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Ella Nina John
posted June 5, 2003
Katrin Funcke is a successful European illustrator known for adapting the kind of figure work popular in urban art to the purpose of lending an aura of hipster credibility to products born from massive continental corporations. I have no idea how this plays overseas, but in North America looking at commercial works such as the on-line Heineken Club might seem slightly less jarring than most marriages of art and consumption because the foreign-ness of the products in question give them their own distinctive qualities, making the juxtaposition between image and item less noticeable. Judging from those samples and the book under review, Funcke is clearly a skilled artist with a distinctive, accessible style that lends itself to comics extremely well. In Ella Nina John, Funcke's story progresses as a changing relationship between figure drawing and the non-representational. Bodies pop up in the oddest places at the oddest times, and transform themselves and the objects around them into their component lines of ink as casually as they walk from place to place.
Funcke's title refers to three musicians: Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Hagen, and John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards. According to the cursory biographical material about the artist available in English, Funcke takes special inspiration for her illustrative work from sung jazz. The albums listened to in the creation of this work are listed on the book's final page. With that in mind, Funcke's story can be read as both an incorporation of symbols generic to depicting music on the page and a treatment of visual tropes specific to the artists named. Several of the figures dance across the stage as if their bodies have bent to the music, while faces from the first sequence and last suggest Fitzgerald and Hagen's on-stage heaviness and bruised glamour, respectively.
Ella Nina John is referred to in some sources as Funcke's children's book, a claim which alarms for only half a second before reason intrudes. Some children raised on American mass-marketed pabulum might not go for an obtuse treatment of jazz and punk music, but the fluctuations between scribble and human form, the way the art changes from one state to another, might interest a child very much. In fact, the book may remind readers most of all of the kind of adult-oriented illustrative art that frequently holds fascination for young people, such as that of the late Saul Steinberg. For the jaded adult, this is a fine read but nothing startling in terms of content, a nice walk for tired eyes through a series of well-worn visual routines.