Commercial artists walk a tightrope between meeting the expectations of a client and dancing with the muse. The best illustrator does both well. Indianapolis illustrator Rob Day, born in Rochester, Ind., and raised in Carmel, has achieved the kind of recognition in this regard that would precipitate a move to where the action is — that is to say, New York City. But Day has stayed put, creating mostly portrait illustrations for the likes of Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated and GQ, to name a few.
An exhibition of Day’s illustrations, entitled Illustration/Narrative, on view at the Indianapolis Art Center, is a thorough sampling of Day’s commercial efforts aimed mostly at the magazine and book literate. His book cover illustrations (Alias Shakespeare, A Century of Spies, From West to East, The Science of God), displayed in a case alongside his framed illustrations, betray an intellectual depth and a knack for the conceptual.
Portraits have treated figures as diverse as Jesus Christ, junk bond king Michael Milken, Frank Sinatra (haloed and holding a drink and a smoke), a grinning Don King and wide-eyed feral cats — his illustration for the IndyFeral calendar (2006, oil on paper/digital illustration) is near perfect, down to the tipped ears — with a tendency towards giving his subjects a timelessness through various manipulative techniques.
Day’s portrait of David Lynch (1996, oil on paper) in younger years is almost iconic: Lynch glances at the viewer with that thoughtful brow puzzling over his latest oddity, crisp white shirt buttoned to the top, while the background suggests his film contributions: receding hills of pine trees, an owl perched on a branch, smokestacks and a dark clown with an axe and a rooster.
Contrast this with “Portrait of Barenaked Ladies” (1999, oil on paper) — the five male members of the band transformed as their band name suggests, smiling less than self-consciously in their transgendered birthday suits — and we have a sense of Day’s scope within a distinctive, and recognizable, style of his own. I can’t help but recall the work of Fernando Botero, a neo-figurative Columbian artist who delighted in the robust female nude, and, incidentally, began his career as an illustrator.
In one of Day’s untitled illustrations, he pulls together elements of portraiture and a Giorgio de Chirico flair for the surreal: a one-eyed woman strikes a Mona Lisa posture, holding a single sunflower, while a bluish cat stares into the viewer with golden eyes. In the background a deepening blue sky suggests a saturated dusk and a crimson curtain is pulled to one side. One can’t say what generated this image — perhaps an assignment that ultimately took another direction, or just the fancy of the artist — but no matter: Day delights with his precision and creative interpretation.
While Day’s illustrations are all on a modest scale, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he were to get hold of a large canvas without the strictures of an assignment. His talent is certainly not wasted in the commercial world, but there’s plenty of it to go around.
Illustration/Narrative by Rob Day is on view at the Indianapolis Art Center, 820 E. 67th St., through July 22. Call 317-255-2464 for more information.