Monday, February 18, 2013


This post is one in a series on the artists featured in the exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum,  State of the Art: Illustration 100 Years After Howard Pyle. 

One of the major themes of the Delaware Art Exhibition is that technological innovations of the past century have enhanced the expressive power of illustration.  Even museum visitors who loved traditional oil paintings by Howard Pyle or N.C. Wyeth stood transfixed in front of video screens where Finding Nemo, Wall-E and Ice Age movies playedThe sound, the movement, the changing facial expressions and the glowing colors from an LED screen had a gravitational pull that made it difficult for traditional pictures to compete.

That's why it was important for the exhibit to demonstrate that even the simplest, most ancient media could still produce pictures as powerful as any in the show.  For this purpose, I chose the work of John Cuneo.  The newest annual from the Society of Illustrators, which documents Cuneo's Hamilton King award for the best picture of the year, says this about his work:

Using the most delicate materials-- a tremulous little line like a spider's filament and a few dabs of water color-- John Cuneo creates drawings with the atomic weight of weapons-grade plutonium.
Take for example this devastating drawing of a poacher: 

The poacher placing the horn on his head is an inspired way to symbolize the regal and priapic delusions of the man and his loathsome species;  the grin as he proudly shows off his new hat to the audience, his sagging face, the stoicism of the mutilated beast...

Note the marvelous jagged teeth on the saw

...none of these lines come from a template or anatomy book.  They are all invented fresh, with a chilling effect.  This is a beautifully orchestrated drawing.

Another example of Cuneo's dark and trenchant humor:

I like the way Cuneo's intelligence is integrated into his line, and does not coexist side by side in separate categories of picture and text (as too often happens today).  These are not diagrams or symbols, they are not linear messages that can be read like a sentence, they are organic creations which thwart our ability to dissect them with words.  But I think they are terrific, thoughtful drawings.

These and other original works by Cuneo are on display at the exhibition.


Chuck Pyle said...

John is crazy good, a bit good and crazy. Always beautifully drawn work, full of opinion, he airs his demons and honors his daemons measure for measure.Truly a pleasure to see.

Anonymous said...

Cuneo is the bomb.


David Apatoff said...

Chuck Pyle-- Well said. You've hit on another important aspect of working with humble pen and ink: you have complete freedom to wrestle with your demons and be as crazy as you are. If Cuneo was part of a big team working on a Disney animated film, all of this weirdness would have been sanded down, polished and deflavorized before the first committee meeting was over.

JSL-- Yes. Well, one of them certainly.

chris bennett said...

Picking up on your point David, about the text and the drawing 'as one':

Cuneo kinda 'writes' his pictures with a diffidence that is part of their power. I suppose one could imagine a Pixar rendition of the rhino poacher sentiment; its shiny equivocality seducing us into the truth of the message. But it is the meaning between Cuneo's lines that touches us. Feeling like hubris collapsing as a house of cards on the back of one's hand.

MORAN said...

Cuneo is the only illustrator who is still able to frighten me.

Philip Kapitan said...

if i may be so bold to state something I think perhaps you overlooked in the rhino horn's a dunce cap.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- I agree, there can be an apparent diffidence about Cuneo's line that belies the intensity of his content.

MORAN-- Isn't that interesting? In a culture of overstatement and exaggeration, where billions of entertainment dollars are spent to shock and frighten us to the very limit, we are bored by slasher movies, but Cuneo's drawings can still scare us.

Philip Kapitan-- You could well be right.