Friday, June 30, 2017

Fur.artwork.erotica finds #4

This is the kind of drawing which would set bad psychologists and bigoted parents ablaze. What a load of aggressive symbolism! A naked dragon-woman with a weird menacing attitude, a coiling tongue, devilish horns, tattoos, goth jewelry and a design full of jagged lines, spikes and flame-like marks: surely a picture like this must be an expression of disturbed emotions and deep insecurities about sex, conveying the perception of women as evil and repulsive creatures… possibly even a fascination with violence and the devil. If your teenage kid drew something like this it’s totally time to call an exorcist.

Or maybe, you know, that kind of freudian/jungian reading of art is utter bullshit and this is simply a drawing by an inexperienced artist (hence the jagged hard to read design) whose imagination is turned on by dragons and Metal aesthetics. The dragoness is actually smiling more than she is snarling, and she is making a sexual offer to the viewer by holding her tail raised in a relatively modest pinup pose. On the strictly artistic side it could be argued that the picture is a rehash of the old "treacherous temptress with pet snake" art trope, but it conflates them into a single character who isn’t really hiding her intentions from us nor betraying any further motives.

Am I pulling a strawman here? I don’t quite think so considering how Ravenwolf, one of my favorite old school furry artists was convinced by a dumb art teacher to dispose of most of his beautiful early art on grounds that it was too disturbing. (It was actually pretty tame tribal fantasy for the most part, not even as sexual or dark as the dragoness above. At least he picked up furry art again many years later.)

Even Goldenwolf, one of the most famous furry/were artists of the 90s, was basically exiled by her religious home community because she drew animal people and pagan themes. The parents of two of my furry friends have called furry pictures devilish. And so on. It wasn’t hard to come by personal stories of the same kind in the furry fandom before dark fantasy stuff became commonplace in the late 2000s.

So I’ll rather risk to err on the side of strawmanning, since bigoted people brandishing rubbish psychology against young artists are a real thing and I mourn each loss of a fresh imagination.

The characters look like a female anthropomorphic collie and a male feral German shepherd engaged in oral sex. It's safe to say that most people would be horrified by a drawing like this, but if you can look past the "culture shock" due to the subject matter and focus on its actual artistic qualities it has a sort of endearing feeling to it. Soft colors, soft edges, physical closeness, a sunny atmosphere. I like the matter-of-fact simplicity of the background with bushes and birds. It looks like a picture done to preserve a very personal and cherished fantasy about some characters rather than mere porn value. And again I don't think a fantasy like this authorizes any inference about the real life sexual life or fetishes of the artist, since there is no sound psychological research whatsoever backing that kind of inference - only commonplaces, poor imagination and poor understanding of creative processes.

Chris Goodwin would later grow to become a professional artist and art teacher. His sense of design was already obvious in early example of his work such as this one, although the strong humanization of facial anatomy and understatement of animal features he employs is not my taste style wise.

Sexual tension between predator and prey is a staple trope of furry art and here it is made interesting by the ambiguity of the situation: the scene seems staged given the poses, but the violence is real and goes beyond mere performance. I also find it interesting to imagine how the scene would feel different if either or both characters were female. It certainly wouldn’t make as much sense if the characters were more human or more feral, and I love how this fits with thematically with the tension between opposites and the unstable balance of the interacting bodies.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Yerf finds #2 - Tracy Butler’s early art

Besides of Ailah the other artist who immediately comes to my mind when I think of Yerf is Tracy Butler, whose style and works at the time were in fact much more representative of the site’s general artistic goals. Butler later went on to a professional career as the creator of the successful comic series Lackadaisy. As of today she no longer considers herself a furry artist, which might look odd since the characters of her comics are anthropomorphic animals, but in fact I agree with her statement. I’ll get to that. Let’s start from the beginning.

Most prominent among Butler’s old art is a series of fantasy pictures showing characters and disjointed scenes from an epic fantasy setting. They are too sparse to make any guess about the general plot but there is a variety of easily recognized character types: a young doubt-stricken fox soldier, a goofy rogue-ish dog also enlisted as a soldier, a sassy rogue cat girl, an authoritarian tiger noble, a rebellious bunny concubine, and several others.

The drawings do display a budding sense of composition and dynamic drawing, but the style is still all over the place with some elements taken straight from anime, like the cat girl’s head design:

Other elements are taken straight from classic Disney style or from its early furry fandom iterations (such as the works of Terrie Smith and Robert & Margaret Carspecken), like the expression of the fox in the foreground here:

One of the ideal goals of Yerf was acting as a professional portfolio site for artists who wanted to pitch anthropomorphic fiction ideas for comics or illustrated books: the idea was to have a respectable site with some quality standards so that you could actually link to you personal gallery there when dealing with art directors and they wouldn’t accidentally stumble onto porn or obvious beginner stuff while browsing around. (As naive as this may sound, keep in mind that quality standards for indie productions were much lower in the 90s and early 2000s than they are now, so it was not a completely crazy idea.)

With this in mind, Butler’s early works could look like nothing more than a beginner’s clumsy attempts at making a portfolio and a pitch for a long term comic project, and maybe they were that too - but that’s only half of the story, the surface part. There is something more visceral about these pictures which can only be understood by further putting them in context.

The moment I saw these drawings many years ago I was a beginner artist too, and I immediately recognized a spark of something in them, even though I didn’t care for the particular artist’s style. The disjointed scenes, the evolving character designs, the isolated comic pages illustrating seemingly random moments in the story, the odd mix of Saturday Morning Cartoon cuteness and mature fantasy tropes closer to the artistic vision of Don Bluth. It all felt familiar. I knew where the artist’s ideas were coming from, which kind of spark was prompting her to put them on paper in that disjointed way.

I knew because I had my own comic ideas, and the were exactly like that. There was a vague overall story but the details and even major plot points were changing all the time. The characters I had in mind were a mishmash of styles and archetypes stitched together from anime, fantasy games and what I wish Western TV cartoons would have been.

Butler’s early works were not deliberate concept art, but snapshots of her evolving story-oriented inner world, taken as she was exploring it and letting it grow freely rather than shaping it in pursuit of a career goal. They are budding imagination seen in the process, with very few filters applied. Nowadays this is among my favorite types of art. I find looking at it as fascinating as watching a young animal move its first steps, and in a way that’s exactly what it is: the product of a still untrained mind learning learning to know itself, its interests and limits, jolting with excitement every time it discovers some new inner working to add to the artist’s developing mental toolbox.

At the core of furry fandom art lies the wish to keep one’s cherished childhood fantasies alive, not frozen in time and locked away, but evolving and growing along. A quote from Van Gogh's letters comes to my mind here:
The best pictures are always those one dreams of when one is smoking a pipe in bed, but which never get done.

But we, I mean we furry artists, we actually escaped that paradox. Artists like Tracy Butler got up from the bed and got those pictures done in all their honest inconsistency.

There are people who notice and appreciate that. I did. I still do.

I suspect that no works involving refined worldbuilding or a consistent storyline will ever nail the feeling of this kind of growing experience, which is also why furry as a genre has a troubled relationship with mainstream tastes. Butler’s early art could never have made it to the mainstream but it is heartily representative of modern furry art.

I’m sure the artist herself is aware of all this. That’s why she doesn’t call Lackadaisy “furry” and doesn’t consider herself a furry artist any more. As mentioned before, I agree. Lackadaisy is a mature and completely self-aware artist’s work and it belongs to a different art world in which the naive qualities of furry art would be out of place. Sometimes an artist’s early ideas can be grown into a consistent story fit for the mainstream world, but in most cases it’s better for them to remain a personal thing - a refuge, an inspiration for things to come. Many artists seem to set them aside completely and keep them as static memories, but being a long time furry artist and knowing how fiercely furry fantasies fight to stay alive I’d be surprised if Butler wasn’t going back to visit her old story world from time to time, still tinkering with details, still discovering new nuances of the characters, still crafting bits of an elusive epic story.

Further links:
Tracy Butler's old art at the Yerf archive

Friday, June 9, 2017

Fur.artwork.erotica finds #3

When I first ventured into furry art I didn't really understand gay male power fantasies, so I couldn't read an image like this at all and I'd just dismiss it as "bad" and "random". Now I can read it quite clearly for what it is though.

The character is a fighter, as shown by the muscular body and reinforced by the scar and bandage which are common symbols of hardiness in fighting anime. Along with the fundoshi this suggest that he is Japanese. The fundoshi is a common element of homoerotic fantasies when Japanese style is involved as it is an exotic piece of clothing which can highlight very well the penis volumes and the male buttocks. The character's species is not clear but he might be a tiger-rat hybrid given the tiger head, the rat tail, the ears textured like a rat's but shaped like a tiger's and the fact his stripes don't extend to the whole body.

The way the character is dressed, half with martial arts implements and half with an exotic bathing outfit, looks nonsensical if evaluated with the same criteria one would apply to a general comic book or cartoon character, but as a juxtaposition of erotic symbols appealing to a male gay audience it makes perfect sense. That kind of evaluation error is common even in the furry fandom itself: evaluation criteria which only make sense for characters and scenes meant for narrative purposes are applied all the time to characters and scenes meant for non-narrative purposes (such as arousal, but also plain self expression). It’s easy to be deceived by the cartoonish style of furry art and therefore take mainstream media such as comics and cartoons as the paragon by which all furry art should be evaluated, not realizing that mainstream art usually follows a different set of conventions for wholly different purposes.

Sometimes the viewer utterly rejects the specific purposes or furry art and thus denies its validity as a form of expression. In such instances there's no room for intellectual discussion. Whatever the final opinion about a piece may be it is dutiful to thoroughly understand its purpose before forming an opinion about it. Anybody willing to criticize furry erotica should be aware of these pitfalls and make sure to understand and accept its premises and goals before making quick comparisons to other types of art.

Photomorphs have always ranked pretty low on the virtual hierarchy of furry art, possibly because they feel too much anchored to reality by the very nature of the photographic medium. Yet I've explored the fine arts world enough to think that a portfolio of a few dozen animal photomorphs like this one could conceivably be presented as a “real” art project and that it wouldn't be too hard to find an art gallery dedicated to lowbrow/bizarre stuff willing to host an exhibit of similar works.

Whether or not it would be liked by the audience is another issue, but I suspect that early furry artists hadn’t even tried to take their work to venues other than the fandom itself or the entertainment industry. (There are some notable exceptions of course.)

A classy humorous drawing with excellent composition and style. The sense of composition along with the head design and the way the hands are drawn suggest that this is the work of a trained artist, probably a cartoonist or animator posting furry art under a pseudonym.

If I had a passion for penises I'd be quite happy to frame this and display it somewhere in the house along with any kind of black and white modernist prints. In fact I suspect that if the author had a famous name this one would stand the test of time better than most modernist drawings.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Yerf finds #1 - Ailah

Yerf was founded in 1996 and was the most prominent furry art site along with the VCL for about ten years before being abandoned due to repeated technical issues and the availability of more modern sites such as Furaffinity. The site's stated goal was to host only the most skilled furry artists and only general audience artwork in order to offer a somewhat professional image of furry art.
In hindsight that was a pretty naive and pretty hypocritical goal, but as the saying goes it looked like a good idea at the time - those were in fact more naive times for the internet and the idea that a single art gallery could serve as a beacon of professionalism for a fandom did seem to make sense. Anyway Yerf actually managed to create a nice social environment for young furry artists who didn't want to be associated with the adult stuff, and there are interesting things to be found in its archives. I have a more complete mirror which contains many images missing from the online archive and I'll be picking image from there too.

I'll start from the artwork of Ailah (aka Platina), the artist who always comes first to my mind when I think of Yerf even though her art is not very representative of what was found on the site.

My favorite works by Ailah are dated about 2002-2003, at the peak of the relatively short lived but influential were community. Few traces of that community are left nowadays even though the most popular artists it fostered such as Goldenwolf and Kyoht still have a loyal following and have set the golden standard for all the following werewolf art. (Actually "skin-changer art" would be a more correct assessment of their place relative to prior art... but that's a topic for another time.)

Ailah's works were indeed exceptional by the standards of the furry community of the time. The blending of human and canine traits in this image is so inspired it still gives me the chills after so many years. The pose is distinctively feral, the canine way of expressing attention with gaze, ears and tail frozen in time like only a person deeply in love with wolves could do. Most were artists used to exaggerate the size and shape of prehensile paws to the point of caricature, but here they are fairly believable. The fur's texture is made more prominent where it most contributes to define a lupine silhouette: neck, shoulders, back and tail. You can tell that the artist would love to meet this creature in real life and have him pose for her. The corny background ruins the effect a bit, which is probably why the artist pulled this drawing from all online archives, but it is also a feat of sincerity since Native American clich├ęs inspired the were community quite a lot.

Here the pose is still feral and similar to that of a resting wolf, but the simplicity of the picture, the lighting, the entranced expression and the prominent blind eye embed the portrait with a solemnity similar to that of a sphinx. The disheveled hair only adds to both the liveliness and mysterious vibe. The forepaws are slim and graceful, hinting at intellect and possibly tension between the human and the animal natures of the werewolf. Here is a wise creature who may give good advice.

While the landscapes in these works may appear somewhat stereotypical they always struck me as full of love and restrained passion. It's probably the combination of muted colors and simple but effective compositions.

Another iconic image, closer to typical fantasy this time, but rest assured you won't find anything like this in current mainstream stuff except for comedy effect. It's simply a rogue wolf with her horse. There's no need to say much more than this really: no person with a functional imagination can remain indifferent in front of such a cue.

These last two images are revealing of Ailah's taste for less-than-obvious details. With such a start it's not surprising that she went on to become a professional illustrator. Her main style has evolved away from furry realism and towards a more mainstream cartoony approach, but it's still full of personality and she still pays uncommon attention to the characteristic visual features of each species. And her love for werewolves still surfaces with all the passion and charm of the early days when given the chance.

Ailah's art at the Yerf Archive