BY Sarah Khan in One Takes | 12 APR 13
Featured in
Issue 154

Picture Piece: Vicente B. Ballestar

The pulp paintings of Vicente B. Ballestar

BY Sarah Khan in One Takes | 12 APR 13

Vicente B. Ballestar, original cover illustration from Ghosthunter John Sinclair, ‘Horror-Line’, issue 1064, November 1998, watercolour and acrylic on paper, 50 × 35 cm

The Catalan painter and illustrator Vicente B. Ballestar found fame in Germany with his cover art commissions for ‘Geisterjäger John Sinclair’ (Ghosthunter John Sinclair), a series of pulp novels that has been published weekly since 1973 and has been read at least once by every German teenager. The central character, created by the author Helmut Hellergerd under the pen name Jason Dark, is a ghost hunter for Scotland Yard who tirelessly fights evil in many guises, including ghouls, demons, a gruesome grandma, a horrific horseman and the Black Death. From 1973 until his retirement in 2007, Ballestar produced around 1,000 covers for these ’zines, based on the brief plot synopses supplied by the German publisher. The originals (a selection of which were recently shown by Re:surgo!, a Berlin print studio publishing artists’ books and graphic ’zines) are twice as large as the reproductions on the paperbacks and, removed from the dominant typographical elements of the covers and the trashy plots of the novels, evidence Ballestar’s talent as a pulp painter.

While the principal theme of American pulp was male fear of failure in the face of female strength and sexual desire, Ballestar’s images combine everyday technology with the supernatural: humans, monsters and machines. A Lufthansa passenger plane flies into a flock of giant bats; ghouls fight a helicopter; a jeep flees a rusty red swamp from which scaly hands protrude. One picture shows a negligee-clad beauty making a phone call on a sofa, but although she has fashionable slippers on her feet, her calves and one forearm are decaying, dripping with slime. The living room exudes a stuffy cosiness: curtains, an oil painting à la Bob Ross in a gold frame on the wall, a red Persian rug on the tiled floor. A red-eyed dog, looking faintly fiendish, rounds off the harmonious blend of bourgeois domesticity and gore.

Aesthetically speaking, the world that Ballestar created for the duration of his career belonged to the 1970s and early ’80s. His paintings are populated by figures that could have stepped out of an advertisement from the era, if their faces weren’t etched with fear at the horrors they confront. With his broad palette and use of light, Ballestar derived a garish Pop pleasure from sinister darkness in a way previously found only in Roger Corman’s legendary Edgar Allan Poe films starring Vincent Price, where terror joined forces with Technicolor.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Sarah Khan is a writer who lives in Berlin. In 2012 she was awarded the Michael Althen Prize for criticism. Her latest book Die Gespenster von Berlin: Wahre Geschichten (The Ghosts of Berlin: True Stories) was published by Suhrkamp in 2013.