Mogens Rude

Mark Wilkinson's artwork adorns millions of record collections, but the illustrator himself is more cultlike than celebrity. The art book "Shadowplay" sees Wilkinson coming out of the shade with a panoramic look back at 30 years of impressive airbrush illustrations, which have secured him a unique place in the art history of record sleeve design. JydskeVestkysten spoke to the Englishman, who has worked for Fish, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and got his breakthrough with the legendary artwork for Marillion.

The diamond stylus touches the vinyl grooves on the Marillion album "Script For A Jester's Tear". 

So here I am once more in the playground of the broken hearts,
One more experience, one more entry in a diary, self-penned
Yet another emotional suicide overdosed on sentiment and pride
Too late to say I love you, too late to restage the play
Abandoning the relics in my playground of yesterday

It’s the early 1980s. Marillion frontman, Fish, fills my teenage room with his voice and words, while I study the alluring texts which blend with Mark Wilkinson (born 1952) equally compelling illustrations on the album’s gatefold cover.
   A window. Light falling into a dark, Dickensian den. Falling on a medieval, harlequin patterned jester with a violin in one hand and an inkdripping feather in the other. The struggling artist. A tortured soul.
   Mark Wilkinson’s tormented demonic jester and symbolic artwork were the entry ticket to the musical universe of Marillion for me and many others in the 1980s.

A Danish Initiative
“The jester was a very colourful character. He had a rather disturbing look to him that somehow jumped off the posters and record sleeves. It worked. It had a resonance with a lot of the fans and even with people who hadn’t heard of the band. They saw the artwork and thought it was intriguing. There was nothing else out there like that at the time. It certainly opened up a huge amount of doors for me that continues to this day.” says Mark Wilkinson on the phone from his studio in England.
   The occasion is the release of the impressive hardcover artbook "Shadowplay". In words and images it leads us through Wilkinson's airbrush artwork from the early 1980s until today. A rare exclusive book in which binding, paper and print quality go hand in hand with Wilkinson's glittering artwork.
   "Shadowplay" came into existence with the help of the internationally renowned Danish artist, gallery owner and publisher Claus Brusen who Wilkinson met at an art exhibition in London. Brusen invited the Englishman to assemble his best work in a book - with the Dane as publisher.

Marillion’s Shadowplayer
"Shadowplay" tells the story of the young illustrator’s struggle to make a name for himself in London's graphical world when one day he strikes gold. Marillion. A young up-and-coming rock band from Aylesbury.
   "Marillion was signed to EMI in 1982, and they were all big fans of progressive rock which many people including myself thought was over. Once punk music came along in 1977, it kind of exploded the fashion for very lavish gatefold sleeves and decorative artwork. So when they requested a gatefold album sleeve with detailed painting, it was quite a surprise to me," says the 57-year-old Englishman, who had been into progressive rock bands like King Crimson and Pink Floyd fifteen years earlier.
   Marillion was perhaps out of sync with the synth driven, postpunk tendencies of the early 1980s, but the band proved that it had something to say in Thatcherite Britain. Contemporary madness was lurking behind the Tolkienian band name.
  Marillion fell into place with "Script For A Jester's Tears" (1983), "Fugazi" (1984) and the million selling "Misplaced Childhood" (1985) and work poured in, establishing Wilkinson as the band’s visual mastermind and shadowplayer who could see his illustrations on everything from albums and t-shirts to giant posters in the London Underground.
   The jester had arrived in style.

9/11 Foreseen
Wilkinson’s illustrations, which are rich in pathos and symbols, are created with the assistence of his artistic partner through all the years, the airbrush. Wilkinson was particularly encouraged to use the airbrush after seeing Alan Aldridge's work in "The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics" from 1969. The airbrush, which was invented in the late 1800s, is a spray gun that makes it possible to create gentle, lifelike transitions.
   “I was always interested in making the paintings so realistic that you couldn’t tell how they were done,” he says and continues:
   “I thought of it like a still from a film. You freeze-frame a film, and there we are - there’s a situation, a story. It’s the story that I’m more interested in than the way it is created, really. It’s what is going on in the picture which goes back to the Symbolist movement and the Dutch School of Art, where there are symbols in the painting and stories to be told.“  
   The photo-realism and the symbols can be so powerful that even Wilkinson can be hit by a strange feeling. Even though the Englishman has spend a year conceptualizing Judas Priests’ "Nostradamus" project – the Renaissance Frenchman known for his prophecies - he could not have predicted that his artwork for the Fish single "Big Wedge" from 1989 would reach into the future.
   ”The single, ”Big Wedge”, was a strange one. It’s Uncle Sam showing the dollars, and behind him you can see a view of New York as it was before the Twin Towers came down. You can see the Twin Towers, and there’s actually a plane heading for the towers, but that was painted long before 9/11. It’s quite odd in what it depicts,” he says about the artistic prophecy similar to fellow Danish artist Palle Nielsen and his disturbing work from the 1960s where aircrafts crash into city buildings.

Wilkinson at the Gallery
Work continues to flow. Wilkinson has managed well making the transitions from vinyl albums to CDs and the computerized world. That is until 2003 when work dried up.
   “I had about three or four months with no work at all. Nothing. I really thought that was it. Someone had turned the tap off. Whoever turned the tap off turned it on again, and work started to flow. I have no explanation for that at all, but it certainly does pull you up very fast,” he says of his run of bad luck.
   One of the ideas that arose from Wilkinson's adversity was to sell prints on the Internet.
   "I decided to start marketing my work as giclée prints, and that really helped me out that summer of 2003," says Wilkinson, who on top of a phenomenal response still sells giclée prints on his website www.the-masque.com
   Mark Wilkinson’s thirty year Odyssey as a visual airbrush pistolero has most recently led to a flirtation with the established art world. Two of Wilkinson’s works of art were displayed at the art exhibition "Dante - The Divine Comedy" in Denmark in the summer of 2009.
   Though it’s still the record sleeves and music that trigger Wilkinson, breathe life into him, arouse his curiosity.
   I’m getting young bands, late teens, early twenties, writing to me from all over the world. They look back at the history of record sleeves, and it still seems to have an effect,” reads the modest words from a remarkable shadowplayer.

“Shadowplay” is published by Edition Brusen, Sæby, Denmark. Foreword by Fish. In true modern rock ‘n’ roll marketing style the work is released as a signed limited edition, bibliophile version in a black box with two giclée prints (£ 90) and a hardcover version (£ 25). The book is available from the publishers’ website: www.fantasmus-art.com

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