Since encountering those flip-books from the bins in the kindergarten classroom, I've always had a soft spot for mix-and-match monsters. Surely you know the ones: sectioned like three-piece barn doors, the upper section bears images of various animal heads; the middle, torsos; the bottom one, legs. Flip to different pages in each section and a new abomination unto Nature is born! Hours of fun! (Or at least the relative equivalent, given a four-year-old's attention span as the frame of reference.) Yes, ever since those ridiculous volumes I've thought on monstrous hybrids with something of a fond and covetous smile. In light of this, I suppose I'm predisposed to adore the work of Nicholas Di Genova, but bias be damned, this guy is a real monster-drawing pro.
Born in Belleville, Ontario, Nicholas Di Genova is a young up-and-coming sort now living and working in Toronto. Educated at OCAD, he pays homage to golden age comic books, dangles his roots in street art and boasts a solid list of gallery exhibitions both in Toronto and internationally. He has published three books of fantastic drawings, Wunderkammer No 1 being the most recent, and the most likely to fit inside your toaster. (Not that I'm suggesting you try anything of the sort—in truth, I urge you not to!) Wunderkammer No 1 is an itty-bitty, unassuming book measuring 5.75" x 7.75" and clocks in at a slim 24 pages long. Inside, its illustrious pages bear a concise selection of Di Genova's black and white drawings from 2008 and 2009. It is the first in an intended series of WunderKammer booklets.
Di Genova first garnered critical attention back in the early 2000s with his post-apocalyptic visions of mecha-animal hybrid armies duking it out over absurdly round, green hills and pink cartoon clouds, all masterfully drafted in ink and animation paint on mylar. These were couched within an absurd epic narrative of comic-book-grade evolution and land vs sea creature battles over the newly green Earth. It all very much sounds like a selection of ancient creation and apocalypse myths thrown in a blender with a hearty serving of Transformers memorabilia and an old Hard-Boiled Detective comic or two. Splendid, if simple-minded work.
Lately, Di Genova appears to have shucked the narrative to focus on increasingly organic hybrid creatures. His colour work, while not always eschewing the silly landscapes of earlier work, nonetheless situates the peculiar creatures against less obtrusive backgrounds. In black and white, Di Genova's monsters float against the white of the page; a fertile departure that opens up the conceptual environment and allows room for more complex ideas to play. While I do adore Di Genova's delicate handling of colour, WunderKammer No 1 is no weaker for lacking it. The very starkness of these line drawings is striking.
Now, when I called these drawings fantastic back there, I wasn't just being enthusiastic. I meant fantastic according to just about all the dictionary definitions of the word. The work takes imaginative leaps well away from the grounds of reality; they are bizarre, grotesque and their method of construction is a touch eccentric (but more on that aspect later). The fantastical, organic nature of Di Genova's WunderKammer creatures draws them into conversation with the realm of myth, where composite monsters, such as Chimaera (whose name has become the umbrella term for this class of creature) are legion. And this engagement with myth and fantasy mates very well with the book's title and format.
Wunderkammer is literally German for "wonder chamber." Around the sixteenth century, Wunderkammern came into their prime. They were rooms in which the rich and powerful stored and displayed all manner of curiosities, everything from items of antiquity to works of art, artifacts of far-off cultures, and interesting specimens—both real and fabricated—of "natural history." The Wunderkammer was, arguably, the batty grandparent of the modern day museum. Displays in Natural History museums of great arrays of butterflies or birds or insects all make a yearly pilgrimage to place flowers on the Wunderkammer's grave (or they would were they anthropomorphized). But the chamber of wonders dates back well before Darwin was a half-fleck in his mum's fallopian tubes. Back then, collectors arranged their stuffed specimens and skeletal fragments however they saw fit—as does Di Genova. His WunderKammer is a smorgasbord of taxonomical illustrations, ignoring the distinctions between plant and animal, and lining-up images according to very non-evolutionary logic. At the center of WunderKammer No 1 is a two-page spread of butterflies. 702 unique butterflies, all unnamed, many probably fictional, that fill the pages in a grid, the only detectable purpose to see how they look when thrown in all at once and so close together. It is a very Wunderkammer-like collection. On other pages, animals and plants are placed next to each other according to a logic of physical similarity. A frog's open mouth becomes a flower with an elaborate stamen on either side: a grid of frogs' heads and a grid of flowers. On one page, Di Genova places a bear's head next to the head of a bat, next to the head of an ape, all with mouths gaping wide. Next to each other in this way, their physiological similarities come to the fore, and they seem to be jokingly illustrating a very peculiar kind of bogus evolutionary chain—as if to prove that the black bear is the ancestor of the ape. On another page, the faces of various rodents are mixed in with bats and felines. Mixed in this way the predator-prey hierarchy is ignored; order, species, and genus are ignored; logic is ignored, and the viewer is left to muse on the mostly formal similarities and differences in these animal drawings.
While I'm on the subject of evolution, let me return to the word Chimaera. This term refers not only to a kind of fantasy creature, but is also the term for (warning: over-simplified layman explanation!) a kind of genetic hybrid, where an organism has DNA from two or more different embryos or organisms. It is something of a playground for modern science. So far I've been discussing WunderKammer No 1 in historical terms, but consider the Chimaera in all its forms, and Di Genova's menagerie takes on sci-fi connotations that are both humorous and troubling.
Di Genova's style of drawing is a peculiar fusion of realism and geometry. His tools are dip pens and the occasional felt-tip. He draws diagrammatically, describing volume in terms of small planes that connect and oppose each other through direction in shading. Nearly all shading is accomplished via thin rectangular sections, filled with fine, cramped hatching. As if that weren't time-consuming and carpal-tunnel-inducing enough, he stipples. This here is what I call a myopic approach to drawing.
Minute detail is privileged over the sweep of the whole form. The result is an incorrigible flatness, and an awkward lilt that's under strict control, as if wearing a suit a few sizes too small. Details add up to a whole that looks weirdly flat, mechanical, diagrammatic, and more often than not, a little awkward. And I really like it. There is a slightly stoned naivete to these drawings that I find endearing, and the awkwardness is itself visually interesting.
My favourite pages concern birds. Di Genova's approach is well suited their sharp and brittle angularity. Also, they do not have teeth. If I am to have one small criticism, it is that his method for drawing teeth is far better suited to his colour images than to black and white. Sometimes it works well enough, but more often than not I find these teeth distracting. These teeth are too deliberate, they ignore too much the natural shape in favour of the idea of a tooth. Dogs and bears and bats with wide open mouths appear to have antacid tablets and uncoated vitamin supplements instead of teeth. Yes, I am nit-picking, but that is one aspect that consistently throws me off, and I expect better from someone with an otherwise astute formal sensitivity.
To tie-off my analysis, I have one final observation: there is a little bear with cloven hooves and a snare drum!
I look forward to future WunderKammer numbers.
WunderKammer No 1 is published by Koyama Press. You can pick up a copy for $8 plus shipping from Di Genova's site, or from Magic Pony. Or, if you're in Toronto, you can save yourself the cost of shipping and pick up a copy at the storefront location of Magic Pony at 694 Queen St. West.