Peter Mohrbacher works as a concept artist, illustrator, and Art Lead for projects such as Magic: The Gathering and Dragons of Atlantis. His art has been featured in Spectrum annuals 18, 19, and 20. He lives in San Francisco. His website is www.vandalhigh.com.
One of the most striking things about your work is that, although it almost always features a humanoid figure, the figure’s face is almost always hidden. Even with some figures where the face is visible, the eyes are covered or simply absent, like in many of H.R. Giger’s creations. It is clear from several of your works that you are able to render beautiful faces. So why are faces and eyes so often hidden or deleted? Is it because they contain the most emotional information and you wish to convey a sense of dread by withholding that information?
This missing face gag started with my Angelarium series. The fiction behind it is based loosely on Christian mythology, but most of it comes from my own interpretation.
When I was thinking about drawing angels, I wanted to think about the way that they were different from people. My understanding is that the foremost sin in Christianity is “pride,” so for the most pious creatures in heaven, I imagined that they would have literally no ego. They would exist totally without a sense of self. Hence the distinct lack of a face.
The fallen angels in the series have suffered the sin of pride and formed faces for themselves, but have also grown ashamed of that fact, so they hide them whenever possible. That’s the primary way to distinguish between a divine angel and a fallen one in my world.
What is the relationship between your work and your dreams while sleeping? Do you ever get ideas for images directly from dreams?
I’ve heard stories of some famous artists that draw from their dreams for inspiration. There was a story about how Salvador Dalí would sit in front of a canvas while holding a spoon over a tin plate, so that when he fell asleep, the clatter of it falling would wake him up with his canvas at the ready. Personally, I don’t buy it.
Dreams are interesting to the dreamer. But anyone who has listened to another person recite an involved dream knows that the images and experiences we have in our sleep are only exciting to ourselves. Dreams are boring to other people, and what’s worse, mine are typically boring to me as well. The most interesting dreams of mine follow the common structure of exploring a familiar building that has expanded with additional rooms. Supposedly, this dream is linked to thoughts of ambition. Which seems accurate enough to me, but it’s simply not interesting.
Dreaming is the most familiar way that people are exposed to the mix of imagery and emotions outside their conscious mind. But since dreams are rarely predictable or interesting, I doubt many artists use them successfully as inspiration.
On the other hand, I find that drawing has the capacity to delve into the subconscious rather effectively. Drawing can often be a more surprising and revealing activity than dreams. Plus, the results of drawing can follow a coherent enough structure to share the experience with other people in a meaningful way. Creating something dreamlike but tangible is far more exciting to me than simply creating a mimeograph of an unstructured dream.
For many people, faces are obscure or constantly changing in dreams, yet people often still have a strong sense of who a person is in a dream, without being able to see the person’s face. Is this part of why you obscure faces so often?
There may be some shared DNA there. But it’s not where that idea came into my work.
When we see that there is something missing (a known unknown), we uncontrollably imagine what it is. That process of imagination creates powerful feelings and imagery that are deeply personal, and the experience leaves a strong impression. That’s part of why the intangibility of dream faces is compelling, and it’s why the no-face gag so consistently works for me. But to be honest, I may be overusing it a little. It’s become a go-to solution to add interest to a piece of mine without having to work too hard. Finding a way to add mystery to a piece without blanking out the face is my new challenge.
A lot has been written comparing the description of an otherworldly “wheel” and beings from the sky in the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament to actually describing UFOs and their passengers. It seems like a lot of your work, especially the Angelarium series, is reverse engineering those images. Many of the images look like your attempt to read between the lines of descriptions of otherworldly beings from various world mythologies and religions and to convey what those texts might be trying to describe, if they had had the sufficient words. Was that your conscious intention?
My intention was to deconstruct the imagery that’s commonly used in Christian mythology because I find it compelling. The hope is that there is something elemental within those ideas that people will respond to. The fact that similar images and ideas surface in different parts of history simply tells me that people’s unconscious minds have not changed much over time. Hopefully, the closer I can get to understanding the root of these ideas, the more compelling I’ll be able to make the imagery in my art.
You’ve talked about your desire to work in surrealism. I represent a lot of neo-surrealist artists as a fine art dealer. How do you define surrealism and what draws you to it?
When I think of surrealism, I think of realistic portrayals of symbolic imagery. Bringing visual metaphors into a believable context has the potential to create really participatory artwork. It has this prismatic effect, where the mental standpoint and life experience of the viewer causes different moods and interpretations to appear. Much like the shared dreaming experience in Inception, the artist creates a world and then viewers fill it with their thoughts and feelings. I think that’s an idea that’s exciting to everyone.
Science fiction/fantasy illustration has a complex and controversial relationship with sexuality, especially the representation of women’s sexuality. Representations of female sexuality are almost entirely absent from your work. Was this a conscious reaction to the traditional handling of female sexuality in SFF illustration?
My appreciation for pretty girls is not something I feel a strong need to communicate. Sexuality and gender are just not subjects that carry a lot of baggage for me.
Digging into my subconscious mind for material to share with other people has come up with many different fantasies, but the sexual ones have mostly gotten edged out by other obsessions. It wasn’t really a conscious choice, but it has led to some interesting reactions. On multiple occasions, people have commented on how my work is particularly appealing to gay men. Which, if it’s true, may be a side effect of simply avoiding sexual exploitation and grisly masculine power fantasies.
Talking with some fantasy artists who worked throughout the ’80s, they’ve told me that much of the hypersexuality that was on display in their work was a byproduct of market demand. I’m wondering if the reputation of SFF art wouldn’t be quite as pronounced if it weren’t for a consistent demand from employers to use sex appeal to market products that feature SFF art. These days, many artists I know groan and roll their eyes at the sexual exploitation that is still fairly common in art for games. In a society that’s obsessed with sex, it feels sort of unnecessary to include it in everything.
Spread the word!