On Noir, the artist Peter Illig, interviewed by Vicki Gundrum


painting P. Illig, ‘Tyranny of the Modern’

*Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I grew up in a small town in Western NY State, outside Buffalo NY.  My father was a fairly well-known artist there; his work was very traditional scenery paintings. I had no interest at the time to become an artist, but I was always working with my hands and making things.  Later, I decided I wanted to be a teacher, and art seemed like a great subject to teach, so I delved into it seriously in high school and college.

I had a fairly happy, stable childhood. Our family lived very modestly; there wasn’t a lot of money so we made our own fun, and we did have great family road trip vacations.    I watched a lot of movies on TV.

*What were some of your earliest exposures to noir art—whether in films, literature, or images?

Black and white movies watched on television on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or late at night.   Our (purchased used) TVs were always B&W, so we saw it that way whether the movie was color or not. Most were American films from 1930s, 40s, and 50s; some were dubbed European films.

My brother and I were given stacks of old comic books and I loved poring through them. A wide variety: murder mysteries, ‘weird tales’, silly cartoons, super heroes, and “literature” in graphic-novel form.

I read a lot when a kid, but almost never mystery novels, mainly “boys’ adventure” genre, war history, and (believe it or not), books on psychology.

*Why are you drawn to classic noir imagery?

There’s the style, and my love of vintage images, but much more than that.  The heightened drama of the relationship between men and women is the key point of Noir, for me.  They are stories of intrigue, danger, eroticism, and some powerful, dark, and important human emotions, exaggerated and emphasized for literary impact.

I’m also interested in the possibility that distinctly American images from decades past can still have currency in the 21st century, and on a global reach. Are they so iconic that people of several generations and nationalities can understand them? Like Jazz music, can it ‘reach’ people everywhere, and have meaning to them?  This is on the semiotic level, where images carry universal meanings, through the spread of American culture.

Black and white photography (and my B&W drawings and paintings) have a certain ‘documentary’ quality, the appearance of the real, the ‘ring of truth.’ Color feels like more of a fantasy and an often unnecessary distraction. I studied film, including German films from directors like Wim Wenders.

*You’ve mentioned that your paintings are “visual narratives.” Can you tell us more about that? Could you explain your noir pieces in terms of visual noir as noir fans are accustomed to the narratives in film and in literature?

My paintings are about those things (crisis, danger, sexuality, unclear motives, mystery) as well, and work on several levels. There’s the immediate visual aspect, where the drawn or painted images are recognizable (not abstract or distorted) and the viewer relates right away. Now the viewer is looking closer and sees relationships between several juxtaposed or layered images: figures, objects, art history, and places.

A narrative begins to emerge, ambiguous but unavoidable. Questions form, “what’s going on here?”  “who are these people?”  “what just happened?”  There are emotional implications to the combinations of images: crime, danger, crisis, sexual desire, dreams, psychology.

Next, and on a deeper level, the images can be viewed as metaphors for relationships between men and women, our darker unconscious motives, for the heroic and dramatic in everyday life and urban experience, and our searches for meaning.

For example, an image taken from a 1950s noir paperback cover illustration may suggest a fictional murder mystery, but isn’t our world full of actual mysteries, and unsolvable questions about existence?  We ask ourselves questions about our  purpose, our partners, love, our creativity, pondering what is real, the meanings of our dreams. So it’s ALL crisis and desire and mystery; noir is just a short-hand name for our “mystery of existence”.

*Many of your pieces juxtapose elements that force a conversation or comparison of these components. What inspires your content choices and how you present them within a painting? What do you hope such a presentation provokes in the observer and in you as the artist?

I look for provocative images, pictures I borrow from all aspects of culture: films, TV, commercial illustration (mostly vintage 20th century),  art history, magazines, the internet, paperbacks, advertising, and photos I take.  When you put two images together, three interpretations are created immediately: each image has its own meaning but also now the third – the relationship and implied narrative between the two. The images are metaphors for other things, things not actually present (the ‘mystery’ again). Now add another image, new interrelating, overlapping and blending, and it gets more complicated; several images, and the meanings are complex, blurred, distorted, contingent, incongruous, and very, very ambivalent.  At this point the viewer will spin off into his or her own associations and meanings, and their interpretations will vary wildly.  There will hopefully be a reaction, and strong emotions felt, and some truths made known, about art, and more importantly, about themselves.

*The images within a painting, or the scenes within a painting, are familiar to us, they “represent”—both as realistic renderings and in the prideful way contemporary noir-ish street soldiers do for their own gloomy neighborhoods and lives. Yet none of these paintings are realistic re-creations of a life—or even of a glimpsed film or pin-up model. What are you up to here?

Many images i use are borrowed from art history or fiction. So right away, they are not ‘re-creations of life’. They can have a surreal quality, taken out of their original context, and are now imbued with my new meanings. For me, they now represent emotions and inspire various emotions in the viewer.  Sometimes just the ‘strangeness’ is enough, evoking feelings of confusion and fear, much like a David Lynch film.

Not everything I draw and paint has these meanings; I also work with dreams, sci-fi, and the implications of technology. Some of my pieces are even light-hearted.

Do you fear the image components within your paintings? Do you agree with photographer Todd Hido who adheres to the idea that “sources of terror in childhood often become sources of attraction in adulthood”?

That’s a very interesting and complex question, and contains the makings of a Pulitzer novel. I have looked at Jungian analysis and I am aware of my ‘shadow side’. The shadow runs strong in noir, both figuratively and literally, as we know.  The darker motives that are the true engine of our choices and actions.

If I was fearful of anything in childhood, it was the sophistication of the world. Both fearful and attracted.  Years later, I wanted to shake off my simple, small-town, homespun values and become “worldly”. My paintings could be called worldly and urbane; they are certainly not insular or private.  We are fascinated most by what we don’t know.

Your paintings recreate images in film noir from the 1940s and 1950s. The imagery portends immorality and bad endings. Why do people savor such images and the stories they suggest? 

I paint beautiful women that drive men to sin and madness, material things that represent lust for power, interiors that may be the interior of the mind, women with guns that are much more than femme fatales, but must be observed with caution, not passive objects of the ‘male gaze’.  I also include the unexpected, the irrational,  the anti-typical, the odd perspective, the transgressive and dangerous.  Sex makes people crazy – you see the news stories all the time. The fascination people have with crimes is because they want to commit them, but fear being caught, and the consequences.   I, and my viewers, want to understand the dark side.

 *The femme fatale, black and white/night and shade, weapons, drugs and alcohol, doom and danger, cigarettes—classic noir continues to circle these same elements without their losing power. How is that possible? 

I suppose that after 100 years of the influences of popular culture, these things are still viewed as having power. Some of the things you have listed are more specific to an era, while others are archetypical, universal, timeless, even Biblical (!).

Some behavioral psychologist, I don’t know who, got advertising theorists to conclude that the way to get attention from people, at least visually, is to show “food, sex, and danger.”  Noir has at least two of those.  Noir may be a partial expression of the ‘old brain’, the primitive consciousness, looking out for danger, needing to eat (or drink whisky), and pulled by the lure of sex.

Formally, the idea of light and shadow, as found in the chiaroscuro of Baroque paintings, or in dramatic illustration from book covers or pulp fiction, has an emotional quality that is undeniable.  The hidden, mysterious, dark side draws more concerned attention than what is illuminated and obvious.  We insert our own thoughts and fears into the dark void, much like a blurred, unfinished portrait painting, when viewed, becomes complete in our mind, according to our own predilections and impulses.  The purely abstract painting begins to look like a landscape, the Rorschach inkblot becomes the hidden monster, the stain on the wall becomes a face in profile, the reflection in water suggests our own troubled mind, etc etc etc.

The German Expressionist film-makers knew this well, and their techniques hugely influenced film noir.

*What artists have influenced your work

Here’s just a few:  James Rosenquist, Edward Hopper, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Mark Tansey, Caravaggio, Cezanne, Picasso, Jerome Witkin. The photographers WeeGee and Garry Winogrand. Illustrators Robert Maguire, Norman Saunders, H.J. Ward.  Writers: Vladimir Nabakov – “Lolita”, John Updike, Umberto Eco, art critic Arthur Danto.

*What continues to inspire you to work with the imagery of noir?  

As long as I can mine the past, and find images that hold importance for me, I’ll search for new provocative material like this.  Right now, I’m drawing on a woman’s body, she is my collaborator. I’m attracted to the implied meanings of images that heighten and spotlight the sexual differences between men and women, that have a feeling of crisis and mystery.  Ambiguous images with multiple interpretations, shady borders and elusive, sliding meanings. Dangerous women, the edges of urban areas, crime evidence, roads into the distance.  It’s a psychological need, a search for personal meanings in the signs of culture.

Peter Illig 

Dec 2012



About Peter Illig

Artist peterillig.com
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