The process of updating the blog has turned into a tragicomedy with two stubbornly unfinished drafts awaiting liberation. I’m posting an update on my Workshops page to get the ball rolling again.
The school features Kids Art Camp classes during many of the days, so most of my adult classes will be at night, when the breezes run cool through the print room windows. However, I am offering a Teen workshop, Monoprint Mad Science, during the camps. Monoprint Mad Science is also available for adults on Tuesday Evenings.
A fun way to have your questions answered about workshops is to come down to my Summer Art Market booth, #100, during the show. You can also register with a friendly human in the ASLD booth, only a few feet away.
Though it’s no excuse for not posting, I have been quite busy in the studio. The best way to stay updated on new work is through my Instagram account, @JoeHigginsMonotypes. I’m also still active on Twitter, @hggns; and I’ve been trying to revive my Facebook page, honest.
I’ve updated my Workshops page to reflect two additional dates, January 22 at Gonzales Library; and March 5 at Montbello. These are free and open to the public. Yes, they’re very basic, as there are often kids there, but the main interest for artists might be the chance to try the non-toxic Akua inks. Not to mention, you can actually let your kids try etching without fearing for their health.
I’ll be teaching full 4 week classes in non toxic methods twice this year, doing workshops in both etching and photo-etching techniques.
Above is a photo etching with top roll I did using non-toxic techniques this fall after taking a workshop with non-toxic etching expert Henrik Boegh. It’s a drawn image on transparent film, exposed to a polymer film, then etched with a soda solution. I hand pulled the print using the Akua water soluble inks, Black for the hand-wiped image, then a top roll of blue. Please excuse the iPhone snap shot.
I think most Americans feel that the 2018 election greatly increased the chances for democracy to survive in this country, and for justice to be served to those who would profit from corruption. So it’s a hopeful end to the year. I’m taking a week to relax and recharge after a very up-and-down professional year that also came to a hopeful end. We’ll see if optimism is justified in either case, but one thing is certain: we must press on.
While I don’t have a full post ready, I may have one soon, as I have several unfinished drafts to work with, and I find writing blog posts with morning coffee very relaxing. In the meantime, I’ve updated my Workshops Page with all the Winter/Spring workshops I currently have scheduled. It’s a light schedule. My first one begins January 20, and it’s my Monotype Starter workshop, the one most likely to fill quickly. It’s also the only session of this one scheduled this Spring. The next one won’t be till Summer.
I do have two new workshops debuting, Modern Intaglio: Etching; and Modern Intaglio: PhotoPolymer Etching. These are a result of a workshop I took in September with Henrik Boegh, a Danish printmaker recognized as an authority in safe, earth-friendly etching techniques.
There are descriptions and links for all of my workshops, as well as my schedule of free DPL workshops. I’ll also be giving a series of professional development workshops through Colorado Art Educators Association. If you are involved with that organization and need professional development credit, watch for them! The first one is January 7.
A happy holiday season to all, however you may celebrate. I wish you prosperity and hope in 2019, and I thank everyone who supported me through art sales, classes, or a friendly word.
I’ve got a brief break for writing and studio work after finishing up two workshops. One was my Monotype Portfolio summer evening class, which went well; I’ll post a nice image from that soon. The other was my Wednesday morning workshop with the women of The Gathering Place, a day shelter for homeless women. It was a wake-up but a joy, for several reasons.
I love a morning class anyway. You get to start off the day with conversations on creativity, it really puts a hopeful spin on things. The perspective of the whole day changes to one of possibility. Also, the women there, despite their many struggles, are talented. All of us need to see reminders of the humanity in everyone, whether fortunate ( Yes, I’m grateful) or not, and art provides that.
And I felt welcomed there- The staff and clients made me feel valued- a contributor for hope. At some point, I really began to buy into that hope. I began to ask myself how I might help advance the hopes of others. TGP is not surprisingly situated at the epicenter of this city’s exploding homeless population. Eat day I went there, I walked or rode through the hordes of much less fortunate people that our current failing politics seeks to ignore.
That brings me to the point of the post, not the art we made in class, which was mostly fairly simple processes which in some cases led to spectacular results. As I said, there were some talented artists here, and I’ll post some of those below.
But the cat above is not from the class. It’s part of a separate Gathering Place project I’d like you to know about: Their card project which allows down on their luck women to make money from their talent for art and making. I got this one, with some nice notes written inside, as a thank you for teaching the workshop, and it’ll be treasured along with some other artworks and notes I’ve received over the years. I wish the picture showed it better- it’s drawn in a sort of sparkly colored ink!
By Purchasing this piece of handcrafted original art, you are making a difference in the life of an individual who is experiencing homelessness or poverty. 75% of the revenue generated for The Gathering Place by the sale of this card will be returned to the individual artist.
-back of the card
Many of the artists were pondering how the simple relief prints we did could be incorporated into The Card Project, which made me feel very happy. Have I contributed in a small way?
As you might imagine, The Gathering Place is not really open to the public. But you can visit, and see all of these hundreds of cards at affordable prices by contacting them at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 303.996.9068. We’ve all been feeling a bit knocked around since November 2016. Soon, we get to vote, but we can also pay it forward a little.
I’ve updated the Classes, Demos and Workshops page for the Fall schedule. It’s got dates, descriptions and links for everything scheduled so far. There may be more coming, so check back soon. Click here.
The big news is the addition of a third main workshop, Mad Science Monoprint, starting in November on Tuesday afternoons. It’s not intended to follow the second in the series, Monotype Portfolio, but to be a companion to that. It’s four weekly sessions on adding repeatable elements to your monotypes.
I’m still working on a series of posts on Starting, Transforming and Finishing Ideas, and a new editor for Word Press has been introduced just as I’m getting a last bit of free time, so I’m hoping for an update for the entire site soon.
I’ve been doing a series of workshops for a women’s homeless shelter here, and I’m blown away by the talent I’m seeing. It can be hard to get time to take pics during the classes, but I’ll try to post some soon.
I need to thank longtime Gathering Place volunteer, and ASLD print artist Cindy M. for her help as assistant and liaison with these wonderful folks. There is an existing Card Project that allows women to earn money for themselves and the program by making cards, and we’re trying to incorporate some of the basic printmaking techniques in our drop-in workshops into that. It’s inspiring!
I’m reading up on Picasso’s prints and some techniques I want to incorporate into Mad Science. I also finished John Berger’s Ways ofSeeing, and I’ve been dipping into a history of 20th Century modernist graphics. All of this has made for a great relaxing summer, and while I haven’t been doing a lot of studio work, I guess I decided a break was OK after a crazy spring. Most of my fall schedule is still up in the air, but I’ve got a feeling it’ll all fall into place soon.
I’m feeling optimistic in general. After a horrible two years, are we on the cusp of a turning point? Register to vote, and plan on positive change this November! Then register for a workshop, and let’s get creative.
Here’s a heads up that my June Monotype Starter workshop is nearly filled, so if you’d like to take it, you’ll need to move fast. There are often last minute drop-outs, so request to be on the waiting list if all the spots are filled.
There are normally plenty of spots left during the Summer Art Market, and I tell people to come down and see my booth ( 97 this year) and ask questions if they like, but that may not work this year. There are still plenty of spots for Monotype Portfolio, a second class in the series, for people wanting to pursue the medium.
My one-day Monotype Blast is in early August this year, and I’m planning to add a class or two in Fall. Watch for the new catalog in late August.
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?
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.
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 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.