I can finally say Happy Halloween Los Angeles! Astor again, the Lord of Misrule of Speakeasy Tattoo and in honor of this most hallowed of eves we will be closing out Goth Pride Month with a feature on a truly iconic gothic artist. Now before we begin, a quick word: I had a devil of a time deciding who was most deserving of the privilege of being the Halloween blog entry’s featured artist (don’t let anyone try to convince you that this isn’t a greatest achievement an artist can earn, that’s right I said it, suck it Turner Prize) and to this end there were many artists I considered (including H.R Giger… but then I realized that the previous blog master already wrote a feature on him which is better than anything I could have done and I highly recommend peeping HERE). But more to the point: the real reason I decided on today’s artist is that you probably know his work even if you don’t know his name, as he is something of the silent visionary behind some truly iconic creations, and, like Giger, chances are you have seen traces of his genius grace the big screen. So today in the spirit of the season we are taking the time to look at and appreciate the art of the 20th century’s very own Dante: Wayne Barlowe.
So, who is Wayne Barlowe? Like I said above, even if you don’t know the man, you have probably seen his work, as he is not only a painter and author, but also a prolific and sought-after concept artist— possibly the most sought after concept artist for those looking to bring life to the strange and wonderful. Barlowe got his start in the late 70’s publishing Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, a fictitious field guide of alien biospheres. Styled to mimic a speculative ecological survey, Barlowe utilizes the aesthetics of scientific inquiry to bring the reader into a world of wild and truly alien creatures, and it is this keen interest in speculative world building that has been a staple of his work ever since. Honestly one of the things I admire about the guy’s work is the level of lore he layers into his creations, so that even when it is not referenced outright in the story he’s telling, his creatures and landscapes carry a sense of internal history which adds to both their strangeness and their richness. Even when his work is somewhat restrained (as is often the case when working on major Hollywood projects) there is that extra bit of artistic/ scientific thought that allows it to stand out. Among other well-known projects such as HellBoy and Pacific Rim (he remains one of GDT’s close collaborators), Barlowe worked as a concept artist and creature designer for both the Harry Potter series and Avatar and, though I would consider the creature designs for both of these projects somewhat tame considering his more fantastical repertoire, they still capture the crucial balance between the familiar and the alien that all great creature design (indeed, possibly, all great art) strives for.
In these projects, one strict fantasy and the other strict science fiction, Barlowe brings a level of mechanical consistency to each respective world, allowing for a level of realism that enhances rather than distracting from the suspension of disbelief— a crucial component of genre fiction that is honestly way more difficult to pull off than it sounds.
Now remember when some 300 words ago I referred to my man Wayne as the Dante of the 20th century? Of course you do, you don’t miss a beat, I’ve always admired that about you. Well, that’s no hyperbole because aside from bringing life to other people’s monsters, he has created plenty of monsters of his own and, following in the footsteps of Mr. Alighieri’s illustrious Italian loafers, created his own version of Hell. Spread across several published works, Barlowe’s hell is a masterclass in world building, unfettered by the restraints of major film productions. Barlowe’s take on the inferno blends classic operatic horror sensibilities with his own alien aesthetic and storytelling architecture to create a vision of the Pit unparalleled in the modern age. Like Dante before him, Barlowe depicts human souls in stages of torment, set upon by the demonic jailers of their eternal prison. Yet unlike Dante, who was focused on notions of poetic or ironic punishments as shorthand for divine (comedic) justice, Barlowe’s punishments are very much— at least in the eyes of this art historian—a reflection of contemporary life under mechanized capitalism.
In Barlowe’s Hell, human souls are the brick and mortar of the abyss, utilized as the base raw material and reduced to literal objects used in the construction of great demonic cities which populate the lower realms. While Dante’s punishments were highly personalized to reflect transgressions in life, Barlowe’s is entirely depersonalized, creating a more agnostic, less anthropocentric interpretation of perdition where a human soul is simply another brick in the walls of Pandemonium. Simply put, it is a vision of Hell that follows the commodification of human life under capitalism to its most extreme conclusion, whereby human souls are reduced to that of pure product or, in the case of the Examination, objects of curiosity to be studied by capricious members of Lucifer’s fallen host.
This discussion only scratches the surface of Barlowe’s worlds, but I will give you a reprieve this week, as I’m sure you all have tricks and treats to attend to. For those of you who are still interested in this I highly recommend following him on Instagram or if you are looking to beef up your home library, checking out his written works for more on his process. And with that, good night, Los Angeles. May flights of devils sing you to your rest.