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Pulp-Tastic: The Pulp Fiction Paintings Exhibit at Union College’s Mandeville Gallery (Review)

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Pulp Fiction Paintings, Mandeville Gallery, Union College, Review

Pulp Fiction & Art

Pulp Fiction Paintings, Union CollegePicture a time and place where fear is simple: the enemy is an outsider with ugly distinguishing features, while you are a handsome, muscular male hero or a beautiful feminine victim. The wild and unknown is dangerous—space, the jungle, the frontier. Such is the subject of “pulp fiction” stories. Utilizing moral absolutes, the stories provided an escape during the 1930s and 1940s while real life held the Depression and World Wars. The covers of the books are imaginative, detailed, and eye-catching. They are also fully-developed oil paintings composed by sophisticated artists.

The Mandeville Gallery at Union College presents these images in the exhibit Pulp Fiction Paintings: Selections from the Robert Lesser Collection, on display through September 25, 2011. Located in the Nott Memorial building, the gallery holds 37 paintings from the loaned collection, a gift to the New Britain Museum of American Art. Each painting presents an image used for the cover of a genuine pulp fiction novel, juxtaposed. The subjects of these illustrations include mystery, western, sci-fi, war, and adventure.

The works featured are primarily oil on canvas, using a variety of colors from the very subdued brown of sand and period suits to the jewel-tones of the jungle and science fiction creatures. For the most part, the subject is a strong white man (to attract the target audience), but a few differ. Allen Anderson’s Apache Flame!, for example, features a white woman in Native American dress astride a horse and wielding a smoking gun towards her native pursuers. A Swashbuckling Buckaroo by A. Drake is an exquisite close-up of a red-clad male torso, hands cuffed. A more delicate hand, possibly female, appears to be shooting the handcuffs off.

Pulp Fiction Paintings, Union CollegeThe exhibition also contains several series. Rafael De Soto illustrated the covers for a series starring The Spider, a Spiderman-like hero who was masked and cloaked; the character was extremely popular, appearing in 119 novels and two movie serials. Revolt of the Underworld, Death and the Spider, and The Spider and the Pain Master all feature this character taking on evil men of other ethnicities with silky-thin white weblines in the background.

Frank L. Paul dominates the sci-fi genre by providing the artwork for the Wonder Stories. He uses the much smoother technique of color gouache to create crisp pieces, including Into Plutonium Depths, Synthetic Men, Dimensional Fate, and The Spore Doom. Color gouache, which is frequently used by comic illustrators, is like a blend of oil and watercolor. The flat appearance it has when it dries puts less emphasis on the texture of the material the image is on. Another example of color gouache is Virgil Finlay’s Burn Witch Burn, an image of a nude woman’s torso covered with a repetition of white stars and red flames. It almost appears like a lithograph (a print).

Rudolph Belarski and Frederick Blakeslee direct the war subject matter similarly. But while Blakeslee portrays multiple planes and aerial views in each painting, Belarski tends to work with depth and foreground focus. His Men’s Pictorial: I Killed for the Rising Sun is my personal favorite from the exhibit because of its brown hues and dusty feel. We view the image from behind a solitary soldier standing in a war zone, shooting a large gun at an enemy plane. What makes it so captivating is the realistic orange glow of fiery smoke behind the plane.

Pulp Fiction Paintings, Mandeville GalleryThere are so many pleasant surprises in this exhibit, which is free and easy to access. There are also several upcoming events related to the subject matter taking place at Union’s Reamer Campus Center Auditorium. Movie marathons beginning at 8pm will take place September 8th (film noir) and September 22nd (science fiction), and on September 15th, Skidmore College’s Professor Janet Casey will be speaking about “Pulp Fiction and the Modern Reader” at 7:30pm. It will certainly be interesting to find the contemporary context of this art outside of its original period.

Pulp Fiction Paintings: Selections from the Robert Lesser Collection is on display at the Mandeville Gallery of the Nott Memorial building at Union College through September 25th. Gallery hours are Monday through Sunday 10am to 6pm. Guided tours are available upon request. For more gallery information, call the information line at 518-388-6004 or visit

Kate Smith is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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1 Comment for “Pulp-Tastic: The Pulp Fiction Paintings Exhibit at Union College’s Mandeville Gallery (Review)”

  1. The film screenings now confirmed! Join us on Noir night for: The Lady from Shanghai (1947, starring Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles); and on Science Fiction night for: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal). Hope to see you there!

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