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Shadow Maker: The Digital Art of David Ho
by David Ho
(Abaya Studios, $34.95, 192 pages, paperback; January 2002.)

David Ho creates dark digital art with cover scanirony. Pieces expressing grief, despair, isolation and sexual disturbance become highly emotional statements in cold, metallic colours on the artist's Macintosh easel. And each is forceful. Within the various software he has chosen for his pallet, Mr Ho is a uniquely effective communicator of the grotesque.

In Shadow Maker: The Digital Art of David Ho we are presented with approximately 190 pages of the artist's work, "ten years of my life" as he advises in his preface. I would be hard-pressed to differentiate between his seminal work and his more recent pieces, but that is not a criticism; rather, this collection has a certain unified feel to it. It is consistent in style and subject. Chances are there will be a naked torso somewhere in the piece you are viewing in this book, and chances are it will be female. (Male torsos, when shown, are without penises; phalluses are usually presented elsewhere in representational form.) The piece will be in a dull metallic shade, most likely an industrial brown or grey. It will be a surrealistic illustration set in a timeless, otherworldly place. You will think at first you are looking at a painting of a sculpture, such is the depth of Mr Ho's work. And it will be dark in setting as well as in mood, with the subject in shadow, that being of the artist's imagination. Hence the book's title.

The book contains two separate galleries. The first is the essential "Gallery One: Mind Trip". It begins with a series of faceless female torsos in various abstract dreamscapes. Communion places the torso between a net and a wall, gold key in hand, with a black keyhole visible slightly above and to the left of the right breast, a metallic fishhead hanging to the torso's left, spewing starfish from its mouth. Nature vs. Nurture (Contemplations 11) shows the torso from behind, in sitting position, with a fruit tree growing from its neck in place of a head, a nick cut from its trunk.

The illustrations grow more intriguing as we venture on. In a three-piece subsection titled The Commitment, Mr Ho presents the agony he experiences when the responsibilities of everyday life challenge the burden he bears in his need to express his artistic visions -- shackles, chains, fires of creativity and globes of wisdom are present within. (There is much guilt in this young man. I gather that he hasn't yet reconciled his career as an artist with the old-fashioned notion of "an honest day's work" most likely infused in him by his parents. He states the two things one cannot change are parentage and death, a revealing coupling.)

Much Freudian self-examination resides in "Gallery One", ranging in intensity and fascination. One will be reminded repeatedly of the "Rebirth" scene in The Matrix or, closer to home, several videos of the rock band Tool (artwork by illustrator Cam De Leon and sculptor/film artist Chet Zar) while perusing this section.

The second grouping, "Gallery Two: Postcards from Hell", is the artist's interpretation of Dante's Inferno, complete with imaginative, computerized concepts. On first examination, one might think this gallery to be a continuation of the first, but it clearly is not. The most compelling work in the volume, it plunges us into depths of hopelessness and despair unreached in the first section. Representative examples include Ship of Fools, featuring a naked-skulled oarsman lording triumphantly over a row of pot-bellied souls with heads bowed, expressionless; Eternal Tomb, in which a smoky, de-limbed cadaverous spirit hovers over a sarcophagus filled with molten blood as its arms and legs drop toward it; The Suicidals, which revisits Mr Ho's concept of the human form as the trunk of a tree, this time more grotesque than in the first section; Mutated Soul, expressing the artist's disdain for those who lust after mammon; and Figure in Feces, which needs no explanation -- trust me.

Between the two galleries is a misplaced six-page explanation of the process. In "Technique" Mr Ho shows us, step-by-step, how he created his piece Missing Link (Contemplations 3). The technical information included here would have been better suited to an appendix, rather than placed between his galleries.

By way of written accompaniment to most of his illustrations, Mr Ho wants us to understand his precise motivations, opinions and, in some cases, interpretations. Here is where he runs into difficulty. First of all, he does not write well. I imagine he writes as he speaks. ("A few months later, I also have the downfall of dot com companies and NASDAQ to thank." "This piece ponders the question.") He is clearly in need of an editor. Then, some of his statements are extremely trite for a creator of such deep artwork. ("I contemplate death a lot because it takes everything and everyone we know away from us.") And, finally, Mr Ho tends to tell us too much. He tries, on occasion, to do our work as viewers for us. I wanted to tell him at times to shut up and let me appreciate and interpret his work on my own. This narcissism is present throughout the book; it is intricate to the wonder of the artwork, but it becomes a detraction as explanatory verbiage. The titles of the pieces serve as adequate "illumination" on their own.

And ... While this collection is worthy of consideration as a top-shelf example of the direction in which digital illustration is headed in this decade, there is an unfortunate irony involved with the book itself. The prints within are presented on high-quality vellum, yet they are "protected" by an easily creasable, moderately thick soft cover. (Indeed, the reviewer's copy I received arrived with a crease in the lower right corner of every one of the book's pages as well as the cover itself.) Soft-cover books are not created for endurance, and yet the very importance of Mr Ho's work in the field of digital art certainly merits a hardcover edition. However, assuming that he had a controlling influence over the final product, this may have as much a reflection of Mr Ho's generational values (he is thirty-two) -- treating most commodities as disposable -- as it was a budgetary or aesthetic decision by the book's producer.

These minor complaints aside, it's what's between the covers that counts; and therefore I can enthusiastically recommend this collection to all who would dare travel to the darkest reaches of the human soul, where painful emotion becomes grotesque, tortured illustration. Shadow Maker: The Digital Art of David Ho is well worth the trip.

Review by Randy M Dannenfelser.

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© Randy M Dannenfelser 11 May 2002