When They Go High…

“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.

Unpacking the Stacks

What’s in the stacks: A quick post of first impressions about the stuff I am currently reading:

Vamps and Tramps, Camille Paglia: Libertarian feminist Paglia cannot be ignored, though she sometimes seems more interested in stirring up the academic feminists than in tempering her improvisatory, provocative and oft times counter intuitive views. She is determined to start the conversations that dogma tries to end.

Howler Magazine (#8): Subscriptions to this lushly illustrated large format paean to the beautiful game are pricey; I order it when I can. In this issue, I came for the exquisite cover painting of American hero Carli Lloyd attempting to put Sepp Blatter’s head into the net from oh… 53 yards away. I stayed for the strange and wondrous assertion that FC Torino’s legendary Serie A teams of the 40’s were inspired by the direct attacking style of 1927’s New York Giants (the other, other New York Giants, of the ASL).

American Heritage Magazine, December, 1958 issue. Dimly recalled from my father’s bookshelf, then encountered in a used bookstore. Though I’m sure it was the high drama of the die hard Confederate raider C.S.S. Shenandoah that attracted me as a boy, this time it was a long history of the Hudson River from an art and culture standpoint that made me pick it up, plus a story about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s love affair with Sophia Peabody.

McSweeney’s #48: When you read one of these precise yet oneiric short stories, say by Kelly Link or Valeria Luiselli, then you suddenly see their work mentioned or displayed everywhere; the NYT, Atlantic, college or independent book stores.

The Tenth of December, George Saunders: horrifying and delicate, like a love letter written in Exacto knife across young flesh. I first discovered him when Fox 8 was published in McSweeney’s, which brought me back to the short story, now my summer evening’s passion.

Colorado: The Artist’s Muse, Hassrick and others: A collection of critical essays on various subjects in early Colorado art history. A companion volume to the Colorado Public Television 12 documentary on Allen Tupper True by my producer friend and former gallerist Joshua Hassel, (who also produced a spot for me). Contains a long, lavishly illustrated article on the Rocky Mountain School, a descendent of the Luminists and the Hudson River School.

The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby: I savored this, as it was perfect in length and tone for the morning and afternoon train. Compact, funny as hell monthly ruminations of what was in Hornby’s own book stack published in McSweeney’s Believer Magazine. Yes- I am writing about reading a book about someone writing about books he may or may not have read. I firmly believe this is what heaven is like, should it actually exist.

“Whaam”, “Blam”, Thank You, Ma’am

Roy Lichtenstein's "Blam" which along with other Pop Art paintings by Rosenquist, Warhol, et al, introduced the idea of appropiation into modern art.
Roy Lichtenstein’s “Blam” which along with other Pop Art paintings by Rosenquist, Warhol, et al, introduced the idea of appropiation into modern art.

I’m done teaching workshops till January. I’m mostly done showing work this year, too, though I am available for appointments, just click “Contact”.

I am also sending some images to G44 Gallery, where they will be available for online purchase soon. I’ll link to the site when it’s up. My own online sales gallery is coming, but slowly- after Christmas looks like a good bet.

I’m also trying to keep up with routine tasks and especially, sketching, but mostly right now, ’tis the season for relaxing with friends or reading. In order to keep this blog somewhat timely and diverse, I’ll be posting about books and comics for a while, until the art happenings ramp back up. I love comics, and I make art. I often considered comics as a career, and have dabbled in comics over the years. But it’s a labor-intensive and lonely career. I’ve always loved the social aspect of fine art.

Here’s a subject that struck my fancy. It combines the two loves- one of the classic Silver Age comics artists who was “reinterpreted” for Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art masterpieces, such as “Blam”. It struck others’ fancy, too. When I googled “Russ Heath on Roy Lichtenstein”, it turned out there was quite a bit of commentary. Most of which was inspired by Heath’s own views, expressed humorously and in typically stylish fashion in this one page comic about his experience, which oddly depicts “Whaam”, a Lichtenstein appropriation of a different artist’s illo from the same comic. It’s a plug for Hero Initiative, a non-profit which aids comics artists, like Heath, who toiled during the days when publishers and the reading public treated them like hacks, and the medium like infantile tripe. Non-profits are work horses in the arts, for the simple reason that most artists- in any medium- have stories more similar to Heath’s than to Lichtenstein’s.

Heath, in the lingo of comics artists, would have called Lichtenstein’s use of his image a “swipe”. Lichtenstein, in the slightly more “elevated” lingo of Pop Art, said: “I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms.” Either way, the purpose of Lichtenstein’s use of Heath’s illustration was to ask questions about what constitutes “art”. However, neither Lichtenstein nor his estate has never recognized Heath’s work as anything except anonymous, generic source material. When I googled “Roy Lichtenstein on Russ Heath” I found no unique quotes. In other words, it was a one-way conversation.

This panel, from DC Comics' All American Men of War No. 89, is by Russ Heath.
This panel, from DC Comics’ All American Men of War No. 89, is by Russ Heath.

I enjoyed a lot of Heath’s work as a kid reading war comics. Even now I still admire his contribution to the sublimely surreal Western/War/Romance/50’s Ruiz bondage comics mash-up (with writer Michael O’Donahue) “Cowgirls at War” in National Lampoon. His turn of the century comics forebears launched mass market newspapers and gave voice to a new demographic in American cities, but his own generation of creators was subject to crass commercialization and censorship in the xenophobic 50’s. As his modern successors find success in movies, The New Yorker, and mainstream book publishing, his is an interesting tale that mirrors comics’ struggle for respect as an art form.

Russ Heath did this strip about his experience with "Blam" and Hero Initiative, a non-profit that aids Comics Artists. For some reason, the strip features "Wham", also appropriated from All American Men of War #89, but by Irv Novick.
Russ Heath did this strip about his experience with “Blam” and Hero Initiative, a non-profit that aids Comics Artists. For some reason, the strip features “Wham”, also appropriated from All American Men of War #89, but by Irv Novick.