The Living Flesh and the Dead Flesh

Glenn Brown, Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis) after Chris Foss , 1996

Chris Foss, The Stars Like Dust, 1986

Lynn MacRitchie: Let’s take your early choices of artists to work with, Salvador Dalí or sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss. These are the classic, teenage boys’ favorite paintings. There’s a kind of weird, queasy eroticism in those images, it seems to me. In Dalí, of course, there’s a huge erotic element, and I’ve always found the science fiction images erotic in a strange way. Now, in your more recent works, a sort of fleshiness seems to be actually manifesting itself, especially in the pieces you refer to as your “abstract” paintings.

Glenn Brown: Obviously with the works based on Dalí and the earlier ones based on Auerbach, there’s something directly erotic, and also with Foss, who, incidentally, illustrated The Joy of Sex. All of these earlier paintings were far more direct copies of the source material; there was less of me in them. As I said, with the more recent paintings there’s generally a much greater adaptation of the source material, which I abandon quickly and just carry on with the painting. It’s often difficult to recognize what they were based on because so much of the original has been changed, or tiny parts of a particular painting have been used and then altered very dramatically. But whether that makes the painting more me or not, I’m not sure—because I love the notion of appropriation, and the fact that we can’t escape appropriation. All of the knowledge of all of the art we’ve ever seen is with us when we paint, or when I paint. Whether I choose to or not, I may appropriate artists’ styles and marks and color combinations. Fleshy is a good word to use because these paintings are very much about the discrepancy between the brush mark and flesh, and often the relationship between living and dead flesh as well. A lot of the colors are quite repellent, and the rather tormented, irritating surface has a degree of unpleasantness about it. I suppose that’s my gothic, adolescent self still there, peering through Foss and Dalí! Even when I paint flowers, they always come out rather unpleasant and smelly looking.

Chris Foss, Futuristic Oil Tanker, [a.k.a. Red Oil Tanker] 1970.

Glenn Brown, Exercise One (For Ian Curtis) After Chris Foss, 1995.

LM: There has always been something very powerful and disturbing in the way you paint. I was struck by it when I first saw your work in the show curated by Rear Window, in Richard Salmon’s studio in 1994. For me, it’s becoming more manifest now, for example, in the vase-of-flowers paintings, which are much more about the physicality of the actual performance of painting, if I could describe it like that.

GB: The painting On Hearing of the Death of My Mother [2002], which is based on a Renoir vase of flowers, was painted at the same time as a work called Kill Yourself, based on the same Renoir. They were trying to be as deeply unpleasant as I could make them, and I don’t know why! I wasn’t fantastically unhappy at the time, I have to say. Art is theater and theater isn’t real life—it’s an exaggeration of real life; it’s what makes people engage with something. You don’t go to the opera because you want to see a supermarket; you go because you want to see grand themes played out, at a grand emotional level, heightened emotions, and that operatic sense is what I want in the work. The emotional level has gone up to near maximum.

LM: And to use the word you used earlier, “appropriation,” I think that in your early days you kind of appropriated that theatricality, that operatic quality, from people like Chris Foss, or John Martin—surely the master of operatic painting. But now that desire to create a sort of spectacle, a sort of grandeur, seems to me to be coming from inside the paintings instead of being copied from outside, if that makes sense.

GB: I think that does some of the early paintings a slight injustice, in that the Foss paintings never look like my versions of them. Mine are always played around with. The colors are altered, the cities were redrawn and I was always inventing things to increase their intensity right from the start. Even 16 years ago I was playing with the images to increase that sense of the Gothic. It was partially there in Chris Foss’s work, but not in quite the same way. All the while I was sort of learning what you can do, learning different techniques from other people. But I never want to lose that notion of appropriation—people say to me, sooner or later you’ll stop copying other artists and you’ll make work of your own, but it’s never been my point to try to do that, because I never thought you ever could. The work is always going to be based on something, and I wanted to make the relationship with art history as obvious as possible. Again, I think it increases the intensity of the way that people look at things…”

Text: Lynn MacRitchie, “Interview: Glenn Brown”, Art In America, April 3, 2009.


Ho – Silvers, Here – Rovers

“On my desk lies an old magazine. It was published in the 1920s and is a grand size (roughly eight and a quarter inches by eleven and a quarter). They don’t make magazines like that anymore. The magazine is Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.

“The cover portrays a number of gigantic machines with caterpillar tracks. They lumber through a ruinous landscape and are propelling a fiery ball of matter into the sky, where it gives every sign of turning into a new sun. The machines are rust-red – baleful but fun.

“Popular science fiction has always catered to the machine-buffs.

“The alliance man once had with his horse or his dog has now shifted to his machines. Chris Foss’ paintings make us think again about that alliance. They sweep us into a universe where the ‘Ho, Silvers’ and ‘Here, Rovers’ have long faded into silence. Instead, computerized instructions are fed into the controls of hurtling engines n times bigger than the largest shire horse, and considerably more lethal.

“Foss rejoices in this new symbiosis with never a backward look. He is in love with the monstrous, with angular momentum, with inertia-free projectiles and irresistible objects. When you catch sight of a human being in one of his paintings, he is a tiny soft creature, generally in overalls, vulnerable, hurried, among the abrasive landscapes of a technological tomorrow. At least the androids have taken over from him. And you can bet he doesn’t have so much as a pet cat aboard his vacuum-busting vehicle.

“The dramatic charge to be got from setting tiny figures in splendid natural settings is a familiar one. Many painters used it. Brueghel, to take a popular instance, used it many times, always to great effect. Chris Foss does not care much for precedents; in his case, it is more fruitful to mention the name of the American artist Chelsey Bonestell. Bonestell’s astronomical paintings were tremendously popular, especially in the years just before the Apollo mission landed on the Moon. Bonestell gave us a glimpse of what it would be like ‘out there’, on the other planets and satellites of our solar system and beyond, using techniques which exceeded all previous ones in their mathematical accuarcy.

“So convincing were Bonestell’s paintings that Arthur C. Clarke suggested that the time would come – probably next century – when photographers might be sent through the system to find actual views which closely matched Bonestell’s imagining.

“It says nothing against Bonestell and a lot for the march of technology that the amazing advances in astronomy of the last decade have presented us with a new set of concepts. Thanks to the near-miraculous functioning of the Mariner and Pioneer probes, we have a far better understanding of many of the planets of our system, an understanding which makes period pieces out of Bonestell’s paintings of Mercury, Venus and Mars.

“Chris Foss confidently believes that the future belongs to man, despite the constant irruption of alien hardware. He regards his outlook as optimistic. Perhaps bracingly optimistic would be a better term; though there is not much doubt that mankind will triumph in the constant conflicts he conjures up, the accent is decidedly on the constant conflict. That conflict is against man’s three reliable antagonists, the Unknown, Nature and Other Tribes. These three antagonists assume apocalyptic shape and size in Foss’s work. When they merge together in one painting, as often happens in this splendid collection of original artwork, they are a sigh to behold.

“Science fiction’s two most enduring symbols are probably the Spaceship and the City. Foss is a spaceship man. His engines generally engage on the wilds of benighted planet where they can kick up the frozen methane undisturbed. Nevertheless, we talked to each other looking down on the centre of a city – in the revolving restaurant on the top of the Post Office Tower in London. Foss mentioned that he had annihilated both the Tower and Centre Point, another prominent London landmark, in his work. In what is one of my favourite pictures here,a monster craft – which clearly would find the Post Office Tower inadequate as an aerial – belts out of mist and twilight, threatening a scudding ground-vehicle. The hunters of phallic symbols can have their fun here, for machine-buffs are not alone in their enjoyment of Foss’ work.

“As a machine-buff myself, I mentioned the name of Terence Cuneo over lunch. It woke an immediate response. Foss, like me, had been strongly moved by Cuneo’s splendid oils of powerful machines, wreathed in smoke and dust. Cuneo is our foremost machine painter; his posters for the railways – often of steam locomotives working at night – are memorable celebrations of the continuing industrial revolution which is transforming our societies.

“The power crisis may appear to have slowed that revolution; in fact it hastens the search for other power-sources, other materials, other planets to ransack. Processes take a lot of killing. The launching of titanic ships, the cosmic junk-yards, the expeditions to other systems which you see here are all part of that same process.

“Chris Foss’ name has become pre-eminent among SF artists in a very short time. He is at the spearhead of a tremendous burst of creativity in this country which has SF at its loose central point: never before have so many interesting talents been at work in England, Ian Miller, Bruce Pennington, David Pelham and Roger Dean, whose work appears mainly on LP record sleeves, among them – but it is invidious to single out a few names among so much promise.

“Foss spared a genial curse or two for the imitators attracted by his success who came swarming after him. I do not feel he was greatly troubled by them. In any case, he is too good – and in too much of a hurry – for them to catch up.

“He spends a lot of time over each pain ting, which is executed in an expensive variety of oil paint obtainable only in the United States, using brush and air-brush to apply it. His architectural training is useful and helps to account for the solidity of his structures. Nevertheless, he is free of all artistic pose. If he had too much trouble from editors and publishers he would go back to one of his old jobs. His last job, after leaving Cambridge, was driving celebrities around in hired cars.

“I think he should stay with his success, The time may come when they drive him around.”

Text: Brian W. Aldiss, “Introduction”, Science Fiction Art. London: Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1976.

Image: [top] Chris Foss, Second Moonbeast, 1974. [middle] Chesley Bonestell. The Surface of Mercury, 1950.

“A sound-wake freezing into a trail of hallucinatory pearls…”

Dune had to be made.

“But what kind of spaceships to use? Certainly not the degenerate and cold offspring of present day American automobiles and submarines, the very antithesis of art, usually seen in science fiction films, including 2001. No! I wanted magical entities, vibrating vehicles, like fish that swim and have their being in the mythological deeps of the surrounding ocean. The ‘galactic’ ships of North American technocracy are a mouse-gray insult to the divine, therefore delirious, chaos of the universe. I wanted jewels, machine-animals, soul-mechanisms. Sublime as snow crystals, myriad-faceted fly eyes, butterfly pinions. Not giant refrigerators, transistorised and riveted hulks; bloated with imperialism, pillage, arrogance and eunuchoid science.

“I affirm that next to the soul the most beautiful object in the galaxy is a spaceship! We all dreamed of womb-ships, antechambers for rebirth into other dimensions; we dreamed of whore-ships driven by the semen of our passionate ejaculations. The invincible and castrating rocket carrying our vengeance to the icy heart of a treacherous sun; humming-bird ornithopters which fly us to sip the ancient nectar of the dwarf stars giving us the juice of eternity. Yes! But far more than that: angelic splendour! We dreamed of caterpillar-tracked hotrods so vast that their tails would disappear behind the horizon. We saw ourselves enmeshed in these huge masses hurtling a dizzy train of planets from a dark world bound for a galaxy drowned in starry milk. We saw ourselves inside minute ether-dwelling sharks crossing seven thousand universes in one Terrene second, leaving a sound-wake freezing into a trail of hallucinatory pearls. Trains to carry away the whole of humanity; machines greater than suns wandering crazed and rusted, whimpering like dogs seeking a master. And great wings sucking the marrow of comets. And thinking wheels hidden behind meteorites, waiting, camouflaged as metallic rocks, for a drop of life to pass through those lost galactic fringes to slake thirsty tanks with psychic secretions. All this and more I wanted for Dune.

“Then, suddenly, in a bookshop in the pages of an English magazine I found splashed in a thousand colours what I had believed impossible to depict. These spaceships that pleased and moved me were Chris Foss. I covered the studio walls where I was preparing the film with his works. All masterpieces. I hired various sleuths to track him down. You see, in those heady days I had power! I had a multi-million dollar commitment behind me: a commitment that remained unfulfilled. I had it in my power to call upon the best brains of our generation to collaborate on a project that was to give a messiah to the world. Not a human being, but a film. A film that would be our master. Dune had made me its apostle; but I needed others, and one of these was Chris Foss.

“What the hell would this mutant be like? Because he had to be a mutant to draw like that! These were not drawings. They were visions! Would he be some neurotic old man’? A maniac drug addict? Would one be able to talk to him? Then Chris Foss turned up, completely English with his tap-dancer’s shoes, his tight suit as worn by Casanovas in sophisticated dives, with a tooth of quick-gold (I thought it was a diamond), with a yellow shirt of imperial silk, the blinding tie of an aesthetic hit-man, with a child’s smile so penetrating he could turn into a hyena. Yes: Chris Foss was a true angel, a being as real and as unreal as his spaceships. A medieval goldsmith of future eons; a being who carried his drawings with the same ultra-maternal care as the Kaitanese Kangarooboos carry the drawing born of their self-insemination.”

“Chris arrived very nervous and mistrustful. He was afraid that we would impose a style on him, that we would limit him. But when he realized that he had total freedom he fell into ecstasy. He bought himself a special glass drawing- board which made his paper transparent, so that the lines seemed to float in space. And he plunged into his work for hours, millennia. He would go for long walks in the small hours to a little plaza where lepidopterous creatures with human skin and prehistoric perfumes would entwine their pink tongues with long, transparent hairs around his British member. I also saw him slake his physicoemotointellectuometaphysical thirst with alcohols seeping like tears from eyes slashed open in the aggressive air of a hotel corridor.”

“And thus were born the mimetic spaceships, the leather and dagger-studded spaceships, and dagger-studded machines of the fascist Sardokker, the pachydermatous geometry of Emperor Padishah’s golden planet; the delicate butterfly plane and so many other incredible machines, which I am sure will one day populate interstellar space. Chris Foss knows that today’s technical reality is tomorrow’s falsehood. Chris also knows that today’s pure art is tomorrow’s reality. Man will conquer space mounted on Foss’ spaceships, never in NASA’s concentration camps of the spirit. I was grateful for the existence of my friend. He brought the colours of the apocalypse to the sad machines of a future without imagination.”

Text: Alejandro Jodorowsky, “Jodorowsky on Foss”, 21st Century Foss. [Haarlem: Dragon’s Dream], 1979. 14-15.

Waspships with a laser sting

“Chris Foss shows us spaceships too big for planetary horizons to hold. The spectacle of his leviathans, glittering with lights and banded with the warning colours of poisonous insects or reptiles, confounds all expectation of scale. This achievement has placed him in the front rank of science fiction artists; his space hardware was the first to convey extraterrestrial dimension convincingly. His paintings give form to intergalactic arks, ram-jetting or ion-driving entire civilizations from one remote star system to another. The only space in which these structures look at home is: Space.

“Foss’ imagery has captured the imagination to such an extent that he now commands a small army of imitators, movie designers included; think of the gargantuan starships and fabricated pseudoplanets of Star Wars, for example, and then look at the pictures in this book. It is no surprise that Foss now works directly on movie design and conceptualization, with film companies competing for his time.

“But why do Foss’ future conveyances and landscapes look so convincing? Foss suggests, with amusement, that his craft are “old fashioned and historic” This is true: his inventions evoke memories of Great War ‘landships’ and battleships, Edwardian liners, even Victorian suspension bridges. He says that they are “very tatty spaceships” again, it’s true that the explosions his craft endure in space-battle often leaves them scarred and blasted, limping home to monstrous, continental dry docks. But the curiously antiquated aspect of his work, as well as his meticulous eye for detail and scale, is why Foss’ cities, ships, and transport systems occupy a reality of their own. They are simultaneously the precursors and the relics of the coming space age. Weary but functioning, they represent the everyday reality of a future accustomed to the extraordinary.

“Chris Foss’ past may help to explain his unique retrospective vision of the 21st century. He was born in 1946 in Devon, England. As a child he was fascinated by the remains of the Industrial Revolution, and explored the aging railway tracks and disused mines that are still in evidence throughout the West Country. This interest led him to build models of railway lines and steam engines which he soldered up from whatever scraps of metal he could find. An art teacher encouraged his early ability with a pencil, and Foss took to sketching the surrounding countryside in between building his intricate railway models. The same teacher persuaded him to attempt a scholarship course that won him a place at a public school in Dorset.

“Foss escaped the confines of that school as frequently as he could to sketch the semi-derelict shipyards and harbour installations at nearby Poole. At the same time he developed an interest in cars; he rebuilt and repainted car wrecks to create new workable machines. He was even then obsessed by speed, colour and hybrid technology. He also drew incessantly, recording his creations as they grew. Source material for his architectural imagination was provided by the huge fortifications constructed by the Nazis during their occupation of Guernsey. Foss often visited the island since he had family connections there. The fierce sunlight and harsh shadows in his work, the massive towers and ramparts punctuated by gun emplacements and look-out posts featured in his ships and cities may well be connected with memories of this fortress-island.

“Influences, though, are only half the story; technique and reputation took much longer to establish. Foss’ earliest ambition was to be an artist, but his family disapproved; so in 1964 he compromised and went to Cambridge University to study architecture. He soon discovered the grey limitations of the subject: “Architects have no conception of colour or of the presence that a building should impose:” While at Cambridge he sold one-off cartoons to ‘Autocar’ and a six page cartoon strip to Bob Guccione’s ‘Penthouse” magazine. The contacts he gained through these efforts were to prove invaluable later, but when he dropped out of his course in 1966, he took a job with an architectural sculptor. It was not what he wanted to do, but it gave him a living and left him time to continue with his drawing and painting. He produced working drawings for mould assemblies and drew plans for sculpted features of new buildings, including the bronzed fibreglass rear facings for the doors of Liverpool Cathedral. He still sold artwork where he could, gradually developing his technique and style. In 1968 he bought an airbrush, “the only way I could see to get smooth gradations of pigment quickly,” and at about the same time he found another lasting influence: his wife, Pat. He is now a happily married man with a daughter called Imogene.

“The years from 1968 to 1970 were difficult for Foss. He left the architectural sculptor’s office, and maintained himself and his wife by driving hire-cars in between long periods of drawing. Bob Guccione helped Foss greatly by putting him on a small retainer to produce theme drawings for an upmarket book in the ‘Barbarella, genre: “I owe Bob a lot. My artwork wasn’t up to commercial standards then, but he kept me going while I got there” And after the summer of 1969, which he spent driving cabs in Guernsey, all of these efforts paid off. A cover design for Constable Ltd., a publishing company, led to an introduction to a hard-selling design agency, and Foss’ career entered a steady upswing. At first he tackled all kinds of book covers, “miscellaneous stuff, including some horrible disasters with figure work” but he gradually became sought after for his airbrushed scenes of warfare: planes, ships, submarines or starships. It was the starships, though, that really made his reputation.

“The distinction of his futuristic work was obvious, yet unexpected. Hard and functional self-driving cities were juxtaposed with cloud-banked or galactic vistas. His structures were asymmetrical, immense, and totally unlike the needle-nosed and streamlined shapes favoured by his predecessors. Another influential innovation in Foss’ work was colour: blacks, reds, blues and yellows converted his spaceships into interstellar waspships with a laser sting.

“In the space of six years Chris Foss has become an international success. Authors like Isaac Asimov specifically ask for his work to illustrate their books. (One of his current projects is an illustrated version of Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ trilogy.) His prolific output has brought him money, which he greatly enjoys and considers “as necessary as air for anybody, but especially a creative person” Books like ‘The Joy of Sex’ and ‘More Joy of Sex; which he illustrated with delicate line drawings, testify to his artistic versatility. But at the moment the film industry is where his interests lie. He now finds himself in the fortunate position of being in demand for cinema work in the same way that he was sought after by art editors for science fiction cover design.

“Foss’ first break into movies came in 1975 when Alejandro Jodorowsky, a brilliant Paris-based film director with a cult following, saw some of his cover work. He was engaged in filming Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune, and needed an artist to conceptualize the far-reaching panoply of the Padishah Empire, together with the ships and habitations of its sand-born opponents. Foss was called over to Paris in the autumn of 1975, and found himself in a new world. Movie design offered him both a challenge and the freedom to extend his imagination to previously unexplored dimensions. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s preface to the Dune section of this book suggests the atmosphere into which Foss plunged himself, and gives an extraordinary personal account of Foss, his work on Dune, and on science fiction projections in general. Unfortunately, the film of Dune was never completed. It will be one day; and when it is, will most likely be designed by Chris Foss.

“After the backers withdrew and the project folded, Foss came back to England and continued working on covers. But by now the cinematic grapevine had done its work and more film offers were to follow in quick succession. His first assignment was to conceptualize the planet Krypton fora movie based on Superman. Most recently, 20th Century Fox contacted Foss to see if he would work on concepts for Alien. He went to Los Angeles in June 1977, and worked for four months on the project. Since returning to England, he has taken on the conceptualization and design of three further films. On one he will be building the sets and will have control over all details of the visuals, including costumes.

“Look at the drawings in this book. When these movies appear, there will be no question that Chris Foss is one of the finest science fiction artists working; at least, on this planet.”

Text: N.A. “Introduction”, 21st Century Foss. [Haarlem: Dragon’s Dream Ltd], 1979. 6-13

Image: Chris Foss, Turner Spaceship, [n.d.].