Uncanny Pop: The Iconography of Philjames

The first half of the 20th century witnessed the rapid expansion and consolidation of the science fiction genre. From the late 19th century – when the proto-genre was a set of tentatively related fantasy and adventure narratives – through until the mid-1950s when the iconography of the now mature genre crossed from the fringes of society and into the mainstream of pop culture – the ascendency of SF in the 20th century was the story of a technophilic obsession with the icons of modernity mixed with pre-modern and quasi-religious figures of the unconscious and the uncanny.

The ascendency of SF came in two phases: the first was the Pulp Age, the period from the mid-1920s and the establishment of mass circulation SF magazines such as Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories which first appeared in April 1926, and then in ever proliferating numbers until their eventual demise in the mid-1950s. Overlapping the Pulp Age was the second phase, that period from 1937 until the late 1940s, that brief moment that is triumphally referred to as science fiction’s Golden Age.

These two well-documented periods were not solely American with magazines appearing all over the world – particularly in England and France – and with a few Australian authors and illustrators working at the edges of the boom – but for the most part the cultural dominance of American SF in the English-speaking world casts authors such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein – and Englishman Arthur C. Clarke  – as central figures of this Golden Age period.

This maturing of SF into an identifiable aspect of modernism is of course intimately tied to the developments in military and civilian technologies that saw the mass production of everything from the car and the television set, to the nuclear missile and computer. In that headlong rush of post war techno-shock was the proliferation of another kind of technology. B-movie cinema and commercial TV broadcasts were the delivery systems for that most persuasive of all cultural propaganda: the science fictional image.

The visual legacy of mid-century SF cannot be underestimated. It’s a category of image that most people immediately recognise as “science fiction” –  icons from the sleek silver space rocket and the clanking robot, to the big-brained alien and the exotic planet, to the ray gun toting astronaut and the scantily clad woman. These icons are now so well entrenched in the popular imagination that one need only think of the 50’s space rocket – the repurposed Nazi V2 – and its continuing use as an ideographic representation for the entire genre to realise just how influential that period became.

And it’s from within that cultural space that Philjames mines icons for his paintings. Drawing on the legacy of Pulp and Golden Age illustrators and artists such as Frank R. Paul, Robert Fuqua, Ed Emshwiller and Virgil Finlay, Philjames appropriates their styles for a pop art inspired intervention into repurposed paintings. The artist alters cheap prints of old masters and Victorian era sentimentalia into works of contemporary art, carefully judged interpolations created with close attention to detail and brushwork to match the tone and quality of the ‘originals’, while the adroitly added ray guns, alien heads and breathing apparatus provide a shock of recognition – a palpable moment of ‘what tha?’ – a punch line to a carefully staged conceptual joke.

Like surrealism, science fictional imagery requires a level of realism to power its fantasy, while simultaneously providing even its most outlandish visuals a degree of plausibility. Pulp and Golden Age illustrators founded the visual language of modern SF through a vernacular scientific romanticism, and in retrospect the tradition of illustration upon which Philjames pitches his work seems camp and hopelessly quaint from the perspective of the 21st century. But his conflation of SF illustration icons and old masters links together multiple strands of art history, the most prominent of which is pop art.

British artists of the 1950s such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi – both of whom notably appropriated Pulp Age SF illustrations into their collages – and Americans such as Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein, who conflated Space Age and SF iconography – were creating a knowing irony, a visual play between the high brow art of the museum and the low brow popular culture of comics, TV and movies. Many pop artists were enthusiasts drawing on the everyday material of the mass media for their work, partly critical of it, but also celebratory. It’s hard to imagine an artist using material that has little emotional resonance for them, be it Andy Warhol’s Coke bottles, Rosenquist’s jet fighters or Rauschenberg’s astronauts.

The master narrative of late modernism claims Pop Art as being highly critical of consumer culture, and that it is how it has been interpreted by its decedents, a new generation of contemporary artists working with public spaces, artists who are yoked with the term ‘street art’ to differentiate their practices from the serious game of commercial art galleries and public museums. The historicisation of Pop art has created a belief that it only continues to exist as a mannered and depleted gesture against the empty rhetoric of late capitalism. This is a fantasy of its own: Pop art still has power.

Philjames’s painting might be considered in strictly postmodernist terms, a nostalgic combination of iconography that mixes the imagery of 1950s SF – a genuine retro-futurism – with elements of George Lucas’s Star Wars films and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks – a highly mannered reinterpretation of that same legacy. But Philjames’s work also needs to be considered in the context of Australian neo-Pop painters such as Ben Frost, Johnny Romeo or Anthony Lister – artists who use a similarly wilful mash up of cross-temporal pop culture references reflective of the all-at-once quality of contemporary image culture. But where many modern neo-pop painters turn to the science fictional image with a sourer intent, Philjames’s parodic imagery has a gentler and fannish quality that gives a sense that the artist has a genuine love for his source material, a position more akin to the original pop artists of the 1950s than to a more calculating postmodernist perspective.

The author and genre historian Brian Aldiss argued in The Billion Year Spree: A History of Science Fiction [1973] that the modern genre had grown from the tradition of Gothic and post-Gothic fiction, and indirectly from an even older tradition of mythic adventure and religious narratives found in, for example, the Bible, Hindu mythology or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Aldiss argued that modern SF reconfigures elements of Gothic fiction such as the recurrence of the character of the villainous Monk into SF tropes such as the alien, or the distant lands of America or Australia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries into alien worlds. Aldiss’s claim in essence was that science fiction took the oldest archetypes of human culture and recast them in a contemporary setting.

And this is where Philjames’s paintings find their true and most lasting effect – the apparently jokey but deadly serious re-staging of archetypes in a cartoon setting. While a painting such as Dream of Electric Sheep [Robot Chick] [2014] has a double shock of the revelation of wiring beneath the girl’s face a la the movie Westworld [1973] [albeit with a title referencing Philip K. Dick] the creeping sense of the uncanny in the picture is undeniable. So too the artist’s predilection for giving the Virgin Mary a weapon, as is seen Ray Gun Mary. At first the effect of the painting is the humour of repurposing a votive image into the profane, everyday world of sci-fi, but it’s startling to recall that, according to Marian doctrine, Mary ascended to heaven – beamed up after the conclusion of her away mission planetside. While Philjames’s paintings are loaded with art and pop cultural reference points, and have a lucid and delightfully affecting sense of humour, it is their ability to transcend appearances that gives them their real resonance.

Published in Philjames, Sydney: Sarsaparilla Press, 2014

Image: Philjames, from Smilex



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