Arts -- So Surreal, So Sublime

hockney poolIf you were an art school student or a designer in the 60s or 70s, you could not escape the phenominal talent that is Guy Billout. His spare and deceptively simple style is instantly recognizable. His illustrations looks so easy but really they are inimitable, though many, many designers and illustrators have tried. To say that he influenced a whole generation of designers would be an understatement.

Born in Decize, France, Billout’s biography is very thin, one can only assume that’s by choice. He is a longtime member of the illustration hockney californiafaculty at Parsons-The New School for Design, and has contributed art to the Atlantic Magazine for many years. Beyond that, you’re on your own. My take is that Billout lets his illustrations do the talking, and if that’s true, we can learn a lot about his personality by studying the artwork.

Of late, much of his work is in the form of children’s books, which I find encouraging because children should be learning about irony as soon as they can, and what better teacher than Billout. His perspective tricks delight plenty of adults, never mind kids. The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea is his latest picture book and it’s typical of his work in that you can totally lose yourself in the witty constructions. Alice the frog wants to get out of the little pond and see the big ocean -- don’t hockney yorkshirewe all?

Every time I see a maze, I think of Billout’s draftsmanlike illustrations where some poor bastard has to try to understand the surrealness of it all, as in why do we need mazes at all. In his book, Number 24, Billout gives us a white mountain with robed man climbing to the top from one side while a figure in a parka approaches the peak from the other side. Snow or sand -- you decide. Another favorite is the New York city of water tanks that appear to be leaking into the streets that are crowded with cruise ships, canoes, kayaks and tour boats. We can see how the water gets down there, but I’ve always wanted to know how they fill those water tanks.

One of Billout’s most popular books was Something’s Not Quite Right, and that premise, along with the deceptive simplicity of the drawings is what makes his work such a pleasure to study and admire.

Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept. He's written a mystery novel, which therefore makes him a pre-published author.

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