San Antonio Express-News (Texas) | July 14, 1999, Wednesday, METRO
SECTION: S.A. LIFE; Arts; Pg. 1G | LENGTH: 1029 words
LOAD-DATE: July 15, 1999 | LANGUAGE: ENGLISH | TYPE: FEATURE
GRAPHIC: PHOTO: Special to the Express-News: Michael Mehl’s Flights of Fancy No. 2 can be seen at the San Antonio International Airport. The exhibit is part of Contemporary Art Month.
Digital Show Taking Off At Airport
BYLINE: Dan R. Goddard; Express-News Arts Writer
Copyright 1999 San Antonio Express-News
Dreams of flying inspired photographer Michael Mehl to go digital. Butterflies float around a giant statue of Buddha, a witch on a broom soars over a howling wolf, flying fish zoom through New York and a jet plane lands in a cathedral in Mehl’s whimsically surreal collages, which he creates on a computer using 18th, 19th and 20th-century line drawings. Flights of Fancy : Fantastic Tales From the Lore of Flight is on view through Oct. 15 at the San Antonio International Airport. The exhibit is part of Contemporary Art Month.
“This is my first all-digital show. I’ve been thinking about flying since I started coordinating the exhibits at the airport. Flying in our dreams, for example, is a truly sublime sensation,” Mehl said. “I’ve also been thinking a lot about my work and I’ve decided that what I am is a surrealist, specifically a surreal storyteller. “This is not an academic show about flying. It’s more about what flying means and how it makes us feel. I’m interested in flights of imagination – the creative process, the soaring of minds – and the promise of a better world.
These images tap into deep archetypes. For example, the Buddhists use butterflies as a symbol of spiritual ascendance. In the Western tradition, we think of angels. “Surrealism is a strong current in Mexican art. Mehl, a Mexican national who was born in the Philippines, said artists such as Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo are his forerunners. Although many contemporary artists eschew narrative, Mehl said it is central to his art, which includes traditional photography, music composition and writing. “Using the digital process is a way of expanding my palette. Taking a straight photograph hasn’t excited me in years,” he said. “Many of the images that I used are drawn from clip books compiled by former San Antonio artist Jim Harter. I can scan them into the computer and use them in any number of ways. But it’s still a labor-intensive process. Each image has to be ‘cut out’ and pasted in. You have to work to get the shadows right. People think it’s all done automatically, but that’s not the way it works.”
In the past, photographers created surrealistic images with darkroom magic by using different negatives in multiple exposures. But with modern digital technology, similar to movie special effects, almost any image can be “morphed” with computer software. By using line drawings, which have passed into the public domain, Mehl goes back to the quaint, old-fashioned future of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. An African does a wild dance as gas balloons float over a jungle landscape. A man in his flying machine drifts over a moonscape inhabited by a lone penguin. Sufi mystics watch a twirling, miniature dervish while a full moon rises over a palace. Gliders erupt from an Aztec calendar and pterodactyls soar over a canyon watched by men sitting in comfy chairs. The collages are part fever dreams, part Monty Python. “I’ve been interested in special effects for a long time. Digital is just offering a solution and a resolution for what I’ve been trying to achieve,” Mehl said. “There’s a lot of layering that goes on my work, both in the photography and the music. Putting together the collages is like writing a song. There’s a theme and a melody line. My theme is flight, but I’m interested in how flight affects different cultures. There’s plenty of humor and irony, but also, I hope, some lyricism and emotion.”
Like his collages, Mehl creates his music on computer. Last spring, he released his fourth CD, ELECTROPICO, which has been getting play on radio stations around the world, especially Mexico, Germany, Japan and Argentina. It can be sampled at his Web site – http://michaelmehlcom. “Being a composer is a lot more fun than being a performer,” he said.
Mehl began his professional career as an artist as a teen-ager recording and performing with Mexican rock ‘n’ roll groups. In his early 20s, he was composing and performing his own music for the Mexican National Radio Network. He also studied photography at the Instituto Mexicano de Fotografia in Mexico City. These interests converged when he began working as a free-lance advertising creative director and copywriter. He has directed TV commercials and created his own art videos. “I still do a lot of work for Mexican television, though I am mainly a writer. In writing a commercial, you have 60 seconds to tell a story – that’s why narrative is still so important to me,” he said. He moved to San Antonio in 1986 and besides his free-lance advertising career, he’s also been an active leader in the local art scene. In addition to organizing exhibits for the airport, he’s the local coordinator for Fotoseptiembre, the international, month-long celebration of photography. During the past four years, the event has grown to encompass more than two dozen exhibits. “Fotoseptiembre has become successful enough that it doesn’t take so much of my time. Now I am hoping to start a local photography event for the years between Fotoseptiembre,” Mehl said. “I’m calling it SAFOTO. The first one will be this September. We’ll only have about six exhibits, but it will be a completely home-grown event that I hope will grow into a real showcase of San Antonio and international photography.”
As part of SAFOTO, Mehl will show his digital color collages made from his own photographs at the Foto Real gallery. Though he does his art just to “break even,” sometimes it leads to commercial work. For example, after mastering the digital process for Flights of Fancy, he’s started a new business creating digital murals. A local restaurant has already commissioned him to create large-scale, old-fashioned images to use as background dcor. “One thing leads to another. My life is as surreal as my art,” Mehl said. “I just keep trying to re-invent myself.” The temptation is to call him a Renaissance Man, but Mehl dislikes the term. Instead, maybe he’s a Third Millennial Man, whose work fuses art, music, photography, video, writing and technology. In Flights of Fancy, Mehl has built a digital bridge between the past and the future.
Copyright 1999 San Antonio Express-News