Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week to see the extraordinary show of photographs by Arnold Newman on view there through February 1, 2015 but along the way stopped in to see J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch at the same museum, the current show in a series that has focused on Jewish book illustrators. I'm so glad to have seen this small, imaginatively installed tribute to the ground-breaking illustrations of J. Otto Seibold for his Mr. Lunch series with Vivian Walsh. Mr. Lunch is a small white terrier who had charming adventures in a series of books from the 1990s that, unfortunately, are now out of print. Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride (1993), Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe (1994), and Free Lunch (1996) deserve to find a new audience.

Seibold was among the first children's book illustrators to use a computer to execute his drawings, working on a Macintosh with Illustrator. I bought my first computer (a Macintosh Centris 650) in February 1994. It had a 25 MHz processor. Photoshop at the time was black and white only. I imagine Illustrator was equally crude compared with its current iteration. This is the period the books come from. Seibold was a pioneer. What is extraordinary about his style, however, is the way he achieves a warmth not usually associated with computer-generated imagery. His drawings maintain a very human quality. They don't have a distracting digital look. Despite the early software, they don't look at all crude. They require no apologies whatsoever. His illustrations are distinctive and simply delightful--immediately appealing but also peppered with funny, quirky details that make them a pleasure to pore over. Mr. Lunch and his surroundings owe a greater debt visually to the work of Miroslav Sasek, best known for his series of books about great cities of the world, such as This is San Francisco--a debt Seibold freely acknowledges. Margaret and H. A. Rey (creators of Curious George) are another apparent and freely acknowledged influence. Yet, Mr. Seibold looks like Mr. Seibold.

The installation recreates scenes from some of the books. The entrance to the room is through airport customs, taken from Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride. A plane from the book sits in the middle of the space. On one side of the room is the prison cell Mr. Lunch finds himself in in another adventure (echoing Curious George's incarceration for having inadvertently called out the fire department to quell a non-existent fire). On a back wall, facing outside windows, Mr. Seibold has painted a mural referring to the installation of the show--a new and unique work. The walls otherwise are adorned with prints of illustrations from the books, some paired with original sketches that preceded the digital renderings. Well worth a visit. J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, at 736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415-655-7800) through March 8, 2015.

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