Gunslinger – A Western Illustration

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This is an older painting that only a small number of my cohort have correctly identified.
I never had much of an appreciation for the Western genre of film-making. My father was raised in an era in which westerns were incredibly popular, and he tried to share his love for ‘Have Gun, Will Travel,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ and some of the old John Wayne classics like ‘The Cowboys.’

Admittedly, I liked ‘The Cowboys,’ but there was always something about the genre that never really gripped me.
Well, all things in good time, I suppose.

I pretty-much accidentally rented disc one, season one of ‘Deadwood’ from Hollywood Video, back in the day when Hollywood Video and Blockbuster still existed. At the time, rental houses were just starting to feel the strain that Netflix had been putting on the rental industry, and Redbox was just around the corner. I had a cheap-as-dirt membership that allowed me to have any three movies I wanted for any amount of time I desired. Derelict that I was, I would pick up three discs on my way home from work, rip the content, and then swap them out for three more the next day; this was before the whole RealDVD debacle and I was, for that brief window of time, actually ripping the content legally (read about it here).

This unchained freedom to stockpile media led to me watching a lot of content I probably would have passed over otherwise, including almost all Westers. But I devoured the Sergio Leone films, ‘Shane,’ ‘Unforgiven,’ ‘3:10 To Yuma,’ and dozens of others. And when I found ‘Deadwood,’ it was all over. I was astonished by the writing, the set design, the costuming, the music and texture and magnitude of the whole thing.

And I started making illustrations with a western theme, occasionally hybridizing the theme with Dia de los Muertos imagery – skeleton cowboys, sugar skulls, and the like. The illustration above is inspired by a lesser-known Western that captured my attention a few years ago – let me know if you can tell what it’s from in the comments!

Have a great day, everybody!
-joe

The Wounded Cowboy

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This is one of those old illustrations that sat, untouched, for years at a time. I’d eventually get around to it, do a little bit of work on it, get discouraged, and set it aside for another year. Just one of those projects that, at the very beginning I thought had some promise and I eventually lost my passion for.

But my passion for taking these orphaned, unfinished projects and finishing them? Definitely stronger.

Forcing myself back into this piece – inspired, as many of my illustrations are, by the cinema – I thought about the tradition of Western Films in American cinema, and how these themes have begun to resurface in movies like Logan, which intentionally and overtly borrowed from movies like Shane and The Cowboys. This piece, in fact, is a study from James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma – James Mangold also happens to be the same man who directed Logan.

This didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t a headache trying to finish it. I found a good flow and I’m glad to close the chapter. I hope you like it.

Deadpool

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In the spirit of finishing old illustrations that have been abandoned – and in the spirit of the Deadpool sequel coming out in about a month – I decided to finally polish this one off and call it done.

Sure, there have been rumors of production problems, but those stretch way back to last year when we learned that director Tim Miller was leaving the project. There are always rumors that circle these productions and yeah, it’s never good to hear that a director has either left or been excused from a project; the Han Solo film has endured similar scrutiny and they’ve brought Ron Howard in to “fix” the movie.

Evidently, test audiences haven’t responded well to the initial cut of ‘Deadpool 2′ and the studio has been scrambling to re-shoot scenes and cobble together another edit in time for the premiere. Whenever I read a story about test audiences, I remind myself that if test audiences got their way we wouldn’t have hits like ‘Seinfeld’ or cult classics like ‘Bladerunner,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ or ‘Fight Club.’

Test audiences are unreliable, at best.

To be fair, though, sequels almost always suck. From ‘Wayne’s World 2′ to ‘Dumb and Dumber Too,’ there aren’t many good sophomore titles in any franchise of any genre. Save for your rare instances like ‘Terminator 2’ or ‘Aliens,’ it’s predictably challenging to recapture the magic of a hit film. I don’t expect ‘Deadpool 2‘ to be as fun or surprising as its predecessor, and it likely won’t perform as well at the box office, but I’m pretty confident I’m still going to enjoy the ride.

I’ll see you at the movies, guys.
Cheers.

-joe

On The Hilltop

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There’s a hilltop in Bisbee, Arizona, just a few miles north of the Mexican border. It sits over Brewery Gulch, casting its shadow over the canyon homes. The last several months I lived in Bisbee I was in a deeply disturbing relationship and everything around me seemed to be in chaos, but I would hike up to the cross on the hill every morning with my dog and enjoy the quiet and the peace.

I’m not a religious man, but I believe in the power of intention. I’d heard stories about the man who built this shrine, decades ago, and about the effort it took, hauling concrete and materials, an armload at a time, from Tombstone Canyon up to the hilltop. In the years since the cross was erected, other people have added onto the shrine. The ashes of peoples’ loved ones have been spread there, piles of candles have been left on the backside of the hill where a shrine to the Guadalupe Virgin has been built. A mural of Jesus is painted on the side of the hill and a monument to the people who have died in the desert trying to cross into America has been established; at the site, people deposit items found in the desert, left behind by border crossers, from backpacks and worn-out shoes to tooth brushes and baby bottles.

My heart is still in the Mule Mountains, even if it’s no longer in Bisbee. I will never forget the brief moments, sitting on the hilltop on those silent mornings, watching the sun rise over the desert.

There Was This One Bad Day…

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I woke up in a messy dorm room. My assigned roommate was a sheepish and sad lad from California who seemed to struggle with the new life that was thrust upon him; a kind and gentle young man, he was polite and terrified with the prospect of learning how to operate a washing machine. He told me about his horse, Sundance, and the life he had lived before being stuck in a dorm room with the likes of me.

Everybody adapts to life away from home differently, I guess.

It didn’t really matter on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was eighteen and I’d had been away from the home for less than a month, just like most of the other folks in the dorm. Unlike most of my dorm mates, I’d made the foolish decision to take early classes; everybody else liked the idea of being able to sleep-in until ten or eleven and built their schedules accordingly. There aren’t many people walking about campus at seven o’clock in the morning, but those that were about were carrying their heads between their shoulders. I found myself standing by a coffee cart outside of the student union, huddled with a few other people, listening to the radio, to the play-by-play of what was happening in New York. Only one tower had been hit at that time.

It was hard to conjugate Spanish verbs that morning.
My second class, calculus, had some students weeping over their pop quiz papers.

Young girls at the dorm that night, blonde teenagers with tight shorts that read ‘juicy’ or ‘U of A’ across the ass, were shouting among themselves that “we need to bomb them,” even though we hadn’t yet identified who “they” even were at that point. And while these groups of young ladies were talking retribution, all the young men in the dorm were quiet. We had all just signed our military draft paperwork in the previous months, right before applying for federal student aid. The gravity of the situation was a little different for the lads than it was for the ladies.

My buddy Newman, a Jewish kid from Manhattan with the palest skin and the largest red curly afro you’d ever seen, wasn’t wearing his usual smile. He was the guy who’d dig through that ridiculous mound of hair at a house gathering and pull out a joint to share with everybody. He’d never worked a square job in his life and he was always the life of the party. We sat with him in his room for hours, nibbling on stale pizza even though we weren’t that hungry, not really able to take our eyes off of the repeated footage on the television. The whole time, Newman tried to get friends and family, anybody from back home, on the phone. Cell towers were down and too many calls were traveling to Manhattan, so he just kept hitting redial, eyes dull and glassy and distant, all day long, staring at the fire on the television screen.

It was a bad day. I was reminded of a school project from fourth or fifth grade, when I was told to ask a family member where they were and what they remembered about the day John F. Kennedy was shot. I had the thought that this was that day for me – that some day in the future, I’d be telling my son or daughter where I was when I learned about the attack on the World Trade Center. My parents were just children when Kennedy was killed, not even ten years old, but they remember. Some things just stay with you, and I know I’ll never forget the feeling, the anchor in my stomach, the sadness that made me want to cry, even though I didn’t, hanging out with my shaken friends.

Not every day can be great, I suppose. Sadly, too many of our days end with images of needless horror funneled into our living rooms. School, concert, movie theater, and church shootings, bombings, assassinations, and gruesome rhetoric from politicians, pundits, and citizens alike. It’s easy to be frustrated, benumbed, and hateful. But these are always opportunities to learn, to grow more resilient, and to come together. The greatest result of the September 11th attack was watching a nation of three-hundred million people, probably for the last time in these past two decades, come together in support of one another, if even only for a few days.

“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”
~Dalai Lama

 

A Portrait From The Abyss Of Abandoned Projects

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In the spirit of finishing old projects that’ve been gathering dust, I decided to unearth this portrait late last night when I found myself unable to sleep. I stalled on this painting years ago, completely frustrated with how it was turning out; I kept re-working areas of the canvas without any satisfaction. Working on it last night, though, I lost myself. Before I knew it, it was time to set the art aside, brush my teeth, and get ready for work.

Sometimes, I have discovered, it’s easy to stare at a composition for too long, to scrutinize it too much. There’s a kind of hypnosis that occurs. And when a piece isn’t quite turning out the way you want, all you can see are the imperfections. The problem areas overwhelm the rest of the composition and a discouraging futility settles in. It’s for this reason that I have so many incomplete projects laying about.

Something else I’ve discovered is that returning to an old ‘problem’ piece can be satisfying. Distance helps clear the cobwebs, and those problem areas don’t stand out as much. Solutions seem possible. The ‘writer’s block’ of the situation has faded away.

I slammed my head against the table so much over this painting and eventually gave up.
Last night, after a few hours, it all came together and became something I’m okay with.
I hope you enjoy it.

-joe

Mr Robot 3.2 – Legacy

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Episode three of this season, titled ‘Legacy,’ takes us back in time in order to fill in some of the details leading up to Elliot’s incarceration in season two. It begins in the dimly-lit carnival atmosphere of the Eldorado Arcade – where FSociety originated – with Elliot (Mr Robot) and Tyrell examining the 5/9 hack that brought E Corp to it’s knees at the end of season one. With another clever ‘cowboy switch’ that visually communicates that Mr Robot is currently in the driver’s seat, we witness a confrontation between Mr Robot and Tyrell that illustrates a deeper emotional disturbance in Tyrell than we may have previously realized. The late night meeting, however, is interrupted by the series’ newest enigmatic character, Irving, and two of his henchmen.

“If you‘re seein‘ me, that means you boys fucked up.”

Presumably, this is some of the earliest contact Irving ever makes with Mr Robot, and it illustrates why Irving was so confused when Elliot didn’t recognize him when they met at The Red Wheelbarrow at the beginning of the season.

Irving is a masterful character that communicates – both to Mr Robot and to the audience – how much reach Dark Army truly has; it has eyes and ears everywhere and Stage Two has yet to be initiated. Tyrell is forced into hiding, guarded by Dark Army acolytes at a remote cabin in the woods, divorced from all of his contacts. Elliot is sentenced to eight months in jail for harassing his therapist’s boyfriend and Whiterose, during a private briefing, expresses his intention to pull the right strings to help manipulate Donald Trump into the Oval Office.

The play-by-play of much of the episode is unimportant. What is important are the details and character development. We begin to dig into the psychology of Tyrell Wellick, whose fanatical devotion to Elliot hinges on the disturbing. We witness the button-down demeanor of Tyrell shift to a wild-eyed frenzy, believing he is a demigod. We also see vulnerability in Tyrell when he expresses that he needs to “look good for Elliot,” when he admits that he is afraid he will become like his father, and when we see Irving begin to serve as something of a father figure to him out in the woods. Beyond all of this making Tyrell more three-dimensional and relatable, this also begins to humanize Irving who – up until this point in the season, at least – has only ever appeared calculated, methodical, cold, and threatening.

And if we pay close attention, there is one huge things missing from this episode: notice that Elliot is not narrating this episode, which is a significant departure from the show’s format. The result is that the audience feels more distant from the characters and events (especially Elliot), and adds to the cloak-and-dagger mystery tone of this season.

As each of the show’s central characters become increasingly aware of Elliot’s dissociative personality, Elliot himself becomes increasingly distant from the audience. As more of Elliot’s associates begin to navigate his dual personas, chances are good that Mr. Robot’s world is going to change, too. Last week we saw how Mr. Robot reacted to losing control over Elliot; moving forward, it’s easy to assume that this nervous rage is going to have real-world consequences, especially as Stage Two is implemented.

This television show has woven a complicated tapestry, constructing intricate connections between hacktivists, corporate executives, political opponents, economic balance, and organized & corporate crime. Mr. Robot is expert in revealing enough information to prevent the audience from feeling overly manipulated while simultaneously keeping us in the dark enough to keep guessing. That’s the strength of the show; we know that everything is connected, but aren’t quite sure how or why. All the while, the story is slowly unfolding, slowly filling in the blanks.

The split personality trope is still a shaky one, but it’s being handled with a unique finesse that hasn’t yet threatened to injure the overall narrative. ‘Legacy’ has certainly upheld the mystery and intrigue of Mr. Robot, and it’s certainly clear that there will be many more surprises down the road.

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Mr Robot 3.1 – Undo

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“You know when you fuck something up and you wish you had the power to hit ‘undo’? Like when you say the dumbest thing in front of your biggest crush? Or when you talk shit about your boss in an email and then hit ‘reply all’ to everybody at work?”

“We all have those days.”

Such is the way episode two begins, with an upbeat INXS song (“New Sensation”) and a montage of Elliot’s new routine at E Corp. Our unreliable narrator is hopeful that he can undo the damage he’s done, undo the hack. We see the painful virtual tours and corporate training videos he has to endure at his new job – the security checks and card swipes, the idiot greasy co-worker objectifying women and the other elements of his morning routine.

The beginning of this episode is rhythmically interesting. In many ways it mimics the Aronofski cut that was established in Requiem For A Dream – shirt, pill, train, turnstile, swipe the I.D. card, hit the elevator. All fast cuts. All on repeat. And we listen to upbeat ’80s music and watch Elliot slowly chip away at the senior staff members of E Corp.

Each iteration of the routine ends with Elliot in the middle of a presentation – about cost, efficiency, and security. And each roll-coll introduction of a new “upper-middle” manager reveals a lazy, distracted, arrogant, ignorant, and unconcerned corporate shill – fiddling with their smart phones, ignoring the presentation, interrupting the presentation because they’re bored.

“I’ve got a soul-cycle class I’m late for. Let’s pick this up sometime…next quarter?”

The beginning of this episode has the stains of American Psycho all over it, right down to the ’80s music, the polished surface of corporate America, and the roiling ocean of distraction and discontent beneath the surface. At the end of each cycle, we see that Elliot has managed to remove another corrupt manager; the space-bar click sound effect machine-guns the exit of corrupt corporate leaders – the sub-prime scammers, pension embezzlers, ponzi schemers, and sexual harassers.

Until he finally gets a receptive audience who gives him what he wants: the digitization of all corporate records.

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The first act is the most important. Elliot grinds through the days until he gets what he needs in order to try and begin reversing the damage he has done. Act two finds Elliot speaking with Krista, his therapist, who later recognizes his dissociative personality and seizes an opportunity to speak directly with Mr. Robot. Little comes of the conversation; the audience watches Krista come to terms with truths that the audience is already aware of.

Copycat organizations begin masquerading as F-Society and the noose tightens around Darlene. A currency war is introduced, presenting the tired notion of an “America Versus China” conflict. Joanna, manipulative and beautiful as she is, dies at the hands of her lonely and jealous lover, leaving her blood-stained infant wailing in the back of a car. No character shows remorse, even with the presence of the crying child, and I don’t believe the audience really cares, either. The woman was something of a robot herself.

Obviously Mr. Robot is building tension and stacking pieces together; long-form narrative is chess, not checkers, slow and patient strategy, rather than impulse. But there is absolutely nothing about this episode that stands out. Elliot crazy. China bad. Crazy wife dead. Audience not surprised.

Perhaps this is an insulting analysis. Maybe this is all building toward something more. But for now, I find myself not giving a single f*** about any of these characters, what they’re doing, or the world they live in. The story is pregnant with intrigue but lacks sympathetic characters. Let’s hope something changes.

Let me know in the comments what you think. I’d be curious to know.

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Mr Robot 3.0 – Power Save Mode

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It’s difficult to tell whether or not Sam Esmail’s brainchild will be able to maintain its narrative momentum as we begin season three of Mr Robot. The “split-personality” device is a tricky tightrope walk, especially as contemporary psychology has largely debunked the concept of multiple-personality disorder. This isn’t to say that it isn’t an interesting device that can be used to great effect (think Fight Club or Primal Fear) but it can fall apart very catastrophically (think Identity or Secret Window).

But, for the time being, Mr. Robot hasn’t yet jumped the shark.

Season three has introduced new players to pump some new life into the narrative, but the story is also beginning to fold in on itself. It was clear from the beginning that Esmail hadn’t diagrammed the whole arc; the pilot itself was a grand ‘hail mary’ with wonderful, and likely surprising, success. But Mr. Robot will only last as long as the ratings do. The USA Network will continue to find ways to add new things into the mix, for as long as they can, which could easily doom the show to a fizzling-out in a style not dissimilar to Dexter, Entourage, or Lost.

When the story-teller knows how the story is going to end before the first script it authored, the architecture of the story isn’t compromised by executives and ad-dollars. Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire are excellent examples – all of these ended on a high note that left audiences wanting more, rather than their stories being wrung dry, left to die on the vine, to die the death of a million weeping pinhole wounds.

The opening of season three introduces Irving(Bobby Cannavale), a Robert Goulet/Gordon Gecko mashup whose cold demeanor and self-interest begs for a gaudy pinky ring or gold bracelet. His character is interestingly convincing even while being painfully one-sided and almost clichéd. Untroubled by personal wealth, he’s introduced in a barbecue restaurant arguing with a minimum-wage cashier over the redemption of a coupon. He is modeled after other villains defined by meticulousness – Hannibal Lector, Guss Fring, Anton Chigurh. The idea, really, is to find his style laughable while also recognizing an undercurrent of profound influence and brutality.

There have been a lot of villains like this in television lately.

Irving is tasked with handling the situation between Tyrell (Martin Wallström) and Elliot(Rami Malek). If you can recall, Tyrell put a bullet in Elliot’s stomach at the conclusion of season two when Elliot tried to put a stop to his alter-ego’s machinations. Irving is the linchpin that connects our developed protagonists of the underground hacker network ‘F Society’ with the elusive underground network known as ‘The Dark Army,’ whose goals are still completely, mundanely, boringly obscure; I’m sure there will be a shocking reveal further down the line.

What interests me is Whiterose (BD Wong) and his discussion at the beginning of the episode, following a wide, sweeping shot over what we assume to be a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. And this is where I weep for the future of the show – the introduction includes nuclear technicians casually discussing a theory of the multiverse, it then expands to visually reveal a massive technological structure that invites comparisons to the “hadron collider” in Cern, and eventually leads to Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) asking Elliot what he would do if everything could be changed, if everything could be erased, including what happened to their parents, and that it’s an absolute possibility.

Discussions of the multi-verse and the possibility of changing time – Mr. Robot is tinkering with some tricky subject matter that is completely divorced from a critique of capitalism, illustrations of manufactured consent, and a celebration of the meek rising up to conquer their masters.

The psychological drama takes a back seat, thematically, to the opportunity of changing or shifting reality altogether. The masters of the economic world are transforming into masters of reality itself. The unreliable narrator, Elliot, has been completely changed. The story, moving forward, can be good or it can be a disaster. And this episode doesn’t pass the smell test.

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July 31, 2017 – Before The Weight of the World

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“When I look in the mirror, I am slightly reminded of self-portraits by Durer and by Rembrandt, because they both show a degree of introspection. I see some element of disappointment; I see a sense of humour, but also something that is faintly ridiculous; and I see somebody who is frightened of being found out and thought lightweight.”
~Robert Winston

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