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Mentor HuebnerMentor Huebner, Exterior Overpass, drawing for “Blade Runner,” c. 1982
Sepia sketch on tissue
Anonymous gift

Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner pictures a dystopic vision of our global urban future, replete with environmental decay, apocalyptic population density, and the looming threat of posthumanism. One of the film’s most notable characteristics is its complex architectural environment.

In Mentor Huebner’s Exterior overpass (c. 1982), seen above, this architectural environment is hand-drawn, a sketch for an artwork ultimately authored by Scott’s art direction team. Huebner’s drawing for Blade Runner, however, is not simply disposable, a “mere [byproduct] of the artistic process.”[1] It is itself an object, both a relic of a speculative filmic future and a testament to the handmade. Huebner’s sepia ink drawing feels deeply physical, a pen the extension of the human hand, immediately challenging the bionic future Scott’s replicants allude to; the drawing is certainly distinct, too, from processes of set-dressing, architectural modeling, and photomontaging that make up the environment of the film. Though this particular drawing is unrealized in the film, it shares an insight into the visioning process, capturing elements seen briefly on the silver screen.

As Dietrich Neumann, curator of Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner at the Bell Gallery, notes:

Expansive sets, whose construction might have taken months and cost millions, often show up on screen for mere minutes or even seconds, and the spectator might indeed be distracted by the plot at this very moment. Closer examination of sets requires a certain disrespect for the technical conditions of the medium, which characteristically determine and limit the time and space for its contemplation. We have to stop the film, so to speak, in order to study frame enlargements or stills or rewind the film to see a specific scene several times. In this particular situation, sketches, drawings, blueprints, and models gain even more importance than they might possess for actual built architecture.[2]

Accordingly, a close reading of Huebner’s drawing allows film architecture to be understood as a distinct category—architecture created only for its visuality, seen through the lens of narrative fiction.

Huebner’s vision invokes a complex layering of urban species: the Louis Sullivan-era Chicago department store; the Chinoiserie of American Chinatowns; crosshatching highways reminiscent of the GM-sponsored Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; a Monorail, not unlike the one opened by Disney in 1971; monolithic towers with a Gothic emphasis on verticality. Here, Batman’s Gotham meets a Los Angeles taken to its wildest conclusion, a dystopic, acid rain-strewn city of unthinkable density with hints of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. 2019, the year in which Blade Runner is to take place, is fast approaching, and LA looks nothing like this, nor does it look like the hyper-technological Hades depicted in the film. Both these urban visions, however, highlight deeply felt anxieties about class, placelessness, and the speed of change.

Huebner’s drawing illustrates mobility in this revisionist LA, with a distinct separation of classes—those walking the streets; the endless stream of drivers on distinct and interweaving highways; the Monorail riders; and, elsewhere, the spinners, spaceship-like vehicles that fly above the dense mess of the street (Blade Runner’s protagonist, Deckard, rides around in this mythical vessel). Cars trudge off the frame, cautioned to travel slowly, the monorail zooms forward, and pedestrians traverse the slick streets, one seemingly running toward the Chinatown gate. There is anxiety about mixing here, with the segregated highways invoking Le Corbusier’s idealized cordon sanitaire in Algeria, separating the colonized casbah from the Central Business District-to-suburb greenbelt.[3]

Huebner, about whom little is written, was but one of the designers who contributed to the eventual realization of Blade Runner’s visual environment, under the direction of “visual futurist” Syd Mead, and, ultimately, director Ridley Scott.[4] However, his sepia ink sketches clearly shaped the architectural environment of the film, enriching the complex landscape that has puzzled and enchanted sci-fi enthusiasts and architectural theorists alike for more than thirty years.

 

— Reya Sehgal, Curatorial Assistant

 

 

[1] Dietrich Neumann, Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1996), 7.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers Under French Rule (Berkeley: UC Press, 1997), 40.

[4] Michael Webb, “’Like Today, Only More So’: The Credible Dystopia of Blade Runner,” in Film Architecture, 45.

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Jan Groover UntitledJan Groover, Untitled, 2003
Ink jet print
Gift of Jeanne Press and Richard S. Press ’60, P’ 90, P’08, P’12

Jan Groover (1943-2012) began taking photographs with her 35mm camera in the 1960s. Though her early triptychs focused on the exteriority of suburban life, she gained major recognition when she turned her camera towards domestic interiors, most notably her own kitchen sink. In Groover’s kitchen sink photographs, seemingly banal, domestic objects (forks, bell peppers, vases, cake tins) are recast, in close-ups, as outlines, shadows, colors, and volumes in indeterminate space. Her photography is surprisingly surrealist and abstract, imaginative, even, despite its placement within the still life genre. And, perhaps because of her training as a painter, her images have an almost painterly quality.

Groover’s work, though often underappreciated, emerged just as photography was gaining acceptance in the art world, and, according to Times critic Andy Grundberg, her photograph on the cover of Artforum in 1978 acted as “a signal that photography had arrived.”[1] In 1987, her work was presented in a solo exhibition at MoMA—a rarity for female photographers at the time. Groover’s work has often been likened to that of Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Paul Outerbridge, and Alfred Stieglitz because of her use of light and shadow. Like those photographers, she was deeply invested in a formalist ideology. She is often cited as saying, “formalism is everything.”[2] Despite this interest in pictorial composition, her inquiries into the constructed rather than documentarian qualities of photography are more along the lines of those posed by her contemporaries Tina Barney (who produced the film Jan Groover: Tilting at Space), Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince.

In Untitled (2003), the objects create colorful shapes that indicate volume, but proclaim no relationship to their surroundings. The black background could be a wall or a void, but its lack of depth forces a reckoning with the objects placed in the foreground of this still life. Groover pays homage to the painted still life through her use of the crushed velvet surface underneath the objects and the radiant pear, but the vivid colors seem more reminiscent of an eerie, luminous Technicolor than either a still life painting or a realistic photograph. The bright yellow felt stands in stark contrast to the velvet, placing the viewer in a world both atavistic and anachronistic, and somehow also atemporal.

Instead of documenting the world around her, Groover turned inward to forge her own world through her photographs, using distinctly domestic objects to create floating landscapes nearly bereft of feminine connotation.

 

– Reya Sehgal, Curatorial Assistant

 

[1] Andy Grundberg, “Photography View; Taming Unruly Reality,” The New York Times, March 15, 1987, http://www.nytimes.com/1987/03/15/arts/photography-view-taming-unruly-reality.html.

[2] Randy Kennedy, “Jan Groover, Postmodern Photographer, Dies at 68,” The New York Times, January 11, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/arts/design/jan-groover-postmodern-photographer-dies-at-68.html.

Honore DaumierHonoré Daumier, Voyage a travers les populations empressées, c. 1834
Lithograph

Gift of Joseph Shapiro

Given the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings and the conversations they have spurred about satire and creative freedom, it seems appropriate to turn to one of the early masters of French satire, Honoré Daumier, for our spotlight series.

Daumier’s career as a published caricaturist began after the revolution of 1830, when, under Louis-Philippe (fondly known as The Citizen King for his supposed simplicity), freedom of the press was established in France. This gave rise to Charles Philipon’s journal La Caricature, which published both social and overtly political cartoons, some of which found enemies in the monarchy.

Though freedom of expression had been formally established, contradictions were rife under the Citizen King’s rule. Daumier’s drawings were actually frequently censored. One particularly iconic print, Gargantua—a cartoon of Louis-Philippe as the eponymous, gold-eating character in Rabelais’ obscene novel—landed him six months in jail for treason, despite the fact that the image was not published.[1] Louis-Philippe, in fact, became a common character in Daumier’s oeuvre, often imaged as an exploitative misanthrope with a pear-shaped head. Due to Louis-Philippe’s imposition of the September Laws in 1835, which curtailed the freedom of the press to discuss the constitutional monarchy, Daumier was forced to tame his cartoons, turning to the realm of social satire. Daumier became known for his “expressive heads,” the sculptural faces of men that populated many of his prints.[2] The heads were often modeled in clay and then drawn from the model, an interesting method for an artist known as a cartoonist and, later, painter rather than a sculptor.

While his comically exaggerated faces and sculpted bodies read, to many, as charming, accessible social commentary—looking at the images now, the satire seems hardly horrifying enough to offend—Voyage a travers les populations empressées (seen above) presents no discernible human faces, only that of a malicious horse looking back at the corpses littering the landscape. This print, which was featured in La Caricature, lacks the refinement of Daumier’s crisp, detailed portraits, and feels particularly critical, and disturbing, because of this lack. Though no records exist of this print being censored, it may be one of Daumier’s most bleak and biting caricatures. The figure on the horse seems, at first glance, unidentifiable, but some contend that the figure is the infamously pear-shaped Louis-Philippe. With this reading, the inscription, “Voyage a travers les populations empressées,” suggests that the Citizen King is traveling through a once eager population, now slain. Though the scenery is not particularly indicative of place, the bodies scattered throughout the barren countryside may refer to the workers killed in the Canut revolts of 1831 and 1834—worker revolts in Lyon that were suppressed by Louis-Philippe’s anti-republican rule. In Daumier’s print, Louis-Philippe does not even look at the casualties of his rule, but continues, slumped, through this valley of death. Here, Daumier plays the “expert moralist,” condemning the brutality of the Citizen King’s rule.

 

— Reya Sehgal, Curatorial Assistant

 

[1] Elizabeth C. Childs, “Big Trouble: Daumier, Gargantua, and the Censorship of Political Caricature,” Art Journal 51, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 26-37.

[2] Bruce Laughton, “Daumier’s Expressive Heads,” RACAR: Canadian Art Review 14, no. ½ (1987): 135-142.

[3] Elisabeth Luther Cary, Honoré Daumier: a Collection of His Social and Political Caricatures, Together With an Introductory Essay On His Art (London, 1907): 25.

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