Art book review: Clive Barker – Illustrator
My interest in Clive Barker’s universe has been so long-standing I cannot remember where I discovered him in the first place. It might have been through his Tortured Souls action figures, or some earlier reference to Hellraiser, but what I can say for sure is that it was perennialized through my reading of the Books of Blood series followed by some of his novels, particularly the epic Imajica. Barker gives the word enchantement a run for its money. His exploration of passion and extremes through carnal and artistic means -often joined together- continue to resonate with me to this day.
Perhaps it is since the release of his successful book series Abarat –lavishly illustrated by hundreds of his own paintings- that Clive Barker got also recognized as a visual artist, and a very good one at that. By the way, even though Abarat is advertised as Young Adult fiction, it really is for every avid Barker reader- it’s the same excellent writing and vivid fantasmagoria, minus the transdimensional orgies.
The humble book we are discussing here is a misnomer, for various reasons. It should have been called Drawings, since very little of it is actual illustration. Granted, there are a dozen pages or so of color illustrations (mainly for his own books, prior to Abarat), but the large bulk of the artwork consists in hundreds of sketches, most of them made very quickly with black ink.
An illustration usually translates a conscious idea into an image, whereas most of the book is spent decribing an intuitive process where the image reveals itself unhinged, only to be reasoned with once the pen is put down.
I was intrigued by the apparent conflict between the bareness of his sketching process in contrast with his public aura – we must keep in mind that he is the second most successful horror writer right behind Stephen King. The question of intent and, for a lack of a better word, ‘purity’ of idea is an inevitable one when reknown, ie. financially successful artists are under constant media scrutiny. One might ask if there is a way to keep the creative well flowing from a source of honesty when success has dried up so many successful people in the past?
Here is where it gets interesting: first of all, none of these sketches where meant for public consumption. They are like ideas, little notes that we would long ago scribble on a post-it note or a torn envelope, and nowadays type as an electronic note in our phones. Secondly, these are essentially meant as thinking pieces. Barker himself draws parallels with Jean Cocteau, who used drawing as a mental processing tool, but also Akira Kurosawa, an avid painter of the scenes he envisioned. From the former one can easily draw a parallel with Barker’s love of lines. As for Kurasawa, his use of heavy contrast and bold colors can be easily mirrored in Barker’s larger paintings.
It is noteworthy to mention that Barker still write his books by hand, and therefore we can picture his pen suddenly jumping from words to images in a moment of either heightened clarity or confusion.
Aside from sketches, the other significant element in the book is the text. Compiled by Fred Burke and for the most part made of interviews and comments from Mr. Barker himself, who as it turns out is the best commentator of his own work. For someone who is mostly known as a writer I found him very knowledgeable when it comes to painting theory. He does have a basic formal education in drawing and painting and recalls many passionate arguments with his teacher, who was more formal and less interested in narratives. Barker’s self-awareness and curiosity is refreshing. The way he looks at his work reminded me of Francis Bacon‘s matter-of-factly interviews.
He makes passing mentions of James Ensor and Max Ernst, the former for his love of carnivals and masks – a theme much explored throughout his novels. Looking at the more gestural sketches one could say the ghosts of Matisse and Picasso also hover above some of his trembling yet experienced and lively lines.
To be able to leave the creative well flowing one must not shed too much light on it. Barker comments profusely on the work but he lets his intuition and sensations run free. If an idea demands to manifest, he will happily oblige and often interrupts his own work to capture a fleeting thought.
My favourite image for this untouched source, whether of a visionary or subconscious nature, comes from the artist Denis Forkas Kostromitin interviewed in the Journal Abraxas. Describing the visionary process, Kostromitin compares it to teaching a dog to pick-up bones from a pitch-black cave one could not enter on their own. He calls it the ‘dog of obssesion’, and it needs to be tamed lest it devours the owner. What the dog actually brings back from the dark cave of the soul, you cannot know until it’s in front of you.
For Barker the bones are totemic, primitive, unhinged. One reason his work is so enduring is that he leaves all doors open. His characters fight, dance, fuck, hug, rip each other apart. Lone characters masturbate or contemplate; some resort to body modifications, others indulge in stoic postures. Most of them stare directly at us, acting either as a grotesque mirror or an invitation to let go of our own social inhibitions.
In contrast children are spared, they act as if they were embodiment of pure human curiosity, which seems to ultimately be the angle Clive Barker looks at the world, letting all emotions raw and refined express themselves.
Be warned that there are lots and lots of sexual drawings- not only homoerotic ones, as it would be self-evident, but rather primitive, atavistic female representations too. In his dance of sex and death everyone is welcome.
My main complaint about the book is the disconnect between the images and the text. There are barely any specific commentaries on any piece in particular and the text flows akin to a podcast (or radio show- this book is from 1991) playing in the background. Images don’t have dimensions or specifications of materials used, even though they vary wildly and some make use of early digital trickery.
All in all this is a book that might appeal to a rather niche audience of fans, but I’m glad it exists as it gets the closest to Barker’s actual thought process in a way none of his more exhaustive art books do (I’m thinking Visions of Heaven and Hell and Imaginer and yes, they will be featured in the future).
Clive Barker, Illustrator
Arcane/Eclipse books, 1991
The books reviewed are from my personal collection and fully paid for.
- Posted by Paul Takahashi
- On March 3, 2020
- 0 Comments