Thursday, November 20, 2014

Creatives in a Post-Industrial Society

Robert Boyd

I had been at the Asia Society in New York looking at Nam June Paik's robots. My next stop was a place I had never heard of, Pioneer Works Center of Art and Innovation, down in a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Red Hook. I was going to see a show of photos by Mark Hogancamp. I got on the number 4 train on the Upper East Side and took a long ride to downtown Brooklyn. From there, I got on the B61 bus. No subway went anywhere near Red Hook, as far as I could tell. But the bus put me within a few blocks of my destination. It was a long trip--I hoped it would be worth it. It didn't seem like an especially artsy neighborhood at first glance, and I almost walked right past the anonymous red brick building that houses Pioneer Works. The building is on the waterfront, and the area nearby is full of warehouses.

Pioneer Works seen from its courtyard

Pioneer Works seems to try to be everything all at once. Exhibition space? Of course. Residencies? You bet. Classes (ranging from traditional crafts to modern Maker-style classes)? Of course. Residencies for scientists? Why not! A magazine? Yep! A sculpture garden. Actually I'm not sure about the last one--but they had an outdoor space that had sculptures, so maybe so.

Pioneer Works' courtyard/sculpture garden

It's a new space (founded, as far as I can tell, in 2011). The founder and director is a sculptor named Dustin Yellin.Yellin's work reminds me a bit of some work by Paul Kittelson in that he presses two dimensions items between plates of glass to create a 3-dimensional object.

Dustin Yellin sculpture

The building was built in 1881. It was a factory for the Pioneer Iron Works, a fabrication company, until the middle of the 20th century. After that it was used for storage.

Pioneer Works interior

Pioneer Works list 19 names with functional positions on its contact page. I don't know if they are all full-time employees or employees at all. Maybe some of them are volunteers. But whatever the case, I suspect that this is a lot fewer people than Pioneer Iron Works employed in its heyday.

Several of Robyn Hasty's photos. She is a member of Pioneer Work's photography program

Art institutions reuse old industrial sites all the time, particularly in the Northeast where a lot of obsolete factory buildings are still standing. The most famous example is the Tate Modern, housed in what had been the Bankside Power Station. In the U.S., two well-known examples are Dia: Beacon, housed in a former Nabisco box printing factory and MassMOCA, which repurposed the former Sprague Electric Company factory.

Adeline De Monseignat, The Eclair Project: The Body, 2013, vintage fur, handblown glass, metal, pillow filler, fabric, nametag, ottoman. This was displayed in the 2nd floor gallery space at Pioneer works.

Not too long ago, the hope of cities was the "creative class," as convincingly theorized in Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class. But the bloom is off that rose, as we've seen in the recent recession. Creative people don't get paid much and are as likely to be exploited now as ever. And we'll never need as many creative people as we once needed factory workers. Those guys stamping out boxes for Nilla Wafers in Beacon and fabricating boilers at Pioneer Iron Works were contributing to an economy that brought more people up from poverty than any other ever did (at least, until China's recent economic opening).

Help!--I don't know who did this sculpture. I've seen at least one other piece by the same sculptor, and I like it. Any Pan readers know who this is by? It's in the courtyard at Pioneer Works

Don't get me wrong. I loved Pioneer Works. Their exhibits, their cool magazine Intercourse, their residencies all seem great. It certainly seems like a better use of the facility than the storage space it was just prior to its becoming an art space. But the conversion of defunct factory spaces into art spaces is a powerful metaphor for the conversion of U.S. cities from places where thousands of people made stuff to places where a few hundred creatives toil, typically for low wages.

Brett Swenson, Strewn, 2014, gypsum cement, found objects, 38" x 102". Displayed in the 2nd floor gallery at Pioneer Works.

Brett Swenson, Strewn (detail), 2014, gypsum cement, found objects, 38" x 102"

Guy and Dolls

Robert Boyd

When I was a kid, I made models and built a town out of Legos. I've always been fascinated by models and dioramas. It's often an art that doesn't quite realize it's an art, as in the case of model railroaders or makers of dioramas or dollhouse builders (interestingly, Robert Gober got his start as a dollhouse builder). I've written about artists working in this realm before--Seth's Dominion and Seth Mittag's We're Still Here, for example. A few years ago, a documentary about Mark Hogancamp, Marwencol,came out. I wrote about it briefly in relation to the work of Charles Ledray, another artist who likes making little models.

Hogancamp was attacked outside a bar in 2000 by five men. The savage beating put him into a coma and even after he came out of it, he remained brain damaged.  Afterwards, as a homemade attempt at therapy (he couldn't afford the professional kind), he started to build a highly realistic World War II-era Belgian town in his back yard, populating it with customized action figures representing himself ("Hoagie"), his family and friends, and his attackers. The town is meant as kind of a respite from the war, where people can find healing and rest. This remarkable creation was "discovered" accidentally by an editor for Esopus magazine, who brought the town and Hogancamp's photos of it to a wider audience.

I was visiting New York and saw that an exhibit of new Hogancamp photos was going to be on display at Pioneer Works. The Women of Marwencol focuses on a side of Marwencol that is a key to its existence--the town is inhabited by women and who rescue and nurture men. On one hand, it's a male fantasy--a town full of sexy ladies who keep you happy and do your laundry and genuinely care about you. On the other hand, Hogancamp seems to be identifying the world of men as a dangerous, violent place and the world of women as a nurturing, healing place.

The new works are strange. There is still plenty of World War II imagery (including female Red Army soldiers), but he seems to have added fantastic elements (Deja Thoris, from Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars books, is referred to). It was lovely to see the prints--he sets them in nature that is wildly out of scale, but somehow feels convincing. He's not just a good model-maker, he's a good photographer as well.

Mark Hogancamp, Hogie With His Camera, 2014, Digital C-print, 13 x 18 inches

Mark Hogancamp, Anna, Hogie's wife, brings him a raincoat after a bloody skirmish, 2014, Digital C-print, 27 x 36 inches

Mark Hogancamp, Hogie's mother Edda relaxing on Mother's Day, 2014, Digital C-print, 13 x 18 inches

Hogancamp gives his alter-ego, Hogie, a family. I love that his mother Edda is an elegant, sexy older woman (older compared to most of the other women in Marwencol). The titles of the pieces, like Anna, Hogie's wife, brings him a raincoat after a bloody skirmish, show that there is a narrative happening. Whether that narrative can really be pieced together from the photos, even with the descriptive titles, I don't know. Of course, part of this narrative was explained in the 2010 documentary. But it seems to have continued developing since then. I hope one day there is a big beautiful book of these photos. If so, I recommend ordering them chronologically according to the narrative and using text to fill in the narrative gaps.

Mark Hogancamp, Untitled, 2008, Digital print, 13 x 17.5 inches

Some of the outfits and hair color show (as in the photo above) that Hogancamp, despite his keen eye for detail, isn't trying to go for any kind of historical accuracy.

Mark Hogancamp, Jacqueline looks at Deja Thoris, 2014, Digital C-print, 27 x 36 inches

Mark Hogancamp, Deja Vu, Belgian Goddess of Youth, whose look turns men to stone, 2014, Digital C-print, 27 x 36 inches

I cannot imagine a better title for any work of art in any medium than Deja Vu, Belgian Goddess of Youth, whose look turns men to stone. 

 Mark Hogancamp, Untitled, 2014, Digital print, 13 x 17.5 inches

Mark Hogancamp, Untitled, 2014, Digital print, 13 x 17.5 inches

There are several photos that come off as erotic, but Hogancamp never poses his dolls in overtly sexual poses. In many a kid's bedroom, Ken or G.I. Joe got it on with Barbie, and the whole premise of Marwencol has an erotic undertone. But perhaps it's Hogancamp's seemingly worshipful yet shy attitude towards women (the name, Marwencol, was created by taking part of his name and parts of the names of two women he had unrequited crushes on) won't let him go that far in his photography.

Mark Hogancamp, Untitled, 2006, Digital print, 13 x 17.5 inches

The images, as in the early one above, can be quite surreal. It's tempting to interpret them in light of Hogancamp's experience, but it's more pleasing to simply bask in the strangeness of the military woman, gripping a pistol in one hand and a teddy bear in the other, cropped so you don't see her face or feet. And the totality of these images is like that. They seem a little off no matter what--a bourgeois artist with an MFA wouldn't make these images which is part of what makes them so compelling. It is enough to know that they are therapeutic; further interpretation is not necessary. Hogancamp created this fantasy to deal with the world that hurt him so badly in the same way that Henry Darger created his fantasies to deal with his troubled world. Hard-nosed types who dismiss fantasy would do well to remember the good it does for damaged people like Mark Hogancamp.

The Women of Marwencol is on view at Pioneer Works until December 12.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pan Review of Books: The Miraculous

Robert Boyd

The problem with art criticism is that it's a limited genre. It's pretty hard to do something new in art criticism without leaving the genre behind. That's OK for most of us because we have no intention for our criticism to go beyond its primary function--to say something about some art--and it s secondary function--to keep a reader engaged for a brief time. Going beyond that risks turning a functional piece of writing into something else. Literature, maybe.

That's the risk art critic Raphael Rubinstein takes with his new short book The Miraculous.The Miraculous consists of 50 chapters, mostly pretty short, describing the way an artist has come up with a particular artwork--usually a conceptual artwork or a performance. Depending how familiar you are with the world of performance art and conceptual art, you will recognize some of these. And as I read, I noticed that chapter 22 described the bizarre time-passing activity of Percival Bartlebooth, the character from Georges Perec's novel, Life: A User's Manual.That made me smile, because when I read that novel so very long ago, I thought that the fictional Bartlebooth's absurd life-long project was basically an insane work of art. And it was enough that Perec described its execution--it didn't have to actually be done to be real. And that could apply to any number of the pieces or actions described in this book. The fact that they were actually executed is, well, miraculous.

The chapters vary in length, but are usually no more than two pages. Some are quite short, like chapter 37, which reads in its entirety,
In 1979, an artist decides to shake hands with every employee of the New York City Sanitation Department. It takes her eleven months and two days to shake the hands of all 8,500 workers.
You may recognize this as a piece of art done by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who has been the artist-in-residence at Department of Sanitation since 1977. There is an index in the back that will help you identify the artists because the chapters never mention them by name. The descriptions are fairly deadpan, but because what they are describing is often so strange, they achieve a kind of poetry. By not naming the artist. Rubenstein forces the reader to think about the work described. No written work is completely neutral, but Rubenstein appears to be going for a journalistic "degree zero" style. No overt opinion is offered by the author, but sometimes his enthusiasm leaks through.

Two of the "fictional" works (works created within literary works) are by members of OuLiPo, a French literary group that was famous for writing prose and poems governed by various constraints. That's what Rubenstein seems to have done here--describe the work, it's creation and execution, but never name the artist, never analyze the work, never contextualize it within the world of art. The constraints he has placed on himself in writing this brief book results in a work that describes a universe of conceptual art in a way that no art historical text could achieve. And it does so with unexpected beauty.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

In the Jailhouse Now

Robert Boyd

Miao Jiaxin

I first became aware of Miao Jiaxin when he had a performance and exhibit in 2012 in Houston. Now I am about to become one of his willing victims. He has set up within his apartment in Brooklyn a cage which he rents out for $1 a night. But you have some serious rules to follow if you stay there. It is like any other Airbnb rental, except for one thing: from 9 am to noon, "you CANNOT access internet, NO electronic devices, books, radio, pens or craftwork. You CANNOT talk to anybody. You CANNOT do Yoga or any other exercises. You CANNOT sleep." Oh, and one other thing--you will be livestreamed as you sit there silently in the cage. This is where I will be tonight.

Miao Jiaxin, Jail's Seeking Prisoners, 2014, performance and video

When Miao created Jail's Seeking Prisoner, it was an actual Airbnb listing. It was like any other Airbnb listing--it had a price, it was an accommodation, and it had house rules. But the Airbnb people decided this was all too much for them and delisted it. Hyperallergic covered the whole sequence of events. If you want to stay for a couple of nights in Jail's Seeking Prisoners, you will now have to access it through its Facebook page.

Vincent Tiley following the Jail's Seeking Prisoners rules

And tomorrow morning, from 9 am to noon Eastern time, you will be able to see me sitting in Miao's cage. It will be a challenge. I have a restless mind and like to be doing something all the time. If I had practice in meditating, it would be simple enough. (I suspect it will be a fairly boring Livestream!) I surely won't be wearing an amazing outfit as Vincent Tiley and Jodie Lynkeechow did.

Jodie Lynkeechow in Jail's Seeking Prisoners

See you tomorrow, Sunday morning, live from Jail's Seeking Prisoners!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cute! at Rice Cubicle

Betsy Huete

Rice Gallery’s satellite video space, Rice Cubicle, is currently showing a suite of six short films in an exhibition called Creature Worlds. Creature Worlds refers to the playful, whimsical characters that populate just about all of the films as well as how they interact with the environments the animators have created for them. Adorableness seems to be the common strain that threads them together, as bouncy music and pudgy, wide-eyed animals run, jump, tumble, morph, and fumble across the screen. But if all Rice Gallery wanted us to do was grip our foam-block seats with sadistic glee and giggle and clap maniacally, they could’ve just put on a lengthy rotation of YouTube cats, or waddling babies falling over. Instead, as they make clear with their gallery handout, these films by and large use cuteness as a segue to grander, more serious stories of life and death. Sometimes juxtaposing sweetness and humor with stern and perhaps sinister subject matter yields curiously jarring and effective results, and some of these films use this strategy even-handedly to take us beyond something just cute and fun to look at. And then there are other moments where the animators get caught up, seduced by the simplicity and satisfaction of their own creations.

Saigo No Shudan, KUNCHI (2013)

KUNCHI is a perfect example of the accompanying music making or breaking the work. Without it, the film would be just a bunch of white shapes bouncing around the screen. But with a chiming, incessant, almost shamanistic beat, the objects moving from right to left fall somewhere between a parade and ecstatic funeral procession. As the first wave passes by, ghosts sprout from a non-existent ground, hurling themselves at the passersby. They get stomped on as the second group rolls through, but one can only assume they will return as soon as the next batch of shapes move on.

KUNCHI from saigo no shudan on Vimeo.

FriendsWithYou, Cloudy (2012)

A sleek, well-crafted animated short, Cloudy starts off promising. A fluffy white cloud faces the viewer head on, singularly humming an upbeat tune while blinking, oval black holes for eyes stare us down. Transforming the natural creation of rain into a Fordist, mechanized enterprise is a compelling prospect. Depicting obese raindrops as happy-go-lucky laborers shoveling clouds and stabilizing pipes, to name a few tasks, before blissfully leaping to their deaths provides an avenue to construct meaning in a potentially subversive manner. Unfortunately, the overly childlike, xylophone laden score devolves the film within a couple of minutes into a tedious episode of Barney.

Tyler Nicolson, No Noodles (2012)

Out of all of the films, No Noodles is probably the cutest. The entire film—all two minutes of it—takes place at a dinner table, replete with a glass of water, silverware, and a large bowl of noodles. It doesn’t take long for things to get wacky, as various animals such as dinosaurs, lizards, whales, and fish leap, swim, jump through and on top of a very unlikely ecosystem. Rice Gallery’s handout states that the surprise lies in “seeing what pops out of the bowl next.” But even in this short of a time frame, the viewer quickly gets used to the idea of bizarre animals popping out of a bowl of noodles, whatever the reason or logic behind it may be. That part becomes gimmicky within thirty seconds or so. What is most compelling is instead the few times Nicolson has the animals interact directly with the bowl or silverware, as opposed to keeping them confined inside the bowl or under the noodles. By far, the most humanized aspect of the film is a rudimentary lizard: hopping onto the lip of the bowl, he is perched and hunched over, looking around curiously and confusedly. Curling and waving his tail, he seems like he wants to explore further, but instead opts to jump back into the bowl from whence he came.

No Noodles from Tyler Nicolson on Vimeo.

Jordan Bruner, The Leaf Woman & the Centaur (2011)

Quasi-scientific, quasi-biological: The Leaf Woman starts out with the Big Bang. From the Big Bang derives a mythical, god-like leaf creature (we assume is a woman) who plants seeds that breed all the animals in existence. Using paper cut-outs connected at the joints, Bruner builds characters with abrupt movements that feel jerky and generative. The score by Future Perfect accentuates a crescendo that is increasingly anxious and intense; as the Leaf Woman plants more seeds and breeds more life, everything—including the viewer—feels more and more chaotic. Animals dance, flip, copulate: mating humans get interrupted by a horse; the horse and woman breed a centaur. The centaur becomes enamored with the Leaf Woman. In an effort to capture her he kills her. The throbbing heart is completely over the top, but the plot is a surprisingly non-literal way to show how our rapid evolution is the very thing that will likely kill off our own species.

The Leaf Woman & the Centaur from Jordan Bruner on Vimeo.

Takuto Katayama, Dissimilated Vision (2012)

Dissimilated Vision is by far the most pared down, yet the most elegant of the six. The film does little more than follow a contour line as it morphs into various shapes, including eyes and fingers, just to name a couple. With a few notes of a piano, the line becomes a woman’s face—a face that becomes erased by her own windswept hair. But as the seconds roll on it becomes clear that Katayama is more intent on displaying entertaining optics than conveying meaning. The film becomes a heavy-handed barrage of eyes and mouths, and eyes in mouths, and more eyes, and more mouths.

異化した視覚 / Dissimilated Vision from KATAYAMA Takuto on Vimeo.

Asami Ike, USAWALTZ (2011)

It’s hard not to want to reach through the screen and hug all of Ike’s animals in USAWALTZ. Little rabbits bounce and kick atop a swimming dolphin. She gradually turns vertical, and spinning and ascending, touches her snout with a polar bear. The bear touches the paw of a lion, and so on, each twirling, eyes closed in utter serenity. Meanwhile, the hyperactive rabbits climb the bodies of the much larger animals as if they are steep, snowy mountaintops. There’s something relaxing, yet oddly disturbing about these ascending animals—as if they are privy to something we aren’t, as if their serenity is otherworldly.

USAWALTZ from Asami Ike on Vimeo.

Creature Worlds runs until November 23, 2014, at Rice Cubicle.

"I’m Only 81": Notes on HJ Bott

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

Just after midnight on October 23, HJ Bott contacted me to say he would very much appreciate my comments on Scribble Morphings, his current exhibition at Anya Tish Gallery. I was not the proper person to write about his exhibition, I told Bott, because it doesn’t please me to write criticism. I did want to ask him a few interview questions, I said, in hopes of learning something about his art and life that’s different from the same old shit that’s been written in the past. Over the course of several visits we discussed the following:

HJ Bott, NARRATIVE: Generals, Decorated, 2014, Glazed Acrylics on Canvas, various generals’ stars, 34 x 34

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: In our correspondence, and even on your website, you occasionally allude to your mortality. It’s all about to “dissipate,” you told me recently. Because of age (b. 1933), do you make art feeling urgency about time running out?

HJ Bott: GAWD! You are so observant/perceptive. Yes, time has always been my albatross, wanting to be ever more prolific. Might mention I was a preemie that accounts for my pulmonary issues and the familial tremor that came on strong about 1990. Because of these physical restraints I have had to shift techniques to compensate, which every artist experiences. Both maternal and paternal genes are long lived; but in fact I am tired, and was forced to give up sculpture. Mortality is indeed interrupting artistic plans, and I know I'll never get to all the ideas I wish to execute concerning the Phenomena-of-a-Line using the DoV, the 24 Basic Scribbles and the new findings about pre-historic Egyptian cultures.

Also, I’ve had a few of the usual artist setbacks with work, studio and gallery losses, and some heavy depression cliffs, family sadness, and I lost my daughter to suicide, about the time my shakey ole tremors were mis-diagnosed as Parkinson’s.

Yet I’ve had a robust life, having been an Airborne Ranger who performed Counter-Intelligence shit in the mid-1950s, and other physically vigorous stuff like drag strip racing, I married three times, although this one has been 44 years, what luck. I joined the Army to piss off my parents for not allowing me to take my car from San Antonio to L.A. for my second year of school. Smart stuff, huh?

VBA: You know Harvey, one morning you turned my head. I sat near you at the weekly artists’ breakfast, and you were wearing your Stones’ lips and tongue T-shirt and the ponytail, and it brought up dreamy recollections of the early seventies when I was young and attractive and ignorant. Even with the wrinkles and talk about a knee replacement, you were hot. I’m not trying to flirt with you Harvey, I’m just saying you made my day.

HJB: Just as your steel-trap intellectual remarks have on occasion made mine, which I’ve written to tell you.

HJ Bott, Mobius Quatro, 2012, Glazed Acrylic on Canvas, 34 x 34

VBA: On the evening of your Scribble Morphings exhibition opening, Anya Tish told me she was tempted to install the triangular pieces as rectangles, until she read a note on the back of one that suggested a collector have the courage to hang them triangularly. Why are the pointed sides important to you?

HJB: One of my favorite antecedents, Max Bill, used the diamond format to maximize space and avoid the constraints of the rectangle and the square imposed by the usual stretcher frame format. It appeals to me to avoid cookie-cutter impositions and constraints to aspects of our existence, as expressed by Edward T. Hall in his book Hidden Dimension.Back to Max Bill, I see the format as a visual drift-off whereas rectangular/squares are constraining.

VBA: It’s interesting you brought up constraints. I recall Robert Boyd’s 2012 observation that it is precisely a self-imposed restraint, your “Displacement-of-Volume” process of mathematically devising linear patterns, which catapults your creativity. In your hands, the programmatic approach succeeds, because even if a viewer is unaware that such a painting as Mobius Quatro, which references the math-based Mobius Strip, derives from mathematical theories, he is knocked over by the beauty of an uncompromising artwork that seems to pulsate.

HJ Bott, Systems A-GO-GO, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 69 inches

HJB: I had an unusually high aptitude in math and geometry, and in the 1950’s I actually turned down a math scholarship to Rice because the art department sucked. My parents loved this. Math originates all. The painting Systems A-GO-GO was directly inspired by π (pi the mathematical constant 3.14159…). You see I’m working here with the relationship of the planet’s dimensions relative to the Great Pyramid, the perimeter of which is analogous to the equator’s circumference. Also the pyramid is nearly at the center of the Earth’s landmass and was probably exactly at the center when constructed, until tectonic plates caused landmass shifts. The significance of these measurements to my DoV System is paramount, relative to the left/right and top/bottom axis, as well as the inclination (almost 52º) of the pyramid. And scribble morphings, based on the basic markings that are universal to all cultures, overlay the DoV. Do you need me to explain more about the planet’s dimensions and all this other stuff I’ve been sputtering?

VBA: Give me an example of new findings about ancient Egyptian culture that you would like to incorporate into your art if you have the time.

HJB: The newest findings, as I understand them, are hieroglyphics showing cables along with copper electrodes that denote a power source for the pyramids, since there has never been evidence of the pyramids actually being tombs. This interests me enormously because my DoV and resulting art works have to do with OBJECT measurements, even though measurements themselves are but means to create an object. Does this make sense? There is so much more to explore, with time running out, and then I would make comparisons with the Mayan culture.

VBA: I can imagine your loyal collectors losing their composure over the complex narratives beneath the paintings.

HJ Bott, OH-GEE, 2014, glazed acrylics on canvas, 24 24 inches

HJB: Every work has a background story, as Bill Arning observed when he read my 2012 monograph Rhythm and Rhetoric. My best friend Earl Staley who is currently showing at Zoya Tommy Gallery works in a similar manner, Earl and I are both narrative oriented. Another narrative-driven work, the painting OH-GEE has the subtitle "Ordovician Graptolites" on the back to express invertebrate Plankton-like fossils from the Paleozoic Era about 500 million years ago. Don’t you find its yin/yang-shaped “commas” jazzy? We can trace such basic scribbles back to initial inhabitants of the Olduvai Gorge.

VBA: At the time of your 2012 Anya Tish gallery exhibition you connected your use of line, the most basic of design elements, to string theory by naming a painting after the string theory physicist Joe Polchinski. I actually retained the note you wrote to thank me for commenting that it was intuitively comfortable to imagine subatomic particles to be swishy like strings. Do the new works conjure particle physics?

HJB: OMG! That 2012 gallery show celebrated 40 years of DoV. Physics enters the new works through my reading of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland,the classic on perception which I give all my Perspective Drawing students, Cosmosby Carl Sagan, Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos,as well as Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos.The painting Systems A-GO-GO is based on Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio.Forgive me for listing books like a pretentious ass but a Houston Press writer used innuendo to snicker at my naming my painting after Joseph Polchinski, the big daddy of string theory. She obviously failed to grasp the extent to which this scientific material penetrates the DoV, Phenomena-of-a-Line, and Basic Scribbles components of my art.

HJ Bott, Polchinski’s Pertubations, 2012, Co-polymer vinyl on canvas, 36 x 36, (shown in the 2012 Anya Tish Gallery exhibition Rhythm and Rhetoric)

VBA: Looking at an ungodly long career, the innovations and inventions, gallery and museum exhibitions, awards and honors, do you consider yourself a success?

HJB: Virginia, the question of success is tough to answer because the word’s meaning varies as a noun (attainment,) adjective (prosperity,) and verb (which denotes continuing.) Even though my achievements have been extremely satisfying in the range and time of what has passed, the art world might not consider them particularly blue-chip. I created abundant products, objects, and concepts, and studied and researched a vast variety of materials and techniques, which has been exhilarating, especially after the cluster-fuck of shifting subjects and approaches that took place prior to my development of DoV. As a student of sculpture, painting, anthropology and social psychology, I achieved being an artist FIRST; and second, an independent, non-academic, broad ranging anthropologist. Throughout my art career there has been so many marginally profitable achievements that I look back on as triumphs, the series of ROBOTTs™, and deep-space-light installations, my European studies and exhibitions, development of the plastic TOBINITE™ for modeling, are only a few. And I married my soul mate, Margaret Deats (Dee Dee) Bott, who convinced me to become a full time artist at age 42 which gave me the luxury to research, read and experiment. I consider that success, even without prosperity.

Would I like to be in more public collections? Of course, but while some public collections are good for the resume and the ego, their audiences can be limited to registrars and curators. Do I want more exhibitions? If they are in museums and prominent galleries like Anya Tish, but then one must tolerate critics and dissatisfied viewers. But it’s worth it, I want to do more, there's still time, I'm only 81.

HJ Bott, Mesocarp Mischief, 2012, Co-polymer vinyl on canvas, 48 x 72, (shown in the 2012 Anya Tish Gallery exhibition Rhythm and Rhetoric)

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Golden Age of Art Comics: Charles Burns and Dylan Horrocks

Robert Boyd
  • Three books by Charles Burns

Charles Burns, X'ed Out, 2010

2010 saw the publication of X'ed Out, the first major new work by Charles Burns since Black Hole. Right away, the cover was promising--it was a pastiche of sorts of Hergé's The Shooting Star. Instead of setting it on a rocky shore, Burns set it in a grey, bombed out landscape. Burn's "Tintin" was a character drawn in a classic "realistic" comics style with a bandage on his head. But the pattern on the ovoid shape in the foreground was unmistakable--it was the same as the coloring of the mushroom in The Shooting Star.

Hergé, The Shooting Star, 1942

The book opened with a decidedly surreal scene, drawn in a style that was a cross between Burns' own style and Hergé's--that is to say, the styles of two obsessive perfectionists. The main character looks like an older Tintin, with a black quiff instead of blonde. But the book quickly leaves this surreal scene behind to depict a realistic story of a young art student named Doug. There are some flashbacks and flash forwards--we readers don't really know when "now" is, but we do know Doug was a student in the early days of the punk rock era, and part of his art is a performance that he does involving wearing a depersonalizing Tintin-like mask, reading Burroughs-like cut-up texts and playing collages of noise from a cassette deck hanging from his neck. (He calls his performance persona "Nitnit.") We see him doing this performance to a group of largely indifferent viewers as the opening act of a punk band. It's here he meets Sarah, who becomes his lover.

Charles Burns, X'D Out page 47, 2010

The link between the surreal fantasy world and Doug's world is obscure, but the main character in the surreal realm seems to be an analogue to Doug. The book was in color and published in a slightly oversize format, to deliberately mimic the format in Tintin. But unlike Tintin, the story wasn't neatly wrapped up in one volume. It was frustrating to reach the end because I knew it would be a long wait for the next volume.

Charles Burns, The Hive, 2012

Just as Black Hole was a book about adolescence, this series is about young adulthood. Burns seems aware in the same way that Jaime Hernandez was aware that people's bodies keep changing even after they become adults. In the second volume, The Hive, we see Doug's future self talking about the past. He goes from being a slim student to packing on a few pounds. But the time he is with Sarah is when he seems to be a physical peak. They are a beautiful couple and his later self is full of regret about what happened to them, which he knows but we don't.

Chales Burns, The Hive page 32, two bottom tiers, 2012

In the surreal world, the Doug analogue meets an equivalent to Sarah--she is a breeder in the Hive. The connections between the two stories seems to get stronger in The Hive, but they still seem mostly unconnected.

Charles Burns, Sugar Skull, 2014

Sugar Skull, which just came out, completes the story. All the flashbacks and disconnected episodes in Doug's life coalesce, and the parallel Burns-Hergé world makes sense as well. If there is any fault here, it's that everything is tied up a little too neat. But I found it satisfying. Doug turns out to be a pretty imperfect guy who stumbles badly as he transitions into adulthood and leaves behind some unrepairable wreckage. This is the kind of story an older person can tell convincingly. Burns was born in 1955. I wrote in an earlier post about how sad I feel about comics artists I've admired who, over time, drop out of the comics field. One reason I regret them leaving is that they will never tell stories from the point of view of full maturity. It is Burns' 59 years on this planet that give him the perspective to produce X'ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull. These books bring together the obsessions of his earliest work with an emotional maturity those works, as brilliant as they were, lacked.

I like seeing older cartoonists take this kind of material on, as Mimi Pond did in Over Easy. The health of comics as an art form depends on having several generations of serious comics artists working simultaneously.
  • The History of Dylan Horrocks

Dylan Horrocks, Incomplete Works, 2014

One of my favorite cartoonists is Dylan Horrocks. Born in 1966, he could be lumped in with a group of English, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand small press cartoonists whose work was quite sensitive, small scale and occasionally verged on twee. I'm thinking of artists like Eddie Campbell, Glenn Dakin, Ed Pinsent, etc., who were associated with the U.K. small press movement in the 80s and Escape Magazine as well as Fox Comics in Australia. Eddie Campbell and Dylan Horrocks are the two most successful of that group, but they all were interesting and they collectively offered an alternative to the dominant modes of alternative comics-making that came along in the 80s--the punk-inflected experimental work of the Raw artists (including Charles Burns), the sarcastic post-underground wise-ass work of Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes and many of the Weirdo artists, and the un-self-pitying autobiographical comics of Chester Brown and many Canadian cartoonists.

Horrocks is willing to mix autobiography into his work, which helps to ground his flights of fancy, but his great subject is comics itself. That's what comes through in story after story in Incomplete Works, a collection of stories from 1986 to 2012. I've read many of these stories before in the various ephemeral publications where they first ran, but it quite astonishing to see them in one place. It is interesting to see how constant his themes and subjects have remained over the course of almost 30 years of work.

Dylan Horrocks, "Little Death" page 2, 1986

His early work shows him searching for style, but his drawing seems very self-assured. The page above is from "Little Death," drawn when Horrocks was 20 years old. A story of sexual desire in dark public places, Horrocks notes that he met his partner, Terry Fleming, while working on it. It's almost proof of the old Jay Lynch theory--you get what you draw!

Like many artists from New Zealand, Horrocks moved to London for a while to try to make a go of it. And his feeling of alienation and home-sickness there inform a lot of work in the early parts of this anthology, including a masterpiece called "The Last Fox Story." In his endnotes, Horrocks writes that he drew it in ballpoint pen on memo paper. He was working in a bookstore in London and having serious doubts about his vocation as a cartoonist. The story was intended for the final issue of Fox, an long-running alternative comics magazine from Melbourne, Australia. The fact that Fox was coming to an end may have suggested to Horrocks that there wasn't a place for the kind of quiet, contemplative comics he drew.

Dylan Horrocks, "The Last Fox Story" page 18, 1990

He humorously portrays his dilemma in the story as a fear of comics, but what he's really talking about is that moment of crisis that hits young artists of all stripes--can he carry on? Is there a place for his work? Is he capable? Horrocks tells this story about comics using comics, but it seems quite universal. All artists face this, often at the same age as Horrocks did. As we know, many in his place say no--they decide to turn their life in a different direction. But as you read Incomplete Works, you know what Horrocks chose. He kept on going and started his own solo comic book, Pickle, in 1992. It was here he serialized one of the best graphic novels ever, Hicksville. (Full disclosure--I own two pages from this work.) And you can see his mastery of this art form blossom during the 90s in the stories here.

Dylan Horrocks, "A Cartoonist's Diary" page 12, 2012

It all comes full circle in the last story in the volume, "A Cartoonist's Diary," which was published online by the Comics Journal. His interests and concerns in 2012 as a 46-year-old man are not all that different than the 24-year-old who drew "The Last Fox Story," but now he is a teacher, an elder figure with an impressive body of work behind him. What I love about his art is that it is so humane and humble. He seems to see himself as part of a world-wide comics history. He reveres his predecessors, both famous (a little story about George Herriman) and obscure (a biographical strip about New Zealand underground cartoonist Barry Linton).

His next graphic novel, Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen, will be published later this year, and you can read most of it online right now at Horrock's website Hicksville Comics. The Magic Pen is great, as is Hicksville. But Incomplete Works is, I think, their equal. It's a moving, poetic collection of work.

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