`Sci-fi Art' Transcends Label

The genre's masters engage the viewer's imagination to keep the mystery alive

SCIENCE-FICTION illustrators have all the fun: They can let their imaginations run wild, and they don't have to worry about esoteric theories on art, or moderism's decline. Best of all, they're free to use their skills to the fullest without being labeled as mere technicians or condemned as shallow.

The art world, of course, tends to ignore them, and that may bother some. But the majority know very well what they're doing and prefer to follow their talents and inclinations than cater to fashion on hype.

They do, however, have their champions, and Ludwig Daten'e is one. He's so sympathetic to their endeavors, in fact, that he's just served as curator for a major show at the Park Avenue Atrium here. ``Into the Future: Art of Science Fiction and Science Fact'' is big, remarkably inclusive, and wide-ranging in style, medium, and subject matter. Major figures in the field are represented by important pieces, but not in a way that demeans the work of talented newcomers. And even artists of little talent and less taste are given the opportunity to show their wares.

A good 20 percent of what's on view isn't worth discussing, but the rest most definitely is. Much of it, in fact, is remarkable for its superb craftsmanship alone. A dozen or so paintings have the kind of authenticity and power that would set them apart in any show.

Authenticity, of course, is the key, for the primary job of a science-fiction artist is to be as convincing as possible with the most unlikely of subjects.

Wayne Barlow, whose ``Wildseed'' is one of the finest paintings in the show, has found a way to meet that challenge. He creates entire planets, down to the tiniest details, and then imagines what their inhabitants would look like. His success is extraordinary. One might not want to meet one of his creations on a dark night, but at least one would be aware that intelligent communication might be possible.

Michael Whelan is also highly regarded in the field, and his two richly detailed paintings ``Foundation and Earth'' and ``Foundation'' show why. His well deserved ``old master'' status among science-fiction artists is based on technical skill and his extraordinarily sensitive depictions of other-world subjects. According to Mr. Daten'e, a number of the artist's colleagues have visited the exhibition expressly to see his work - which is the sort of compliment an artist cherishes most.

Vincent Difate's ``Solstice,'' Frank Kelly Freas's ``Skylab,'' and David Cherry's ``Alien Station,'' a study of a young soldier operating an odd-looking weapon-machine, are also outstanding.

Bryn Barnard's ``Ten Thousand Sails,'' however, steals the show hands down. Its haunting space-station image of an endless line of tall ship's sails curling into the distance and its suggestion of a deep-space universe very far from our own are delightfully provocative. It is also exquisitely crafted. This is science-fiction art at its very best: highly imaginative, beautifully designed, wonderfully understated. There is even a surprise: Turn the picture upside-down, and another row of sails appears.

Unfortunately, subtlety and understatement generally are not among science-fiction art's strongest points. In fact, if there's one criticism that can be leveled at the genre, it's that the artists too often prefer the obvious and overly-detailed to the evocative and suggestive.

That's unfortunate, because space creatures, electronic monsters, and intergalactic heroines are usually much more convincing if the viewer is permitted to use some imagination in conjuring them up. The Chinese demonstrated this in their depictions of dragons and demons. And so, as a matter of fact, did every major creator of fanciful images from Bosch to Paul Klee. Too much pictorial detail can kill the mystery - and mystery is what science fiction is all about.

Now, of course, the masters of science-fiction illustration understand all that very well. It's why - among other reasons - they are the masters. Barlow, Whelan, Freas, Barnard, and the other leading figures in the field didn't attain their positions merely through skill and imagination, but also by knowing when to pull back, when to suggest rather than define.

Their best work has that extra something that separates a painting that has art from one that doesn't. It need not be of the highest order, but it will be special enough to cause even those with no interest in science fiction take notice. Work that is purely illustrational, on the other hand, will probably interest only science-fiction fans or students of the craft.

``Into the Future,'' which is sponsored by Olympia & York, will remain on view at the Park Avenue Atrium, 237 Park Avenue, though April 13.

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