In a post-government world, spiritual leaders have taken control, sparking a period of positivity and change. It’s a veritable utopia until the most nightmarish of technical problems arises — Mechs, the production robots created to rebuild the world, have turned the full power of their artificial intelligence to enslave mankind.
Such is the sci-fi plot to “The Rusted Souls,” a concept-based art show at San Francisco’s 1AM Gallery. Nine artists hailing mostly from the Bay Area were presented with a brief narrative for a proposed animated film and then explored it in drawing, painting and illustration. The result is an art collection that, while unified in theme, showcases the artists’ diverse talents.
The show is certainly unique for its narrative aspect, a byproduct of its conception as an animated film. “The Rusted Souls” achieves a cinematic effect by drawing inspiration from comic books and movies; some paintings evoke film stills in the mind of the viewer. The comic book influence is most obvious in Emerson Tung’s work, where Ben-Day dots, a hallmark of classic comic books, pay homage to the graphic genre. Take Tung’s pieces as a series, and you have an entire comic strip. The theme of robotic overlords destroying their human underlings keeps the work from being something out of the newspaper funnies.
Karlo Santa Ana introduces this post-apocalyptic world’s human fighters, the “extra-sensorily” endowed Rusted Souls. Santa Ana’s background as an illustrator and graphic designer shines in drawings of Gaby, the 12 year-old ringleader of the Souls, and her ragtag team. The character designs are sleek and futuristic; in the case of “Grimace,” an illustration of the boulder-like robot that accompanies the crew in their dystopian adventures, the inspiration seems architectural. Grimace is a rock of a dude, a perfect example of how the Thing from “Fantastic Four” would look if he was suddenly transformed from stone to polished steel. The other character designs are reminiscent of Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” particularly Santa Ana’s treatment of “the Gress” (abbreviation of the Mech tyrant ruling order, ProGress). The android Gress is the embodiment of lithe superspeed even while frozen in Santa Ana’s digital ink.
Once presented with straightforward character designs — indeed, just the sort of thing you’d expect to find on a storyboard in the bowels of an animation studio — “The Rusted Souls” presents Christopher de Leon’s acrylic paintings. These are more realistic than Santa Ana’s interpretation of the Rusted Souls’ world, which takes the proposal for animated film the most literally out of the collection of artists (he even creates an animation of Gaby and her war machine, the Mini Mammoth).
De Leon’s portraits convey stories in ways that Santa Ana’s cartoonish designs could not. From “Matriarch” to “Tinker,” each painting speaks volumes of this warring world. Facial features are tough and multi-layered, and yet the acrylic medium lends a softness that glances at the humanity beneath the battle-scarred exteriors.
De Leon’s ability to lend whimsy to a robotic world stands out in pieces like “Heavy Handed,” where a red-headed heroine holds two massive guns — her own skull diminished by the steaming helmet-head of a recently-defeated robot. The painting is swathed in shades of red, pink and gray, a yellow smiley-face pin boldly attached to a suspender curving around bony shoulders. It is a nod to Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen,” in which a splash of red blood mars the Comedian’s smiley-face badge.
Like the Comedian, the fighter in de Leon’s painting wears an expression of smug triumph; though the robots may be winning, the human spirit is indefatigable. Despite the optimism, de Leon is quick to re-establish the precarious position these humans inhabit between victory and extermination. Why else would de Leon create “Impostor,” in which a skeletal Mech dons the ruddy-nosed face of a human? The piece is dynamic and creates tension in his contribution; it is an audacious assertion that the human spirit, while strong, must prove its resilience.
Identified by his peers as “the robot guy,” the aforementioned Tung works in a combination of mixed media and digital illustration, making him a bridge between the art of Santa Ana and de Leon. There is movement to his prints, whether in character stance, fluidity of background, or even smaller details, such wind moving through hair.
In “Vigilant,” Tung sets a horned warrior at the forefront of billowing clouds. To add to this fluidity, the fighter is equipped with a shield-mane, a protective barrier that paradoxically dances in the breeze like human hair. To have something as substantial as thick steel armor transform seamlessly into streaming wisps of ribbon demonstrates Tung’s prowess in his art. The kinetic energy of his mixed media prints is almost palpable as in “BANG!” in which only onomatopoeia will suffice to convey the doubly-armed cyborg’s shattering destruction of his robotic adversary.
To enter the world of the Rusted Souls is to take a chance on the art of a fledgling project. Rusted Souls doesn’t always work as a whole — uniting artists of different artistic styles is a risk, one that Rusted Souls takes boldly and mostly succeeds at. The art spans many genres, from comic-book and animation to fine art acrylic paintings. Yet the pieces are united by a single, fundamental theme — that of mankind’s fortitude. For all their artificial intelligence, robots are not very bright — the human soul can never truly rust.
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