Sign up for a free Courant newsletter for a chance to win $100 P.C. Richard gift card

A Chicagoan's take on narrative art

Yes, George Lucas is a fan. But what is narrative art?

George Lucas is busy planning an homage to narrative art on Chicago's lakefront.

Yet I have absolutely no idea what "narrative art" actually is.

So when I spotted a Fast Company piece touting the surreal photographs of former Chicagoan and "narrative artist" Todd Baxter, images billed as Wes Anderson meets Salvador Dali, I called him for an explanation.

Narrative art, Baxter said, is art that follows a story with characters.

"I studied painting and fine art and kind of within the field, narrative art is looked down upon," Baxter, 42, said. "But I wanted to slip narrative into my images, even though a lot of professors found it a kind of inferior kind of thing. So I try to make mine as sophisticated as possible."

Norman Rockwell figures prominently among Lucas' collection. Baxter explained the condescension he still encounters: "The critics say that any proper picture should not tell a story but should be primarily a series of technical problems of light, shadow, proportion, color and voids. I say that if you can tell a story in your picture, and if a reasonable number of people like your work, it is art."

Baxter's photographs are rich in detail.

The backgrounds are troves of existing and fresh images. Some of those details appear real while others are softened, giving away the artifice.

Baxter then photographs costumed central characters in studio before weaving the composition together in Photoshop.

One of his series, called "Owl Scouts," depicts Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts failing at various encounters in the woods with one getting sucked up by a tornado and the other getting eaten by a bear.

A more recent project, first shown at Chicago's Lula Cafe in Logan Square and titled "Project Astoria: Test 01," includes this back story, developed with his wife, Aubrey Videtto:

An amateur astronomer in Astoria, Ill., discovers the "The Astoria System," a dwarf planet and its two moons, in the 1920s. The two moons are found to be habitable; eight are colonized not long after Neil Armstrong walks on Earth's moon.

The photographs pick up the story 15 years later when Earth has all but abandoned the colonization while the first generation of Astorian youth (played by Chicagoans) are ascending into adulthood.

"The images follow the teens as they explore and grow in their decaying world, more familiar to them than Earth could ever be," Baxter said. "The first 14 images mostly focus on the U.S. colony, and with eight different colonies, there's a kind of endless world to explore."

Hmm. An intergalactic fantasy comes to life. That sounds like something Lucas would appreciate.

mmharris@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @chiconfidential

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
16°