Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Being Boring

Finally, a live version of the most sublime (& intensely melancholy) pop song I know.

"‘Cause we were never being boring,
We had too much time to find for ourselves.
And we were never being boring,
We dressed up and fought,
Then thought, 'Make amends.'

And we were never holding back,
or worried that

Time would come to an end...."

ACT (Aesthetically Claimed Thing): Bill Murray's face (Broken Flowers, 2005)


Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe cover a deeply obscure Neil Young track. The sort of thing YouTube was designed for. Slow rumbling synth bass, Tennant's high, clear voice.

I've got my friends in the world,
I had my friends
When we were boys and girls
And the secrets came unfurled....

(thx Occasional Toronto Correspondent; Neil Young original available on request)


Vancouver-based critic Clint Burnham and I will be speaking at SFU this Saturday, June 3rd, as part of a panel discussion on photojournalist-cum-impresario Weegee. My "paper" (eg., sheet of handwritten notes) is tenatively titled, "Trouble is My Business," and considers Weegee in relation to the American/European schism in "detecting" first identified by Raymond Chandler in his short essay, "The Simple Art of Murder."

Vancouver-based readers should make a point of dropping into Monte Clark Gallery on Granville Street in the next week or two and asking to see the works "unofficially installed in the rear exhibition space," my favorite of which, Pipe Opening, 2002, is depicted above. I spent forty-five minutes back there today, and emerged feeling much more optimistic about art than I have in a long time.

Recent reading, particularly notable titles in red as usual:

Ian McEwen, Enduring Love
Frederik Pohl, The Boy Who Would Live Forever

The Pohl is a Gateway novel, his first in sixteen years, a kind of potpourri, stirring various unresolved plot elements together. The book doesn't flow particularly well -- it's more a collection of thematically linked short pieces, a la 1990's The Gateway Trip -- but there are some strong sequences, including a piched Iain Banks/Alistair Reynolds-style space battle fought by machine intelligences, and an account of building a huge space telescope, just in order to watch a supernova eat an inhabited planet.

The McEwen's plot ticks steadily like clockwork, but its jumps between the various characters' points of view work well, as do the plot points concealed in the fake "documents" inserted into the text's body.

ACT (Aesthetically Claimed Thing): Miroslav Tichy's homemade camera

"Tichý is truly one of the great ‘finds’ of an unknown artists who worked on the outside edges of the art world. Following the communist takeover Tichý spent some eight years in prison camps and jails for no particular reason other than he was ‘different’ and was considered subversive. Upon his release in the early 70’s, Tichý wandered his small town in rags, pursuing his obsession as an artist with the female form by photographing in the streets, shops and parks with cameras he made from tin cans, childrens spectacle lenses and other junk he found on the street. He would return home each day to make prints on equally primitive equipment, making only one print from the negatives he selected.

He stole intimate glimpses of his subjects through windows and the fences of swimming pools as well as in the streets, sometimes finding himself in trouble with the police. He would often draw intricately on each print in pencil embellishing the images with his lines or reworking them in other ways, Tichý would also sometimes include a card frame around the prints and decorate those too.

The work which might to the casual viewer, simply appear to be intrusive voyeurism, takes on a melancholic and poetic quality. They are exquisitely produced small objects of obsession, which have no equal."

One Hundred Famous Ghosts (17), 2006
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ripley the (almost entirely) hairless Sphynx cat, mascot of Borderlands Books of San Francisco, specialty vendors of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and my hands-down favorite California bookstore. Staffed entirely by folks who could pass as Siouxie's backup band.

Borderlands just filled a deeply obscure special order (Tanith Lee, mass market paperback, early 1980s) for a delighted regular customer of ours. Thanks, Ripley & co.!
1990 Subaru Legacy Wagon, Good Running Condition (via craigslist)

"Dear Christopher,

I have noticed there is ONE patch of rust on a panel by the front right tire and unfortunately I only have a tape player, however, there are NO mechanical problems that I know of.

The car was owned by a monastery (which only bought Subaru cars) before I bought it and they maintained the car with regular oil changes, etc. VERY often (I have the documents). There are many miles on the car, but since the car has been taken such good care of by running on synthetic oil and injected with gas cleaner for so many years, it is still running great.

As an indication of how well the car was taken care of I still have:

• 8 liters of synthetic oil
• 5 oil filters
• 3 bottles of Gasoline Additive
• 1 foam filter
• 2 bottles of silicone and metal lubricator
• extra spark plugs
. . .which I will throw in with the car."

So, off to Queen Elizabeth Park I went.

Car as described, except that the subtitles to "ONE patch of rust on a panel" were, "endemic lower body rust and strangely creaky CV joints." But the interior was nice and clean, and I appreciated the novelty of test-driving a Legacy previously owned by monks.
Monday, May 29, 2006
It's What I Do

(HR-speak sourced off the web; particularly goofy stuff italicized)

"Bookstore Director - (Retail/Wholesale)

Directs and oversees all activities related to the operation of a bookstore. Responsibilities include purchasing new books, coordinating the sale of used books, hiring and evaluating employees, and ordering new inventory as needed. May require a bachelor's degree in area of specialty and at least 5 years of experience in the field or in a related area. Familiar with a variety of the field's concepts, practices, and procedures. Relies on experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of tasks. Leads and directs the work of others. A wide degree of creativity and latitude is expected. Typically reports to top management."

Lyonel Feininger, Ghosties, 1953

"To see a Goth girl in the act of twirling and prancing amongst heavy boots and black military gear can make your head spin, your eyes become swollen. To have a crush on her and get her phone number is even better."

(Found wisdom courtesy Google Image Search and Gothic Beach Studio)
You Fucking Homosexual Faggot

says an irate binner, ejected, after

a) Trying to sell me a (trashed) copy of A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, and,

b) Studying every book of nudes in the front room, page by page (25 minutes!).

"I'm going to come back on your ass, queer. When you're not in your cock-sucking little bookstore."
Jack Spicer reads Imaginary Elegies

I first read Imaginary Elegies in Donald Allen's New American Poetry; any good crib key for the ghosts should begin here.

Poetry, blind like a camera, is alive in sight only for a second...
Sunday, May 28, 2006

One Hundred Famous Ghosts (16), 2006
Saturday, May 27, 2006
"My American Express."

For the record, Pulpfiction does not and will not accept AmEx. But Wes Anderson has always been a favorite.
Friday, May 26, 2006

Charles T. ("Charlie") Munger, Warren Buffett's "alter ego" and sounding board, in rare form at the 2006 Wesco Financial Annual General Meeting. Some uncommonly good advice dispensed, though I do not agree with every one of his positions (nb., his equivocating non-response to a student viz. Berkshire's investment in Petrochina, a position my ethics would not permit me to ever contemplate holding). Still, much wisdom here, including his description of Berkshire as "the ultimate didactic enterprise." I like that phrase a lot; I hope that, in their own small way, Pulpfiction and CSA are didactic enterprises, too. (Note that these questions and answers are shorthand transcripts, and not word-for-word accounts of who said what).

"Q: Do you consider buying and managing a set of businesses a more noble pursuit than portfolio investment?

CHARLES MUNGER: Hell yes. Passive investing is too unengaged a life. Like poker players -- it pays bill but not a responsible life.

Q: Does it matter if you hold and resell?

CM: Colleagues and businesses keep changing? No one admires that with wives. Why must you constantly flip the relationships of your life? I don't consider flipping a good life. [Then, responding to a previous question regarding Berkshire's tendency to buy businesses for keeps] We may be serving our personal idiosyncrasies, but we are entitled."

One Hundred Famous Ghosts (14, 15), 2006

Adam Harrison, Scared Tree

"Perhaps he saw a ghost!"
ACT (Aesthetically Claimed Thing): my new Koolah canvas coat. Australian designed, BC made, a chocolate-brown "duster" with brass snaps, indestructable zipper, huge deep pockets & etc. Almost enough consolation to make up for the right rear wheel falling off the Legacy yesterday on the Alex Fraser Bridge in rush hour traffic.
Thursday, May 25, 2006

My day? Jiminy Cricket's advice, as always, pertains: "If you can't say something nice..."

Needless to say, no good art was ever made out of happiness and self-adjustment.

Strapped Glass, 2006

Composition for Etienne, 2006

Scarred Tree, 2006

One Hundred Famous Ghosts (13), 2006
Monday, May 22, 2006
What Do All These Buttons on Your Chest Do, Call Your Mother?

"Q: Why Aquaman?

A: He’s the underdog. He doesn’t have a lot of stuff, so it’s like a challenge being a fan of his. That’s the appeal for me. It’s not readily available but when you win, you win big."


One Hundred Famous Ghosts (12), 2006
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Today's soundtrack: Ann Peebles, The Hi Records Singles, As and Bs, courtesy Mr. Michael Young. Door wide, Art Deco fan turning, cool grey wind, rain-smell, coppery, in off the street.

Someone with way too much time on their hands writes to inform me (viz. one of yesterday's entries) that "vampires are always erotic."

Danger Mouse + Cee-Lo = Gnarls Barkley

Stax vibe + string section + male falsetto + chunky beats = Top Ten summer playlist at Main and Broadway!

Nitsuh Abebe @ Pitchfork:

"After the sound of a film projector whirring to life and a little hip-hop fanfare, this album starts with 'Go Go Gadget Gospel' glee: soul horns kicking, hand-clapping breakbeats with the speed and stutter of jungle, and Cee-Lo Green shouting, 'I'm free' like he's up in church. It's the most exciting thing I've heard this year. At the tail end of the disc, there's 'The Last Time,' where the beat splits the difference between disco-era funk and roller-skating jam, and Cee-Lo sings like he borrowed some time-traveling platform shoes from the Delfonics' closet and wound up on mid-1970s Soul Train. You shouldn't fixate on those details-- I may be exaggerating-- but the main thing about those two tracks are [sic] that they sound awfully fresh. Play this when people are over and they'll almost certainly ask the question: 'So who is this, anyway?'"
Saturday, May 20, 2006
Today's new arrivals brought to you by the Palace Brothers, Gnarls Barkley, Donald Fagen, James Taylor, Archer Prewitt, the Temptations, Nick Drake, and the Beach Boys (20/20).
Kits manager Keith Dunsmuir volunteers, "I've got one for your blog!"

ENTHUSIASTIC VENDOR: I've got some great books here for sale!

KD: Sure, I'll take a look.

[Chooses merchandise]

KD: I can offer [$ value] for these.

EV: You're not taking them all.

KD: No.

EV: What about this one? What's wrong with it?

KD: Madam, that's a movie tie-in edition of Dracula. In Norwegian.

EV: So it is. Sorry!
Sunset, and a great warm wind shaking all the trees.

Tang of oil and tar from the works crew's open excavation one block over in the middle of Kingsway.

Bernadette and her lovely blue-eyed infant daughter on their way to the video store.

"A long day," says our man, trying hard to represent maturity and stick-to-itiveness, qualities lacking in many previous encounters. "Wow. Eight solid hours of pricing."

"Every time I see you, you're always talking to someone," sez B., gently disbelieving.

Hyperbole aside:

"Women's fiction" = 300 pieces

"Erotic vampires" = 27 pieces

Mixed trade fiction/nonfiction = 8 linear feet (approx. 750 books)

Those 120 bankers' boxes of science fiction paperbacks in the back room: 1/2 box (119.5 boxes to go!)

Four-figure sales.

Off to soak my aging, arthritic hands!

(Well, secret stop first)

Update, 11pm: vanilla and black currant, waffle cone
Friday, May 19, 2006
Uncommonly good if ungrammatical advice from Jules Olitski, a painter I don't usually have that much in the way of time for:

"I think that it's fortunate sometimes for an artist to be ignored, to not be shown, for no one to be interested, that is, if you can survive that and not go crazy or become murderous with rage. The experience is a very useful one, I mean, in this way: You paint for years (or whatever it is you do) and no one gives a goddamn or is interested, and you can't get your work shown no matter what, and you do what you want to do partly out of that, because you can try anything out; it doesn't matter, nobody cares. So, if that habit can get ingrained in you, and I think that in someone like David Smith it did or someone like Hans Hofmann, who for many years nobody, or many, many people didn't take too seriously. . . .I'd go and see his shows year after year, and there wasn't much attention. There are any number of instances of major painters who had that experience. And then when some recognition and success come, that habit of doing anything that I want to do and I don't give a goddam what you think, because in those years when nobody pays any attention to what you do, you invent a kind of audience because you have to communicate with somebody or you know someone, otherwise it's just too lonely. So you invent an audience or some ideal or being or somebody who is going to see what you're about in order to work."

(quoted in Emile de Antonio and Mitch Tuchman, Painters Painting: A Candid History of the Modern Art Scene, 1940-1970)
Livejournal Correspondent From Seattle "tags me with a meme" = asks a four-part question to be answered in a public forum. Only, just for fun, I'm not going to reprint the question here, just my answer(s):


1. Sherrie Levine
2. Elaine Sturtevant
3. Vija Celmins
4. Roni Horn
5. Kay Rosen


1. Elaine Sturtevant
2. Rodney Graham
3. Stephen Shore
4. Donald Judd
5. Jeff Wall


1. Elspeth Pratt
2. Arabella Campbell
3. Sylvia Grace Borda
4. Matilda Aslizadeh
5. Joan Balzar


1. Kevin Madill
2. Elspeth Pratt
3. Sylvia Grace Borda
4. Adam Harrison
5. Evan Lee

Thursday, May 18, 2006

ACTs (Aesthetically Claimed Things): Dos and Don'ts (click to enlarge)


Sylvia draws my attention to these spooky characters by Lyonel Feininger.
Recent reading:

Frederik Pohl, Annals of the Heechee
Alison Gingeras, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh et al., Thomas Hirschhorn (Phaidon Contemporary Artists)

The Pohl is really, really bad, a kind of grab-bag of all the most irritating features of the previous Heechee books. I'm not that interested in Thomas Hirschhorn's work on an aesthetic level, but he's thoughtful and well-spoken, and his interview with Gingeras, plus Buchloh's long survey essay, are lucid, clear, and consistantly interesting. Anyone seeking a "conceptual model" for May 11's Untitled (New Garage) is directed to (in descending order): Thomas Hirschhorn, Jessica Stockholder, and David Urban.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006's Matt Stichnoth files a long dispatch from the 2006 Berkshire Hathaway Annual General Meeting

"WARREN BUFFETT: Investing is not complicated. You work to find pockets of value. You didn’t need a high IQ to buy junk bonds in 2002. You needed to have the courage of your convictions when everyone else was terrified. It was the same in 1974. People were paralyzed. You need to learn to follow logic rather than emotion. That’s easier for some people to do rather than others."
Excuses in Place of Still Creek, Vancouver, Summer 2006

1. Gear rental place not open on time.

2. Lithium battery not in camera, but in charger back at bookstore.

3. Annoyed raccoon parents restlessly prowling up and down both banks, spitting and hissing in a pretty impressive defense of their newborn kits.

Untitled (Fan), 2006

A sudden heatwave.

From now until mid-August, Pulpfiction and CSA receive direct sunlight daily from 4pm-8pm, eg., just long enough to heat both spaces to the point of being totally unliveable. It's hard to install art, price books, and wash the floor with sweat rolling down into your eyes!

CSA's new show, coincidentally by CSA co-curator and co-owner Adam Harrison, opens Friday from 6-9pm, with dinner downstairs at Aurora from 915pm until real late. Y'all come!
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Untitled (Dentistry), 2006
Monday, May 15, 2006

"It's Time for You to Get Some New Cell Phones, Quick"

"A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

'It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick,' the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation."

Recent reading, notable titles in red as usual:

Frederik Pohl, Gateway
Frederik Pohl, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon
Frederik Pohl, Heechee Rendezvous
Frederik Pohl, The Gateway Trip
Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End
Martin J. Whitman and Martin Shubik, The Aggressive Conservative Investor

Five science fiction novels and a recently reprinted technical manual on value investing. Pohl's Gateway (1977), won both the Nebula and the Hugo award; I'm not sure how I avoided it for so long. I think I always associated Pohl with figures like Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, science fiction's equivalent of groups like the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, who were once critically significant, or at least interesting, but have now overstayed their welcome by decades. Pohl turns out to have much more in common with the Strugatskys and Philip K. Dick than he does with Asimov and Silverberg, and Gateway joins an extremely short list of favorite works of science fiction.

Gateway's premise is follows: an alien race, the Heechee, dropped into the solar system some millenia ago, then left in a hurry, without taking all of their technology along with them. In the early twenty-first century, an asteroid, Gateway, is discovered by Terran space explorers. Gateway is a parking garage for Heechee space ships, hundreds of them, most of which are tiny, approximately the size of a bachelor apartment. The spaceships' navigational controls make no sense to humans, but operating them is simplicity itself: you climb in, move a lever, and the spaceship automatically flies itself, faster than light, to a preprogrammed destination. Some destinations are interesting to people: hospitable planets; curious astrophysical phenomena. Some are less so: black holes; dead planets drenched in ultraviolet radiation; supernovae. Some times the trip out and back takes too long, and the pilot runs out of oxygen...or starves.

Prospective Gateway pilots regularly arrive on the asteroid from Earth, where they are charged for room, board, and oxygen. Anyone whose credit runs out goes out the nearest airlock. So there is a constant, pressing need to fly missions in the Heechee spaceships in search of economically exploitable Heechee artifacts...missions which, on average, have about a 35% mortality rate, not counting those pilots who come back technically alive but irradiated and/or crazy.

I think Gateway is as good a science fiction novel as any I have ever read. Successive volumes in the "Heechee Saga" are imaginative, but less good; the later books are serviceable space opera, but suffer from too much explaining, which detracts from Gateway's powerful air of mystery and unease.

Not yet read: the 4th volume in the "Saga," Annals of the Heechee, and Pohl's latest Gateway novel (after a gap of 16 years!), The Boy Who Would Live Forever.
New issue of the Fillip Review out -- articles by Pete Culley, Jessie Caryl, and Cliff Lauson the standouts.

"Abandoning things in the country just doesn't work. Like pets, objects find their way back, and they're different." (Culley)

"Alongside broader shifts in style, certain documentary approaches to encounters with the real and the supernatural have prevailed over time. Our present, broad awareness of the capabilities of photographic reproduction to capture images that escape natural vision, mixed with cynicism about photographic manipulation, has replaced traditional records of paranormal occurances in the form of ghostly silhouettes or detailed, pallid figures with the more modern bumps and jostles of abstraction." (Caryl)

"Of course, Wall himself has overtly returned to rework past subjects, as in the re-shooting of The Drain (1989) to produce Still Creek, Vancouver, winter 2003 (2003). And, perhaps less overtly, he has also digitally reworked two pieces from 1988, Eviction Struggle (now An Eviction) and Tran Duc Van, using the original source material. These pictures have been clarified (distilled?) by reducing the amount of peripheral activity, thereby focusing the viewer's attention on the protagonists or primary event." (Lauson)
Friday, May 12, 2006
125 banker's boxes of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks in the front room, and another 1500 paperbacks and 400-odd hardcovers arriving in an hour.

Neil Young's This Old Guitar (a lovely, modest acoustic song off Prairie Wind, a duet with Emmylou Harris, the highlight of Jonathan Demme's recent Neil-in-concert documentary Heart of Gold) on the stereo, coffee close at hand, rain showers out in the street.

This old guitar ain't mine to keep
It's only mine for a while...
Thursday, May 11, 2006

Untitled (New Garage), 2006
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

John Preston, 9 May 2006, 2006

A portrait of my bookseller friend and co-conspirator John Preston, of New Westminster's Renaissance Books, on the MV Spirit of Vancouver, en route to a collection of 140 boxes (!!!) of science fiction and fantasy pocket books in scenic Sidney-by-the-Sea, 10 minutes from the ferry terminal. Going back today for the other half of the collection that wouldn't fit in John's van.

A kind of gloss on Tolagson's Fleet pictures; ever since seeing them I've wanted to make an "art photograph" set on a BC Ferry. Hundreds of bad pictures, but nothing worth keeping until yesterday.

The camera's memory card packed up and died in the course of transferring the sequence of mostly (non-art) images accompanying this picture. 10pm-4am last night at the store, installing patches, new DLL libraries, etc. Home near dawn, birds singing in the trees!
Tuesday, May 09, 2006

ACT (Aesthetically Claimed Thing): Erwin Wurm's amazing 3 minute video projection, I Love My Time, I Don't Like My Time. Screened at Banff by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts curator Rene de Guzman, and claimed both for the work's content and title.
Monday, May 08, 2006

One short cut that wasn't. 45km up the Gray Creek Forest Service road, about halfway between Kimberley and the Kootenay Lake ferry.

The Incredible Talking Cats and a new friend in bustling downtown Banff.
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.

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