Haven’t done a reading list all year. First obstacle was a very busy beginning to #MoPrint2020, then a frantic round of cancellations. For a while, I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done, perhaps from burnout? Then, there was a family visit back east, and a short staffed day job creating long hours. Through those, I’ve been reading, and now as the quarantine stretches into long weeks or even months, it will continue to be a major activity. It’s cheap, it’s peaceful and safe, it’s… socially distant.
The British Are Coming, Rick Atkinson: Covers the first two years of the War for Independence; roughly, Concord through Trenton. Two more volumes are planned. I’d read 1776, by David McCullough, but this book, in addition to being more granular, was more of a cultural history, with the experiences of the common foot soldier, farmer, and wife given a central role. Even the Tories, those loyal to the King, get some coverage here, which can be rare. It was compelling in that way, and of course, the words and movements of the politicians and generals was fascinating, too. This was an ARC, (bound galley) from work, so I have a long wait for the second volume, but will watch carefully for it.
Endeavour, Peter Moore: I savored this book from Xmas through March, and if I ever have a Besties for prose, this will be on it. Another hybrid history, with cultural and scientific events and a general examination of the Enlightenment all bound in with what traditional histories see as the dawn of global colonialism. A very complex and thrilling tale of Captain Cook’s first South Seas voyage, that takes as its protagonist the ship itself, with Cook, Royal Society scientist Joseph Banks and naturalist painter/ illustrator Sydney Parkinson as co-stars.
The book begins in the oak forests of Yorkshire and bounces back and forth between day-to-day accounts of English coastal coal trade, descriptions of Tahitian society, and sea faring adventure on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. It ends with the American War for Independence, where Endeavour, having been renamed, then recruited for transporting Hessian mercenaries, meets an ignominious end, ironically within yards of where Captain Cook’s second ship also ended up. I couldn’t help recalling Rocket Men, the account of Apollo missions to the moon, which carried fragments of one of those ships.
It’s now an indicator of a book’s impression on me that it finds a rare and precious spot on my crowded shelves, awaiting my return to it. This one did.
The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson: Yet another cultural history. They are becoming popular, and I really can’t get enough of them. Is this indicative as some sort of academic/historiographical populism? This one takes a close look at Churchill and family during the first year of World War II. Though aristocrats, they had much contact with ordinary Brits during this period, thus giving a close-in picture of life during the blitz.He also skips across the channel to give a picture of members of the Nazi elite for contrast.
I haven’t read that much about Churchill, so it was a real fascinating look at how he galvanized British resistance to the Nazis, with an eye to doing the same for the American public, too. I read it on my visit back East, and it went fast.
Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway: my second Hemingway obsession started with Hemingway’s Boat, a fresh look at the author’s middle and end years by Paul Hendrickson, which I read in 2018. I am culling my shelves to clear space, and often, part of the process of selling a book such as this one, that I haven’t read since my college days, is to re-read it.
I remember my first impression, which was of a fragmented, second-rate book, by the standards of his earlier classics. Hemingway’s literary reputation had suffered since those early books ( The Sun Also Rises, A Farwell to Arms ), monuments to the man’s man modernism of the early 20th Century. His later, callous behavior as a hard drinking celeb author -especially to women, and his spotty creative output ran afoul of the rise of academic feminism and post modern critical theory in the 70’s.
My sophomore (-ic?) college reading binge was thus already outdated by the late 70’s, but my decision to buy and keep the book, a Book Club first edition, was undoubtedly colored by the fact that Middle American manhood of that period was inextricably bound in with Hemingway, by then enshrined as the great Middle American modernist. All of my drinking binges, skiing and hiking years in Wyoming, and creative excess, along with that of many of my friends, was inspired by the image of Hemingway, not so much a hipster saint, like Kerouac, but a god.
Hendrickson’s book is part of a revival of sorts, which drew heavily on his later and posthumous work, such as this, and The Garden of Eden, to examine the author’s history of head injury, mental problems and gender issues ( as examined inGarden) to forge a more sympathetic portrait.
Upon re-reading, the book remains fragmented. It was started in the early 50’s as a grand trilogy of earth, air and sea; and a reply to the critical disaster of Across the River and Into the Trees, which I haven’t read. As often happened in his hard drinking, head-trauma-ravaged 50’s, it was set aside. A small part was extracted and became The Old Man and the Sea. The rest was found after his suicide, and cobbled together under this title.
It reads as three novellas, all centered on a single protagonist, Thomas Hudson, a story of a summer on Bimini with his three children; then a grief stricken drinking binge in Cuba after the death of his fictional oldest son, and finally, a taut war time chase off the coast of Cuba. This last is an imaginative embellishment of Hemingway’s wartime activities hunting for Nazi subs after he’d badgered the U.S. and Cuban governments for extra gas rations and equipment to equip his boat, which in real life, came to nothing much.
It’s one of the best action sequences he ever wrote, and if the book doesn’t always hold together as well as the precise and focussed Sun and Farewell, neither is it as mawkish, at times, as his wartime romance For Whom the Bell Tolls. It contains some very affecting writing on family, love and loss, along with much self examination by his narrative stand-in, Hudson, despite the writer’s rep for macho posturing. That’s here, too, as well as a grief/mercy fuck from his much longed-for first (fictional) wife, a dramatic deep sea fishing scene, and a penchant for arbitrarily killing off some characters as he became estranged from their real-life counter parts. Does this include, as joy and adventure give way inexorably to loss and regret, himself?
So, Hemingway, for all of the violence and pathos of his last years, in this book does examine his own role in the disappointments of his family life. The narrative reactions do seem arbitrary and reflexive- ex-wife dies; must drink, go fight Nazis- but the interior struggle of his protagonist is real, and affecting. The book seems somewhat essential to understanding his life and art, and also, fun to read. I’m still selling it, but I’m glad I’ve given Hemingway a second look.
Hemingway in Love, A.E.Hotchner: Also somewhat essential to understanding facts about Hemingway’s late years, but aside from that, a disappointment. This is because the story, about E.H’s regret over the dissolution of his first marriage, might have been an embarrassment to his surviving fourth wife ( also a possible reason for setting aside Islands) and is necessarily told second hand. Hotchner, despite a long career writing, is no where near the writer Hemingway was, and cannot replicate the author’s powerful, concise voice in what are apparently, reconstructed quotations. Thus the tale, though inherently interesting, seems maundering and (doubly so, given Hemingway’s penchant for paranoia and self pity during the time it was narrated) self-serving.
The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker: Far from a fluffy tribute to our precious little predators, Tucker, self professed cat lover, provides a wake-up call for her fellow fanciers. She explores Felis Silvestris as an invasive, parasitical species, and not just on Facebook! Kittehs as bold interlopers that ” domesticated themselves” and have a major impact on the environment.
What, in fact, did humans get from allowing them to spread into households around the world? Precious little, science tells us, the psychological comfort in their blank, Hello Kitty faces aside. And they may, in a very real biological way, be controlling our minds. Heavens to Murgatroyd! This book provides a cautionary tale to those of us who are tempted to anthropomorphize our pets.
While I, for one, welcome our new feline overlords, there is one easy conclusion to report: for your health, sanity, and the sake of threatened species everywhere, keep the adorable little monsters inside.
The pre-virus activities were so exciting to me that it’s hard to let them go, though they may in some ways be gone forever. One thing I had planned here was a discussion of my contribution to the In Process show at the Metro State University of Denver Center for Visual Art.
I took some quick snapshots at the opening for social media purposes, intending to come back in a quieter time and spend some time with the display and take better pictures and more notes.
Then the crisis hit, and like everything else, the show shut down, so it is certainly a quieter time. But now I’m glad I grabbed what photos I did. I also have the statement on process that I sent to the gallery, and which is posted with the work, in the now very quiet gallery. The ‘House’ passage in To the Lighthouse comes to mind.
So I’ll reconstruct the show in a mini-virtual form here, with expanded notes. This is as much for my benefit as anyone’s, but if you missed the show and are curious, well, here it is.
From the statement:
“My process, in general, involves working through a progression of prints ( usually , not always, smaller to larger) until I feel I have worked out my uncertainties about a given idea and “refined” it to its essentials.”
Monotype printmaking is a process that does not result in multiple prints. Part of the Mo’Print mission is to educate the public on what fine art printmaking is. At times, e.g. The Northern Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, printmaking has fulfilled the need for commercial reproduction. That is no longer the case, and now, unlike Giclees or other reproduced images, each print is considered an original. This is absolutely true of monotype. Here’s a shot of most of the display.
First things first: The largest piece, in the center in blue and black, has been displayed in the wrong orientation. The show was organized last minute, there was limited time to plan for installation, and somehow the fact that all the prelims are in vertical orientation was not noticed. C’est la vie. They should have asked, and I should have attached a note to make sure. Lesson learned.
“Some of these “studies” or “preliminary works” or whatever you may call them become frame-able pieces themselves, and others disappear into the flat files. But by the end of the process, I’m usually exploring various ways forward from the original idea, with a view toward coming up with a finished piece(s) of a given size, as it’s a one-of-a-kind process, so building a portfolio can be time consuming.”
“It’s important to note that “ghost prints” or secondary impressions made from the residue of ink left on the plate after the first impression is printed, are a integral part of my creative process. They can be modified by adding different colors or imagery, and thus, provide a way forward from simple binary judgements of whether a print is successful, or not. Variations on the original subject matter crop up quickly, and sometimes come to dominate my thinking over the first “idea”. It’s a very suggestive, and valuable way of working.”
“The sketchbook provides a place to mull ideas in raw form; most do not ever see a printing press.” The sketchbook, oh yes- the sketchbook, #OMG #LOL. It’s not actually a sketchbook. It’s a little, outdated Star Wars datebook that my part time job was giving away free, and which fit into my pocket. It was the first appearance of this imagery in summer ’19, so I sent it along. It wound up sitting there regally in a vitrine, where it resides still, until quarantine is over. My friends and I had a few snickers about this, back when snickering- and art shows- were still allowed. An artist friend once breathlessly informed me “You have to have to have a Moleskine sketchbook!” but I’ve always scribbled on anything handy. I guess I get it, now. The main question is: will I be allowed to put it back in my pocket after this?
“The small (typically 8×10”) studies are mostly about getting comfortable about how to execute the imagery in ink. They often lack real compositional tension, and most disappear from the public, but sometimes there is a simple elegance, so I show them.
“Medium sized prints (typically 11×15”) are where I work out relationships of color and compositional elements. It’s a great time to ad new elements to test meanings within compositions. I love visual non sequiturs for their expressive potential, so I might play with these and their ghost images for more than one session. Nothing is set in stone, but some half of these never see the light of day.
“Larger full sheet (22×30”) prints are intended to bring in balance and finish and be ready to frame. I do work yet larger, but this size is often where I stop, and over half of these get framed or sold. Interestingly ( to me anyway), I often take elements back out at this stage, to take advantage of the expansive white space. ” This one is unfinished and thus, unsigned, and so the confusion on orientation. Don’t know when I’ll get it back to finish it, and in what *viral* way the idea may change along the way. It’s displayed under the Plexiglas plate (with guide drawing) that I used to print it.
“It is the curse of the monotype artist that sometimes the newsprint slip sheets used to cover the layered-up print elements and protect the press blankets are more attractive-seeming than the actual fine art prints. They get used for multiple layers, and thus may accrue a very unique composition of their own. Many of us cut them up and collage them onto different prints. The process goes on…”
Well that’s my virtual tour, and I thank the Metro CVA and Emily Moyer for this great idea, and the chance to be involved in it. Normally IRL, this is the time when I invite you to walk across the street to the Aztlan Bar for some cheap beer and good live blues. Don’t know if it’s possible to create virtual dive bar experiences, but I’m missing it already.
The [plague’s] the thing; Will it catch the conscience of a ( wanna-be) king? While America waits to see if the corrupt sham of the current presidential administration can survive its bumbling response to the virus, the virus is changing the way we live.
This post was intended for at least a week ago, and of course, things were changing so quickly that it was often outdated hours after I wrote it. My unstated strategy of keeping a lower political profile while exploring the joys of printmaking and the Month of Printmaking, a biennial festival of fine art prints here in Colorado, has come crashing up against the reality of the virus, which as everyone knows, shutdown everything, causing cancelled shows and events just midway through.
My plan for the original post was to discuss the then current In Process show at Metro State University Center for Visual Art as it pertains to my own process in making monotypes. That show is of course cancelled, though I’m grateful that it did, indeed get to open at all, unlike some MoPrint shows. During the opening I took some photos and can certainly patch together some thoughts about the show.. I’ll enjoy doing that with the time freed up by other now cancelled events, and I’ll post it soon.
Before that, some updates:
The Open Portfolio at Redline was cancelled at the last minute.
The Rhythm and Balance show at Niza Knoll Gallery is now effectively closed, with the proprietor in a high risk pool, and other galleries on Santa Fe Dr. suspending operations. You can see some of this work at their website, http://www.nizaknollgallery.com. It was a reasonably successful show for me thus far, with one small sale, and some good crowds, pre-‘social distancing’.
The Arvada Center show “Imprint: Print Educators of Colorado”, conversely, was extended to early May, as the following show was cancelled, but the gallery is now closed, and it seems doubtful it will open again before May.
Access Gallery I have not heard from, assuming it’s closed?
My Library workshops have been cancelled. I’ll try to update my ‘Workshops’ page soon. Shout out to the alliance of grantors, Art Students League and DPL, as they are paying us for previously scheduled dates, thus eliminating some of the financial trauma of this crazy Spring.
The Art Students League of Denver classes themselves are now cancelled, probably through April. Online may be the best way to get more info (ASLD.org), as they are working from home.
Another show, which the #ASLDPrintmakers and I had been working on, to include a Monotype-A-Thon and Pop Up Portfolio show, set for March 28th during the #MoPrint Studio Tour, is of course cancelled and will not be re-scheduled at least till next year. That was fun working with the other ASLD printmakers, and some good things may come out of that in the future.
All of this is unfortunate, of course. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to show in so many great places, and I think the MoPrint Committee did a nice job putting the 4th Month of Printmaking together. I hope everyone is staying healthy and enjoying their self quarantine. I think we’ll get through this eventually.
And on November 3, we have direct control of the health of the nation.
I have a couple more things to add or update in my last post. I’m also going to do my regular post of my Winter/Spring class schedule, for those curious about the details of making monotypes. This will be another short one. I do have longer drafts queued up, but this is not the time for that. Do stop at some of these show openings (most will be on the same night, February 21, if you catch a glimpse of me walking fast) and tell me what’s going on with you.
New show added: Process Show at Metro CVA on Santa Fe Drive. I’m assembling a series of recent work with an eye toward highlighting the progression of that idea for this show, a last minute addition to the #MoPrint2020 schedule. I’m pleased to be invited, mostly because in working on other projects, I had generated several variations on a theme suggested by a quick sketch I did last fall for future works. All of these materials will be in the show, in raw form, an idea that was much too intriguing to pass up, made possible by not needing to provide framing.
Work progresses on Monotype-A-Thon: we have a good committee assembled, and some details are being hammered out:
You’ll see a Call for Entry soon. It’s incredibly cheap, and a nice way to dip your toe in the water for showing and selling, if that’s your ultimate goal. Collectors, I’m imagining that these will be some of the cheapest work you’ll see in a while, and yet 13 (!) of the League’s artists and instructors were represented in the 528.0 and Imprint: Print Educators show at Arvada Center.
ASLD Workshops for Winter/ Spring are here, and I guess the newer additions such as Non Toxic etching have to be considered the highlights, though I’m enjoying the old stalwarts such as Monotype Portfolio. I haven’t gotten sick of being present when the eyes open, and the alchemy of ink under pressure is first discovered. The creative process does require a bit of openness to new ideas; a beautiful room in a historic building, among new friends, turns out to be a congenial atmosphere for new ideas. Put your dreams to the test.
The holiday break was brief, as #MoPrint2020is upon us and I’m up to my neck in the sort of events that that 3-month fiesta of the pressure arts brings us. Call it over commitment, call it opportunism, call it giving in to ‘pressure’. I’m calling it a great source of material for a blog that is supposed to be about my so-called printmaking career.
The official Month of Printmaking 2020 will be, as always, March of this even-numbered, biennial year. But MoPrint has always had a way of spreading through the first four months, and the first shows kick off this month, with a juried show at D’art last week and the two signature shows at Arvada Center beginning this Thursday, January 16, 6-9 PM.
I’m in the Arvada Center’s “Imprint: Print Educators” invitational show which is concurrent with the “528.0” juried show. IFine art prints are becoming more popular as affordable collection starters. If that interests you, it’d be hard to top this night as a place to jump in.
You can pick up a schedule-flyer for all MoPrint events there, or any of the events I’m about to list. If you make it to every #MoPrint2020 event, I’m thinking there ought to be some sort of cultural “Ironman” medal waiting for you. I’m exhausted just thinking about only the events I’m involved with.
“Rhythm in Balance: Five Contemporary Printmakers” is a show assembled by Patricia Branstead a fellow Art Students League instructor. I’m in it with Judith Bennett, Austin Buckingham, and Charles Woolridge. It’s at Niza Knoll gallery on Santa Fe. Opening night is February 21, and there will be a First Friday event as well.
That same night there will also be work of mine, along with student work at the nearby Very Special Arts Colorado’s Access Gallery. This is a celebration of a class I co-taught with Javier Flores from VSA with special needs young adults. Two shows in one place! They are also planning a First Friday event.
I’ll again be a part of the Artma Benefit Auction for Childhood Cancer, February 8. They do put on a good party, and they treat donating artists well , something I emphasize is an important consideration when I’m donating. My piece has sold each time, so get there early.
Teen Mad Science Monoprint workshop, March 14. The idea is to offer MoPrint2020 events for kids, too.Go to ASLD.org to register online. If this doesn’t fill, you’ll see me at:
The Open Potrfolio event at Redline March 14 is a very casual affair with artists simply showing prints on a table. I generally show things that are too old for my other shows, which means I can offer some bargain prices. If I can’t do this ( because of teen class, above) you can still see my bargain portfolio at:
Pop-up Print Sale and Show at ASLD March 28. Yes, same thing as the Redline event, but with Art Students League printmakers. There will also be framed work for sale, and the Monotype-A-Thon will be going on during the same time. A can’t -miss event.
That’s it so far, I suppose there may be more, and I’ll be posting about my DPL workshops soon, which are always open to the curious public. I’ll post my regular Adult classes at ASLD, also. Stay warm and hope to see you at one of these events.
It’s about time I posted. This blog is now over 10 years old, and long gaps between posts have been a regular feature, which never fail to shame me, not to mention obliterate my minuscule SEO, so as soon as I got some holiday downtime, I brewed an extra pot of coffee and sat down to catch up.
I’ll post about what the new year holds as far as classes and exhibitions soon, but after a frantic year end I’m ready for an escape, and comics have always been my escape. They actually do somewhat relate to graphics as a commercial print medium. But I first started these reading lists as a way of breaking up non-stop posts about me and my work, a sort of ‘Sunday features’ section for the blog that would also up the content for the blog, and take advantage of a perceived niche for comics criticism that explicates the power of this ancient but misunderstood medium to a more general audience. That’s the theory. I patterned my contributions somewhat after Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree column from the Believer.
This year turns out to be end-of-the-decade, of course, so my second ever Besties list is now, grandiosely, Besties of the Decade. There will be no klieg lights, no red carpet. I do have most of a bottle of decent Rye whiskey and some antipasti left over from Christmas; c’mon over.
The metric for inclusion is innovation and unique vision, but clarity in both design and narrative is also a huge factor. Still, stuff that makes me wonder just what the hell the author is on about is not necessarily a bad thing, if there’s some richness or intrigue to the vision. There’s a fair amount of diversity here, mostly in gender, but there are creators from Europe and England and America, comics intended for kids and many others that have been challenged in libraries, and many different genres. Reminder: comics are not themselves a genre, as the more ignorant and denigrating observers would have you believe. They are a medium. I’ve always been attracted to comics’ ability to offer expression to marginalized creators, so I don’t think the amount of women here is a surprise. There’s stylistic diversity, too, with clear line-type projects probably predominant, but more expressive, and even cartoon brut type of styles definitely included, especially in the catch-all of the anthology.
If I was to predict it before I sat down to make the list, I wouldn’t have expected so many ‘mainstream’ projects to make the list. This is defined fuzzily as output of large publishers with fairly high sales numbers, though increasingly, the lines blur. Most here is from the creator-owned Image line, not surprisingly, and it’s probably best to point out that the Marvel Now re-boot that that spawned a lot of brave interpretations of mostly B-list Marvel characters ( such as the Hawkeyes) is long gone. With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the tail is now definitely wagging the dog, as far as I can tell. It’s also worth noting that to make any even minimal effort to keep up with that stuff, you need to visit the off-the-beaten-track Direct Market shops, and I just don’t do that so much. I keep my eyes peeled for worthy efforts, but I still think most of it is dreck. I don’t apologize for sticking mainly to the small press, bookstore-oriented things.
Still, about a third of the top ten and over 25% of the list when including Honorable Mentions is ‘mainstream’ product, which just goes to show you what can happen when the giants think outside of the long box, because those numbers in no way accurately represent the total out put on a month-to-month basis.
I’m going to milk this by going bottom to top, with the Honorable Mentions ( Resties) first, in no particular order, then the #9-2 Besties and ending with the coveted “Bestiest”. Roughly, the 10 Besties are in order of when they popped into my mind, so the last ones came to me first, and thus have a certain amount of memorability attached to them, a valid attribute in a top 10-type list.
Kramer’s Ergot #8, 2011; #9, 2016 #10, 2019; Sammy Harkham, Editor: Cheating here by including all the issues of the decade, but they’re never disappointing, and include nice samples of many current trends such as Cartoon Brut which I define as a concern for an essential graphic truth and the material properties of ink along with highly personalized interpretation of timeless comics tropes; and Fort Thunder School, a group that came out of a Providence R.I. art collective; mixed in with giants of the earlier alt-comics, such as Steven Weissman; and also Harkham’s own work, striking in its unrelenting camera eye and quiet, charged backgrounds. Now, Mome and other anthologies are worthy things to search out as well.
Supreme, Blue Rose , Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay: Meta-fictional re-boot of a meta-fictional Alan Moore reboot of a typically Marvel-esque original Image superheroby Rob Liefeld in the 90’s. In which, interestingly, the super hero never appears. Yes, like many mainstream comics, the backstory is complex and nearly impenetrable, but Tula Lotay’s lush charismatic graphics, and Warren Ellis’s antic storytelling make this an obscure work of genius, worth going onto Wikipedia to research the past iterations, as I had to. In a comic book store, it is sometimes rewarding to let your eyes lead you.
Super Mutant Magic Academy 2015: Jillian Tamaki forged an award-winning career in YA with her cousin Mariko starting in the Oughts with the exquisite coming-of-age/ coming out tale Skim. Lately she’s appeared to be interested in crossing over into a traditional general adult bookstore market, and published Boundless, which was critically well received but which I confess, seemed a bit precious and over wrought to me. I prefer this simple, hilarious web comic about interspecies gifted youth at a Harry Potter-like private academy, which coalesces very organically into ( again) a coming out tale.
How to Be Happy, 2014 and Frontier #7, Eleanor Davis: A simple, fleshy tangibility to her drawings; a provocative moral insistence in her tales. The first, a collection of post- and pre-apocalyptic short stories, the second, a small press one-off exploration of alternative sexuality.
Wally Gropius, Tim Hensley: Antic send up of Archie/Richie Rich Harvey Comics of the 60’s with satiric implications of today’s celebrity and mega-rich obsessed pop culture. Also did a Tubby ( Little Lulu’s frenemy)/ Alfred Hitchcock mash-up to satirize the petulant, entitled white male auteurs of 50’s cinema.
Leaving Richard’s Valley 2019: Prolific Canadian cartoonist Michael DeForge has at least 6 books that I considered, all of them innovative in their ways, and very provocative. He explores modern narcissism, among other things, with one story featuring a scene where the implied main human character asks for, and receives, a blow job from his computer’s operating system. This one is about friendship, emotional manipulation and betrayal, and is graphically the most original work on this list, seamlessly blending childish funny animal abstractions with computer graphic/photographic textures.
Sex Fantasy Sophia Foster-Dimino 2017: Originally published as mini-comics ( yes the zine/DIY scene is alive and well in modern comics, along with its web comic offspring). These are simple but highly affecting speculations on what people want from sex and relationships, and how the two often conflict.
On a Sunbeam, Tillie Walden, 2018: Young Adult masterpiece that proves how surprisingly cogent that rapidly growing category can be. A young girl wrestles with professional and sexual identity in a beautiful sci fi universe. No male-identifying character appears, innovative in itself.
Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, 2013 : A candidate for Bestiest though the writer and cartoonist have taken a year long break, mid-saga ( a return is rumored to be soon). A young, mixed-species couple and their child battle prejudice and violence in a universe of never ending war. Humor, sex and Staples’ very original character designs distinguish this from your everyday space opera. The creative team say that it was designed to be a comic book only, but someone will eventually make a movie of this one, and you should read it first.
Hawkeye, Matt Fraction and David Aja, 2012. The only true super hero comic on these lists, but one that very convincingly and very affectingly explores what a super hero’s off-time hours might be like, in a hilarious and graphically concise and innovative way. Turns out Clint (Hawkeye) is somewhat of a slacker/wastrel. Fraction makes use of running gags to highlight complex, humanistic psychologies better than any writer in comics. He’s married to Kelly Sue DeConnick ( below). What I’d give to sit in for the weekend, after-studio unwinding after their kids are in bed and their many unique projects wrapped for the week. Funny, heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, and again, something that only one medium can deliver. A sequel by Kelly Thompson featured a second Hawkeye character from this series, Kate Bishop, and did not fall too far adrift of the Resties.
Building Stories 2012: Chris Ware designs a box of comics in various, allusive formats (e.g: a Little Golden Book knock-off, A newspaper broad sheet about a bee who lives in a discarded Coke can in a vacant lot next to the titular building, a game board) that form a complete narrative in time and space of a Victorian-era apartment building and its inhabitants in a Chicago neighborhood.
Stroppy, Marc Bell, 2015: Very appealing comedy of a class-strictured future world where Stroppy, a Candide-like workingman, becomes a somewhat passive victim of control systems that benefit the rich and famous. With one (Big) Foot planted firmly in the roots of comics ( E.C. Segar, as channeled through Crumb) and another in the nihilism and dystopian vision of the Fort Thunder movement, Bell comes across as a sort of Carl Barks on acid, with Stroppy a man-child in a cartoon world he never made.
Coyote Doggirl, Lisa Hanawalt 2018: this deceptively candy-colored cartoon brut adventure reads like a feminist Lonely Are The Brave, by Abbey. To preserve her independence from victim hood after a rape, Coyote Doggirl escapes into the essential girlhood sexual fantasy of a girl and her horse in the wilderness.
Beverly, Nick Drnaso, 2016: Preternaturally quiescent and unsettling stories of families and youth in extremis, and yet trying to preserve normality, these gem-like stories reminded me of nothing so much as Salinger’s. The washed out pastels and deadpan line work adds to the chill. I have nothing against his second book Sabrina, nominated for the Mann-Booker prize, but this was my first encounter with Drnaso who seems to share with me and others a love of the short story format in comics, which belies the commercial format/ categorical catch all term ‘graphic novel.’
Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, 2013. 2015, 2019: Would have been on this list in any case, even if this Fall’s volume, The Rat, still incomplete, had not breathed fresh fire into DeConnick’s multi part poetic apocalypse. If I felt Volume 2 ( The Bear), set in WWI, flagged a bit after the startling and allusive Volume 1 ( The Shrike), kicked things off with its violent and compelling goth/ spaghetti western/ medicine show fabulism, The Rat proves there is nothing in mainstream comics like Pretty Deadly, by a mile. Emma Rios makes visual narrative subordinate to the double paged spread/montage, rather than the panel grid. Jordie Bellaire, not one of the copyright holders, but clearly a full creative partner in the enterprise, channels the subdued pinks and violets of Western landscapes and suppressed feminine yearnings; the acidic greens of poison gas and the lurid yellows and oranges of Hollywood puppet animation to DeConnick’s vision. Death’s Garden unleashes ambiguously motivated Reapers to call home various members of a black family from the 1870’s through the 1930’s. There really is no tidy summary of all the plot threads possible because DeConnick refuses to be limited to one interpretation. Suffice to say that feminine archetypes rich in the violence and striving of their agency, abound. This comic may be the first to warrant the reader’s guide to allusions ala Pynchon and Wallace; I predict the critical literature will be extensive when the epic ( 2 more parts are planned) finally ends. Don’t know if it’s even possible to make a movie of this. One of the entries on this list that can really, only be done with comics. Those who believe that the cultural ‘future is female’ are fools to ignore the comics medium, Where KSD, as the blogosphere calls her, weaves a tale that even she, one suspects, is not sure of all the implications. I, for one, am happy to watch her resolve it on the fly.
That leads us to the:
Bestiest : This is meant to highlight a book that had real impact on me both at the time I first read it, and sustained relevance as the decade has gone by, through multiple re-readings. Once I’d been reminded of White Cube, Brecht Vanden Broucke, 2014, which I’d read in the middle of the decade, there really was no challenger for Bestiest. I read it for the 3rd time recently and it is still finely poised between punk nihilism and artistic conceptual subtlety, in a painterly style that nods both to cartoon brut and Little Lulu. It’s funny, highly transgressive, yet strangely thoughtful in its explorations about how art enters our daily lives. The pink-skinned twins who star in this collection of mostly ‘silent’ strips, single panel vignettes and double page tableaus insist upon their own artistic vision as they wage their 2-man war against the aesthetic authority of the White Cube gallery world. They paint large blue thumb’s up “Like” symbols on the gallery masterpieces and are chased from the White Cube, but they always return. They are every newspaper and comic book anti hero, from Bushmiller’s Sluggo, to Herge’s Thomson and Thompson, to Bart Simpson.
Comics, the marginalized, censored step child of pop culture, also have a difficult and complex relationship with the authorities of the art world, as exemplified in this Russ Manning mini-memoir on Liechtenstein’s uncredited ‘appropriation‘ of his images for his paintings. White Cube is the first comic to fully address this relationship which is ground-breaking in itself, but it also comfortably inhabits both worlds, those of challenging art and reflexive anarchy, which is an essential feature of modern comics’ renaissance.
I’m going to include a separate list on books about comics, and I’m going to exclude retrospective collections from the first list, and include them in the second. This mini adjunct to the Besties separates important collections of forgotten or ignored past work and also needed exegeses on comics history from contemporary fictional projects. It expands the number of books listed to 22, but is fully justified in this historically significant decade, when comics expanded into the bookstore market (being credited with giving bookstores a rare area to expand sales) and innovation was rampant. This is where we see, in no particular order:
JohnStanley: Giving Life to LIttle Lulu by Bill Schelley, 2018: Died this year and will be missed. He recognized that John Stanley, a frustrated genius of the anonymous, marginalized ‘hack’ era of comics in the 50’s was one of the funniest and most relevant writers of his time. He explicates Lulu’s surprising verisimilitude to the actions of children (not to mention her status as one of the few authentic feminist voices of the time).
The Comics Journal #302 , Gary Groth, Editor, 2013: This 300-page issue of the comics magazine of record was probably a marketing fiasco, as the magazine disappeared from print for several years after that, having only and thankfully being revived last year. But it’s a comics fan’s feast with its many and diverse articles on such intriguing and little-covered subjects as Mort Weisinger, R. Crumb’s copyright lawyer, and Maurice Sendak. Comic Art magazine is much lamented after disappearing in the Oughts, but TCJ soldiers on with the recent Simon Hanselman interview an example of comics journalism addressing such relevant topics as gender fluidity and political correctness in the comics blogosphere.
Mauretania: Comics From a New World, Chris Reynolds, 2018 : Words cannot express how besotted I’ve always been with this obscure 80’s/90’s British comic replete with unresolved narratives; evocative inks and somehow infused with the thick light of Wales and Southern England. Its hero, Monitor, quests after meaning in a vaguely dystopian near future. Another character, a detective, dies but mysteriously reappears and doesn’t recognize her family. A quixotic visual tone poem curated by Seth, whose own title, Palookaville, was also a viable contender for this list.
Somnambulance Fiona Smyth, 2018: Again, a forgotten fave from the first explosion of alternative black and whites from the 80’s. Here again a distinctly feminist vision first finds voice in comics, and Smyth’s luscious sensual inks also foreground transgender and gender queer imagery and narrative, a real ground breaker in that area.
Drawn Together 2012: Aline Kominsky-Crumb pioneered feminist self-published comics ( along with Diane Noomin, Trina Robbins, et al) in the underground era, then embarked on a brilliant lifelong collaboration with husband R. Crumb, with each illustrating one half of each panel of an autobiographical comic series about their lives, sex lives and marriage. The unlikely combination of her scratchy primitivism with his classic big-foot style, along with their decidedly unapologetic politically incorrect narrative (feminists hated Crumb’s sexualized women, and her unabashed masochism) was far more than the sum of its parts, as this 30 year retrospective brilliantly proves. Kominsky-Crumb, like other women of the 80’s comics scene, is finally getting her due as a pioneer cartoonist and editor who advanced female creative agency.
The Origins of Comics Thierry Smolderen, 2014 : A somewhat academic endeavor, but after a false start with one literary theory-clotted excerpt published in Comic Art magazine in the Oughts, Smolderen cleaned up and focussed his rhetoric and published this important survey of the (mostly European, sorry, American exceptionalists) roots of comics. In it, he argues convincingly for the early proto-comics of those such as Topfer as dynamic precursors to modernist art and cinema, rather than outgrowths of the academic, moralizing tableaus of such popular image-makers as Hogarth.
Comics: A Global History Dan Mazur and R. Alexander Danner, 2014 : Indispensable and ground breaking in its scope which includes Europe and Japan, as well as England and America. A real eye-opener as to the interweaving threads of the development of comics as a medium in the current period. I do regret that it doesn’t cover comics from the Golden Age on; but that would have been a different and much more expensive project to publish, and we need this sort of critical vision right now. Wonderfully illustrated and researched. If like me, you’ve regretted your ignorance of Manga, which was first to advance self-expression as a legitimate function of comics in the 60’s, then the chapters on the Japanese scene are very welcome.
There is a Clunker this year, a work that should have been much better than it was, not necessarily bad, or unreadable in this case, but a real drop off from past work. Jerry Moriarty is a massive figure in the NYC school of alternative cartoonists of the punk-inflected 80’s RawMagazine crowd. His first book, Jack Survives straddles very purposefully the line between comics and art, with its lush colors and Hopper-esque sense of place and time. But his newest project, What’s a Paintoonist? a speculation on himself as a little girl, married to an account of moving his studio upstate, has an unfinished and deflective, even detached, feel to it as if he just couldn’t buy into the concept. It has its moments, but was ultimately pretty meh.
So there you have it. The sample size was huge, not to mention the worthy contenders that I never got to read, or simply forgot. I surprised myself by leaving long-time favorites such as Los Bros Hernandez, Gabrielle Bell, and Peter and Maria Hoey off the list, as well as striking newish cartoonists such as Anya Davidson and Dash Shaw. All these cartoonists are innovative and important in their own right; I tried to sneak in enough mentions to exemplify just how hard this list was to compose.
Most are under $30, or available at the library. It’s an extremely vibrant medium, with many genres available within, such as Darwin Cooke’s very entertaining Parker adaptations of Donald E. Westlake crime novels. In a time-pressed world, it’s nice to have something quick to escape to, and now you can have the bestiest.
My Mad Science Monoprint workshop is this close to filling up. It’s my last publicly available class this year and runs for five Monday evenings, ending in time for Holidays.
I’m also co-teaching a class in large monoprints for Very Special Arts Colorado students with Javier Flores, of VSA and Metro State. It’s been fun, with the side benefit that I am working on a Lino cut for the first time in decades.
I’ll have two pieces in the Arvada Center’s January show Print Educators. It will be one of the signature shows for #Moprint2020. The opening is January 16.
The winter-spring catalog is now open for registration online at Art Students League of Denver. My first workshop availability in 2020 will be Jan 7. That will be my Monotype Starter beginner’s class, which prepares you for my other classes, and also certifies you to use our big airy print room independently ( for a reasonable fee per month). I don’t know whether it will fill up, but it can’t hurt to register now.
My last library workshop of the season, at Green Valley Ranch branch, has once again been re-scheduled for November 20 at 5:30-7 PM.
I’m going to do my Besties top ten book list for comics and graphic novels again this year. I can’t say I’ve kept up on this year’s releases that well- mostly because of still catching up on last year’s releases, but I realized that this is a decade-turning year and I have lots of opinions on this decade’s batch of comics, some of which will be noted for a long time. So I’ll have plenty of candidates. I’m adding a link to last year’s version, my first attempt at this holiday staple.
My webstore is again making progress after upgrading my website programming and security to hopefully accommodate the finicky Woo Commerce plug-in. I’m taking a few days’ break after a busy fall, but will return to it within days. Still hoping for a Thanksgiving launch.
This is a real grab bag, partly because in the rush to finish up some deadlines this fall my reading was very fragmented. It’s very unjust when life upsets my reading schedule, I just want to be on record with that.
For a brief while, I wasn’t really reading much at all. Some of these are also leftovers from earlier readings this year that I’d never put down impressions for. This is mostly comics, as that’s something that fit my frantic pace of life, but I did return to prose eventually, and there are a couple of those here as well.
Sabrina, Nick Drnaso: a critical fave that I’d alluded to in my Besties list as needing to read. It got nominated for a Booker prize and attracted attention. I read a rather rambling and contrarian review of it in the Longbox Coffin blog, and it sparked my memory.
It delineates the spirit of our post 9-11, post-truth world (fear, rage, conspiracy and misguided, even corrupt, populism seem to rule our discourse, whether Right or Left). Thus the book is rather bleak, mostly. The art mirrors that social entropy in simplified, almost emotionless cartooning and flat color. Everything looks fluorescent-lit.
Though the book’s not fun to read, it stays with you. I almost put it down, and did avoid it a couple of nights where its creepy atmosphere of fascist media bullying hit far too close to home in Trumplandia. The current conservative trope of infested, dangerous cities, lifted from 60’s conservatism, and dating back to the anti-immigrant politics of the early days of the GOP’s turn toward fascist politics in 1912, are proof of that. It’s hard to see positive human interaction in our venomous, twitter-fied online dialogue, but the book ultimately does offer for one main character, at least, a way out. Fear of change, an armadillo like interiority, are the gateways for the numbing negative populism ranging through our public dialogue. Interpersonal contact is the exit strategy. As always, love is the answer.
I also got Kramer’s Ergot #10 and Now #6 in the mail. They are the two preeminent comics anthologies now, and it’s interesting to compare them. They’re both published by Fantagraphics, a long-time pioneer in alternative comics, but are edited by different people. There is much intersect, but they are not identical.
Now is the latest in a long line of Fanta anthologies, meant to test drive new creators, or promote company stalwarts. The company, led by Gary Groth and the late Kim Thompson, has debuted so many of today’s comics stars that it’s easy to lose count, and foolish to not keep up with their latest discoveries. Now, edited by Eric Reynolds, features international artists and has increasingly showcased very abstract comics. Kramer’s has never been afraid of abstract or expressionist comics and has returned often to its favorites. That’s because Kramer’s, a franchise edited and originated by Sammy Harkham in the 90’s and self-published before being published by the legendary and now deceased Alvin Buenaventura before ultimately landing with FB, has developed a kind of stable.
Both these most recent issues feature Steven Weissman, an artist whose hyper charged ‘kids’ comics FB first published in the 80’s, but who now brings a surreal humor and a real zest for fabulism to many other traditional genres including the western, or the fairytale.
Both also are prime promoters of the Fort Thunder/Paper Rad/ ‘cartoon brut’ schools of comics as exemplified by Marc Bell, Helga Reumann, C.F., and Mat Brinkman, etc. These 20-oughts era movements constitute a revival or continuation of the zine subculture that grew out of punk rock in the 80’s and earlier, the comics subculture of the 50’s and 60’s, especially undergrounds. Some, like Bell, trace their roots ultimately back to the ‘big foot’ style of the turn of the century newspaper comics. Many of those were expressions of marginalized cultures, often Jewish.
So while FB (Now) has always sought out and attracted young innovators looking to get published, Kramer’s may possibly have the deeper roots in self publishing. Either way, or both, one can get a nice overview of cutting edge comics, especially if periodic visits to Spit and a Half.com, John Porcellino’s online mini-comics clearing house, are added in.
These are clearly a world apart from the fan-boy oriented mainstream publishers of superhero fantasy found in the direct market shops; but also the newer, burgeoning young adult genres advocated by libraries and school reading programs. Comics are an expanding medium, and in exploring their relationship to the art, design and literary worlds, these two titles are essential.
Songy of Paradise, Gary Panter: Panter also got his start in the punk rock era, and is best known for a series of LP covers he did for Frank Zappa in the 80’s; and the sets for Pee Wee’s Playhouse on TV. He was a Raw Magazine mainstay. Here he takes on Milton’s Medieval biblical fantasy, Paradise Regained, which I haven’t read. The Temptation of Jesus in the desert is here enacted with Panter’s hillbilly character Songy. It’s a large format comic, and Panter is able to really stretch out, proving that his punk/expressionist style is in no way incompatible with great design and a sense of place, which his post apocalyptic comics have always had. Panter’s thick, unrefined, but very precise and evocative line must have been an inspiration for the cartoon brut comics creators but his dry humor masks a genius for Candide-like satire that sets him apart.
Comics Journal #304: Simon Hanselmann Interview: I was delighted to see this feisty little mag ( also Fantagraphics) available at Tattered Cover for the first time in a while. Gary Groth doing his Gary Groth thing, long form interviews of comics creators, that in the strictest sense usually need an editor, but in the long view, now after roughly 35 years of them, form an irreplaceable study archive of some of the greatest creators of the 20th and 21st Centuries. ” Moving on to your Kindergarten years… ,” I swear I read in a Patsy Simmonds interview once. That gives you an idea of what to expect.
But who else was ever going to do such a complete job of documenting ignored cartoonists and writers, with many of the earliest ones now dead? I really doubt there’s a lot of critical source material on Will Eisner or Harvey Kurtzman, for example. TCJ is comics’ magazine of record.
This is a very timely interview, in that it touches on issues that are hot topics in comics, and indeed in many pop cultures; such as #metoo, transgender issues, and queer identity as pertains to satire and biography in comics. Hanselmann raises some interesting questions in regard to the comics subculture, in which snap judgement and the ‘cancellation’ phenom of say, Twitter are very definitely in force, as in all pop culture. This is a very complex set of questions, as he points out, and may not always be compatible with creative freedom.
I’m also reading a radical feminist survey of Julie Doucet’s work from the 80’s/90’s. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but sometimes creative work- however ground breaking a feminist vision Doucet’s work was- viewed through that prism can suffer from a lack of balance and perspective in understanding what the artist’s vision and motivations actually are. I haven’t finished it, so it’s premature to say more, but I’d like to return to the topic soon.
Paul Gravett’s overview Comics Art, which seeks to touch on but not comprehensively examine, current and historical issues in a refreshing survey of international comics, is his best book. He had real flashes of insight in Escape Magazine, a British publication that featured comics and criticism from both sides of the Atlantic in the 80’s, but his Graphic Novel was too much a coffee table dog and pony show intended for newbies during the first blush of comics’ entry into the mainstream to be of much use to the serious student of the medium.
This one explores issues surrounding comics’ history as a marginalized medium, its use by marginalized populations, and its structural development to examine its nature as a unique art form. There are copious examples and Gravett does not always go to the usual suspects from American or British newspaper and comic book publishing, instead taking the opportunity to introduce lesser known artists worldwide.
While I do not always agree with his choices, he uses them well to explicate his ideas in a compendium of short essays on various topics. I’ll return to it again in a comparative sense, I’m sure.
I wanted to sample the new volume of Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, and Jordie Bellaire without having to wait for the ‘graphic novel’ album in March. I’ll still buy that, I’m sure. The only place to get a ‘floppie’ of the first issue is the comic book store, so I did one of my periodic ‘State of the Comic Shop’ visits and spent an hour sifting through the various titles on offer. I have my thoughts on that; it’s also a separate post, that ties into the current transition of alternative/ literary comics from comic shop direct market to the bookstore market. But I did enjoy the first installment of the new arc, which takes place in 30’s Hollywood.
I have hopes that I’ll be bewitched by it as much as the first volume, a sort of goth spaghetti western, that I discuss here. I was a little disappointed by the second, a World War I narrative that did not attain the same heights of fabulist synergy. As you may have guessed, it’s one of the oddest series out there. I discovered it during my first survey of mainstream comics, just after I left my day job and had time on my hands. I don’t have that kind of time to devote to mainstream comics now, but again, I’ll try to work up some impressions before the year is out.
And that brings me to my “Besties”, which when I wrote them for the first time last year I just assumed would be the typical yearly survey. But I’m not the type of reader who tries to keep up with current releases, so I have to get on Amazon or Goodreads or something and try to figure out how many of this year’s releases I’ve actually read. I promised myself I would make note of 2019 reads as I read them, but now the holidays are crowding in and I obviously haven’t done that. Reading Listing is hard! But I’m determined to have my Besties, even if it has to include leftovers from last year, such as Sabrina, or Coyote Doggirl, a sort of feminist “Lonely Are the Brave” in bubblegum colors by Lisa Hanawalt that I finally got to this year.
Civilizations, by Armesto-Diaz: a big survey of world history from the perspective of how civilizations interact with and modify their natural environments. It eschews the traditional ‘progressive’ history of flood plain civs to sea/trade/colonialism to ‘modern’. It advocates against a top-down hierarchy of ‘advanced’ v. ‘primitive’. It’s somewhat provocative and interesting, well written and highly readable. But I dawdled, had to take it back, as it was due. I got just over halfway through it, and was enjoying the lively almost bantering tone, and some pretty fresh thoughts on how to judge social and civic innovation through the centuries.
A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende: from the freebie pile at work ( it’s not been released yet). My bucket list of South American writers continues, and this one has two, really- Allende, and Pablo Neruda, whose social conscience and poetry inform the story of a couple who span two eras of socialist experimentation, from Republican Spain through Allende’s father’s brief, doomed Chilean reign. The omniscient narration and dreamy factuality of S.A. lit is here, though the realism is far from ‘magic’. Highly readable, certainly sad at times, but ultimately hopeful.
I don’t call myself a socialist, but we certainly need a lot more of the democratic kind right now, as the proponents of unregulated capitalism have failed and are becoming more corrupt. This book is thought provoking about leftist agendas, their pitfalls, and the obstacles they face.
Yes! A somewhat vulgar pop cultural reference to describe the dregs of my high art musings and literary pretensions. I think I’ll make it a regular feature. This, after I was just thinking to myself while walking to the grocery, ‘I should try posting some long form pieces’. And maybe I will ( when I have time to write one), but don’t worry- I’ll skip the suggestive titles.
I posted the rest of my Fall Denver Public Library workshop schedule on the ‘Workshops’ page, find it on the top menu bar. It’s really only two additional dates; October 17 at Green Valley Ranch, and November 7 at Ross-Barnum. They’re free and open to the public, and one of the nice things about them is you can come and try out the Akua water-based inks, and/or explore the concept of hand-rolling monotypes, which I know from questions in classes that many of you are curious about.
Yes, there are kids there. Sometimes, many kids. But look, if I can survive working with kids kidding about for over 5 years now, you can make it for an hour and a half. Click on the contact page or message me on social media if you have questions about this, I’m sure you’d enjoy it.
I also posted some new images in the ‘Portfolio’ section and will soon post more. These are larger monotypes I’ve been doing to fulfill upcoming show and jury deadlines, and I’ll be back in studio to do more soon. I’m going to try to start posting brief blurbs about older pieces to explicate concepts I’ve been discussing in the longer posts, too. In most cases, these will be much older, say from before this blog existed (2009).
I think I alluded to working on a web store ( for the millionth time) in a recent post. I had to put that aside when the software wouldn’t work, and I needed to concentrate on deadlines and classes. It’s freeware, and glitches, along with piss-poor documentation comes with the territory. They are trying to sell their product to developers and are probably required to offer a free version and helping some poor shrub with a WordPress.org site is far down the list of priorities.
I’ll take it back up when things settle down a little- maybe as early as this weekend. In the interval, I discovered an upgrade I can make to the actual WordPress software that might help the freeware work better. WordPress.org usually has much better documentation, too. I’m optimistic I can still have it ready by Xmas/Black Monday sales opportunity season, fa la, and will certainly offer discounts and premiums to get it rolling, probably right through Spring, so if you’ve been wanting to creatively fill a blank space in your walls, hang on, help is coming. I should be able to offer gift certificates, too. I apologize for maundering on about this since who tied the pup*, but hey- internetsing is hard.
I’ll put up a new reading list soon too. Mostly, I’ve been wrapping up odds and ends from Summer, but I feel a new long project coming on. I did buy a used copy of Tristram Shandy a few months ago, because since I read Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, I’ve wanted to read it. To which sentiment one friend asked pointedly: Why?
Well, now how can I answer that, until I’ve read it, hmm? And with that, a blog that thought SEO stands for ‘Still Expressing Oddstuff’ barrels into its 11th year.
*Strange expression my late mother used often. I don’t have any idea what it means either, and she always refused to explain it. But I’ve been thinking of her lately, so- Hi Mom!
The next workshop I’ll teach this fall is Monotype Portfolio. It’s intended to go beyond the basic techniques of one of a kind prints and explore harnessing of acquired skills in service to an artist’s creative vision. Less about how to make a competent print, and more about making one that tells your story. So here’s some speculation about stories in art: all art tells a story, whether the artist intends an overt narrative or not.
I reviewed Women of Abstract Expression at DAM in 2016 in terms of its inherent drama- Ab Ex is always about drama, with its reliance on gesture and scale- and in the context of its backstory, of women against a repressive art scene in a sexist society.
Lee Krasner made obvious use of pinks and browns in this show to declare artistic independence and feminine creative power. “No one was surprised more than I when the breasts appeared,” she says of a pink-dominated piece in the catalog. Pink and brown ( as seen in a couple of pieces in that show), not pink and blue, are the colors of feminine sex. In asserting the dominant colors of the flesh of the vulva and the earth with power, gesture and scale, Krasner must have known she was using color in a transgressive way, to break assumptions and conventions. Pink had already been associated strongly at this time with a demeaning view of femininity, whether in the pink triangles for gays in the Nazi camps, or its prevalence in stereotyped domesticity. She returned later to this combination in “Gaea”. Her generative colors wind up being the story of her will to create art .
Krasner finds a rich, assertive pink and her browns are straightforward and do not recede. There is tension here, and much to ponder no matter what your superficial reactions to the terms ‘brown’ and ‘pink’. Here, they cannot be separated from her suppressed rage, her earthborn desire to create, her need to assert animal power. Her story, in other words, though through its raw aggressive assertion it becomes ours, too, as recognized by the curator of the show. Colors thus can tell a story in the tension between complements, hues, transparent/opaque, light/dark, warm/cool. Colors are a component of light, of course.
And light has its own story to tell.
As it travels across a pictorial plane, light creates an inherent story. It reveals, hides, blasts and suggests. It’s movement, which creates interest, and even in an abstract picture, one is well served to be aware of the source of the light, as viewers will almost certainly do that, and follow its path, whether unconsciously or not. In pictorial arts, eye movement can certainly be analogous to emotional involvement or interest. It’s an obvious source of drama, Let there be light. The light at the end of the tunnel. Every picture is a lighted stage-something is about to happen. It is the white space that makes the advertisement more powerful on a page, separating out noise to let the signal through. Chances are, if you are surrounded by black, you are dead, or asleep and dreaming. Surrounded by white, you are in heaven ( blessed , transcendent), or in a blizzard (lost and near death). Black and white are never neutral.
Composition also tells a story even when not attached to a specific literary narrative. Diagonals are important because they imply movement. Molly Bangs in her innovative Picture This speaks of a diagonal as a tree about to fall, and that’s a form of movement, even an implied danger. But even ‘static’ or stable diagonals in perspective imply movement into space. A repeating series of simple vertical shapes, especially strokes, imply rhythm or music, and in this, as in physics, distance= rate x time. Every one of these concepts is somewhat synesthetic; they blend sensory information, which does for the interest level in a picture, what eye movement does.
Along implied diagonal axes in a picture, other dichotomies come into play as dramatic elements. For example, hard edges versus soft edges: soft =mystery, distance. Hard = surety, obstacle. The eye gives us definition up close, and indistinction far away, so it is a natural thing to see hard edged shapes as closer or more important. In realism, these cues get used pretty straightforwardly. In abstract or expressionistic art, they get jumbled, and become part of a picture’s mystery. This too can be manipulated. Too close, and objects become mysteriously indistinct or vaguely threatening.
The final story a picture tells is not at all under an artist’s control. Not so much in a gallery setting, but in a street fair show, where artists are spending long hours absorbing the diverse reactions from a large sample of viewers, one is struck by how much a viewer’s interpretation can differ from the one intended by the artist. I actually encourage that with schematic, open ended imagery, but you don’t ultimately control what another tells themselves about a scene. I maintain that this is part of the natural narrative process in art.
When several people interpreted my large monotype, “Man With Torch”, as an environmental statement, I couldn’t really disagree. An indistinct figure wielding elemental power strides across a denuded plain (top).
However, I intended it clearly in my mind when composing it, as a metaphor for memory. One razes the past in memory, even as one marches confidently toward new experience, oblivious of past failure.
Both interpretations seem valid now. I don’t argue that some interpretations of an image may seem more valid than others; this sort of visual relativism can go too far. But narrative IS organic, and the oldest story is transformation.
Thus, no matter how specific the imagery, ambiguity results, and working to make the image more specific often leads to overworking it, which tells its own story, of obsession or neurosis. Visually, this can be a form of stasis, not necessarily a bad thing if balanced against movement or transformation.
Movement of light across a plane and suggested movement of diagonals comes under the general heading of transformation: all art is transformation of a sort, and anything that shows an artist’s hand, such as transitions from black into white, or blended colors, bring that idea to the fore. Transformation is already in your process, but preconception can sometimes render it awkward or graceless. Transformation IS the story, and it should be built into your process, your composition, and your colors. A recognition of the transformation that inevitably informs a successful piece as it’s being made makes it easier to deal with the fact that the story of a given work of art often doesn’t end when it goes into a frame and onto a gallery wall.