Islands in the Scream

November 16, 2017

A relatively short reading list. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading; in fact I’ve got a ton of others I’m working on. But these were sort of a breather after my summer of dense Victorian and Edwardian Impressionist novels. This lead, for reasons set forth below to a Hemingway mini-binge. Even the comics I read tended toward an early 20th C. European theme.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox FordThe book is very odd and compelling. It advances the concept, taken from James, of very subjective narrative voice, sometimes categorized as Literary Impressionism, while anticipating the dissipation and moral rootlessness of the Lost Generation. Thus, my subsequent and somewhat accidental Hemingway binge.

Good Soldier  is a story of unfaithfulness and emotional alienation. It reads quickly enough, but its deliberately disorienting plotting and somewhat dated language and syntax mark it as transitional between the Victorian and the Modern, especially in comparison to The Sun Also Rises, similar in spirit but leaner and more direct, a few years later. Soldier inspired critical inquiry for its use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ as the years went by; Sun, a distinctly un-critical craze for trying to turn hangovers into art, which still held when friends and I hit our college years after Hemingway’s death.

Everybody Behaves Badly, Lesley Blume: A spur of the moment pick-up and a natural one after reading Edwardians. Hemingway’s then extreme life- and writing- styles still  generate exposes that read like long Vanity Fair pieces. Imagine my shock to read the author’s blurb and discover that she’s a Vanity Fair regular. But he epitomizes Literary Impressionism, and the “Lost Generation” ethos of dissipation as art. This book attempts to examine the process by which Hemingway turned his life into the groundbreaking novel The Sun Also Rises, but as with most EH bios, often reads like a high-toned gossip rag.

The Sun Also Rises was the birth of the modern literary tendency to romanticize the self, indulged in by many of us in sophomoric ways during our actual sophomore years. We glamorized the self-glamorized heroic drunks in the book to justify  drinking and boorish behavior. Around us, some did not move on, and the same is true with the real life models of characters in the book. Donald Ogden Stewart (Bill) had a good career, until blacklisted by Hollywood, but came to revile Hemingway and his work. Pat Guthrie (Mike) died of a drug overdose, and the real-life “Lady Brett” also died young having spent her life drinking. The Cohn character’s real life model enjoyed a fairly successful life by most standards, but remained obsessed with Hemingway’s venomous portrayal of him.

It gets to the heart of what makes a successful life- and novel- and its author’s eventual suicide, only a few years after having won the Nobel Prize, poses some of the toughest questions of all. Now I have to re-read the original again, not an onerous or lengthy task, so bring on the cheap cabernet.

Hemingway’s Boat, Paul HendricksonThe stated purpose of this book, which had the full cooperation of much of the author’s family, with whatever was expressed or implied in that arrangement, is to step away from the studies by ‘psychologizers’ so popular in literary criticism and provide a more “benevolent” view of this troubled author. It covers a specific part of his life and career from 1935 when he acquired the Pilar, a 38 foot cabin cruiser, to his death by suicide in 1961.

Hendrickson set out to avoid the sort of literary psychoanalysis that has been a hallmark of Hemingway bios for decades. That’s hard to do. The tough questions remain. Beyond the simple fact that five of the eight immediate Oak Park Hemingway family ended their own lives, sometimes violently, Hemingway’s pattern of rejecting old friends and marriages, seen in Everybody Behaves, along with drinking and gunplay, invite theories. And his son Gregory’s gender identity travails invite comparisons to the author’s own transexual themes as seen in the posthumously published Garden of Eden. So Boat drifts sometimes, especially in the last half, where Gregory’s story takes over, despite the fact that it has little to do with the boat.

Hemingway’s life is undeniably interesting, and Hendrickson often writes lyrically about it. But one wonders how relevant is the question of who or what was up ‘Papa’s’ ass, compared to the fact that increasingly, he’d crawled up it himself.

“Something bad happens when Hemingway writes in the first person” Hendrickson quotes Edmund Wilson, formerly a defender, in a review after the publication of Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway never reacted well to these sorts of reviews, and it seemed to set the tone for the rage and alcoholism that dogged much of his later work. Though For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea were still to come, and the Nobel prize, so also, the not well received Across the River and Into the Trees and the first shock therapy sessions. An idiosyncratic career makes for a very idiosyncratic book that often digresses into accounts of people fairly tangential to Hemingway’s writing, possibly in search of “benevolence”.

Arnold Samuelson is one, a North Dakota journalist, novelist wannabe who shows up at Hemingway’s Key West door. Hendrickson makes the very useful point that Hemingway, having already abandoned or betrayed his Parisian literary friends, was starting to welcome more sycophants and hangers on into his daily life, even as his closed world gave itself to somewhat self reflexive themes of sportsman against nature, as opposed to emotionally disaffected lost generations. The psychologizers  began to theorize Hemingway macho behavior as hypercompensation for being dressed as a girl in childhood.

Hendrickson says he set out to distance his book from this, but then speculates- benevolently? on more recently revealed incidents and writings as a possible sign of support for his troubled son. How are we to judge any of this?

The boat winds up on blocks in Hemingway’s tennis court. It’s a fairly confused tale, and almost impossible to put down.

Boundless: These are very experimental stories from Jillian Tamaki, who is apparently trying to break out of the YA category she has often brilliantly claimed, with cousin Mariko Tamaki, in clean, sharp, but quiescent rite-of-passage stories  Skim and This One Summer.

Changing direction can be much harder than a youngish artist may think. A solid first step was Superhuman Mutant Magic Academy, a hilarious web comic sequence of short one-a-day gags which nevertheless added up to a different sort of rite-of-passage tale that still hit all of her concerns dead center. That book is honestly, better than this one in several ways, but the formal innovations she is trying to incorporate in Boundless may serve her well in future books.  A couple of stories were published in smaller magazines. Most deal with self and many with media iterations of self. I’m reminded of the vaguely futuristic short stories of Eleanor Davis, another cartoonist who may be casting about after initial success.

There are formal experiments, such as the placement of images on the page; shifts in narrative voice and tone, for example, from the omniscient and reportorial to the personal biographical in “Sex Coven”, but in other stories the art and story are a bit self conscious. It smacks of an artist trying to break out of what she may see as too constraining a success and she seems determined to see it through. Brava. But I’ll be rereading Super Mutant.

Fog on Tolbiac Bridge, Jacques Tardi: Gorgeous black and white noir murder mystery based on a novel by Leo Malet. One of the first euro comics that Fantagraphics published, in serial form, in the mid 80’s. I’d encountered Tardi’s work previously in Raw Magazine and possibly even before, in Heavy Metal. It sticks with you, and I was glad to see it in album form, as I’d missed some chapters the first time, so this was my first time reading the whole thing in one sitting. A fairly standard genre piece about a between-the-wars anarchist found murdered in 50‘s Paris, but it is worth it for the ambience alone. Tardi captures in drizzled ink lines the appealing wet gloom of Parisian backstreets in winter, and is so specific about researching his locations that he includes a map. At a time when American comics were lost in fan boy minutia, this jazz age elegy was a glimmer of hope for lovers of the medium’s potential.

Berlin City of Smoke, Jason Lutes: Long-running, slow building tale of the Weimar Republic’s slow dissolve into Nazism. It really is in a very traditional form, espousing a relatively sedate, slightly claustrophobic clear line style as opposed to Tardi’s more dynamic homage. It’s a masterpiece of comics in that it tells a complex cultural and historical tale using both visual and narrative information, avoiding the wooden characterization and creeping didacticism of some historical fiction. It is the first fiction I’ve read that treats the degradation of liberty and the rise of social control under fascism as an epic societal tragedy, and it seems to spare no person or faction. I haven’t read Isherwood, but Berlin seems to take up where the movie Cabaret left off.

 

 

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Westering

October 04, 2017

Gun ownership is inevitably in the news again. For most who defend its increase in the wake of the carnage it creates, it is a power fantasy. In a country where the long term trend is downward in crime, and where terrorism hasn’t gotten the foothold it has in Europe and other places, the actual need for firearms is quite low, and the fetish of gun ownership is mostly about a male cowboy/crime fiction fantasy scenario where problems (including psychotic rage) are easily solved with the correct ordnance.

The proven fact that the opposite is the actual result of unlimited ownership of weaponry- the society becomes less secure, more regimented, less just- hasn’t intruded in any meaningful way into the NRA-sponsored fantasy. Where did it come from?

“Westering”, 2009, Monotype, 32×44″

Westering: When I got the invitation to show with other ASL instructors at the state capitol, I thought immediately of this piece, which is older, but has been seen only in a couple of small shows. It is ostensibly a landscape, one of many, I’m sure, that have hung under Colorado’s golden dome, but its theme is much more complex, as it alludes to the American push westward. Though the print hasn’t been a centerpiece in my exhibition history, I’d like to explicate the thinking behind it which holds a very central place in my landscape years, roughly 1999-2009.

The association in the American spirit/mind of heading west with individual freedom and opportunity dates back to the Puritans. It is now expressed in xenophobic ultra right wing politics of survivalists and gun fetishists, but other subcultures, such as environmentalists have also  drawn inspiration from the American move westward. Artists such as Moran, Twain and Bierstadt have made both poetry and cash from selling this vision back to the populace. And the Arcadian/Rousseau myth of humans at peace in nature’s solitude relates in a complex way with the gun totin’ loner.These Right and Left fantasies are inextricably linked. I myself left my decaying Great Lakes region rust belt childhood home to escape the decay and drug fueled lassitude there as a teen, and spent time in transcendently beautiful and stubbornly racist Wyoming,

I’m quite vocal about my politics elsewhere, but in my artwork, this is about as political as it often gets. One of the last elements added to the print was the small enclosure next to the windowless structure, symbolizing isolation, aggressive aquisitiveness and the closed mind of the typical “home on the range”, now a fortified compound in many minds. This bunker mentality has had a big effect on American politics of late, and certainly is intrinsic to the gun fantasy.

This isn’t a criticism of rural living per se, or even gun ownership. We could all use a little dialogue with our neighbors, and our poisonous politics proves how the urge to ‘head west’, rather than learn to live with each other, is one of the country’s greatest threats. It derives from the Puritan notion of the individual’s right to ‘treat with God’ in his own way. It reaches horrifying apotheosis in the ‘lone wolf’- style shooting spree, one against the hordes.

In an age where ‘compromise’ is a dirty word (sometimes on both sides of the aisle), an understanding of this complex psychological, and very American impulse can get lost. I was always very satisfied with what I was able to say in this picture, and now through December, I’ll have my ‘say’ in the halls of government. If only the majority wishing for an end to carnage had theirs.

This image relates to memory and the way we move through it.

“Man With Torch”, Monotype, 30×42″, 2004.

Carrying a Torch: While I’m glorying in the exhibition, I’ll mention that I’ve had work hanging in both the state and nation’s capitol complexes. This print, entitled “Man with Torch” hung in Senator Bennet’s office in DC for a year as part of a juried program to showcase Colorado’s artists. Many also consider this one pretty political, and while I don’t argue with the obvious ecological interpretation, it was actually concieved of as a commentary upon memory and our human urge to destroy and remake the past constantly, in the process endangering our future relations. I quickly realized how apropos it was to the environment, but that’s not how my mind was working as I made it, as a reaction to an earlier smaller piece, “Woman With Torch”, which really isn’t political or even existential commentary at all, but as often happens with early, smaller pieces of mine, made simply as a compelling image. But a picture’s allusive qualities often creates great appeal for the viewer, I’ve learned, through many conversations in my booth at the Summer Art Market.

There’s always more than the surface intention to the story of a work’s creation of course, but I try to honestly convey what I was thinking at the time, for what it’s worth. The viewer often gives me a -valuable- different story. John Lennon always maintained that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was inspired by the innocent words of his five year old son, but most of us who lived through its  popularity always considered it a song about hallucinogens. It’s disingenuous to believe Lennon was unaware of this, and art creates a meaning of its own. The artist is often not in control of this process.

Please comment with your own take if you have seen “Westering”.

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A Real Lulu

September 18, 2017

I’m starting to feel the time squeeze of a busy fall schedule. The books are backing up. I’m under a lot of pressure right now as I am on my final auto-renewal of many of these books. I will update with further developments on this important breaking story as they become available. For now, please remain calm. Note to self: has anyone written a thriller novel about reading novels?

The Mill on the Floss, George Elliot: I don’t know what made Henry James and George Elliot attractive to me when discussed in The Novel, A Biography by Schmidt, and not Dickens or Thackeray, but so far I haven’t regretted a page of either.

Elliot has a real feel for regional culture and the class dynamics of the early Industrial Revolution, though it’s much slower reading than James thanks to the rural Midlands patois, which then and even now, constitutes almost a foreign language to middle American eyes and ears. It’s a fascinating tale, being a portrait of English attitudes on class and gender as the Industrial Revolution gathers full steam, and the patriarchal economy we still see today constrains women’s lives. It’s only 20 years or so before James, and worlds apart in class dynamics, but the heroines fight the same existential battle. It has a compelling autobiographical edge to it, giving a universality to Elliot’s own struggles to publish and find happiness as a woman in the arts.

Giving Life to Little Lulu, Bill Schelly: I’m very excited about this one, as there’s not much Lulu scholarship. The Library did not disappoint on this as they ordered two copies as soon as it came out. I’ll be returning to it often, I’m sure. There actually isn’t a ton of info and documentation on John Stanley’s life and art (see below), but the author does a good job with what there is. The discussion of key issues was useful, though a more detailed close reading of one or two stand outs could really have added not only bulk, but critical heft.

Still, it’s far from a superficial  survey. The illustrations in the coffee table-sized book were great, too. Aside: I was soon digging in the closet for my small collection of Lulu comics, and when I found a few of the later collections at the comics shop for cover price, I snapped them up. They’re going on the web for at least twice that, I discovered. Expect a screed eventually about the lack of a proper, literary bookstore-style comic book store in this city, but the traditional direct market comic book “megastore” here  is so superhero fan-boy obsessed that everything else is an afterthought to them. When you do find something interesting, they often don’t realize that there is an actual demand for it.  I wound up with a bargain.

Schelley follows Stanley’s career after Lulu, too, when with varying degrees of success, he sought new challenges and took on teen comics and even horror, and even a hybrid called Melvin the Monster. I discovered Stanley’s Lulu in reprints on a family summer vacation years after he’d left the title. We were given quarters to spend at the comics rack at the state park store when they wanted to keep us quiet and couldn’t take us on hikes or canoe rides. Magical stories for those long magical summer weeks that I, like many kids always remembered and returned to as an adult. Only this time, the return was not as disappointing as other nostalgic memories. Stanley, a comic genius, labored most of his life in obscurity, and died just as his unique talent was finally being discovered, which often happens in the under-appreciated art form of comics.This is a beautiful, though limited book, but it’s the only game in town for Lulu devotees.

Marge’s Little Lulu, John Stanley: Dell Comics licensed the character from her creator, Marge Buell, and immediately assigned it to young Disney Studios vet Stanley. They are so different in quality from the mindless pap that comics were already shoveling out for kids, that Stanley, though uncredited, became legendary when the kids (who eventually know when you are feeding them pap! Stop feeding them pap.) grew up and formed the beginnings of the comic-con fan culture in the 70’s. By then he was embittered, like most comics artists of the era, and had left the industry.

The earliest ones (1946-1949) are the most uproarious, with laugh-out-loud visual slapstick that derived not from an adult’s simplistic, unconsidered idea of what children should read, but from simple situations based on how children really are. Thus, the comedy builds in a very realistic way that speaks as much to adults as it does to kids. Stanley’s comic pacing rarely fails him, once he gets the set-up right.

It helps that Lulu as Stanley writes her is a real firecracker. This is the age of Rosie the Riveter, before the xenophobic, conservative retrenchment of the conformist 50’s, though even in the context of Barbara Stanwick and other self reliant female icons of the era, Lulu stands out.

In her first story, we meet Lulu, clearly not happy with a pretty angel costume her mother has made her for a children’s party. When her pal Tubby shows up and begins to laugh at her in it, she literally “leans in” nose to nose with him and asks, “How’d you like a poke in the snoot”? Lulu tends to get not bitter, but even. Her solution? She takes Tubby’s beard from his pirate costume and adds it to her own. From there, the clever gags escalate. The kids play spin the bottle, and Lulu insists on claiming a kiss, beard and all, from a balking boy. Eventually she triumphs her way, winning at “Pin-the Tail-on-the-Donkey” after a blindfolded gallivant through downtown traffic.

By the 50’s  Stanley was relying less on clever sight gags and slapstick humor and more on situations and character; he almost never resorts to formula and hack work, and explores the variations on an idea to the fullest. Lulu’s sense of what boys, especially the exquisitely self-involved Tubby, can be expected to do helps her to triumph in many unexpected ways, and her recurring triumphs against the “no girls allowed” fellers club are not only satisfying as metaphor, but classic comic turn abouts. She’s not afraid to take a back seat in the narrative, sometimes, as when Tubby becomes The Spider, a detective who always suspects Lulu’s dad, and is almost always right, though he seldom knows why, and creates chaos proving it. Many women will recognize his overbearing, entitled incompetence from their own work spaces.

Stanley quit while still at peak after 135 or so Lulus. It’s enough to keep one busy reading and laughing out loud for years, though one wonders what might have been had his talent been recognized and rewarded. Many women will be familiar with this question, as well.

I’ve joked before that Little Lulu must be the most widely read feminist writing of the ultra conformist 50’s, but I suspect I’m actually right. Stanley was no activist. He was a simple family man, and struggled with alcohol and depression, but his sense of fairness and perhaps his life as an obscure underdog gave him the empathy to create a great character that happened to be a clever, assertive female. Do yourself a favor and grab some of Dark Horse Comics’ collected Little Lulu trade PBs.

Ganzfeld 5, Dan Nadel. Spectacular anthology of early Manga and later Ft. Thunder school Canadian artists (“Japanada!” is this issue’s theme), with again (like issue 6) a disappointingly hands-off approach to critical interpretation, compared to earlier issues. But a fun ‘get’, especially as a local buy ( Kilgore’s, I like to support the locals when I can, and am trying to avoid Amazon whenever possible)) and especially at slightly cheaper than online. It doesn’t take much to make me happy these days.

Everything I learn about early Manga brings home how innovative and original it can be. Shigeru Sugiura is one of the standouts in the Japan side of Japanada. His early 80’s 3 pagers here evoke the psychedelic surrealism of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. A graphic artist, Keiichi Tanaami, is also an eye opener, possibly from the same era, though undated in the Ganzfeld’s slack editing. Amy Lockhart’s cartoon-brut “Dizzler”, from Canada’s Fort Thunder-inspired Nog a Dod anthology is a highlight as well. This is a great anthology that often highlights ways comics and art intersect. My disappointment in the lack of consistent comics criticism aside, each issue is a revelation.

Wonder Woman, A Celebration of 75 Years: Obligatory DC tribute/ movie tie-in, with samplings from each heavily ret-conned era in the character’s very mercurial career. Marston, her originator whose fondness for both female supremacy and bondage subsequent creators, whether feminist or retrograde, have tip-toed gingerly around, and Perez are standouts, but so, surprisingly, is Denny O’Neill’s much-reviled iChing period, criticized for taking away WW’s powers at the dawn of Second Wave feminism by Gloria Steinem (she is said to have influenced then-boyfriend and DC Comics owner Steve Ross to restore them).

Nonetheless, they do often hold up well as simple comics stories, as opposed to those assigned the task of “scrubbing” the character later. Robert Kanigher contributes an absurd Comics Code era ‘marriage scheme’ story, a typically bizarre alternate universe Wonder Girl story in which WW coexists as mother figure to her own younger selves, and an utterly shambolic mess in his return after O’Neill in the 70’s. After Perez revives Marston’s classicism, comes the “Bad Girl” era of the 90’s, with Wonder Woman falling prey to its emblematic “brokeback” style, featuring mannerist drawings in impossibly static poses meant to display both tits ‘n’ ass for the fan boys. Most of these later stories are unreadable, and I didn’t.

Zonzo, Joan Cornella: Horribly funny in the cartoon-brut style of cute characters doing vaguely offensive things, but without the multi-layered absurdist wit of a Bret VandeBroucke or Benedikt Kaltenborn. Thus it lacks real depth, but is an artist to watch.

The Roses of Berlin, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill: McNeill’s gorgeous, dark Steampunk world building cannot rescue Moore’s Victorian retro-futurist adventure heroes from these dreary plots. Why all the carnage?

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Monotype Workshops for Fall

September 11, 2017

Christina recently took my Monotype Starter workshop. She explored transparency with secondary color, a simple arrangement of leaf forms in a slightly asymmetrical composition, and arrived at a very elegant result. She was inspired by a print by Mami Yamamoto (R), another former student, who has had quite a bit of success since.

I’ve tried to explore composition in my workshops. I’ve talked about the importance of color in prints, but it can actually be ignored, at least at first, as black and white prints are not unusual, and to some quite distinctive and attractive. But basic composition skills are hard to do without. I’m reading a book by Molly Bang called Picture This. It’s been around awhile, though this is the first I’ve encountered it. The 25th Anniversary edition’s cover blurb calls it “The Strunk and White of visual literacy.”

Never mind that Strunk and White has been often challenged as too rigid for some writers. I’m enjoying Picture This, which in some ways mirrors things I’ve emphasized in classes, and which in others mirrors only its author’s favored methods. I’m sure I’ll add parts of it to my own discussions. Her simple cut-paper illustrations seem tailor made for graphics, where much is accomplished with little in the way of detail. Her emphasis is on the emotional content of a composition, which I think beginners are often unaware of.

I’ve finalized all the fall workshops and it’s a busy autumn. I start with Monotype Portfolio, my newly renamed intermediate class, on September 11, and go to Schlessman Family Library for my first DPL drop-in workshop two days later. The session continues through mid-December.

I’ve got two Monotype Starter ( my intro class) sessions, a day version starting October 17, and a night session of the same material beginning Thursday, November 9. My all-day Saturday session, now named Mountain Dewishly, Monotype Blast, is November 11.

All are built around conversation and creative growth. All have spaces left, but some are filling fast. You can go online to register here.

Art Students League Workshops:

Monotype Portfolio: Intended for those who’ve had a previous printmaking class, or perhaps some art school experience, and who need to work out a series or new idea, or just a print room refresher. Next one starts Sept 11 and is filling rather quickly.

Monotype Starter: Intended as a step-by-step tutorial on the basics of printing and print room protocol. You will be certified to use the room independently upon completion. Two sessions, a Tuesday morning, 9-12:30, beginning October 9; and a Thursday evening, 6-9:30 that runs for 4 weeks bookended around Thanksgiving and is filling quite quickly), beginning November 9. It ends in time for the busy holidays.

My Monotype Blast workshop, November 11, 9-4 PM,  comes just in time for Denver Arts Week, as well as holiday giving: it’s possible for some to get 6-8 small prints done for use as creative stocking stuffers.

I also have a very affordable three-hour Moxie U sampler on November 2 that’ll help you decide if the whole squishin’-ink-onto-paper-with-a-press-thing is right for you; it’s light on technical procedures as I do most of that ahead, so you can just make monotypes. Register by Election Day.

Denver Public Library Workshops

Library workshops are drop-in style, kept very simple because I get a lot of kids-I encourage family participation, as the kids really do well when Mom or Dad is there. Again, this is a good sampler event, especially if you are curious about water-based inks, which we use. They are free and open to the public, so c’mon down and say hello.

 

A full schedule of the Fall dates is here, on my workshop page. They’ll continue in Winter/Spring 2018. I’ll post more info on these and other events, such as demos and talks, as soon as they get scheduled. Feel free to email, or comment here, if you have questions about any of them.

 

 

 

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Tales of the Unexpected: a Frighteningly Random Reading List

September 10, 2017

I’ve posted a full list of my Fall workshops on my Monotype Workshops page. I’ll summarize those here tomorrow. In the meantime, another reading list:

I read a short appreciation of cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall in the New Yorker. His thesis, during a series of lectures in Chicago, at least, was that pop culture is a sort of place of negotiation where new, or outsider attitudes can be tried out and a “common sense” emerge. I think this is right. It certainly makes my hodgepodge reading lists seem constructive, even directed, rather than arbitrary.

I actually started this list during the spring, but it’s taken on a life of its own. And it was assembled from different, seemingly accidental encounters. Later it doesn’t seem so arbitrary. In moments stolen from my busy schedule I see a book; I grab it. Later, it winds up here, in these posts, and sometimes in my artwork, though I can’t always tell you how.

I take notes while I’m reading, usually in the mornings and on weekends,  jotting down first impressions of new books and when it’s time to post, I cut and paste all of my reading list notes from my diary. This time, it came to 2400 words. Time to start chopping! And in editing, linkages can often be discovered.

My personal diary of readings has generally replaced my studio notes, which were often quite trivial.  Reading is a great way to get inside other heads, and writing about it forces me to make connections between ideas encountered.  The original inspiration for it is Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, originally a monthly column in the Believer mag, but then collected in a couple of different volumes, one subtitled “A hilarious account of one man’s struggle with the monthly tide of the books he’s bought and the books he’s been meaning to read.”

If there is a theme, accidental or not, of any sort to my reading, I guess it would be that I’d like to understand the roots of pop culture in 19th century Romantic thought. Victorian lit, along with the growth of advertising and industrial presses, seems to have enabled quite a bit of experimentation in cultural narrative, and by the late 19th  Century had already given rise to fantasy and genre, in the form of infant manifestations of romance, western and sci fi popular fiction. These gave rise to pulps, then comics. A lot of these low culture tropes then appeared in the expanding paper back industry, along with an increased interest in the classics. This merging of high and low is well rendered in Adam Gopnik’s and Keith Varnedoe’s catalog essays for the High and Low exhibition in the 90’s. It’s a great read that really draws thematic parallels between museum art, such as Phillip Guston’s, and popular culture, such as the comics of R. Crumb, to name just one example.

Gopnik makes a convincing argument, through timing and imagery, of Crumb’s influence on Guston’s turn away from abstraction in the 60’s, as Crumb was starting his ground breaking career in underground comix. Crumb was, in turn, influenced by EC comics’ early Mad magazine, itself a product of the Jewish humor that informed early newspaper comics and later, the invention of the comic book. Daily newspapers and pulp publishers needed content to reach immigrant populations and keep massive industrial presses busy. Later, it winds up in the cathedrals of high art. To an artist, and lover of comics, it’s an irresistible thread to follow.

Undercover: an Illustrated History of American Mass Market Paperbacks, Thomas Bonn: In a box of free books at the school where I work, I found this coffee table-ish tribute (published by Penguin, one of the pioneers of paperbacks)  on the history of the paperback book industry, especially during the 50’s when American cultural provincialism was being challenged by the growth of new opportunities in the industry, including comics and pulp, and by social and lifestyle changes. Pulp publishers influenced pop culture such as comics early on, and paperbacks are still playing a major role in the transformation of the comics industry today, with the upsurge in bookstore sales of the “graphic novel” or album format. The paperback, aside from its role in horror, sci fi and other genres, has made comics a more vibrant medium. Not to mention its role in transforming social mores about sex and fantasy. Would we have as much access to European literature, especially fringe forms, such as comics, without paperbacks? Doubtful.

TinTin in America, Herge: Tintin was one of my first experiences of Euro-stlye clear-line comics in college, so when I saw this, one of the few I’d never read, in a used bookstore I snatched it up. Herge, a Catholic boy scout with, early on in his career, all of the right wing implications that entails, began his cartooning career in a Catholic children’s newspaper in colonialist Belgium, and his first stories, which have been suppressed, are set in the Belgian Congo and Soviet Russia. They are replete with stereotypical characters. This one came later, and is easier to find as it’s apparently considered not so overtly offensive. That may be a function of its subject matter: Native Americans are referred to as “Redskins” a term that even today, NFL fans apparently have no problem with. The patois assigned to them is straight out of Hollywood’s worst years. Or maybe the book is still published because it manages to stereotype almost everyone in America, making it fairly hilarious for all the wrong reasons.

It’s certainly not one of Herge’s better tales, which were to come later, after he’d suppressed his parochialism, and concentrated on character-based humor.

Spanish Fever, ed. Santiago Garcia: A real case is made here for Spain as a haven for innovative cartooning. An outgrowth of my interest in the Spanish cartoonist Max, I suppose, but there are many flavors of comics here, and the light shone on current quality reflects on past glories, such as Marti, Daniel Torres and Mariscal. Here, the artists separate into neo-clear line cartoonists, such as Max and Micharmut; Charleroix-style looser graphics; and others exploring edgier, Fort Thunder style cartoon-brut graphics. Subject matter also varies widely, as one would expect, with socialist or libertarian political or cultural commentary a strong element, along with surrealist pranking, ala Max. Spain should be ranked right along France and Belgium as a center of European comics innovation.

Paperback books also opened up access to classic literature. I read, or revisited several Victorian, Edwardian and early Modern novels during the  spring and summer’s slower moments, most of them in paperback: I had promised myself I would overcome my sophomoric aversion to Victorian, or pre-modern fiction, so I picked up the only Henry James currently on display at my neighborhood library, Portrait of a Lady. I’d often opened James’ novels, only to sample passages of his orotund syntax, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how engaging reading Portrait is. It’s a page-turning tale of a young American upper class woman in Europe, and on the battlefield of the sexes. My longtime prejudice to Victorian, or pre-modern lit is confirmed by the archaic language and attitudes, but challenged by the strength of the characters and their direct dialogue. Had I spent more time with James, I’d have realized that he has a very modern sense of driving the action with interior monologue. He is seen as a sort of precursor to modernists like Woolf, and his dialog-  sharp, direct, pacy, offsets the Victorian circumlocution in his expository passages.

Yes, his narrative style and general approach is just as rotund as I had always feared it would be. Are the attenuated double negatives and gratuitous metaphors his own, or integral to his characters and their times? Sometimes it’s hard to tell whose voice is speaking, and often the author emerges to comment clumsily on character, a very un-modernist phenomenon. But there is far more to James than transitional style. His narrative presence ( Schmidt, in The Novel A Biography, calls it “indirect oblique”) implies both omniscience and a guy hiding behind the brocaded drapes.  There is a real similarity between James’ romantic paranoia and Pynchon’s corporate/fascist conspiracies; a real sense of interior conscious as reality, and the outside world as untrustworthy, or an impression.

This is an odd book. It never leaves its cozy upper class world ( the servants are as invisible as any book I’ve ever read), but its heroine never ceases to assert her individuality. Decoding its complex themes is probably more than my limited experience with 19th C. literature allows, but in its investigation of class and longstanding feminist concerns, and its its head-on address of Victorian mores and strictures, it certainly resonates today.

James’ subjective voice definitely contributed to Modernism, and his sense of transcending class- or of psychological “placing” of self certainly alludes to late Romanticism; Whitman, for example, or Melville, who goes to sea in the “Dark November” of his soul. Their distancing subjectivity anticipates Modernism. He also published serially, like Dickens, in paperback, an industrial revolution phenomenon which expanded audiences and created space for pulp fantasy in fiction.

Later, I happened on The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, which I’d read long ago for a friend’s choice in a book club. It is considered an exemplar of literary impressionism, and is of course a direct precursor to Hemingway. I enjoy making these sorts of connections. This was in a critical edition, fattened with essays on various aspects of Ford’s novel and stye. Book nerds, Ho!

 Virginia Woolf, an Inner Life, Julia Briggs: I laid this aside when I’d gotten through the chapters on her central trilogy (To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own), which I’ve read and/or re-read recently. I’ll go back to it again when I’ve read Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, etc. It’s the kind of book one returns to. Woolf’s themes are highly nuanced and this analysis really added background and texture to my experience with these three works, some of them first read back in post-college days.

Hedging my bets against all this Victorian and Edwardian prose, I brought home PG Wodehouse, a classic of light comic reading. Wodehouse was an Englishman turned American, and it shows in his writing. Here, in Sam the Sudden, the classes in both America and Europe have been codified and each have their heroes and villains, and not so very different from Tintin, stereotypes are no less prevalent. Wodehouse depicts a London as a massive door-slam farce, thus leading to hijinks.

If my reading list seems call to mind a literary ghoulash, perhaps we can remember  that what the suburban lower middle class cooks of my 60’s upbringing called “ghoulash”- a sort of bland melange of canned tomato soup, macaroni and ground beef, which I later discovered bore no resemblance to any sort of authentic culinary dish. I discovered this in Red Lodge, Montana, of all places. I had the real thing at a family owned Hungarian restaurant. This would be one of my first encounters with ethnic foods, if you don’t count the Italian-American pizza-place canards of my upstate New York youth. Authentic flavor can be found in unexpected places.

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Fall Forward

August 17, 2017

I’m finalizing what seems like a very busy schedule for fall workshops, and I’ll post complete details with links on my “Workshops” page soon. They’re all available for registration now, with “Monotype Portfolio”, my newly re-named workshop for advanced beginners and beyond, up first.

Monotype Portfolio, which is intended for those who’ve had a basic printmaking course, or perhaps some college experience back in the day, begins Monday, Sept 11, and continues for four weeks after that, making it very affordable and a nice fit for those glorious early fall evenings. Quick refreshers on color and using the press are given to start, then we jump into Chine Colle’, layered prints and advanced registration techniques, and framing, if the class is interested. It is intended for those who might like to execute a series, or perhaps enter a show.

After that, there are both daytime and evening sessions of Monotype Starter, my re-named beginner’s basics workshop, and then back to Portfolio after the Holidays.There is a Saturday Monotype Blast, and a Moxie U sampler as well.

Denver Public Library workshops are back, too, with free 1 1/2 hour drop-in workshops for the family beginning in September and running at various branches all fall, ending just before the Holidays. Other events may be added.

I’m also going to have a rarely-seen large piece in a show at the State Capitol, though I don’t have details on that yet. Click on “Contact Me” if you have questions about any of these, or come back for updates

“Ice Storm” Monotype, 15×11″, 2016. It’s been a very pleasant summer, and I’m not trying to rush it away, but perhaps a bit of creativity and good conversation in the big bright ASLD print room might warm up the chilly days to come?

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A Place For Us

July 09, 2017

Place, Intaglio, 4/5, 2011

Place, Intaglio, 4/5, 2011

I wrote this post a year and a half ago, but never published it. It seems to fit in well with the Sgt. Pepper’s 50th Anniversary post of a few weeks ago, so here it is:

 

I made the above etching for very practical reasons- its a small work that might  provide a little cash at shows here, where the art-buying public is often living with small crowded walls, or small budgets. It has also turned out to be just ambiguously meaningful enough (to me) to use as a gift- I like to bring a small piece of art to house warming or holiday parties, and was actually able to convince myself that its simpe dichotomy between absence and presence made it appropriate for friends who’d lost a loved one.

So it’s become a small symbolic token of life stages for me, anyway, and a fairly successful creation after first being concieved of as an simple, expressive sketch of a plain subject. It has taken on complexity, which is how I enjoy my works best. It has reminded me that “place” can be a very evocative concept.

The song “There’s a Place” does not get mentioned alot when anthologizing, or  mythologizing the Beatles. But it occupies a unique spot not only in their development, but in the progression of popular Rock and Roll music as a whole.

It serves only a minor role in their history- it comes between their breakthrough no. 1 single “Please Please Me” and the monster releases that brought them world fame: “She Loves You” and  “I want to Hold Your Hand.”  At the time of its recording, their record company was eager to rush them back into studio for their first album, to capitalize on the success of ‘Please’, and its predecessor, “Love Me Do”, which reached Number 5 in England. But LPs were not the central product of the singles-driven music industry then, not the art form that the group would later make them. They were given only 10 hours (?!) to record the collection of George Martin-approved covers of ravers and schmaltzy pop ballads that along with their own songs would become Meet the Beatles, but having fought to get the privilege of recording “Please Please Me”, it was only a matter of time before their very unique muse would push out.

George Martin’s genius for propulsive, immersive song intros, later manifested in classics like “Eight Days a Week”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, makes an early appearance here as McCartney’s one strangley neutral bass downbeat launches a nervously rolling guitar /drum backbeat, leavened only by Lennon’s keening harmonica. At the end of the first stanza we don’t know anything about what the song’s about, or where the referred-to “place” even is. But the second reveals much, in the span of eight urgently ascending words : “And it’s my mind/ And there’s no time/” while the next three sum up what’s at stake: “when I’m alone”.

Ironically, as Lennon intones this curiously flattened phrase it sounds less like joy and suspiciously like lament. In Martin’s production the song’s central paradox emerges: he is in fact, utterly alone as the rest of the supporting voices drop off. Into this jarring emptiness, from somewhere distant but achingly real, one single wail of the keening mouth harp intrudes. A stumbling, stuttering, inarticulate ensemble of bass drums and guitar introduces another emotional disjunct- a curiously unconvincing self assurance in the second, less exalted refrain. “In my mind there’s no sorrow/”, Lennon declares plaintively, as the background chorus doggedly stands by his story: “Don’t you know that it’s so?”

Observe that the song names no love object: no Donna or Peggy Sue. It is ambiguously enough written that we can’t really be sure who is loving who. “I think of you,” in the context of its era, and the Beatles’ personal history, seems to suggest a beautiful woman. In subject matter, it can be compared productively with both “All I Have to Do is Dream”, by the Everlys and “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin. Neither of these song makes an attempt at the existential complexity at work in “There’s a Place”. It is not unusual to sing about dreams of nameless women. The difference is in the palpable sense of sonic disjunct in the rollicking guitars, lonely harmonica and alternately rasping and ethereal vocal harmonies; the nagging sense that the singer is creating his lover from the whole cloth of alienation and existential longing.

There is poetry here, and not only in the raw, street level conjunction of sex with rhythm that elevates the delta-born poetics of the body in early rock’s opposition to the infantilized prudery of 50’s pop. Neither Darin nor Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, writers of  ‘All I Have to Do’ achieve the evocative economy of words that Lennon (with McCartney, but Lennon seems to claim the words, at least) does. ( For the record: 219 Dream Lover (not counting (Yeah, Yeahs), versus 181 All I Have to Do , and 101 Place) “The things you said/Like, I love only you/” is the only place in the song that comes close to describing a specific person, and the lyrical context is not clear whether the words exist on the lips of a real lover, or in the mind of a fantasizing narrator. So who is loving who? And why the unmistakeable tone of melancholy? Is it the love of a man for a woman, or given the Beatles’ still precarious career state ( the song originated in their early live set), a muse, or even the bitch goddess fame? No one, not even Dylan, in ’62, was writing songs like this. On the cusp of becoming part of the biggest musical act the world had ever seen, Lennon brings home a very basic truth about why we sing -and dream- at all.

None of these songs, in fact, names names. But only Lennon tells us what’s at stake- the yawning abyss between happiness (creative fulfillment) and death (loneliness). Although The Everlys sing flippantly “that I could die,” the real problem, as the song sees it, is ( gee whiz! ) he’s “dreaming his life away”. Dreaming and not being married is the problem. With Lennon, loneliness is the problem and dreaming is the solution.”There’ll be no sad tomorrows”, he insists, but his voice betrays his doubts.

In its complex abstraction of what it means to dream- what is its purpose, and who lives in that interior “place,” and the emphasis on the existential loneliness of the “I,” the song can probably be argued as a debut of the modern pop singer-songwriter aesthetic, as Dylan did not release Freewheelin’ till a couple of months later. Lennon, of course was not a singer/songwriter, he was in a group,   but it’s a very personal song. He would return to the approach in “Norwegian Wood”

The song also anticipates the end of album as pure packaging of hits and covers, though the album as artistic concept, also a Martin/Beatles innovation, in their Sgt. Pepper’s incarnation, was still a few years away. The place that this song yearningly describes is not a place at all, but the soul.The real subject of the song is a quest for connection, whether with the self, or another. And its central narrative, framed in relentlessly discordant parts of an ineffably sad whole, is that the soul dreams alone. Lennon and The Beatles were to explore vexing human problems like this long after the cover songs had disappeared. Lennon, who died pretty much alone, albeit in the middle of a small crowd, never got a chance to resolve the basic question of why we dream at all.

The 50’s were over, the 60’s, a decade of Mutually Assured Destruction, moon landings and assassinations, were beginning, and the reassurance of safe havens for the soul, as the Fabs and all of us were about to realize, were becoming harder and harder to find, even in dreams.

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I Hope You All Enjoyed The Show.

June 16, 2017

I have a post I didn’t have time to finish and post last week, on the Beatles’ 50th anniversary of the release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, June 1. I didn’t post it with the rush to prepare for the annual Summer Art Market show. That went okay, with the main news being I won “Best In Show.” I’ll put up an album of photos soon. But here’s the Beatles post, and I’ve got another that I never posted, so I’m going to finish that, too.

 

It was 50 years ago today. We’ve been seeing that almost obligatory headline a lot recently, as the media return to a longtime, can’t-miss subject: The Beatles, and the anniversary of the release of their ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Everyone old enough will have memories of this release, which was a watershed in both artistic and cultural, even political history. Its effect is probably emotional for some people who lived it, and difficult to describe to those who weren’t there without using hyperventilated superlatives. The Beatles were sort of magical at that time; the hair- a big issue then, the flippancy, the “more popular than Jesus” defiance. There were some Goldwater Republicans and what we then called “Jesus Freaks” who hated them, but no one else did. It’s important to note- you young whippersnappers! -that no later artist, no Prince, no U2, R.E.M., Beyonce or Katy Perry, has ever had that grip on the imaginations of the young.

Suffice it to say, I’ll never be all that distant from Sgt. Pepper’s. It seems a part of me, and retains its immediacy. For one thing, at that time Sgt. Pepper’s was the only show in town. But it’s become fashionable to place it behind Revolver in the Beatles’ canon.

Like many, I’ve read a lot of books on the Beatles. My two go-tos, musically, remain Tell Me Why, by Tim Riley, a song-by-song analysis of the musical and lyrical structures of all their albums, and The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, by Mark Lewison, a day-to day record of their studio work with George Martin. Both provide critical analysis, as well as cultural and biographical context for their many moods and innovations. As I’ve mentioned here before, The Beatles Anthology albums (Vols. 1-3), with their out takes, creative progressions and studio half-steps, are an indispensable companion. Also search out The Atlantic’s The Power of Two, (July 2014) by Joshua Wolf Shenk, a shorter analysis of what made the Lennon and McCartney collaboration so effective.

In 1967, others, notably rivals The Rolling Stones, were still standing on the shoulders of blues giants. The Beatles however, had leveraged their unassailable chart postings by quitting touring, and had unlimited studio time to explore pop, folk and psychedelia.

On Pepper’s, the sheer power of George Martin’s control room vision can no longer cover up the centrifugal motion of Lennon and McCartney’s artistic intentions. On Revolver, we hear McCartney’s R&B masterpiece “Got to Get You Into My Life” moments before one of the first great 60’s psychedelic/mystic songs, Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”. They are clearly moving apart musically. But with Pepper’s, their ideas are still engaged in metaphorical dialog, thanks in part to its loose concept (faux Victorian psychedelic nostalgia, which quickly became the rage for pop bands, and eventually informed steam punk genre fiction and fashion). Three songs epitomize the Pepper album’s failures and its triumphs. One is on the album, two are not.

The first is “A Day In The Life”. It is the emotional core of an album that has been criticized for not having one, when compared with the worldly love songs and social realism of Revolver.  But its disjunct between bouncy pop and existential questioning is part of its brilliance, and the Atlantic article defines this as part of Lennon and McCartney’s collective genius, the tendency of John and Paul to respond to each other’s ideas, in the same way that the dreamy search for identity in Strawberry Fields plays off against the uncannily superrealist nostalgia of Penny Lane, the other two songs I allude to above.

This is the real problem with the record: it’s not complete. In early 1967, their record labels Parlophone and Capitol, anxious that a cash cow single had not been seen for all of 10 months, were pressuring the band, just liberated from brutal touring schedules, for a new 45. The fireman rushes in, indeed. The labels’ release schedule was out of sync with their creative one. Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were two of the few songs ready. But by custom, these midterm singles were not included on the subsequent album. By late April, work had begun on several other songs, and only a month after Pepper, the “All You Need Is Love” single is released. No song was ever released from  SPLHCB as a single, in fact. “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” are included in December on another Capitol mash-up, the “Magical Mystery Tour LP.  It’s treated as a trivial oddity if mentioned at all, but is in fact a pop artistic tragedy on a par with a lost Shakespeare play. Or perhaps it’s enough to state that George Martin called the songs’ omission from the record “a dreadful mistake”. He’s right- only those two songs refer both to the floating anxiety of Lennon’s distant, ironicized dreamscapes brought together with McCartney’s photorealism in one disturbing “Day”, between morning newspaper and first cigarette.

In A Day In The Life, the Beatles themselves puncture their own nostalgic Victorian band conceit before the record even ends. As Riley points out, in a useful discussion of the song’s metaphoric soundscape, the spare acoustic guitar opening of Day emerges from the fading illusion of Sgt Pepper’s (Reprise), and Lennon’s dreamy absurdity ( “4000 holes”) asks us to ponder what is real and what is illusion. We hear an alarm clock; the dream is over-  a studio alarm clock included in an early take as a time marker inspires McCartney’s man on the bus smoking segment, which plays what is in this context, as quotidian zombie horror, as his working stiff rushes for the bus. This daydream plays off perfectly against Lennon’s existential nightmare.

Without Penny Lane, however, The crystalline nostalgia of McCartney’s hyperrealist suburban vignettes (When I’m 64, Lovely Rita) can sound gratuitous and superficial next to the anxiety-prone absurdity of Lennon’s hallucinogenic Victoriana ( Good Morning, Mr. Kite). These songs, in turn, sound like LSD fripperies without the primal identity quest (“No one, I think, is in my tree”) of Strawberry Fields to anchor them. “Fields”- about an orphanage grounds, and “Lane”, about an everyday intersection, center the ideas of the Pepper sessions as no other song, other than “A Day”, can. The metaphoric backstory of the album begins with these childhood memories and ends with Paul and Martin’s orchestrated crescendos, knitting disparate sounds and leading to a note of attenuated anticipation, a sort of definitive ambiguity. What’s next, the long closing note asks? Martin was excited by the creative effusion, and anxious to return to the studio. But the band, in retrospect, suddenly seemed adrift.

“A crowd of people stood and stared” referring perhaps, to the just-exited Sgt. Pepper’s audience? Or to the Beatles themselves? Nobody was sure what exactly they were seeing. The disjunct between Lennon’s dark apocalyptic dreamscape; and the sunny clarity of McCartney’s blue suburban skies is explained, as a dream within a dream. It all adds up to a kind of existential, hallucinogenic identity crisis,  one that mirrors the one many of us, in large parts of society as a whole, experienced then. But the Beatles, now without Brian Epstein, might’ve been having one, too.

It brings up the question of what might have been released instead of these two songs, and the correct answer is, really, “Who cares?” “When I’m 64” was the other song ready in February 1967, and would be no great loss to the album, where it’s more of a breathing space between more meaningful songs. Same with “Within You Without You” which fits only by virtue of geography into the album’s loose concept. But that brings up band politics, as it was Harrison’s only song on the album. So why not include them all? Recording technology was apparently an issue. Sgt. Pepper runs 39 minutes, Revolver, 35. Mostly, though, it was commerce triumphing over art.

For the Beatles’ part, they’d made themselves clear on this issue with the “butcher” cover to the spurious Capitol Records release Yesterday and Today, but never seemed to have returned to the issue. “Well I just had to laugh” is, as Riley notes, a token of resigned disillusionment.

By the time Pepper’s was released, they’d recorded several sessions for Magical Mystery Tour. Self indulgence was rearing its head. On the very day of the Pepper album release, Lewison reports the Beatles in studio, recording unplanned and “frankly tedious” jams. Perhaps it was the Beatles themselves who had lost their emotional core. Did they have an inkling that some element of magic had gone mysteriously missing? Had hubris set in? But if the album does fail, it’s a failure of execution, not of artistic vision. Sgt. Pepper’s, always great in terms of its cultural influence, if not in terms of its artistic cohesion,  was sacrificed to an already outdated business plan.

 

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Walk Right In?

June 02, 2017

Textures and graphic effects are a way of bringing energy to a print composition. A highly detailed texture will attract the eye and demand attention, a subtle one will invite mental rest and contemplation. A heavier, darker texture or a very transparent one will tend to create depth by playing off what’s behind or underneath it. In this three staged monotype, I had some fairly unique coloring and a balanced, if plain image, and I put it aside with a vague feeling of disappointment as it really didn’t have a lot of intrigue. Intrigue can be defined in prints, probably in all art, as something, a bit of mystery or surprise that might keep the eye exploring the picture, possibly to extract meaning ( or determine if meaning is indeed there), or to solve the puzzle of its composition, or simply to bring the visual exploration to a fairly logical stopping point.

In this case, I didn’t want to give up on the print because I liked the sense of calm, or is it desolation? which I think comes from the pink light and the fairly empty expanse on the left side. So I wanted to heighten that distance and light, without cluttering the picture.

I did this print last year, and while I loved the strange colors and stylized interplay between positive and negative elements, it seemed too sparse to call finished.

The picture was also a bit sparse though, lacked a real focal point and featured mostly hard edges. I wanted to add a bit of visual richness and narrative movement while maintaining the graphic simplicity.

First I added in some more visual elements in the foreground which enhanced the designerly, modernist look of the first layer, and although these are also hard-edged shapes (created with mylar overlays), I think the addition of more complexity in the foreground makes the emptiness in the background more pronounced.

I added some foreground darks to create a focal point in opposition to the rather empty background.

Then I thickened the glade at the right avoiding too much clutter, by adding some trace monotype lines.

I rediscoverd trace monotype, a favorite from Paul Klee’s early work in my art history class days, and decided to experiment with it to see if it might add to these pictures I’d never finished. It has a fairly spontaneous and softer-edged feel to it as opposed to the hard edge of the mylar stencilling, which might, given the subject ( strangely lit glade) add some visual balance. The softer-edged elements were placed in front of the earlier graphic elements, not usually how you do it, but as in photography, the depth of field is being manipulated to sharpen and highlight middle ground elements, an example of what I mean by visual intrigue. When you highlight or sharpen the middle ground, you are, in effect, asking the viewer to “enter” past the foreground elements. Like pushing to the front of the crowd for a street busker, say, it asks for a bit of commitment.

It added a bit of “dirty” look to the print, which adds an edgy but also timeless feel to the modernist hard edges. Blacks ( not too heavy) always add depth by bringing out color and balancing tones, which here were sitting mostly in the middle-light to middle-dark range except the ghostly whites. I used the trace mainly for spindly forest brush (plant) images and ground debris which adds a bit of suggested perspective and realistic “bottom” to the pic, but also a kind of synaesthesia in that one can imagine the crackling of twigs, which draws one in to the place depicted. It’s also somewhat calligraphic and hints at a story in the scene. The second layer of leafy designs in mylar  plays off the twigs to create a sort of diversity of textures and heightens the original play of positive negative space in the pic. I like that the imagery is denser, but the two image sets are now in a bit of visual tension with each other in a sort of necker cube shift of dark and light. Is the white log stencil some sort of border treatment, or is it a log that has shifted to another dimension. A ghost log? I always enjoy signal-to-noise problems, and this one suggests information degradation or decay, since it exists at the edge of the picture plane, where an image might be expected to fade anyway.

Whether this all works is of course for the viewer to decide, but as the “first” viewer, it made me happier.  This was a print which seemingly had no chance of ever being seen by the public, until I decided that other textures might make it just intriguing enough to show ( Yes, I have to see intrigue, or at least stylistic interplay in something before I can bring myself to show it). It seemed to lack any sort of visual grace or interior dialog beyond the pink and brown coloring, which I always loved, and which probably kept it near the top of the stack of unfinished items, rather than buried in a flat file. It seems to have a fair amount of depth and “placeness” in it now. It’s a place I would like to go to and walk around in, so I went there.

You can see it and judge for yourself at the Art Students League Summer Art Market, June 10-11, Booth #96, where I’ll be showing it along with work by my booth mate, Taiko Chandler.

The finished piece has quite a bit more texture, including rub marks from the trace monotype.

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When They Go High…

April 30, 2017

“Magnifying Glass”, Roy Lichtenstein.

I like writing about comics because they partially relate to my professional work in graphic arts. How much do they relate?

Most people have been conditioned by the conventional wisdom to ignore comics as a relevant art form, high or low. This is getting harder to do. There is starting to be a significant body of criticism available to scholars and aficionados, and each new study advances the conversation in both quality and tone.  The book “Origins of Comics”was previously mentioned here, as it makes interesting connections between the narrative, moralistic print tableaus of Hogarth, a pioneer of popularly available printmaking in an academic tradition, and the kinetic narrative of satiric picture stories by Topfer, generally considered the inventor of the comics and by some, as a precursor to visually subversive art such as expressionism. Comics and prints were really the first popular (visual) media. Movies often copied comics’ prank narratives in the early days. High art has been raiding the non sequiturs of cartoon satire since Odilon Redon and Grandville. And into that well have movies and TV, today’s dominant popular media, been increasingly dipping.

My reading choices have tended to reinforce this connection. Mini-reviews that I post on my blog to add diversity from my show and studio news, pretty much track what I’m reading. I love literary and art criticism and comics in their recent mini-renaissance have touched on both. Here are several items from my recent stacks of reading material, randomly acquired, but that seemed to relate:

High and Low, Modern Art, Pop Culture, essays on comics and caricature by Adam Gopnik, 1991: I carefully parsed Gopnik’s essay on comics in this voluminous catalog from a 1991 MOMA show. It ties into other essays in the same massive book, notably his essay on caricature. I was prepared for elitism, but I find nothing particularly canted about it, and in fact it fairly deftly meshes the histories, intents and impulses of both high and low art forms, and brings nice new perspectives on the mutual concerns, even influences, of George Herriman, R.Crumb, Phillip Guston, and others, including Miro, and of course, Lichtenstein.

Gopnik presents one of the more well-researched speculations on comics I’ve read, and it’s filled with original interpretations and unseen affinities. I can’t imagine not returning to it often. Just the section on the evolving and fairly conscious relationship between Crumb and Guston alone brings light to this often obscured relationship between high and low. Gopnik traces Guston’s cartoonish big feet figures from Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff) through Crumb, who’d recently published the first issues of Zap Comix at about the same time Guston switched from Abstract Expressionism to representational figuration. The tone of these fragmented, angst-ridden, offhand personages matches well with Crumb’s neurotic slackers. Crumb, discovering Guston later, pays homage on a cover of Weirdo Magazine. And the lineage continues now with Marc Bell, whose affinities with Fisher and E.C. Segar, again by way of Crumb, and his sense of lower class, paranoid humanity recalls Guston.

The very informed speculation on the artistic relationship between George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Miro are well argued.  Gopnik parallels Herriman’s contingent (Southwestern) dreamscapes with Miro’s Iberian surrealism, pointing out perceptively that while it’s commonplace to speak of “surreal” elements in Krazy Kat, Herriman’s style was fully evolved before Surrealism even existed. High culture critical bias thus sometimes puts the kart before the Kat.

And I’ve not seen Lionel Feininger so well-placed in the history of comics, nor his comics so well integrated in a description of Feininger’s other intellectual  pursuits; Gopnik defines his role as go between for the romanticist  fantasies of Winsor McKay (Little Nemo in Wonderland) and the fauvism of European modernism, reinforcing the idea of comics as a movement toward expressionism in popular culture.

The discussion of Lichtenstein could have made a significant short essay in its own right. Gopnik rescues and humanizes this complex relationship from the mere “ironies of scale” and rote appropriations seen in conventional criticism, thus redeeming both Lichtenstein and the hack artists he thrust into the galleries, one of whom, Irv Novick, in the plainest irony of all, was his commanding officer in the army.

Gopnik also states flatly that Mad Magazine, which led directly to the subversive energies of Crumb and the Undergrounds, and then to the DIY /alternative press which eventually brought comics to the book market (and their current renaissance), changed humor and satire, and thus, politics in America.

This pop cultural transformation in American entertainment, from the rural puritan tropes of minstrelsy, to the urban cosmopolitanism of Jewish culture (which touches all popular media) probably deserves more examination, as does the role of comics and caricature in breaking down the academic tradition in art. He is a bit less convincing in his discussion of caricature from this perspective, though the idea that Picasso’s experiments in facial displacement are essentially caricature and date back to Leonardo’s notebooks is certainly interesting stuff. Like any good critic, Gopnik raises more questions than he answers, and I’m glad to have finally read this important milestone in pop cultural criticism. It’s rare that critics- even comics critics- grant such weight to comics in cultural history.

The Ganzfeld #6, Dan Nadel, 2008: The Ganzfeld was an obscure journal whose intellectually synthetic juxtapositions tended to ignore categorical barriers between high and low art. #6 presents cutting edge comics such as those from the Fort Thunder group that grew out of the Rhode Island School of Design, later published by Highwater Books and Drawn And Quarterly, alongside contemporary NYC artists in a way that shows Nadel’s curatorial brilliance, but doesn’t really offer any analysis as to why it succeeds or fails. High and Low succeeds brilliantly because Gopnik recognizes that both high and low art proceeds from the same romanticising quest for a “universal visual language” though they approach the inquiry from opposite paths.

At issue in The Ganzfeld is how we distinguish (or really, curate) high and low culture to get at truths often obscured in their specific visual languages and metaphorical subtexts. Nadel, who now edits the online Comics Journal, excels at creative mash-ups. But by the time he published Number 6, he was apparently burned out from the rigors of self-publishing, as evidenced in this collection’s theme, I’m Done. It implies either frustrated surrender or self-satisfied completion, and this issue, though I’m sure I’ll return to it rewardingly, has a feel of something jammed together as is, a sort of curatorial catch-all, take it or leave it. So, along with some obvious editing failures to credit artists, there’s not a lot of effort to make his curatorial decisions transparent or readable, though they are often brave and imaginative. The customary page of blurbs about the contributors is gone, for instance.

I’m not making this up. The difference is clearly seen in earlier issues of the anthology, such as the exquisitely allusive Number 3 (2003), which states “We hope it’s […] cohesive and that by reading all of the pieces and then pondering them in tandem, you’ll gain insight into a larger though still inexplicable design.”

Each time I pick this book up, there’s a new wonder. There is a reprint of an Alfred Hitchcock essay, “My Most Exciting Picture”, which begins: “Shooting ‘Rope’ was a little like unpuzzling a Rube Goldberg drawing.” Nadel adds to the synaesthetic fun by engaging a modern day illustrator, Eric Lebofsky, to provide diagrammatically Golbergian cartoons. These in turn cannot help but allude to Jonathon Rosen’s “Monsters of the Medical-Industrial Complex”. In another issue, he prints a Lawrence Wechsler essay on Edward Snow on Brueghel.  This is why I love anthologies- they bring these “Convergences” (Wechsler’s term) of curatorial impulse face to face with fresh, even transgressive creative output such as comics.

Art Ops, Shaun Simon, Mike Allred, et al, 2016: I happened to pick this “Graphic Novel” on impulse as I was reading Gopnik, and though it provides some good laughs and even provocative questions about art, I think they were mainly not intended.  Art Ops, by alternative comics mega star Allred has real potential but ultimately fails because of a reliance on ad hoc plotting and over used cliches about art.

Nowhere are the inherent challenges and ever present pitfalls of comics creation more on display than in Art Ops, a Vertigo project with great promise that appears to have fallen victim to rushed production and fuzzy plotting.  This is the ever present obstacle of the graphic novel itself: especially in mainstream publishing, one must employ enough conceptual hooks and compelling characters to ensure the title makes it to the stands long enough to complete any sort of long term vision.

Some brief background: the star of Art Ops’ creative team is Mike Allred, an independent comics auteur who rose from self publishing in the 80’s to alternative press mega star with his self-owned Madman title. The story of a brain damaged “super hero” in search of his own identity, Madman brought a compelling personal quest and retro-Silver Age sensibility to the comics scene.

A true pioneer of creator-owned comics publishing, Allred has always exhibited a somewhat digressive, approach to story plotting, and this actually meshed well with his main character. Frank Einstein was Madman, and his super power was empathy.  But Madman has been on hiatus for a while now as Allred has pursued a number of projects with mainstream publishers, often bringing a buzz with his quirky mix of troubled characters in media-driven landscapes, rendered in retro-pop art comics visuals.

Yes, there’s a real danger of the tail wagging the dog. He’s had his fair share of successes, such as X-Factor, an X-Men spin-off that featured superheroes as media obsessed celebrities in a Buzzfeed world. And iZombie became a popular TV serial. Others have have been far less edgy but still engaging, such as his current Silver Surfer revival, designed to appeal to the suddenly essential market for young girl readers.

In Art Ops all of Allred’s weaknesses come to the fore, and a few of his strengths. The result, though it has flashes of real innovation, is often a slapdash, confused, cliche-ridden mess. A group of 60’s era hipsters metaphysically extract the Mona Lisa from her frame, substituting a forgery. This is to prevent her from being stolen by art thieves, a paradox which touches on real issues of authenticity and accessability in art, but which is never really delved into. Such throwaways- some of them truly clever- abound. The villain of the story is a “Demoiselle” from Picasso’s Analytic Cubism period who wants to turn Mona into a figure from his later, still much-lampooned Synthetic Cubism period. This is actually hilarious, but again, seems to have gone right over the heads of those who wrote it.

Once again, Allred has his finger on the pulse of pop culture, but satirizing high art is a risky business. On one hand, it presents a tempting target with its pretension to high concepts and strange forms, on the other, it requires real insight into its intellectual inquiry, or one runs the risk of coming off as superficial troll. Comics artists, often illustrators trained in the remnants of the Academic tradition, are as susceptible as any to superficial or reflexively antagonistic attitudes toward modern art. Allred, no less than Gopnik, often has his finger on the pulse of pop culture, and thus very often touches on real modern concerns, as pop culture can. But one treads a fine line. Gopnik, with relentless research and a mind alive to the social secrets that popular culture‘s very popularity explicates, walks it quite lucidly. Art Ops, with its scattershot, improvisational satire, not so much.

The Complete Jack Survives, Jerry Moriarty. Raw Magazine founder Art Spiegelman met Moriarty at the School of Visual Arts, where they were both instructors, and included him in early issues of Raw, then published the first Jack Survives collection as a Raw One Shot. I’ve always wanted a copy, but it’s been a hard find. This expanded collection came out from Buenaventura (publishers of another influential comics anthology, Kramer’s Ergot) in 2009. It’s a unique hybrid in the interface between comics, illustration and fine art.

Moriarty along with punk cartoonist Gary Panter is a pioneer of a somewhat Fauvist cartoon style that has more lately found popularity in the so-called “Cute Brut” style of Fort Thunder artists such as Mat Brinkmann and Ron Rege, along with others such as Brecht Vandenbroucke, Brecht Evens, and even Lisa Hanawalt.  His rendering sits somewhere between painterly and illustrational- he calls them “paintoons”. These artists are consciously or not, inhabiting the gray area between high and low art. Moriarty incorporates elements of both, and Jack, a fedora-wearing 50’s everyman inspired by Moriarty’s father, inhabits a somewhat airless neo-expressionist world as silent as Hopper’s yet subject to the inevitable disappointments and ironic displacements of any comic character. They’re funny in a disquieting way, both funny “ha-ha”; and funny “strange” like that feeling you get on a beautiful day when you hear distant laughter after someone has died suddenly or an airplane has flown into a building.

Just as Lichtenstein made Novick’s limited magna dots a complex metaphor for the emotional vacuity of American culture and the intellectual pretensions of Seurat’s pointillism, so Herriman and Crumb’s India ink scratchings have given way to broad range of different styles and techniques to express complex personal visions more like Guston’s mute personages than Crumb’s confessional, sex-obsessed neurotics. Comics have appropriated a lot of the expressive toolkit of high art, accruing the spiritual disquiet as well, while continuing to refine their satiric message, which is why people write about them.

Like the Post-Modernists, Moriarty does not seek finish in his art, and often lets changes and overpainting show, as if to place Jack, trapped within a medium that dares not speak its name, in this dialog with the gods of existential inquiry. Some of these visual effacements seem planned, as if to pit text against subtext, paint against line, caricature against portrait. If there is anyone still puzzling what might have happened had the Ash Can school survived the intellectual buzz saw of Cubism to make it to the age of Pop irony and emotional effacement, then maybe Moriarty has the answer. Jack survives, indeed.

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