Written by Atorina Saliba / Image by Esao Andrews
What happens when you look at a painting by Eugene Delacroix? You notice the canvases are grand. And the subject matter tends to be portrayed with intensity. For Delacroix, inspiration came from writers like Shakespeare and Byron. Conjured with paint is rapid movement, intensifying the more one holds it in their sights. The action of expressive brushstrokes can be read like lines of poetry. But what ensnares viewers is Delacroix’s mastery of colour. Strokes of complementary colours give radiant shades to a revolution, from the warm tones of the desert to the soft pastel portraits of farm girls.
Colour remains as one of the crucial and exciting elements of a painting. Delacroix invented the technique of ‘flochetage’, the method of brushstrokes of closely related colours, interwoven and blended so that they enhance one another rather than cancel each other out. Without knowing this technique, one can agree that the pigments are lush and bright. They dazzle the eye. Vincent van Gogh was a fan of this method of painting. The bright yellows and deep inky blues contrast and beam off the canvas in Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888).
The masters’ teachings are readily available for those who strive for excellence in their field by making themselves a pupil of history, rather than just a school of visual arts. Among the ranks of the masters of colour, Salvador Dali, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Peter Paul Rubens, and J.M.W. Turner stand with Delacroix and van Gogh. Japanese-American artist Esao Andrews takes note of these masters and creates a body of work that would most likely inspire them.
Andrews goes beyond using primary and secondary colours, blending various shades with superb skill, leading us at Golem Quarterly Review to believe he is a modern master of colour. Andrews’s creative endeavour has expanded from dazzling canvases and sketchbooks to designing skateboards, album covers, and pictures for Vertigo Comics. While his medium varies, the commonality remains to be colour.
It would be an unfortunate thing to lump Andrews’s name with the trash that emerges from contemporary art. The art world is dominated by an army of talentless, sheltered cowards too thick to delve into their own souls let alone a tube of paint. Their pseudo-expressions taint the eye of the audience as it has tainted the artist themselves by bullshitting their way into a gallery, or worse, to sell a work. These people lack technique, discipline, and, above all, taste.
The Vanguard of Colour
Whether intentional or not, Andrews’s work nods at many of the greats in art. Across moody canvases that evoke scenes of surrealism and the gothic, Andrews treats colour with the same reverence Vincent van Gogh and Eugene Delacroix did.
We see this in the sunset-coloured flowers blinding the long-haired mountain goat of Black Eyed Susie (2015), and in the contrast of greens and yellows with reds, purples, browns in Wino II (2020). Andrews can make a green upholstered couch resemble an emerald ring cut by the finest jewelers in The Wig (2017). In Caesar (2017), a long-haired canine with icy blue eyes looks ghostly, with his fur in shades of ivory, cobalt, and indigo against floral wallpaper. There’s the surreal mysticism in The Arrival (2014), where hot air balloons drip in various shades that evoke the fields of Auvers Vincent van Gogh painted centuries earlier. Pearl of the Badlands (2018) towers the canvas in colour and structure much in the same as The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1946) by Salvador Dalí. Even darkness contains shades other than flat black. Desert Chimera (2019) boasts streaks of silver, ivory, various red, blue, and green hues, while remaining haunting as Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) stirs sheer terror in sheets of rich blood red.
Vegan Cult Leader (2017) embodies the same colourful, surrealistic elements as the work of the Spanish artist. An explosion of bright colours on a pastel pale backdrop resembles the dream-drifting, long-legged animals in the background of The Temptation of Saint Anthony and towering figures knee-deep in seawater in Tuna Fishing (1967). The vegan cult leader, a creature of unknown origins – is it a mutated bird? – roams the misty-grey landscape. Andrews scarcely reveals the landscape, save for the cluster of black flowers spotting the grey. The cult leader is a smorgasbord of colour waiting to burst out of the canvas while dark crows flutter across its path. Or perhaps they avariciously circle the moving feast below. Bunched in its hand are lettuce leaves. Over its shoulder is a cornucopia to appeal to the crows. Its destination is unknown, perhaps it’s off to feed its clan.
Girl in a Bottle
Take a look at Rue (2015). Take a long look. It’s a peculiar image of a girl stuck in a bottle. The painting raises a few questions. First and foremost, on the tip of the tongue is ‘How did she fit into there?’ Perhaps this is a question for an overzealous fan to answer in a story inspired by the painting. Until then, all we can do is examine the painting.
The titular character wears a dress of various shades of pink: ranging from specks of fuchsia to strokes of peach. These hues mingle with touches of indigo blue. The dress even contains a delightful detail of strawberries in bright blood red. The costume alone in Rue resembles Claude Monet’s series of water lilies.
Rue, too, stands against a backdrop of blue, though instead of water it is the inky night sky. The glass bottle Rue stands in (the shape of a wine bottle, cylindrical body with a thin neck) is coloured in a mix of yellow, gold, brown, white highlights, and, at the base of the glass, various warm shades of red. In the foreground, rust-specked green vines, and dark green and black trees flank the bottle. White dots prick the night sky.
These paintings not only evoke masters of visual art but also master storytellers. Within the world of the canvas, there are hundreds upon thousands of brushstrokes that can be translated into hundreds upon thousands of words.
Andrews’s artworks range from surrealistic to realism, and somewhere in the middle, he dabbles in magic realism. If we could equate him to a novelist (and we will) he would best resemble the enigmatic worlds of British author Neil Gaiman.
There are scenes Andrews creates that strike the mood of a good Gaiman book (of which there are many). It’s hard not to believe Petrichor (Neighbourhood) (2019) to be a scene out of Stardust, with the stacks of houses varying in sea blue, eggshell white, indigo, magenta, peach, Prussian blue, cream, candy pink, and the flick of yellow adding light to the occupants residing within. More detail appears in the stream of grey-white smoke that flows from the chimneys, from the people peeking through the windows, and the figure that is towered by the man-made landscape: the mysterious traveller upon his horse. It’s characters such as this that has us thinking of Gaiman’s work.
Gaiman’s stories not only have amazing settings but strange and surreal characters that roam these lands – from the sky-soaring pirates of Stardust and the mythological overlords of American Gods (2001) to the mystical creatures in Sandman (1989). There too are characters that occupy the space of the canvas that can be found within books. Andrews’s characters are a hybrid; his heroines striking (Perched Athena (2019)), his monsters terrifying (Harpi (2014)), much like Gaiman’s.
The Range (2019) shows a cart stacked to the sky with grass, flowers, barrels, a birdcage, and a girl in an azure dress. There’s a clothesline. A vanity table complete with a vase of flowers. There are bottles buried in the deep in the grass. There’s a second figure, grey hair cascading over their face, strumming a stringed instrument; they’re positioned against the kaleidoscopic colours familiar in Andrews’s hot air balloons. All this moving down the dirt road towards an unknown destination and pulled by a lonely horse that looks to be travelling at snail speed. The scene evokes American Western paintings. In the distance, mountains tower over the road that streams like a river through the valley. The earth in the foreground is a ruddy red, and bright green plants that resemble mutant aloe vera, stand on either side of the passing cart.
Before being pigeonholed, Andrews dabbles into the world of realism. The detailed, unembellished depiction of women is the closest Andrews will get to realism – seen in Brooke (2017) and Kelly (2016). These realist portraits evoke Hugh Ramsay’s Untitled (Seated Girl) (1898). But colours still find their way into the world. As much as the paintings are a tribute to Ramsay, muted tones are captured mid-process of seeping into Andrews’s canvases, like a hit of acid kicking in suddenly, and you’re trying to ignore the effects.
Then there are the portraits of animals, exquisite studies fit for the walls of kings. In Neville (2018) a French Bulldog’s pose resembles that of the seductress of Edward Manet’s Olympia (1863). Like Manet, Andrews goes beyond the flatness of the world and dabs colour into every limb and corner of the canvas. From the gaudy purple wallpaper to the orange-brown floor, to the white and brown-patched canine posing, back paw jutting out, the front paw steadying himself as Andrews captures with his paintbrush what the eye’s iris captures.
After so much colour and deft skill applied to these canvases, referring to a banana peel taped to a wall as art is a hard pill to swallow. Impossible even. Nowadays, the spotlight is wasted on empty, cynical gestures. There isn’t enough focus on colour, on quality, on hard work. Handfuls of artists over the century have been weary of poor form. From an extract, Delacroix wrote in a letter: “Sterility is not only a tragedy for art, it is also a stain on the artist’s talent. Any work from a man who is not prolific necessarily bears the stamp of tiredness. One can only hope to have followers if one offers, as a model, large and numerous paintings.” Esao Andrews' art is of the prolific kind. His sincerity is revealed in the brushstrokes. This is a modern artist who dedicates his time to his work, who takes his audience seriously and doesn’t try to swindle them. In time, he may stand among the ranks of Delacroix, van Gogh, Dali: the masters of colour. For now, we applaud him.