Sunday, May 18, 2014

'The Art Of John Harris: Beyond The Horizon' Book Review

You may not know the name John Harris right off the bat, but, odds are, if you’ve read much science fiction in the latter part of the 20th Century, you’re familiar with his work. A renowned artist in his own right, he is most known for illustrating the covers for countless sci-fi book going back as far as the 1970s. His newest project is something a little different. The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon collects his paintings, both those that decorated the jackets of genre novels, as well as stand alone pieces, and this is definitely something that you should be proud to display on coffee table.

Harris’ work has appeared on countless book covers, including sci-fi legends like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, Ben Bova, and John Scalzi, who actually wrote an introduction to Beyond the Horizon. And those are just a few of the notable names he’s worked with. Most of his paintings employ a traditional English Romantic style, instead of pastoral landscapes and domestic scenes, however, he imagines other worlds, interstellar spacecraft, and bases on the surface of distant alien planets.

Not only do Harris’ contributions reflect the subject matter, tones, and themes of the works he attaches his pictures to, he also inspires his wordsmith counterparts. In his introduction, Scalzi tells a story about how looking at Harris’ paintings actually helped him break through a barrier in writing The Ghost Brigades, a part of his Old Man’s War series. The images played a huge part in his creative process, flipping the script somewhat.

Whether connected to a book or not, these paintings capture a sense of wonder and romance about the idea of the future. Harris’ work explores a wide array of themes and near infinite variations on these visual refrains. Part of that comes from his early fascination and immersion in the burgeoning genre of the 1960s, and even back to the early science fiction pioneers like H.G. Wells. Growing up in London in the wake of World War II, the lingering destruction and rebuilding of that era also plays heavily into his style and aesthetic, as did coming of age in the age of the Cold War, a different kind of conflict.

No matter the historical nature of his influences, Harris’ work always has an eye towards tomorrow and what lies ahead, envisioning human society growing upwards and outwards, on our own world and on others throughout the galaxy. Beyond the Horizon is packed with gorgeous, full color reproductions of his work. There are smaller pieces, including sketches and glimpses of the pieces in progress, and while those are nice, those aren’t the real selling point of this artifact. It is the full-page pictures, or the ones that sprawl across multiple pages, that will really capture your attention and suck you in. You can spend a great deal of time just starring at these pictures.

There’s a dreamy quality to most of these paintings that soften and humanize the sharp, rigid edges of the futuristic motifs. Through Harris’ eyes, an innovative, ultramodern skyscraper has the feel of something warm and organic. At the same time as it belongs to a time and age that is far removed and distant, the stiff, severe lines of a massive, city-sized space craft almost feel like something alive, like a wild, intergalactic bird. And even though these images depict imaginary worlds and far away realms, many feel like they could also be windows into our own past.

In the mid-1980s Harris was commissioned by NASA to create a work that evoked the look and feel of an actual space launch. The expressionistic piece now hangs in the Kennedy Space Center, and is part of Harris’ more textured, less representational works. As he says, they are more about tone and feel than they are about painting a realistic picture of a concrete, specific item.

You’ll spend hours thumbing through these pages, witnessing the passage of time and one man’s vision of our collective future. Every time you’ll fixate on a new, different piece. Segmented into sections, Harris chimes in from time to time, explaining the origins and inspirations for the various pieces and groupings, and telling the stories of the civilizations that he envisions these artifacts belonging to. The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon will be released on May 27.

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