Ashes in Rain: The Illustration of Luis Royo

by Mac Tonnies

"Prophecy is ragged and dirty."

--J.G. Ballard

You can't look at science fiction cover art on the Web or browse the science fiction/fantasy shelves at bookstores without eventually encountering the work of Luis Royo. His style is epic and gritty, idealized yet fashionably apocalyptic. Royo is at his best depicting futuristic cityscapes and gun-toting women on unknown, solitary errands.

Detail from painting.

In a representative painting (above), a pensive-looking woman huddles against the wall of a ruinous urban maze. "Alien"-style pods roost overhead, trailing cyst-ridden tentacles. As compelling as the image is in itself (whether seen in print or framed by the ubiquitous off-white of a computer monitor), it's the hidden story behind the woman's plight that brings urgency to the damp walls and their tumescent inhabitants, forcing each pixel to exude its own silent interpretation.

Royo's self-portrait reveals a Giger-esque fusion of flesh and circuitry, illustrating the crumbling barriers between ourselves and our out-of-control technology.

Royo excels at creating unusual and evocative textures: rusted, ancient metal, the weathered stone of gigantic pagan sculptures (a manacled, kneeling woman caresses the faded green lips of a toppled Statue of Liberty...), the dark suds of disturbed waters and portentous smog.

cover

I think the first Royo painting I saw was on the cover of Bruce Sterling's "Islands in the Net," depicting a sultry black-haired woman with what looked like plastic veins running through the fabric of her revealing outfit. She had absolutely nothing to do with Sterling's novel, but her sexy dignity managed to capture something of the main character's cyberpunk resolve.

Fashion model Laetitia Casta appears in Royo's work in various cyber-erotic guises.

Royo's post-"Blade Runner" pin-ups are as numerous as they are distinctive: women in corroded metal collars; sensuous cherubs with delicately furred wings more beastly than angelic; waifs with cruel halos of skull-penetrating chrome that leave rivulets of fresh blood on porcelain skin. Royo's women often carry weapons that are blatant phallic mutations, cradled in arms inexplicably immune to the grime and decay that inundate their surroundings. Royo's heroines are kinky and compelling icons, vulnerable touchstones in a world in which the organic is irrevocably saturated and eclipsed by entropy and cybernetic technology.

Detail from painting.

Royo is most effective when he manages to graft layers of narrative into seemingly drab territory, whether inside hulking spaceships with pitted, slate-gray walls or gazing across imaginal deserts. The broodingly savage "Planet of the Apes" series (which Tim Burton would have been wise to emulate) is one of the artist's most revealing: crude, sprawling architecture under humid green skies, shambling, leather-encrusted gorillas with mournful eyes attending to naked women on leashes. Royo's revisionist apes inhabit a world that's a deluded caricature of our own, simultaneously as foreign as the derelict starship in "Alien" and as familiar as an abandoned shopping mall with weeds erupting through a rain-slicked parking lot.

Estella Warren cast in director Tim Burton's relatively tame reimagining of "Planet of the Apes."

Royo's elaborate retellings of genre conceits--battle scenes, robots, the postmillennial urban jungles of Gibson, Kadrey and Dick--convey the depth of time and the promise of infinite distance. They are echoes from nonexistent futures as well as upwellings in the dim fabric of our collective past, to which we consign our fetishes and prehuman memories.

Contrastingly, Royo's work within the Western and conventional fantasy genres is perilously quaint. As with his postapocalyptic art, it's the unfettered periphery and not the central figure/s that catch our attention. The girl conversing with the monster (or more often than not, reveling in its clutches), is seldom as interesting as the wasted skyline or ornate brickwork in the background.

The mix of the familiar and the alien, revealed through stylized buildings and the practical yet sexy curves of incomprehensible vehicles, defines Royo's imagery. It's this sense of implied history that compels us to look twice. The worlds we see, conveyed in oracular monochrome, stare back at us across the ruined streets and drowned spires of our own obsessions.

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