Anodyne
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
 
6am sunrise, fresh coffee, gear loaded in the Legacy. Warmish. Cats riding shotgun.

Some days I really do love this life.

Back soon.
Monday, May 01, 2006
 

ACT: (Aesthetically Claimed Thing): To keep you company while I'm gone, seven and a half minutes of my favorite artwork ever. If nuclear war broke out tomorrow, and I had to flee through time with only one "aesthetic object" as company, La Jetee would be in my backpack with the cats.
 
Working draft of my Banff paper below. I don't know how accurate or plausible much of this is, but I do like the relaxed, conversational tone. Much of my writing has a kind of hectic or quacking quality to it; this feels much more like spinning out ideas over beer at the Soho Cafe. The latter half of the paper is probably improved by a copy of Rabbithead in your hands; I'm taking a "class set" to pass out to seminar participants.

Back next week. A bientot!

[Edit, less than 8 hours later: already neurotically making changes, so how much resemblance this snapshot is going to bear to what is finally inflicted on my seminar co-participants is speculative at best]
 
How to Start and Stop Time
by Christopher Brayshaw

“Building on the knowledge shared by previous presentations, this session will expand the discussion to include the voice of an artist, a a critic, a fan and a scholar all animated by the same passion about comics.” I guess that critic is me. Today, I want to talk a little bit how I come to be here, the title of critic being one that no sane individual willingly goes out and applies for. I want to talk about contemporary art, which is where most of my critical energy goes these days, into writing essays about photography and aesthetic theory, and running, along with a few co-conspirators, CSA Space, an independent exhibition space in Vancouver. I also want to mention the often fractious relationship between comics and gallery art, and, finally, I want to discuss, at some length, a comic book called Rabbithead, by Rebecca Dart, one of my favorite comics of the last ten years. I have some copies here with me today. I’ve learned a lot by reading Rabbithead, and by thinking about it, and talking about it with Rebecca. I’m not very good with theory; I tend to get bored and distracted by abstractions, and if I’m bored by something, I usually end up forgetting it. So in writing or thinking about art, I always try to be mindful of that great line by William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.” As a critic, I only apprehend art insofar as I can refer ideas to particular aspects of particular artworks. This doesn’t offer a lot of range – most of the time my critical activity feels like snuffling along like a beagle, stopping at every hydrant and hedge -- but it does keep you focused. Artworks are maps that stop you getting lost.

How did I come to find myself a critic? Basically through the recognition that some art was better than other art, that certain things sustained my interest longer than other ones. Over two decades, this path led from pop culture to “high art,” and then, strangely enough, back again.

My friend Jamie Tolagson, a very good Victoria photographer whose day job is drawing trademarked characters like Superman for DC Comics, caricatures the path as follows: “Star Wars to X-Men, X-Men to Watchmen, Watchmen to 'painted comics,' painted comics to Klimt, Klimt to Schiele, Schiele to Shahn, Shahn to Basquiat, Basquiat to Twombly, Twombly to HEY. Wait a minute. Where the hell am I? There aren't any X-Men around here."

Today, I want to wander down this path with you, using Rebecca Dart’s work to check in on some hunches I have about some fundamental aspects of the comics medium. For those of you who don’t know her, Rebecca is an American-born, Vancouver-based cartoonist who works full time in the local animation industry, designing characters and backgrounds for shows like Mission Hill, Ned’s Newt, and What About Mimi?. She lives near Main and Broadway, a once rundown residential neighborhood now sprinting toward gentrification. I first met her in the summer of 2003, shortly after opening a bookstore which, in addition to carrying books on such bestselling topics as Russian science fiction and conceptual art, also stocks a loosely curated selection of self-published books and comics. Now that I think of it, Robin probably came in first – Robin Bougie, Rebecca’s husband, and creator, publisher, hand-letterer, and relentless full-time publicity machine for Cinemasewer, a quarterly magazine for folks who like films about cannibals, murderous lesbians, Nazi prison guards, and radioactive zombies.

Rebecca showed up in Robin’s wake with Rabbithead in tow: a self-published twenty four page black and white comic book with a color xerox cover, which at that point existed in an edition of something like twenty or thirty copies. We sold all of these in a week or two, and Rebecca promptly reprinted the book. These reprints also sold. Then Rebecca brought in a “promotional tool” to help her already healthy sales: a long, scroll-shaped poster which she had made by photocopying every page in the book, laying the pages side by side in sequence, and then taping them together to create an approximately six foot long composite image.

We put the poster, scroll, whatever you want to call it up opposite the cash desk, where I, who spent approximately fifty to sixty hours a week behind it, spent much of my time studying it. I think that because of all this daily looking at Rabbithead my critical relationship to it was inevitably changed. When you write about painting, or installation art, or video as a journalist it is always on deadline. You see a work a few times and make notes, and in compositing these notes into a finished piece of writing you necessarily dwell on those aspects of the work that have impressed themselves most forcefully upon you. Maybe you go back to the gallery once or twice, or call up the artist to fact-check, but by dint of your physical and temporal seperation from the work you are essentially working from a memory of it. And memory, in my experience, is a very flexible, transitive thing, a fundamentally corrosive medium that alters or transforms whatever it touches. I don’t object to this – one reason, say, that I know that paintings like Reubens’ Death of Christ, in the Getty, or Daumier’s Montebanks Resting, in the Norton Simon in Pasadena, are great works of art is because of both images’ resilience in my imagination, their persistance in spite of the corrosive and deforming effects of memory.

So, in the summer and fall of 2003, I was literally spending all day with Rabbithead, studying it something like fifteen or twenty times a day. And because I naively thought that I wasn’t preparing to write about the work, or to lecture on it, I noticed lots of things about it, details I might not have appreciated had I been operating in a more pragmatic, “critical” mode.

I want to talk about some of these things today. My interest in discussing them is twofold. First, I think they illuminate essential aspects of the comics form in ways which are unique in my experience. Second, the aesthetic success of these things – the way they capture and hold my attention; the ways that they give pleasure – opens up a whole host of other issues, including the relationship of comics to what have been traditionally considered “high” or established forms: painting; sculpture; maybe photography too . I suppose you could call this kind of thinking a branch or subdivision of “formal” analysis.

I personally believe that “formalism” doesn’t exist in art as such, and that this term doesn’t really have any meaning, outside of being handy to throw around as a diss or a put-down. But I also believe, as did Clement Greenberg, who for all his failings still remains for me the single most important art critic of the 20th century, that only form (which he called 'convention' in his late Seminars --short, philosophical essays which he published in publications like Arts magazine and Studio International) provides specific, verifiable means of describing art.As Greenberg says at the beginning of Seminar 6, “Formalizing art means making aesthetic experience communicable: objectifying it, making it public, instead of keeping it private or solipsistic as happens with most aesthetic experience. For aesthetic experience to be communicated it has to be submitted to conventions – or ‘forms’ if you like – just as language does if it’s to be understood by more than one person.”So, in place of private, and necessarily subjective statements, good criticism offers descriptions of specific, verifiable aspects of art objects. This painting is mostly blue. This sculpture consists of a stuffed goat, and a rubber tire, and oil paint, and some other stuff. There are nine panels on this page. And the specificity of this language, given plainly and directly and consequently available to almost everyone in ways in which the more specialized, technical languages of the applied sciences -- electrical engineering, say, or medicine, or quantum physics -- aren’t, is a means of gesturing toward, pointing at or otherwise denoting aspects of artworks which convince us, individually, of their “quality.”The point of so-called 'formal' analysis isn’t to smother artworks under a blanket of language or theory, but to concretize those aspects of them that appeal to us or move us, so that we can use these features as a basis for discussing how they move us as they do, or to argue why one thing is better than another. I once heard this process described as 'complicating love with judgement,' a phrase that still appeals to me.

I apologize if these issues seem simplistic or too broadly drawn. They are things I first heard described, although perhaps not exactly in this fashion, in my introductory first year fine arts course at UBC. And yet, I think there’s been and still remains a resistance, in many respects, to such criticism among comics creators and readers.

Some years ago, I wrote a essay on Jack Kirby, a comics artist who was as influential on my development as an art critic and historian, as much better-known figures like Greenberg, Rodney Graham, or Jeff Wall for a Fantagraphics Books publication. In the essay, I tried to point to specific, verifiable, characteristics of Kirby’s art which in my view made him a noticeably better artist than any of his peers at Marvel and DC Comics. And this essay, “The Monument Carver’s Store,” which to my mind remains one of the clearest, least theoretical pieces of writing I have ever done, attracted no end of controversy. You can look up numerous letters to The Comics Journal or blog entires up that criticize me for defacing Kirby’s work with incomprehensible theoretical gobbledegook, or somehow seeking to domesticate Kirby’s work to my own self-serving agenda. This wasn’t the case then and it isn’t now; for me, the object of criticism is always the work of art itself. Criticism is merely a tool or set of tools that lets us open up the hood and examine the compositional machinery that channels a artist’s imagination and makes it run.

I think that this resistance to or suspicion of art criticism is deeply ingrained in comics culture because comics is a form that has evolved alongside visual art, but has also been eager – in my view, too eager – to isolate itself from the sort of rigorous critical judgements and deep historical curiousity that are fundamentally engrained in the culture of visual art. The skills that make you successful in one medium seem to work against you in others. To mention two particularly glaring examples, I, along with most other comics critics and historians, think of Carl Barks and Bernie Kriegstein as major comics artists. Works like Barks’ “Only a Poor Old Man” or Kriegstein’s “Master Race” are high points of the comics medium. Both men turned, later on in life, to representational oil painting. Barks’ paintings of Uncle Scrooge and the rest of the Duck family are well-known, having been reproduced ad infinitum in catalogs of his work, and Kriegstein’s paintings can be seen in Greg Sadowski’s great 2004 biography published by Fantagraphics. I have mixed emotions when I look at these paintings. I admire both artists, but their “fine art” paintings seem to me to be work made out of aggressive, almost parochial disinterest in everything that’s happened in modern painting since Manet and Cezanne. Barks’ and Kriegstein’s paintings are stiff, over-rendered and lifeless, the antithesis of their lively and formally inventive comics work. Something is drained from these artists when they paint, which makes the work noticably less interesting. I think what is missing from their paintings is time, a quality I’ll return to in a minute.

Before I do, though, I also want to acknowledge that there have been a few artists who have been equally successful as comics artists and fine artists. Andreas Feininger was a very sophisticated abstract painter who taught for several years at the Bauhaus. After he and his wife fled Germany for the US after the Nazis’ rise to power, Feininger created two terrific newspaper strips, The Kin-der Kids, and Wee Willy Winkie’s World, that evidence the same visual complexity as his best oil paintings. And contemporary artists like Raymond Pettibon, the Winnipeg’s Royal Art Lodge, and Chris Ware have all exhibited works in both a “fine arts” and “comics” context. Pettibon, in particular, seems to me to be an artist equally at home in either medium, and his work seems to shift slightly depending on what context it is seen in, like the earth turning first one face toward the sun, and then another. I could name others. Daumier and Heinrich Zille, for instance, were successful draftsmen who created illustrations that depend on the interaction of images and texts, even if they do not move, as nearly all comics do, in time. Daumier is of course well-known as an oil painter, lithographer, and talented caricaturist, and Zille’s photographs, while not widely known in his lifetime, are being rediscovered and studied today. There are many others. Definitely Gary Panter. Chris Ware, too, though I think the success of Ware’s comic books and graphic design work was largely responsible for creating a critical context for the reception of his more idiosyncratic sculptures and mechanical constructions.

I have some problems with the scholarship in Kirk Varnedoe’s catalog for MOMA’s landmark exhibition, High & Low (1990), but its bibliographies do provide some useful points of reference between contemporary art and comics, if you want to explore some of these intersections on your own.

With that parenthetical aside complete, I want to return to Barks’ and Kriegstein’s paintings, and what for me is a certain stiff or frozen quality. In contrast, it seems to me that one mark of how successful a work of comics art is is its relationship to time.

[Hands out copies of Rabbithead to the audience]

I’d like to look at Rabbithead with you now, and to make some observations about how Dart’s story is structured. It begins with three panels in the middle of the page. We read them left to right, and our reading, plus the way that the images are structured, tells us that the sequence is describing movement through time. Panel 2, for instance, depicts an event occuring after panel 1. In panel 1 the Rabbithead character is approaching an open grave. In panel 2, she has come forward, picked up a shovel, and is spooning earth into the open grave visible in panel 1. But there is not necessarily a correspondence between the panel’s placement in the larger graphic sequence and its place in the temporal order that the sequence depicts. Or to put it another way, there is an implied correspondence between the two. I say implied and not guaranteed. The comics form makes no guarantees about the temporal relationships between panels. Time in comics is a bit like time in post-Einstein physics; it runs differently, based on whatever else happens to be around.

In modern physics, time is a function of gravity; time runs faster where there is gravity and slower where there is little or none, as for example in a spacecraft approaching the speed of light. Science fiction writers have had a field day with the metaphor of the astronaut who leaves his home planet, journeys for a few years at near-light speeds, and returns home only to discover that centuries have passed. In comics, time is the reader. Time moves when the reader is paying attention, and stops when he or she looks away. And the comics form calls on the reader to fill in or otherwise account for temporal gaps. Jamie Hernandez, in particular, has made a career out of setting up sequences of panels in which successive panels depict very different moments of time, and the reader has to reassemble a chronology from information provided in a graphically direct, but temporally scrambled, sequence. So it seems to me that Rabbithead’s story involves a very basic – in my view, fundamental -- property of the comics medium: the manipulation of time through space.

Turn the page, and the story continues. The less charitably inclined among us might by now be thinking that a single channel of drawings in the middle of the page is a cheap attempt to up the page count without doing much in the way of real work. But keep going, and on page 4, things change. On the last panel on page 3, Rabbithead spits, and her saliva divides in the air. On page 4, the narrative divides as well, splitting into two new channels of panels set above and below the central channel.

Creatures grow out of Rabbithead’s spit, and these new channels follow their adventures. The new channels are graphically contiguous with the first channel, but spatially and temporally distinct from it. Note, for instance, that though the channels run side-by-side, their panel borders are staggered, so that none of the panels run precisely neck-and-neck with each other. What does this signify? Well, it makes the story more graphically inviting; it introduces asymmetry into the design of each page, it makes the page-level composition varied and interesting, instead of static and symmetrical, like rows of identical blocks stacked one on top of the other. Second, it shows that each panel represents a slightly different interval of time. Look, for example, at the far top and center panel on page 5. In the top panel, one of the creatures that grew from Rabbithead’s saliva is bouncing down a hillside, revelling in its newfound freedom. How much time is encapsulated here? A second or two. Directly below, Rabbithead and her long-necked steed, Horsey, approach the gates of a town. Horsey’s back feet are up off the ground and only one of its feet is touching the ground, so we know that this panel is a “snapshot,” a split second of time extracted from a larger continuum. Rebecca encourages these kind of comparisons by making the panels slightly different sizes, as if to emphasize the amount of story-time each contains. To reemphasize: time varies in comics. It is absolutely flexible. And in the hands of a sophisticated comics artist, this essential property of the medium becomes a device of enormous formal and thematic complexity.

Another few pages in. On page 8, the channels divide again. Five different timestreams now, running side by side. On page 11, these also fork, so that by pages 12 and 13, which are the book’s centerspread, seven different timestreams are juxtaposed. The temporal discontinuites now in play are jaw-dropping. Let me point out a few. In the first panel of the top channel on page 13, a mama bug is pregnant with a little bug. In the second panel, the baby bug is a toddler; in panel 3, he has a mohawk – he’s a “rebellious adolescent.” Time is moving very, very quickly here; it’s like watching one of those time-lapses in a National Geographic documentary of flowers blooming or stormclouds brewing out of a clear blue sky.

Directly below the bugs, in channel 2, a kind of snake-parrot drops a skull into its nest, taking out two of its offspring. A third offspring escapes, but the skull is too heavy for the nest and it snaps the branch right off the tree, sending the branch, the skull, the nest and the heavily traumatized baby predator plummeting toward the ground. This sequence occupies exactly the same amount of space as the bug’s life above it, but time here is moving much more closely to real time. Meanwhile, further down the page, in channel 6, a mole-thing is cutting up its own arm and raising a chunk of meat to its lips. Time’s flying!

Elsewhere, time ceases to be at all relevant. My favorite Rabbithead character is channel 4’s little piglet. On page 11, he chows down on a powerful psychedelic plant. Pages 11-15 showcase his subsequent Carlos Castaneda-style “vision quest.” I can’t say how much time passes here, and wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess; my sense is that Dart included this sequence as a caution to those who might be tempted to parse her story’s timelines too finely. Time resumes its normal course on page 16, when the little pig, down from his high, decks himself out in a beret and jacket made from a leaf – he’s an aesthete now, a “connoisseur of aesthetic experience.”

On page 17, with channels and time running back together, the little pig spots what looks to him like an even bigger version of his old friend the psychedelic plant. But because, unlike him, we can see outside the bounds of his timestream, we immediately recognize that this big bulbous shape is actually the hindquarters of the book’s nastiest character, channel #5’s huge dog-grub that never stops hunting down and devouring anything smaller than itself. Sure enough, on page 18, the little pig delicately chows down on the dog-grub, and is promptly eaten in turn. And with such encounters, Rabbithead transcends formal play with space and time and acquires genuine emotional power.

In many mainstream comics, very little attention is paid to the creation of a fully realized world that exists both in space and time. If you look at, say, a compositional manual like Drawing Comics the Marvel Way, you glimpse methodology that basically involves drawing a succession of little perspective boxes. This kind of page design is like a stage that thrusts characters forward in space. Relatively scant attention is paid to backgrounds, to the things that surround the character. We’ve all seen a fully realized Wolverine or Captain America standing alongside a poorly-rendered table or bookcase that isn’t much more than a rectangle resting on some cylinders. Probably the best example of this approach, the most we can expect from it, is the graphic novel Watchmen, whose creators, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, mapped out coherent spaces for their characters to move through, so they knew what was around the characters at any point in time, and they knew what the art had to show and from what perspective as the characters moved around in their visually and temporally congruent world. In Rabbithead, not only is the background consistant (as evidenced, say, by the map on the back page), but the relationships of the book’s characters is consistant, too, relationships which are heartless, cruel, and, I should probably add, funny, too. No one comes off well. Characters are maimed, bludgeoned, chowed down upon, consumed. And this surreal and often blackly comic food chain mirrors the way in which Dart’s story is told. Time, space, and psychology are knotted together with an admirable precision; it is impossible to focus on any one strand of the work without all the others coming along for the ride.

In conversations with me, Dart has repeatedly described Rabbithead as a work of experimental autobiography. Many other cartoonists are pursuing similar thematic and technical experiments; Lewis Trondheim, Chris Ware, and Jim Woodring immediately come to mind. Rabbithead is involved in a long conversation with these creators, one that not only agrees on the manipulation of time through space as a fundamental building block of the comics form, but also with the premise that fantastic themes and settings can express psychological truths that are probably too painful to be articulated any other way.

Mainstream North American comics has often provided a shelter or refuge for emotionally damaged people, a brilliant technicolor world reassuring in its changelessness. The mainstream comics has done a much poorer job of recognizing how the best fantasies – Bulgakov, or Borges, or C.S. Lewis, or Haruki Murakami – are always deployed in the service of a greater psychological realism. Experimental projects like Woodring's Frank, Trondheim's Lapinot, Ware's nameless robots and superheroes, and Dart's Rabbithead are not off wandering in cloudcuckooland. Though unlike us, they show us ourselves.

 

On the road for the next few days, through the Kootenays and Nelson -- my favorite small town in all of North America -- on the way to Banff, Alberta (above) and a paper presentation at the Walter Phillips Gallery. Updates from the road (but no pictures) as wireless access allows. Back soon.

Four Strong Winds
Words and music by Ian Tyson

Four strong winds that blow slowly
Seven seas that run high
All these things that don't change come what may
Now our good times are all gone
And I'm bound for moving on
I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way

Guess I'll go out to Alberta
Weather's good there in the fall
Got some friends that I can go to workin' for
Still I wish you'd change your mind
If I asked you one more time
But we've been through that a hundred times or more.

Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
All these things that don't change come what may
Now our good times are all gone
And I'm bound for movin' on
I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way.

If I get there before the snow flies
and if things are going good
You could meet me if I send you down the fare
But by then it would be winter
Nothing much for you to do
And the wind sure blows cold way out there.

Four strong winds that blow slowly
Seven seas that run high
All these things that don't change come what may
Now our good times are all gone
And I'm bound for movin' on.

I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way
Yes, I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way.
Sunday, April 30, 2006
 

Livin' Thing

You, and your sweet desire...

Paul Heaton's Beautiful South covers ELO. Working hard on art criticism tonight, evidently!



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