Spring 2001

Paleolithic pretensions

Rolling Stone: The Illustrated Portraits

Ed. Holly George-Warren, Chronicle, £25

The hyperbole of this book’s introduction leads to an anticipation that can only be followed by anticlimax. “Art Scares People” runs the tall, short opening sentence of the editor’s text, peppered with adjectives such as “harrowing” and “incendiary”. George-Warren proposes a link, that doesn’t really exist, between rock’n’roll “outrage” and the book’s images. Few of the artists here attempt anything as exciting, though, given their briefs’ necessary requirement for likeness, they can hardly be blamed for that.

Rolling Stone’s metamorphosis, from “in-your-face upstart” in the 1960s to its current conventional middle age, makes most of the images appear so conservative that they represent the polar opposite of such claims.

The book’s design is as assertive as its introduction. Each portrait occupies at least a page, and typography comes at you in a (polite) riot of sizes and Opal Fruit colours, and from every direction except upside-down. Illuminatingly, some of the smallest point-sizes are reserved for illustrators’ credits. Quotes, both from illustrators and illustrated, are among the book’s subtler pleasures, with Steadman’s musings on politicians’ legs, and Tom Waits’ dietary recommendations, for “Chicken Catastrophe and Eggs Overwhelming” outstanding.

The portraits divide into two main conventions: hyper-realism (big in the 1970s and ’80s) and caricature. The latter tendency carries more interest: among the usual suspects, including Steadman, Brodner, Hirschfield and Risko, Philip Burke and Ian Pollock stand out. Pollock’s 1985 portrait of Prince carries the same power as his personal work; the Paisley Park idol becoming a skewed icon of tat. Burke’s Shirley Manson and Elvis Costello images effortlessly fix their subjects in Fauvist swathes of pigment, and his Kurt Cobain is a slacker-caryatid. Jack Unruh, Vivienne Flesher, Brad Holland, Matt Mahurin and the late Alan E. Cober all justify their reputations while, among the realists, Mark Ryden’s visionary obsessiveness brings something extraordinary to a technique that could be defined as either brilliant or pedantic.

Though the target audience will, I’m sure, have been meticulously researched, I don’t know anyone who would buy this book (or at least admit to it). Its gems are too few, and are crushed under the dinosaur weight of the inflated exercise.