HORRIPILATIONS: THE ART OF J.K.
Picture this, if you can: A bizarrely contorted man with a literal clock face stationed amidst an alien landscape of clouds, weeds and a drained swimming pool. Or try this: A woman with a bulky contraption on her head that shimmers in the manner of a reflection seen in rippling water. Or this: A guy screaming in horror at his own hand, which screams back at him through an open mouth in the palm, complete with lips, teeth and tongue(!). Or the alluring woman whose naked torso ends in a toothy alligator mouth...the boy with a giant toe in place of hair...the garden that sprouts human arms, legs and, in the centers of flowers, eyes.
The above are descriptions of the photographic artwork of J.K. Potter, who creates stunningly hallucinogenic, horrific renderings. Potter’s photographs, ingeniously manipulated via seamlessly incorporated negative exposures, airbrushed graphics and seemingly incongruous images, are quite simply the closest visual representations of true nightmares ever conceived. HORRIPILATIONS was the first-ever book devoted to Potter’s art, and if you ask me it was long overdue.
J.K. Potter is an artist of whom you should all be aware. His work graced the covers and pages of dozens of horror novels throughout the eighties and nineties, with special attention paid to masters of the form like Ramsey Campbell and Dennis Etchison. In this manner I’ve become familiar with Potter’s work over the years; the authors and publishers may differ, but Potter’s artwork, with its unmistakable touchstones, has remained a welcome constant.
Of course, as this book makes clear, Potter has done far more than mere illustrations (although Potter’s commissioned works are still among his most striking). Quite a few “Private Works” are included herein, many featuring the dark-haired performance artist Lydia Lunch (the best of which, entitled “Strange Contemplation”, has Lunch’s bodiless head cupped in a hand attached to a bent arm that ends in a tattooed leg).
From a purely illustrative standpoint HORRIPILATIONS isn’t the best J.K. Potter book on the market--that would be 1996’s NEUROTICA, which contains a more potent selection of Potter masterworks--but it is vital, as, along with an admiring introduction by Stephen King (for whom Potter illustrated a sought-after limited edition of SKELETON CREW) it includes much biographical information you won’t find anywhere else, along with detailed descriptions of Potter’s unique creative process. This is courtesy of text by Nigel Suckling, who interviewed his subject at length.
Apparently the Louisiana-based Potter learned his trade by working as a retoucher for portrait photographers: “I was the guy who magically removed all the poisonous zits from high school yearbook pictures...I straightened ties, smoothed down hair, trimmed the fat from countless chins and even zipped up the mayor’s pants once”. That of course was long before the advent of digital technology, meaning Potter did his work through pencils and dyes--and continued in that vein, creating his surreal masterworks in black-and-white via out-of-date technology (when colors are called for he fills them in by hand).
It’s impossible to tell this from looking at Potter’s pictures, which have a sleek, professional sheen. They’re drafted with a mind-boggling skill that makes it virtually impossible to discern where the photography ends and the airbrushing begins, or vice versa. What ultimately shines through, though, is the sheer conceptual genius; like the finest surreal artists, Potter seemingly has the ability to pluck images from his subconscious direct and unvarnished.
What redeeming value this stuff may have, if any, is pondered at some length toward the end of the book by Suckling. He ultimately decides that Potter’s nightmarish art is therapeutic in its reminder that horror is a shared experience; I’m not sure I entirely agree, but it’s as good an explanation as any as to why we’re drawn to the stuff.
The fact is that if you’re a horror fan of any stripe you owe it to yourself to
gaze upon J.K. Potter’s bold, shivery, darkly beautiful art. You won’t forget
it...no matter how hard you try!