HR GIGER: his influence in my work

"Intimate Assassins: Memories of Long Dead Lovers" ©2003 - Simon Marshall-Jones

Take a good look at the picture above – it’s immediately obvious I should think just who has had greatest influence on my work and which artist also inspired me as a teen to pursue art as a career after I first set eyes on his work. HR Giger, the Swiss surrealist painter, sculptor and, dare I say it, visionary, possesses one of those singular talents that has raised him far above any other artist of the 20th century, and has influenced not just art in the wider sense, but also writing, film, design and even culture.

First, a very short bio: Hans Rudolf Giger was born in 1940 in Chur, Switzerland, the son of a chemist. He studied in Zurich, where he attended the School of Commercial Art there. His main artistic influences are Ernst Fuchs and Salvador Dali, the latter of whom he met through another painter, Robert Venosa. Most of his most famous images are large scale works, created with the airbrush and utilising a freehand technique. Later on, as exemplified in his series of paintings inspired by New York City, he started making use of stencils. However, it would be something of an understatement to say that the work of his that has had the most impact are those paintings depicting nightmarish combinations of flesh and machine, leading to the coining of the term ‘biomechanical’. This concept is best seen in his designs for Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction/horror shocker, and, to a lesser extent, in the 1995 film Species, directed by Roger Donaldson. He is still very much active today, although he has largely abandoned the airbrush in favour of pastels. markers, and ink.

So where did I first come across his work? In the pages of the glossy American science and fiction magazine OMNI, published by Bob Guccione (who also published Penthouse), launched in October 1979. In it, I was introduced not only to some of the greatest fiction by some of the biggest names in the field (Harlan Ellison, George RR Martin, Orson Scott Card, and William Gibson) but it also opened up the whole visual field of Fantastic Realist Art to my eyes as well. In addition to Giger, there were the likes of Ernst Fuchs, Matti Klarwein, Di Maccio, Peter Goodfellow, Bob Venosa and Gottfried Helnwein amongst others, whose incredible visions, often painted in a startlingly realistic style, just staggered my young mind. Those images (along with my earlier exposure to the original surrealists of the early 20th century) kickstarted my desire to follow in their footsteps.

"The Way of all Flesh" ©2003 - Simon Marshall-Jones

But it was Giger’s dark, unpleasant, and hellish imagery that impressed me most of all. No other artist I’d yet enountered had managed to encapsulate the ugliness and terror lying at the heart of science and technology gone awry, for instance. Death, and even the prospect of it, seemed less unsettling than the images conjured up by Giger’s mind. His visions of the alien were truly, truly, terrifying. His landscapes were gargantuan, bewildering and frightening, dizzyingly so. The distorted humanity that often figured in his work looked as if they were the ill-begotten progeny of decaying flesh and mad technology, killing industrial machinery grafted onto seared, unwilling skin and sinew.

And so, I was inspired – I bought myself an airbrush, and began the long process of teaching myself how to use it. There was no-one else around who knew what an airbrush was, let alone how to use one. I studied Giger’s works intensely, trying to work out how he’d achieved the effects he’d created. Then I would attempt to emulate those effects – sometimes successfully, other times not so successfully.

"Orgasmbutcher" ©2003 - Simon Marshall-Jones

So, fast forward to 1995-96. I’d rediscovered my enthusiasm for painting, having failed at getting anywhere with it in the previous two decades and had given up, going to university to study a degree in computer multimedia instead. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the course, however, and had begun to see my future lying in a different arena. During 1996 I managed to secure three exhibitions of my paintings, one in Reading and two in London, and a couple of magazines had taken notice of my work, too. I even got some of my images in a low budget British film, Preaching to the Perverted. Back then, I was a completely different animal – I was a very angry young man, extremely misanthropic and full of hatred for just about everything. My paintings were composed of a limited palette of colours – red, black and greys. I must have produced twenty paintings that year, most of which sold, leading me to procure some private commissions as well.

"HiveThink" ©2007 - Simon Marshall-Jones

And then, the stroke happened in 1997, and everything changed. All the anger dissipated and my outlook metamorphosed dramatically. I had escaped death simply by the bloodclot in my brain going down one vessel instead of diverting into another (yes, as narrowly as that) – if it had, I wouldn’t be writing these words now. Consequently, the way I expressed my artistic vision changed, too. Gone were the angry reds and blacks, and in their place came warm, sandy colours for the backgrounds. The flesh of the figures became, by contrast, blue, inspired in part by Hindu iconography – although, in my work, it represents freezing cold death, in both a figurative and metaphysical sense. Death itself is final, but even in life, we can live as if ‘dead’ to that which surrounds us.

The Giger influence is still there, however, mixed in with the bondage symbolism – we’re all in bondage to something, whether we’re aware of it or not. It could be to a mortgage, a job, a restrictive belief-system, an illness or an uncaring partner – anything which makes us feel less free than we think we ought to be. Life, in its own way, can be just as horrific as any film or story. And that is what my work attempts to express and get across.

Things have come full circle now. I find myself in the uncanny position of suddenly (and I mean suddenly) in demand for my artwork, a situation I fully never expected to see happen. In recent months I have had commissions for two book covers (Crabs: Apocalypse by Dave Jeffery and Stuart Neild, and The Unspoken anthology, to be edited by Willie Meikle and Stephen James Price) and a portrait of Gary McMahon. In many ways, then, I owe a debt of gratitude to the visionary of Chur, Switzerland, who inspired me in the first place and also for bringing me to this point – I think, in a very roundabout way, had I not taken up the airbrush after encountering Giger’s work I doubt I would have met all the fine people and friends I have. Once again, however, it just goes to show that life still has the capacity to surprise.

(In light of the recent scandals involving copyright theft and such [and my own brush with the issue], the orginal intent of this article was changed from being a study of Giger’s work itself to one of his influence on mine. That way I didn’t need to use his imagery or seek lengthy permission to use it. I have to thank Gary McMahon for suggesting I do it this way – I would never have thought of it, if truth be told.

Also, if there’s anyone out there who would like to commission me to create cover artwork for their books or just have one of my pieces hanging on their walls, then please don’t hesitate to contact me via fracturedspaces@gmail.com and we can discuss any requirements. – thanks!)

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