Twigs and Berries

It’s been a crazy week for everyone! For me, I had the additional stress of a plumbing emergency. I have a long post planned about what I’ve been doing in the studio, with lots of photos. And I have a best-of post about my favorite comics of the last year, too. But they would just be lost in the general uproar, and I’m too exhausted to polish them up and post them.

However, life goes on, and classes at the Art Students League of Denver will soon be stating up again. So it made sense to try to get things back to normal by updating my Workshops page with all the dates, links and info about my upcoming classes. You can see that by clicking “Workshops” on the menu bar above.

I’m also back to monitoring the print studio on Sundays, and a few other days. If you are already certified to use the room, you can sign up for print room slots for only $15 per day. I’ll be working alongside you, reminding everyone to follow distance and cleaning protocols. But I don’t mind questions while I’m working.

The League has now been re-opened since September without any infections reported or quarantines, which speaks to how mindful the staff and artists are being. And it is nice to see some fellow artists from time to time.

I’ll be back next week with something more substantive. Stay well !

Holiday In the Studio

Sundays tend to be quiet in the studio. The school is open for artists who want to use the presses with a monitor (me), and there has been steady traffic on other days, but I’ve had Sundays mostly to myself. Whatever the repercussions for school revenue, the quiet time is welcome. There has been 7 months without regular studio work, and the quiet has been helping as I dream myself back into a good rhythm for creativity.

Smaller works are over too quickly and there is not enough white space to stretch my mind, so I went with larger work. Full sheet (22×30) after a couple of half sheet warm ups. Blobby, cloud like shapes allowed me to open up space, while also carrying the assortment of yellow, pink and salmon that popped up immediately on my palette (oops- no pictures yet).

Clouds are compatible with my subject matter, ladders (Jacob’s Ladders: I’d been recently reading Emily Dickinson). But the placement and execution of these wasn’t apparent at first, so the next week, I switched to an older, incomplete print from before the shutdown which turned out to be almost screaming for a ladder as central figure. Then a couple of ghosts followed on from that. This is in a deep blue that was appealing to my more crepuscular subconscious visions.

Illustrate work in progress
Partial image left over from pre-pandemic working sessions.
Illustrate work in progress
Adding preliminary ladder imagery dropping down to a plane in ochre from a deep blue sky/field.

That’s where I stand now. All potential and no resolution, wondering how it might all coalesce. The ladder image clearly needs more emphasis, but the open space behind it is probably going to need restraint, or it will get too busy. The theme, from a Wilco song on my earbuds: Wishful Thinking. I don’t really have anymore than that right now, but it feels like it’s building nicely.

I’ll be in studio a few more weeks, then I’m taking a break in mid December. I’m taking lots of process pics that I will post later. If I don’t post again before the holiday/solstice week, then here are my wishes for a safe happy season of light to you and yours!

Reading Edge: The World is Round

It goes without saying that reading is a good escape. The process itself, of converting symbolic words into imaginary visual images, is absorbing and a form of fantasy. Fantasy is probably necessary to a creative human life, but now, with creative and social freedoms under severe repression from a political order that seeks to colonize truth and harness fantasy in service to the big lie, it’s essential to understand its power.

No more powerful shared fantasy exists than sport , as measured by the passions it excites. No sport has launched more fantasy than football- the kind you play with your feet- a cultural practice that David Goldblatt points out cogently in his exhaustive study of its history, is common to more of the world’s people than any other. No religion, language, cuisine, or most certainly, other sport, can match its hold on the sheer numbers of people football beguiles.

Consisting of infinite complexity within the frame work of a very simple structure, it’s the scaffolding upon which billions of wishes, hopes, playing styles and cultural attitudes are hung, a shared dream.

Within my four walls with a pandemic virus raging outside, and a cynical, uncaring thugocracy in place in the White House, time to kill and a more than virulent need for escape, it’s become a comfort. It helps to have a new TV, which the long dark approaching winter of a quarantined society almost demanded.

New streaming services, in a jostle for customers are offering cheap packages, and mine provides football from some of its artisanal centers, such as Germany, Italy, Holland and England. It’s rarely noted, but one thing that separates football from insular American league sports is international play, and so competitions range from national leagues of cities and towns to Champions Leagues of top clubs from each country, to Nations Leagues of whole countries vying for continental championships, to of course, the World Cup, a true world championship in which each of over 200 sanctioned nations around the world is eligible to compete.

There is no ‘offseason’, no recovery day, no ‘wait til next year’. The game is an engine of dreams, an escape into the infinite variety of human ambition and athletic creativity. So it’s perfect for a quarantine.

The rest of the world, by virtue of not having a corrupt goon leading it, is now mostly on the way to limiting the virus. After a short shutdown, most leagues are now back in operation, and with an obsessive agenda of making up game fixtures lost. So there’s a LOT of football on right now, albeit in half empty stadiums. US TV can not get enough of it.

First off, there’s the omnipresence of multiple leagues and competitions mentioned above. Coming from all time zones, it offers solutions to every unfilled time slot. My go-to is the European leagues, with offerings each day from roughly 6 AM- 4 PM. That leaves the evening for movies or reading (The US league, an acceptable brand of football comparable to Dutch or Swedish top tiers, and English and German second tiers, is on during the evenings, but for various bizarre reasons, my own local team is unavailable to watch, so it’s hard to not get seduced by the foreign games. Anyway, I haven’t been able to watch much Euro Ball in the last few years owing to prohibitive cable costs. I’m sure streaming will also become expensive after the promotional push is over.) So now is the time.

Football has now become my comfort activity for the pandemic shutdown. I did read a lot during the early days of shutdown, though I always read a lot anyway. As variety becomes a necessary quality in Q-time diversion, soccer fills the bill. Travel, exploration, cultural outreach and escape- football provides a little of all of those, if only in my mind.

I’m still reading, of course. What’s on my list? No surprise:

The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt: I said “exhaustive”. This 900-page monster is that. The first time I read it after the US edition was released in 2008. At the time I simply let large parts of it wash over me, a favorite strategy for large complex readings. But I kept it on the shelf, knowing a return was inevitable.

Goldblatt spares no detail, and the book might not be for the superficial fan. Goldblatt traces ancient origins then the growth of the game in elite English public schools. Then its adoption by the British working classes as the industrial revolution’s unionism brought a sudden surge in wages and the invention of the weekend, along with the railways as a way to enable professionalism with traveling teams then leagues. Chapter after chapter, a litany of the game’s spread to the myriad nations of the British Empire, and beyond: both formal colonies and informal trading partners. A given country gets British help building industry and railways; native workers get income and holidays; country absorbs football, adding its own cultural flourishes. As the game grew, it became irresistible to fascists and socialists, militarists and capitalists, industrialists, and always, the poor. and working classes. Each culture has its own history with football, and all the histories are here.

Here, the book becomes a story not of a sport, for the devoted fan, but of Industrial Age culture. If history is written by the winners, then football is the story of those brief moments in the sun enjoyed by the losers. A tiny South American country has a democratic renaissance and wins 3 world championships in a row (Uruguay). A Jewish cultural center dominates the world of European football before disappearing into the maw of fascism (Hakoah Vienna). And a ruined fascist realm itself finds rebirth in a new democratic national identity at the 1954 World Cup (Germany). Goldblatt does not set out to write an overtly Marxist history of the game, but he demonstrates clearly that the game can not be separated from the history of socio-economic development. Dictatorships can win World Cups ( Italy, 1934-38), but the game’s inherent celebration of individual and collective endeavor ensures that it is there on the front lines when dictators fall as well ( Arab Spring).

The question is: who writes those scripts? Soccer often looks like an amorphous codified bit of entropy to Americans weaned on the over structured spectacle of gridiron football, but there must be a reason why, as Simon Kuper writes in Soccernomics, Brazil wins, and England loses. It’s not called ‘the beautiful game’ for nothing. Its deceptive simplicity allows endless room for individual creativity, and if English imperial arrogance would not admit of cultural differences, the Brazilians added more than enough samba and Carnival to ensure the game’s continued appeal. And multiple world championships. Like How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer, this book deserves a wider audience than the typical, obsessive fan boy blather. But as football gains curious new fans here, it may get that.

Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathon Wilson: A game that began as two mobs trying to kick a ball across open fields to a rival town’s city walls retains its transparent aims, but doesn’t always reveal its intricacies. The British in its early days of organization in the 1850’s saw no reason to complicate things much beyond a limit to the amount of people rushing the opposite goal, and that stodgy puritan athletic smugness continued for decades, but others, notably in Europe and South America, quickly saw that a rapidly professionalizing game rewarded innovation. Wilson chronicles the long journey from massed forwards dribbling toward goal to the modern formations that have made managers millions.

The whole thing got started with the ‘center half’, a deceptively named concept of moving a forward back a little off the front line to entice his opposite numbers to advance, thus creating space behind to pass the ball into. The center half, as linking function, eventually drifted back to just in front of the goalie, as ‘sweeper’, and now seems to have manifested as the variety of roles included in the designation ‘defensive midfielder’ that seem to be an integral part of all successful teams. Along the way, 2-3-5 morphed into 4-2-4, and on and on with a high pressing 4-3-3 currently the Ferrari among the Volkswagens. And a 4-2-3-1 the Volkswagen Van of small club dreams, providing versatility in defense and attack. Each change subscribed to the calculus of creating time and space for the most creative players, though there were retrenchments as well, e.g., “Catenaccio’.

Suffice it to say, that this book, too, is not for the superficial fan, sitting on his couch stewing over a 1-0 scoreline, wondering when is the two minute warning so he can get some snacks. But if you’ve gotten sufficiently fascinated by the game’s mysteries to wonder just how that sneaky little pass before the killer pass came to be, then you might find it your tankard of Tetley’s. As for me, having long ago become obsessed, I came up with the plan to read this tactical history in tandem with Goldblatt’s cultural one, alternating in roughly two-decade increments, comparing the game’s social progress with its strategic leaps. I’m now up to the mid-50’s through 60’s, a golden era for most of the game’s important regions, except England, of course.

Not nearly as dry and technical as it might seem, this book amplifies the way that each culture made football its own taking its inspiration and often its narratives from Goldblatt. Often it is individuals, whether players or managers, who inspire tactical innovation. And sometimes, as in the case of Brazil, it is an entire cultural project, to bring the individual expression of the ghetto and the Carnival, into a high performing team level. The results have been known to bring down governments, so it is far from a trivial story.

Will football show the way to a safer communal celebration of sport? Will it dull the violent racism of populists or surrender to it? Will its globalist momentum lead to expression, or repression? Will women, gays, blacks lead its next resurgence? The answer may lie with a rag tag neighborhood game and 22 beat up pairs of sneakers being played somewhere (everywhere?) to a hip hop beat, or, in other words, the beat of a different drum.

I certainly wouldn’t bet against it, and I’ll be watching, for sure. That’s what makes it a great escape, for me, and for ghetto kids of all stripe. It obviously can’t be quarantined out of existence, because it’s what dreams are made of.

Postmodern Fabulism; Post Truth Distraction

Vox published an article on how Americans got through Election Night: mostly by carbo-loading and mass quantities of alcohol. Please add four beers, and a giant plate of Cacio e Pepe to the statistical totals. My analysis of the 2020 election- *burp*

After leaving ABC’s wall-to-wall election coverage 1:30 AM Wednesday morning, then getting some surprisingly untroubled sleep, I returned to it upon waking before finally punting early Wednesday afternoon. Since then, it’s mostly been 538 blog auto-refreshing every 15 minutes or so, interspersed with some purposely mindless household chores.

Reading, or even (fictional) TV watching in this agitated state has not been realistic. I’ve gotten well into several projects, and for whatever reason, haven’t finished them. Perhaps a post on what I haven’t finished during this bizarre year? But for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve been working on this Fall:

Postmodern History Around early July I finished Part 2 of Mason and Dixon, the main part of the story in terms of length and subject. This is the third time I’ve read this book- though I did it in segments; Part 1 during 2019, then 2, and I’ll finish the relatively brief Part 3 sometime, probably over the Winter. It forms, along with works by John Barth, the Ur text of postmodern historical fiction, and most of the other things mentioned here would not exist had it not been published, in 1997. I’ve mentioned it before here, and may again in depth when I finish this reading, but here’s a quote to explain why it inspired my Fall reading and viewing, and defining the spirit of postmodern history fiction:

““Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.”

Reason I put it down: Part 3 may be the ( bitter) sweetest, most lyrical writing that the antic Pynchon has ever done; an elegy to a man who did his best to see shadowed nuance and promise in a raw land of hard lines. Savoring it. It may be the funniest, most magical book about USA I’ve ever read. The above quote amplifies how important it is even now as populist anti-truth remains in power.

Dickinson, Apple TV: Please don’t base your biographical essays on it! A sexed up poetic soap opera with retro futurist clothing, vices, and soundtrack, with Hip-Hop vibe, and an O.G. Death. I found it on the free trial gig, so don’t get to watch more, if I don’t sign up, but would watch this again for sure. For one thing, American Romantic poetry in hipster drag. LOTR-style CGI graphics for The Maid of Amherst, and last but not least, Death with silver teeth caps.

Historically, of course, it’s a mess. It touches down on biographical detail only briefly enough to pogo off into another manic pixie fantasy. In my summer of ED geekery, this is matched by, and sometimes exceeds for sheer over-the-top interpretation only by Camille Paglia’s Dickinson-as-Sadean Spinster/Dominatrix. That is saying a lot. Here’s a brief checklist:
Dad’s a misogynist Puritan: check. And relatively accurate, though probably overplayed. Misogynism being more conventional, ‘loving’ puritan wisdom during this era, than scenery-chewing animus
Lesbian Fling with sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, including distinctly non-puritan horizontal bop suggestive scene : check, but don’t blame the show; certain critical bios have offered up this literary wank fest for years now.
Mom and Vinnie as Cinderella’s cruel step sisters: check. Not very accurate and unnecessary, given the overplayed father conflict.
Fabulist/Feminist but nonetheless, manic pixie, vibe: check. Dickinson did have suitors in the early years, before she pushed the outside world away and retreated into her room. Her letters reveal an almost bratty intellectualism, soliciting then whirling away from ‘preceptors’ such as Higginson, almost begging for a literary spanking. This is a subtle and difficult thing to convey in an episodic drama, and I don’t think they’ve gotten it right. Death as Hip Hop MC, complete with dreads, caps and ganja: check. And a CGI coach. This is what they get right, and I’d like to see more of it when I watch the rest of the series. Emily Dickinson makes for horrible period drama, but the poems, with their shifting syntax and ambiguous rthyms make for rich fabulism.

Reason I stopped: Apple TV sampler episodes 1&2. I haven’t signed up for the stream yet., though it’s not expensive, so I may after the election chaos settles down.

Sot Weed Factor, John Barth: Kind of a picaresque rollicker that inspired Pynchon and Neal Stephenson. Very fun so far, and very glad, after all these years of promises to myself, to get to it. A delight, a lovable naive loser type of tale that harkens back to Candide, looks forward to M&D, and on top of that, has a weird sort of Jeeves and Wooster (Wodehouse) dynamic as well. The Age of Enlightenment as a door slam farce?

Reason I put it down: it wasn’t the pacing, that’s for sure. Kind of a page turner, really. And funny as hell, with a gangly Oxbridge slacker presuming to apply to the position of ‘Poet Laureate of Maryland’ after having written one quatrain of verse. After a long shutdown, European football finally started up again, and inspired, I began reading two histories of football ( more on that in a future post).

The Great, Hulu. Also in the category of, kids, do not write your term papers based on this, and filed under Pynchonian /Barthian fabulism. After reading Robert K. Massie’s very comprehensive biography many years ago I can say that this is only somewhat factual-“Occasionally true” is how the show describes itself. But the spirit of the thing seems pretty dead on, with Orlov, Catherine and her Lady-in-Waiting plotting to take over the rule of backwards, Age of Reason-era Russia from emotionally arrested Peter II ( son of Peter the Great). Fantastic visuals.

Reason I stopped: Obsessive election viewing and 538 blog refreshing. The fate of democracy, the tawdry melodramatic tragicomedy that is 44. Corrupt, viciously puerile, toxic entitlement in governing. Who the hell would emulate Peter II when they could emulate Catherine the Great?

Rusty Brown, Chris Ware. Ware publishes his stories as weekly segments in the Chicago Reader first, then as graphic novel segments, and finally as complete volumes, this being Volume I. Revisions are part of that process. So I’m reading this as a whole for the first time, and spotting differences from his other books, Jimmy Corrigan, and Building Stories. But I’m halfway through and it has to be judged on its own. There’s a real exploration of fantasy as a compensating defense against emotional estrangement that Corrigan and Building Stories don’t really attempt. Compelling metaphors in the Mars story-within-a-story sequence, and in superhero fantasies of children. Visuals are of course strong though not as structurally schematic as the previous two major works. Thus the pacing is very fast, though the time does not get expanded as effectively, a Ware trope that he usually makes work brilliantly and expansively, and which counteracts a tendency toward relentlessly bleak emotional narrative.

Reason I put it down: I sort of know where it’s going. Can Ware bring new insight to his hopeless losers and callous winners? There is actually a second volume planned, presumably being seen in the Reader right now. The intermediate periodical installments have been eliminated, seemingly. It’ll go straight to the compendious graphic novel collection format we see here. So there’s plenty of time to absorb it.

Twigs and Berries

While my social status remains ‘distant’, there are of course little projects going on in my life, and an overall goal of reviving my creative endeavors. Professionalism dictates that I have to maintain some sort of public profile, even when health guidelines say I should be sheltering as much as possible. I’m trying to strike a healthy balance, but the need for social interaction and creative productivity certainly figure into my idea of a healthy lifestyle. These, I guess, are the sorts of questions and choices many are confronting right now.

As mentioned, classes began at the Art Students League of Denver September 1. It’s been slow going with enrollment at the school, but the need to bring in some sort of revenue is there. My September class for example was cancelled for low enrollment. I have another beginning October 19 and there are still limited spaces available. The cleaning and distancing protocols are stringent. The link is here.

To help make up for lost revenues during the shutdown, the school is hosting an online Artist Showcase in which all proceeds go to the League.

Let me stop right here and emphasize how wonderful my experience with this organization has been for over 10 years, and how hard they’ve worked to help artists during this crisis. Though the classes- and thus, their major source of revenue- were cancelled for months, they’ve tried to do what might help strapped artists most, and are still scrambling to provide opportunity where they can.

So I’m donating multiple pieces to this sale in order to give back. All the pieces are small, as they will be shipped to your house. One of my lockdown projects was to do a little painting and to re-hang the walls with new, or re-arranged art. It was a fun and refreshing thing to do, especially when stuck inside. Might I suggest this sale as a way to jump start your own Fall home refresh?

This small monotype is part of a series of deconstructed trees I did in the Fall of ’19, and will be available as part of the Art Students League of Denver’s Artist showcase, designed to make up for revenues lost to the Covid 19 shutdown. The art will be mailed directly to your home. and is available in November at ASLD.org

Another new thing for me is online classes. I’ve triumphed over my natural reticence for learning new technologies and designed a course that uses non toxic Akua inks and simple techniques to hand roll monotypes at home, and it’s gone pretty well so far. Another benefit of this type of class is that people outside my area can now take a class! Please click on “Contact Me” above if you have questions, or simply go to the registration page at ASLD.org beginning October 13th.

Open Studios are also re-opening at the League, with a difference- print room open studios will be monitored for now, to ensure compliance with the distancing and cleaning protocols. I’m going to be one of the monitors.

This applies to those already certified to use the facility, usually done by taking a class.

First, I’m glad to be back in the studio. I will be working on my own work as I’m monitor, and it’ll be nice to explore some new ideas after 6 long months. But for those feeling the rust ( as I will be, too) I’m happy to answer any questions or provide brief refreshers. Most of my shifts will be on Sundays in October, November and December. I hope to see you, should you feel that it’s the right time to get back into the studio for you.

Hope this finds you well, and I hope to see a return to art making for all.

Solitary Muse

“Fortunately, it turns out I’m very good at social distancing” I quipped on social media at the beginning of the virus shutdown, perhaps still wedded to the idea that May 15 or beginning of June would be plenty of time to beat the pandemic, and ‘get back to normal’. Close to 6 months later, I’m still good at quarantining, but could use a good conversation or two.

I guess we all could use more of that, and less Q-time.

And some studio time would be nice. The school opened September 1st after an extensive review of distancing and cleaning protocols, and my first scheduled class was September 16. However, it did not meet minimum enrollment, and was cancelled. I get it, certainly. People need to protect themselves and be comfortable with their activities.

I, for instance, have no plans to enter a bar this fall, no matter how juicy the burgers or on-field matchups. I’ve had (very) small group picnics in mountain parks, and on the lawn, but my biggest gathering was 7 longtime friends. So be it. A more coordinated response from the federal government would definitely help, so like most, I’m hoping November 3 will bring positive news. Until then, there’s no sense ignoring reality.

Science tells us the negatives: 1. Most of the continued spread happens at bars and other large gathering spots. 2. Slowing the spread below certain levels is the only way to get the economy going again; and ‘get back to normal’. 3. I’m in an ‘at risk’ group, as are many at ASLD, and abundant caution has been my watchword.

I miss the days when I could spend long hours in the studio, working on large monotypes. This one is one of the largest I ever did, 42×72″. Grievers, Monotype, 2005.

The positives, I think we all can agree, of getting out of the house, are what they’ve always been: 1. Seeing a friendly, smiling face (or at least, eyes) lifts the spirit. 2. A feeling of community, of ‘tribal’ creative purpose. 3. For some of us, productivity. I can’t really plan for shows until I can get near a printing studio again. 4. And I know many, like me, are anxious to support vital arts institutions like the League during this catastrophic time.

The school may soon open for open studio artists again, so that’s progress. But the conversations you can have with other artists in a classroom about technique and ideas you just don’t find anywhere else, so I’ll be excited for my first class, whenever it is. I have another ‘live’ class scheduled in mid-October, for more experienced artists. It can be found at: https://reg135.imperisoft.com/asld/ProgramDetail/3139363431/Registration.aspx

Sooner or later, all of this will pass. I’m grateful that I can eek by without a full employment schedule.

If you are considering a return to public life soon, and as I say, I GET why you may not be, here again are the facts regarding the extensive thought the Art Students League of Denver has put in on their reopening: Class size has been reduced, and in the print room, 6 people are the maximum number, 1 to a workspace. 2. Class times staggered and hallway traffic patterns defined to create distance. 3. Cleaning of work spaces and equipment before and after each class built in and mandatory. 4. Masks and sanitizer, of course, and excellent cleaning has always been a professional goal in printmaking.

Contact me if you have questions about any of this. I’m committed to being as safe as possible.

There is a third option: I have an online, hand-rolled monotypes-at-home class happening in November. I did test fly this one in July during the Kids Art Camp, and found it technically smoother and creatively more versatile than I feared. We use Akua water-soluble inks, so your house will not have fumes and your dining room table or craft area will not be permanently stained every time you slip up. like all things, there’s a learning curve, but professional results are possible, and I’ve shown them at several galleries. Registration opens October 8 at ASLD.org.

And to those living outside the Denver area, a bonus- for the first time, you can take one of my classes without traveling. I’m looking forward to that aspect of it!

I will be trying to post more video excerpts of various techniques and processes this fall. One of my home projects has been to catch up on updating my mailing list, so I’ll send an update out soon. And my web store, torpedoed by faulty software before the virus hit, is one of my last remaining projects. Though I’ve been knocked out of my usual routine, I haven’t been moping. I’m optimistic that we will, in fact, ‘Build Back Better’ as the saying goes, and I hope this finds you safe, well and rarin’ to go.

Reading Edge: Anime and Cartoons, the End of Cultural Quarantine?

With the shambolic response of tRump’s insane clown posse to the coronavirus, I think the virus restrictions will be lasting all Fall ( til November 3?), so I broke down and got a new TV. Now I’m able to stream and binge-watch a lot of stuff I hadn’t seen for years, such as Adult Swim cartoons. Given my recent reading list, it was no surprise that I wound up spending time with Anime classics, as well as Anime-influenced American cartoons.

Cowboy Bebop: I watched this on my brother’s videos in the early 90’s then saw quite a few episodes replayed on Adult Swim. They are very stylish though characteristic 80’s anime with a creative musical soundtrack. The backstory is of bounty hunters in the farthest reaches of the solar system in the 2060’s, but as the episodes go on, a more developed romantic backstory featuring two rivals for the same woman emerges. Characters are added along the way, and their backstory is explored as well. 

Thus, a fairly typical retro futurist genre pastiche takes on a bit of emotional heft. There’s humor and violence, but the surprising twists in the back story keep things fresh. Nonetheless, the overall concept is genre, and much of the backstory feels a little grafted on. There’s a lot of violence, in the mode of the ‘stylish’ violence of the 90’s.

In constructing this clever pastiche of popular genre tropes ( sci-fi, detective noir, western, with a strong dash of very 60’s Hollywood action thriller), the Japanese/ American creators seem to be borrowing a page from Sugiera’s 70’s/80’s Gekiga manga style. Pop Culture influences are mixed and matched in an almost off hand way. As with Sugiera, the American cultural appropriation is very prevalent, but the series retains its eastern flavor. The music helps to keep things fresh, provides a thematic glue between disparate styles and time periods, and seems to inform the pacing of the visuals, also reminiscent of Garo-era gekiga, such as Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy. The series held up well after a long lapse in watching it, and seems to fit in with its place in Japanese Manga/Anime. 

Samurai Jack, Genndy Tarkovsky: This was a turn of the century Adult Swim staple, but one I did not get to spend a lot of time with owing to schedule and other priorities ( Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Home Movies, Space Ghost Coast to Coast). It was always unique and intiguing, and never easy to just drop in in the middle of. This differs from those above in every way. It’s neither cartoon brut nor Hanna Barbera mash-up rescued from the vaults. It was a true original cinema-style cartoon series conceived by Tarkovsky and others and was clearly intended to advance the animation art stylistically. It’s certainly one of the most visually beautiful animation series ever, combining Oyvind Earle-style mid century modernism and landscape design with a color sense that borrows from cubism and 50’s advertising art, but also Japanese folk art and 60’s psychedelia. It really is a treat for the eyes, and won many awards for its visuals. 

This is not to say that the story doesn’t ascend to compelling heights at times, though it doesn’t always attempt to transcend its home genre, a bushido action series with many fight scenes. But Jack, the hero, must make difficult choices and this often redeems the regular violence, along with the pure stylistic energy of its animation. A class in color theory could be taught around its schemes, with their minimal elegance, ranging from complex tonalities to eye opening complements with rich secondaries a linch pin for its almost literally surreal naturalism. I’ve always extolled thoughtful secondary colors, balanced with hot primaries, and well considered neutrals in my work and in my classes. I enjoy Samurai Jack as a delicious bit of eye candy.

The stories are minimal as well. Jack has been banished to a dystopian retro future that is both medieval and coldly metallic by a demon, Aku, he has defeated in battle. In order to administer the coup-de-grace, and set his people, as well as future generations free, he must find a way back to the past. So he travels on a quest for a way back, helping peoples he meets, and battling demon monsters and robots. All in the rich chameleon colors and anime-influenced stylizations. An evocative simplicity rules.

The show is not really anime, but in its stripped down but elegant animation and nods to bushido and eastern martial arts, it feels that way at times. The pacing is patient and the cartoon enjoys the ride. There’s a joie de vivre in the half hour increments of Jack’s journey. The series went through 4 full seasons during the aughts before it was cancelled without reaching a conclusion. A movie was vetted before it finally returned in 2017 for a concluding 5th season. The wait was worth it, as the final season includes many masterful segments before reaching its stirring, even delicate, conclusion. Unlike the earlier seasons which meandered without any real momentum at times, the final season accelerates without sacrificing its evocative visuals and contemplative pacing. 

I haven’t seen all the episodes (101!), but this would be one well worth owning a collection, as even now, I watched rapt as episodes replayed. They really are that gorgeous. I think Akira is probably an influence ( another anime I haven’t seen in a long while) and of course, peak-era Disney. But this is a very original series and really has set the bar for a modern cartoon. Its vision speaks to the art of animation, as few cartoons do. 

Sherlock Hound, Hayao Miyazaki: Miyazaki is the ‘Japanese Disney’ to some, though others insist on Osamu Tezuka. The appellation itself may be a bit racist, as neither is really derivative of the House of Mouse, though Tezuka was definitely influenced in his early years, before Astro Boy. At that time, of course, Japan was awash in American pop culture such as comic books and movies, during the occupation from the mid-40’s to mid 50’s. It’s fascinating to see how they processed and appropriated these influences in Manga and Anime ( e.g, Sugiera’s pop Nansensu- nonsense) And my discovery of Sugiera’s freewheelin’ mash-ups got me curious about the roots of manga and anime. Miyazaki came later, and this series, which was an Italian-Japanese collaboration dubbed into English for British, and then American audiences bears his unique stamp at times. 

Sherlock Hound is an adaptation of Holmes, of course, with anthropomorphic dogs. It’s a fairly run-of the-mill Saturday morning concept, but the 6 episodes that Miyazaki directed bear his signature pastoral steam-punk stylings. Some of the same giddy panoramas are here, depthless blue skies, and the love of retro-futurist machines. There was some sort of interruption in production, and by the time the series came back, Miyazaki had launched Nauusica of the Valley of the Wind, and did not return to it. 

These are available on the Open Culture web site, where you can see anime from as far back as the 20’s, including a 30’s Fleischer Brothers- influenced short about a haunted temple. As an aside, there are classics from Jan Svankmeier, The Brothers Quay, and also Lotte Reiniger, for those who read my review of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly: The Rat.

If anything, the return influence of these early Japanese pop culture inventions on American creators is probably underrated. The American stubbornness on infantilizing cartoons ‘ for the sake of the children’ stunted creators until well into the late 70’s, and in Tartovsky and Adult Swim, Raw Magazine and Watchmen, more recently, Pretty Deadly and Jimmy Corrigan, you can see American creators beginning to rise above the weight of censorship. (Not all of those titles are completely American productions, of course.) Garo magazine revolutionized manga and anime in the 70’s. Alternative comics and Adult Swim followed in the 80’s and 90’s.

So it’s a very exciting time to explore cartooning, which cannot at all be separated from earlier innovations by Japanese and European creators. I was excited to receive a copy of Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy in the mail this week. It’s a beautiful book I’ve read before from the library, that I’m excited to re-read in the context of these later landmarks. Exploring this history is a counterpoint to the American exceptionalism that has stunted all forms of American culture. We’ve proven that exceptionalism is a recipe for disaster in health policy. Let’s not make the same mistake in our readings of pop culture.

Corona Update: School’s Back in Fall!

Registration Opens Aug 11 for the first wave of distanced, in-person classes since the shut down.

I updated my Fall workshop schedule with my limited class offerings, and that is here. I’ve gone in, along with other instructors, to finalize the distancing preparations in the print studio this week. It’s certainly spacious, as classes will be smaller. There’s a little about what the League as a whole is doing about this as we prepare for the September 1 re-opening, here. And I attended a Zoom meeting where our Faculty Advisory Committee of various community-minded instructors presented a Zoom/Keynote about how to get started in online classes.

There I learned the nugget that a third of the school’s Fall offerings will be online. I shared my insight that by actually doing an online class my self, I learned quite a bit about the process. It was fun, too.

I think this qualifies as one of the positive opportunities that the virus does present. And it was probably overdue for some of us, certainly me. It’s also a nice channel for my energies right now, as the print studio is still closed, and I’m not making a lot of work. However, I’m also working with staff and faculty with an eye toward a limited open studio re-opening, so hang on, art is coming!

I did, however, get a small series of hand-rolled prints done in association with the online class, so I’ll generate a post about that soon. It goes without saying that one is limited in how much one can do outside the print studio, and without a press, but not as limited as one might first think.

I also have some reading/ binge watching reviews to post, as that’s been my go-to for home entertainment during quarantine. Those will be posted next. I certainly hope to be spending significant time at home this Fall, in caution. I haven’t read a lot lately as things are suddenly opening all at once, and I find myself out a bit more than I’d like. But I intend to make reading a major part of my Autumn.

Cam Do

Quiet on the set.

I’m halfway through my first online class and I’m relieved to report it’s going pretty well. Online teaching is obviously a new thing for me, as well as for the school, so I was obsessing not only about lesson plans, but video and slide show integration as well. Compounding that was that they changed the materials I was using (ink) at the last minute to something I’ve never used before. In response, to all these uncertainties, I simplified everything. It helped that in the transition to the new normal, registration was low- just two very attentive and clever teens. I think that’s pretty normal for the summer camps in our new normal of online learning. I know I was freaking out about the logistics a little too much to really promote. 

Leaving aside the simplified lessons and materials learning curve for now, I’ll put down my impressions on the tech side of things, in case other artists are interested in the process. I’d posted my reaction to doing a full length video previously, and that’s here if you want to read it.

The software used is Zoom, and it being my first time doing this, I can’t compare it to anything, but I will say that it’s simple enough to learn and to use. The school is ‘hosting’ the meetings, so I don’t have full control over the functions, which can be limiting, but there are certainly enough work arounds to keep a smooth flow. 

I’m able to switch back and forth between slide shows of art examples and bullet points that I prepared ahead of time using Keynote, meeting style face shots, and my ‘studio cam’ which is my iPhone mounted on a tripod, and connected with Lightning/USB. It’s not instantaneous switching as in a video control room, but certainly fluid enough. 

The students have their face shot/webcams, and so have to hold anything they want me to see up before the camera. This is not optimal, of course. Seeing how artists are working can give me as much info as what the results are. Also in art, not everything can be held up vertical while in progress. They can solve this with their own phones if they have a hook-up, but I don’t know if Zoom really supports that. 

Other equipment that’s essential: obviously, the tripod, a cheap one I got just for this type of project. A nicer one with an adjustable boom for straight down shooting might be my next suggestion. For one thing, it would enable both close-ups of work and full table medium shots. But at any rate, a hands free studio cam is essential in art instruction. Zoom’s interface does make it easy to hook up a second camera, and switch to it when the demo begins.

Lights: the first part of “Lights, Camera, Action!” And just as important as the other two. I used basic painter’s lights with flood bulbs, though possibly the diffused bulbs might create a less shadowy look. But having two mounted higher up at different angles did do a nice enough job. 

For the slide show, I kept my sentences and bullet lists short, and tried to include lots of pictures in between. For illustration, I used both my own work as well as pics from the web of monotypes by Degas, etc. I had pics of student work from previous classes to show them examples of peers’ creative solutions. One nice thing about the slide show is, You can pick a slide to leave up as a reminder, or just as a decoration while you fumble with switching to the studio cam, or even clean your tools for the next demo. It buys you time. 

The work area would necessarily be set up in advance with tools handy and short distances between your work area and your ‘anchor desk’ for good transitions. I also took masking tape and did preset blocking for my viewable work area and my camera position. You’ll probably want to see the Zoom screen as well as your work area when demoing, in case questions pop up in the chat. So I placed my laptop behind and slightly to the side of the work area, and was able to monitor the screen while demoing. When you switch to studio cam, Zoom shows that, so you can make sure they’re seeing what you want them to see, although it’s backward, one thing a camera boom might help with. 

All in all, it’s a pretty fun and doable project that I will tinker with after this class to set up for an adult online class I’m teaching in the Fall ( ASLD.org), as well as short videos that I can post to my You Tube channel to promote future classes. I spent a day setting things up and testing it in advance, that is certainly recommended. If using Zoom, you can just set up a 1 person meeting with yourself for a dry run. 

Please comment with any comments or suggestions. I think it’s natural to learn as you go, so I’m glad in a way that the lockdown forced my hand. I do miss live classes, and can’t wait to get back to properly distanced classes at the school, which are coming in September. I’ve updated my Workshops page ( above) with info on the Fall class schedule. I haven’t plugged in all the dates and links yet, but registration isn’t live yet, anyway. That’ll be soon, so check back.

Reading Edge: Strange Landscapes

Sugiera’s Nansensu gangsters in an Utrillo streetscape.

Outside my window, in the park, people are anxious to get on with their pre-pandemic lives. I’m not sure that will ever happen, but it’s a fantasy that won’t let go, and it’s leading to a resurgence in infections.

I have the luxury, and the imperative, to keep quarantining, to a certain amount. The recommendation for people my age is reduce contact by 65%, and while that may be unattainable as the world rushes to get back to what was once viewed as normal, I’m going to try to remain at home as much as I can.

The school is still closed to live classes, but online classes are starting, and I’m doing what I can to transition. I have a corporate slave job on a college campus that remains closed, and I do not miss that. There’s plenty to do at home, whether in my studio/office, or online.

I do miss the actual studio (at the school) which also remains closed. And I miss popping into a pub for a beer and a burger and a soccer game, but again, there’s no hurry, Fall or Spring will be fine for a return.

So that leaves, for the quiet evening hours after trying to maintain a career, reading. I’m watching movies online for variety, I’m tuning in as soccer comes back on TV, but mostly, I’m reading. Even what little online shopping I’m doing is mostly for books. In analyzing what I’m reading, I find I can’t really analyze what I’m reading. Part of the purpose of writing about what I read is to help me process it. Later, I might come back and look at these quarantine lists and think, hmm. Right now, it seems random, and you’re getting it face value. Most of these books were ordered on small press-oriented web sites at bargain prices, or pulled from my shelves after buying them on spec from used bookstores, so that may explain their eccentricity. But maybe not.

Last of the Mohicans, Shigeru Sugiera: One of the main joys of reading this beautiful little Picture Box volume is the long critical essay by Ryan Holmberg, whom I’d encountered in some Seichi Hayashi reprints from the library and who did a lot to put my ignorance of Manga into a historical context with other comics timelines. These essays, probably too detailed for many fans, touched on the artists who I’d encountered sporadically in the pages of Raw, and The Ganzfeld. Later on, the Mazur and Danner book, Comics: A Global History, 1968-Now brought my curiosity to a head. 

This book, as Holmberg explains, was a part of an artistic renaissance in mid-60’s Japanese Manga that for the first time, treated comics as an artistic art form. But it also is a remake of a manga that exemplified the cultural crosscurrents in play in occupation era Japan. The sources of this, American movies, often as filtered through American comic books, are at play ironically in both versions of Mohicans. Neither is so much an adaptation of the James Fenimore Cooper novel, as a Pop Art pastiche of cultural assumptions surrounding it. 

This is apparent in the visuals of the original comic, with some characters played in ‘straight’ images swiped from western movies and Classics Illustrated comics, which aspired to a literary/historical truth, but often missed by miles; and others conforming more to ‘Nansensu’ (Nonsense) children’s Manga of the 50’s. Thus the original 50’s version is strange enough, with big-eyed, round headed Astro Boy-style characters interacting with characters and scenes from Hollywood. Iroquois-era Native Americans find themselves anachronistically dropped into the sweeping John Ford vistas of Monument Valley, and Hawkeye, now a manga cutie, mimics the impossible action sequences of post war DC/Dell western comics. 

Sugiera’s second version of the comic ( printed here) does not stop there, though. Conversant with the intervening cultural appropriation aesthetic of Warhol’s Pop Art movement, and still fascinated by the comics and movies American GI’s introduced to occupied Japan during his formative years and before, Sugiera redoes the comic in the early 70’s, heightening, rather than downplaying its cultural collage. Characters such as Oliver Hardy and Little Lulu are added. Some characters seem to spring from a stylized, mask-like Asian folkloric aesthetic, others remain rooted in mass media ‘realism’. Holmberg exhaustively traces these sources, and the book, which it should be obvious- is pretty silly on its surface, now lives on my shelf, awaiting another reading as I continue to explore other works from this fascinating period in manga. This includes a riotously synthetic short from Sugiera that I ran across in The Ganzfeld #4 which mixes primitive manga characters with Utrillo street scapes and- Mr. Potato Head. A feast for the eyes, and a little explored instance of the clash of cultures. 

Pig Tales, Paper Rad: Paper Rad is a comics collective which grew out an earlier zine group called Paper Radio, and is contemporaneous and linked to the Fort Thunder collective. This digest-sized collection espouses, if it does not directly reference ( I don’t know for sure), the zine resurgence of the late 90’s and early aughts. 

The pigs referenced are big haired, ‘fab’ fashionistas who like to party and shop. The plotting is abrupt and even arbitrary, and the satire deliberately obscure. The cartooning is garish, cartoon brut imagery that seems to source the 70’s faux psychedelia of Saturday morning cartoons. The book is a flip book, and the other side, Cartoon Workshop #3, makes these references even more explicit, with Hanna-Barbera type images spliced in. This is also put out by Picture Box, a now-defunct imprint published by radical comics/art critic Dan Nadel which I’ve been searching out on small press oriented sites because they offer the most comprehensive selection of an edgy comics underground that hasn’t quite reached the mainstream yet. It’s coming on fast, though. 

Nadel edited and published The Ganzfeld, a journal which only lasted for 7 issues, but which represents a very momentous and substantive look at how comics, as art form, intersects with high art. Thus, if you are interested in understanding comics as one of the 21st Century’s most vital art forms, then any book with the Picture Box imprint is a great place to start. 

Nadel doesn’t seem to have been able to make it work. Remainders from his often exquisite output are still available on the web, usually at remainder prices. They are intellectually very ambitious, and range from examinations of Henry Fielding to post war manga to ’00’s zine collectives, the undercurrents of pop culture made manifest. He has made the linkages between comics and high art explicit, at times; for example, a long article on the Hairy Who, the Chicago Art Collective whose images and aims often intersected with comics. 

Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography, Thomas H. Johnson: I found this slim volume from the 50’s a few years ago at a favorite little shop on Broadway, Fahrenheit books. I put it away for a rainy day read which the pandemic brought along. 

As an amateur reader, I often run into a problem with more challenging material, as Dickinson, with her highly specialized imagery and language and difficult rhythms, definitely is. That is: critical support materials related to the poems often (unsurprisingly, I guess) prefer to address other academics, embedded in the wars of words surrounding a given author, rather than a general reader. I’ve complained about academic jargon, but it goes beyond that. Certain critics just do not want to take time addressing basic concepts of American Romantic literature covered in undergrad courses, and skip right to theses that will make their careers. 

I did take several Lit classes in my undergrad career, but none that I can recall, on poetry. Thus, Johnson’s discussion of the meters and rhyme schemes in Dickinson was very welcome. Not that his treatment of recurring themes and metaphor in E.D. are simplistic. It makes for a gem of a book, a real page turner, in fact.

I’m not trying to minimize the intense investigations of academics who like Dickinson. In fact, this book will make a possible return to Cynthia Griffin Wolf’s examination of the poet, which I put down 2/3’s through, not out of confusion, but more out of a sense of having come into the middle of a conversation, more likely, and more enjoyable. 

I received a 3 issue bundle of Pressing Matters, a beautiful printmaking magazine from England, and I’ll write about that upcoming. I also got Powr Mastrs, a book by a Paper Rad alum, C.F., a tour de force in comics brut lyricism, and will try to mention that. I’m re-reading Pynchon’s wonderful funny/scary Mason and Dixon, and ordered a collection of critical essays on that, and those will get a post. With Dickinson’s revivalist gothicism, Sugiera’s pop culture frontier pastiche, and Pynchon’s surreal Enlightenment walkabout, I guess we do have a slender theme: American Romanticism in the Blender for 100, Alex.

I do miss the pub, but books provide a certain amount of companionship, and I don’t mind being judged by the company I keep.