Monday, August 31, 2009

The Sweetly Diabolic Art of Flora

The Sweetly Diabolic Art of Jim Flora
By Irwin Chusid & Barbara Economon
Fantagraphics Books

There is something quintessentially American about Jim Flora’s artistic career. Though academically trained in fine art, he excelled in the corporate world, producing commercial art as both a salaried staffer and a consistently in-demand freelancer. In fact, some of his best loved images graced the jackets of Columbia and RCA records, particularly their jazz releases. Irwin Chusid and Barbara Economon have taken on the challenge of cataloguing the known Flora oeuvre and sleuthing out previously unidentified Floriana. Their efforts resulted in three collections of Flora’s slyly humorous and subtly macabre art, including the recently published The Sweetly Diabolic Art of Jim Flora.

Jazz collectors were indeed early Flora fans, not only for his record label work, but for the syncopated rhythmic sensibility of his intricately composed canvases and woodcuts. Of course, Flora produced work on scores of subjects, like the many scientifically themed illustrations produced during his short stint as art director for the long defunct Research & Engineering journal, many of which are reprinted in Diabolic for the first time since their initial 1950’s publication. While Flora’s art retains its whimsical charm, R&E's accompanying text sounds very much like a product of its time. However, the art he produced for Look Magazine’s “Who Needs Tax Relief Most?” featuring a fanged 1040 monster chasing a taxpayer seems even timelier today than when first published in 1955.

While Flora has always attracted an enthusiastic following, including graphic artists influenced by his work (like J.D. King), 2009 might well be Flora’s breakout year, with AMC’s Mad Men bringing 1950’s Madison Avenue chic back into vogue. After all, it was Flora (along with his imitators) who greatly shaped the style of commercial art throughout the 1950’s. (Also, as 2012 approaches, doomsday cranks might be attracted to his late career acrylic “Quetzlcoatl Returns.”)

Still, many Flora fans will always be most interested in his musical work, so they will be happy to learn Chusid and Economon found more gold to mine in his Columbia files. In Diabolic, they focus on his illustrations for Coda, a predominantly classical newsletter produced for record stores and the Columbia sales reps. At times, Flora’s images echo Dali, creating surreal landscapes where giant violins and conga drums dwarf abstract human figures.

Chusid and Economon once again prove to be wise stewards of the Flora archives. Diabolic reveals many largely unknown aspects of his work, but also fruitfully revisits his classic Columbia-era work. Thanks to the quality of the reproductions and design of the book itself, the vitality of Flora’s art comes through on each page. An effective introduction to Flora’s art and a satisfying crowd-pleaser for his established fans, Diabolic is another richly entertaining treasury of Flora’s “baroque and subversive” art.