieve a mysterious alien artifact. "Lens with the Fur Hood" is the sort of painting I want to look at every morning as I'm leaving the house, just to put the right face on the day.

As I see it, the intrepid, cocky stance of the girl in this piece is rarely seen in art, and I find it incredibly compelling. These days, paintings of women tend toward the seductive and sensual or the ornamental and vulnerable – and there is a profusion of states of being that aren't seeing much canvas. (One of my theories is that most art buyers are men, who most likely prefer their women with less attitude, and sales tend to influence future subject matter.) Personally, I prefer women who are spirited. Plucky. Perhaps even a little prickly. (So if I'm right, what we need is more women buying art!)

The headstrong tomboy in "Thistle" is a recurring character in Kelly's work, a phenomenon I have noted in many of her paintings.

The same fictional girls would reappear and I would do it completely unintentionally. I would look at one painting up in my studio and then across to another earlier painting and see the same girl at different ages. I don’t use models or try to portray anyone in particular, but the same ‘characters’ keep coming up unintentionally. I am sure a psychologist would have a field day with that, but tell them to keep their findings to themselves. I prefer the mystery.”

For example, a few months ago, I came into possession of Kelly's charming "No Bother"...

...and kept having the nagging feeling this girl seemed rather familiar. Eventually, I decided that she must be an older version of the girl in "Pink Molecules."

I'll let Kelly Vivanco finish off this little survey of my appreciation of her paintings with a philosophical statement that may shed some light on what makes her work is so fresh and intriguing.

"Do it for yourself. If you draw or paint to please other people, you will always be dissatisfied and unsure. One can never really know what anyone else will think. If you do it for yourself, and avoid the fear of ‘looking stupid’ or ‘doing it wrong’ you will get lost in the process and then the amazing stuff happens."