Sunday, October 21, 2018

Recent Art Writing

Robert Boyd

Even though I don't do much art writing here anymore (mostly book reviews), I still write about art. Here are three recent pieces.

 
Benjamin Terry, Family Game Night I, 2018, wood, paint, glue, ceramic and cardboard, 70 x 96 inches 

The first piece was for The Houston Review, a new venue for art writing edited by Mel Dewees, an artist and the proprietor of Gray Contemporary gallery. It may seem like a conflict of interest for a gallery owner to run an art magazine, but he is scrupulously keeping his own gallery out of it. Dewees has no editorial experience, but felt there was a need for more local art writing. And when you consider that not long ago, Houston had art reviewers at two daily newspapers, two alternative weeklies, and a magazine, Artlies, I have to agree. His opinion of art shown in other galleries is that it's bad--that a lot of it is "candy." He asked me to write something for him and I was happy to give it a go. I wrote about Benjamin Terry's show at Guerrero-Projects. You can read it here.

 
Jessica Stockholder, Strings Attached Too, 2014-17 

I've written one piece before for Art and Culture TX, so when they asked me to write about Sculpture Month, I agreed. I had to write about pieces I had never seen because of the deadline, but since it wasn't a review or work of criticism, I was OK with that. I was gathering and organizing information--it is a piece of straight-up journalism. You can read it here.


Stella Sullivan's house. The little building on the right was where I took painting lessons when I was in high school.

When I saw the Stella Sullivan retrospective at William Reaves/Sarah Foltz Fine Art, I thought about my time taking painting lessons from Stella when I was in high school. I thought weaving those memories and talking about the show would be a good piece, so I proposed it to Glasstire. They said yes and you can read it here.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Some Comics I've Recently Read

Robert Boyd

I couldn't go to the Small Press Expo (aka SPX), which makes this year no different from the last 20-odd years. Reports I've heard describe it as eventful. Someone posted a blog post about artists to check out who were exhibiting their work at SPX, so I went online and bought a bunch of their books, concentrating on female cartoonists whose work I had never read before. I wanted to keep it fresh.

But time passed and I read other comics, and then Retrofit/Big Planet sent me a pile of comics because I supported their Kickstarter, so this post has nothing to do with SPX at this point except that all the comics here are literally small press comics (unless you don't consider Fantagraphics Books a small press).



Tinderella by M.S. Harkness (Kilgore Books, April 2018). The subject matter is timely--dating in the age of Tinder. M.S. Harkness writes this as an autobiographical comic, although I suspect a lot of it is fictional. I mean, in the first scene in the book, she picks up a "muscle hottie" at the gym and they fuck on the tanning bed, leaving her half burned/half pale. Maybe that happened, but it seems unlikely. And it is perhaps a little weird for me (as a guy) reading about a woman who thinks about potential sex partners more or less the same way men do--looks are the first criteria. But in a way, that's what Tinder forces its users to do--you judge people by their photos, after all. This takes place during her last year of college and as she becomes independent. There are interesting bits about her mother, but she's not fleshed out. It's mostly about Harness's ongoing attempts to get laid by a muscular bearded hottie.

I wasn't wowed by it, even though there were entertaining bits. I don't like her art--it reminded me a little bit of the art of Pete Sickman-Garner, a largely forgotten cartoonist from the late 90s and early 2000s. I don't know if Harkness is destined to become a forgotten cartoonist from this era much as Sickman-Garner is from his, but her art is, like Sickman-Garner's, second rate and lacking in an interesting or highly personal style. But sometimes artists are rough when they start out and blossom later.



Gulag Casual by Austin English (2dcloud, April 2016). I've had this on my "to read" shelf for a while and finally pulled the trigger. The book consists of five stories drawn between 2010 and 2015. The drawing is so extravagant that it blows away any other quality that the stories have. And they do have other qualities--they are stories after all. The stories are fragmentary and somewhat dreamlike (not surreal, but disjointed like the narratives in dreams often are). But they are otherwise straightforward narratives for the most part.


Austin English, page 8 from "My Friend Perry", 2011

The drawing however is very modernist and improvisational. If I had to make a comparison, I would say it shares elements of Wols and the COBRA artists (Karel Appel, Asger Jorn and Pierre Alechinsky)--improvisation, a certain childish quality, but also an energy that resembles post-war abstract painting in the USA. There aren't really any comics artists who are exactly similar, although Gary Panter and Anke Feuchtenberger are on the same trolley route.

But the difference between English and Panter and Feuchtenberger is that there is no connection between his drawing and the narrative he's layered on top of the drawings. At least, none that is apparent to this reader. One can vaguely relate what is depicted in each panel to what is happening in the narrative (for instance, if two people are talking, you will observe two figures in the panel), but the connection is barely there.


Austin English, page 5 of "Freddy's Dead", 2011-2012

The exception to this disconnect is the story "Freddy's Dead"--in it, the protagonists Freddy and Carmello are on the subway and a beggar comes on board, throws broken glass on the ground and rolls around in it. This is depicted in a disturbing full-page image. It doesn't feel as improvisational as most of the other images in the book.

Anyway, I would say this is a book to read for the pictures, not for the comics narratives. I like English's drawing a lot.



All the Sad Songs by Summer Pierre (Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, September 2018). I had never heard of Summer Pierre until I heard an interview with her on a podcast talking about All the Sad Songs. She described it as being about making mixtapes, which is a thing that people of a certain age used to do, me included. She depicts herself now (a woman in her 40s, I think) with a streak of white in her hair. (I looked up her photo online, and while she has some grey, she doesn't have a streak of white--that was presumably an artistic device to help the reader distinguish now Summer from young Summer). She talks about how she made mixtapes for herself, her friends, boys she had crushes on and even her parents while she was in college. She lists the contents of some of them, and her tastes were eclectic but unformed. But in 1994, she hears Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and Hole's Live Through This and they change her world. She becomes obsessed with girls with guitars and gets one herself and teaches herself the rudiments. Shortly after that, she meets Tom, who becomes a serious boyfriend for her. She's living in Boston and going to open mic nights to play her songs, becoming familiar with the singer-songwriters on the scene. She does a great job depicting this subculture, but what she really does well is depict her terrible relationship with Tom, who is kind of a cad.


The story alternates between the folk scene and Pierre's disastrous love life and the two sides of the story become completely intertwined. After her breakup with Tom, she suffers anxiety and starts seeing a therapist. Her sessions with therapists is a third stream in this memoir, and Pierre makes it interesting, using interesting visuals to depict her state of mind. The memoir ends in 2005 when she falls in love with a man name Graham (who also falls for her) but they never become a couple because Graham knows he is moving away shortly. The feeling the reader is left with is that because Summer doesn't freak out about this, she has learned to handle her romantic anxiety. I would say this book as a whole is ample proof of that. In the "about the author" at the end, you learn that Pierre is now married to a man and they have a son.

The art is simple but tells the story well. It seems to come out of the tradition of other autobiographical cartoonists like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet and Joe Matt, and has hints of classic pre-War comic strips like The Bungle Family and Gasoline Alley. It's light-hearted even in the most emotional parts, which works really well for this book.



I Love You by Sara Lautman (Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, September 2018). A short collection of mildly humorous stories. The desired effect seems to be wryness, but the stories rarely rise to the level of actually funny. Lautman seems to acknowledge this in her first story, "Cow Tools". She is referring to a notorious panel by Gary Larson in the Far Side. The comic in question showed a cow posing with a variety of very crude tools. Larson relates the story of the perplexed public reaction to the panel in The PreHistory of The Far Side.So the protagonist to the story decides to get a tattoo of the perplexing Far Side cartoon, and people who see the tattoo are as confused as the readers of the original newspaper cartoon. She kind of uses people's reactions as a reason to judge them.



Understanding by Becca Tobin (Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, September 2018).This collection of lighthearted stories has really cartoony, somewhat psychedelic artwork. The seven stories pretty much lack pathos or cleverness. Tobin seems to be trying for playful encounters of her odd characters. Some of it is quite cosmic--in "Skinny Dipping", two figures go swimming and lose their skins before ascending into the sky as glowing yellow creatures.


Becca Tobin, "Skinny Dipping" page 2, 2018

In a weird way, the aimlessness of these stories reminds me a little of Geoff Dyer's novel The Colour of Memory: A Novel. But compared to the Dyer novel, Understanding adds up tp very little. Some interesting images, and that's about all.



Drawn To Berlin: Comic Workshops In Refugee Shelters And Other Store by Ali Fitzgerald (Fantagraphics Books, October 2018). I first became aware of Ali Fitzgerald's art when she was painting and creating installations in Austin, Texas. She moved to Berlin and started drawing comics there. As Syrian refugees started pouring into Berlin as the civil war in Syria grew worse, she volunteered to teach art classes at The Bubble, a refugee center in Northern Berlin. At first, she relates, Germany was quite welcoming but things soon turned sour. Things took a decided turn for the worse after a large number of sexual assaults were committed by roving groups of migrants (mostly from North Africa) in Cologne and other cities on New Year's Eve 2015. Over the course of Fitzgerald's meandering story, we see life getting harder for the refugees and the rise of the far right party Alternative for Germany (AFD) and its attractive leader, Frauke Petry, whom Fitzgerald describes as "petite and pixied." Petry's descriptions of the refugees doesn't jibe with Fitzgerald's first-hand experience.


Ali Fitzgerald, Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe p, 84

Fitgerald has several exceedingly interesting digressions. She describes at length Joseph Roth's descriptions of Jewish Berlin, particularly of the refugees from the pogroms of Russia. The parallels with the modern refugees seems particularly apt and chilling--we know what happened to those earlier refugees, after all. And then she has a lengthy diversion on fonts--specifically Fraktur, a very old fashioned Germanic-looking font that fell out of favor after the World War II. (One notable exception--novelist Gunter Grass insisted on Fraktur for his novels). It was abandoned for more sleek, less overtly Germanic fonts.Ironically, Hitler personally decreed that Fraktur be replaced with the more modern looking Anitqua in 1933. He thought it would be an easier sell in territories conquered by the Nazis. Fitzgerald notes the gradual and seemingly apolitical return of Fraktur into public life in Germany--simultaneous with the return of the ultra-right to politics, as represented by the AFD.

 

Ali Fitzgerald, Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe p,91

Fitzgerald shows her students work by Charles Burns and references the comics of Joe Sacco, whose classic "How I Loved the War" from 1992 (reprinted in the book Notes From a Defeatist) was a first person account of Sacco's time in Berlin during the run-up to the Gulf War. Sacco shares a German class with several Palestinian students, which seems to foreshadow Fitzgerald's own experience--two American cartoonists in Berlin encountering refugees from the Middle East. Sacco is a more innovative cartoonist, but it is undeniable that Fitzgerald's experience is the deeper one. She spent significant time with her students and got to know them and befriend them.

Throughout she focuses on her students, who flit in and out of her life as they are cycled through the refugee apparatus. There is an interesting scene where she has second thoughts about recording these stories--an issue that many memoir author faces. She did change people's names, though.

 

Ali Fitzgerald, Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe p, 185

The title Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories From the New Europe is terrible. The pun is weak, the subtitle too long and overly-explanatory. But if you can get past that, this is a powerful and moving comic.

 
The Prince by Liam Cobb ( Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, September 2018). Liam Cobb is a London illustrator whose specialty is drawings of architecture, interior and exterior. I've seen images of a dystopian story called Death of a Crow, which reminded me superficially of The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James. But The Prince is more of a horror story set in a city of boxy Miesian high rise buildings (it reminded me of Chicago), and the interiors are all midcentury Modern. The protagonist is a woman named May in an unhappy relationship with the horrible Adrian. Adrian starts off cruel, but over the course of the story tips over into seriously abusive.

May discovers a frog in the barren hallway of their apartment building and take it in. Adrian is repulsed by it. He makes May get rid of it. The frog seems as fragile as any frog in real life would be--when May leaves him outside by the river, it is quickly eaten by a bird. But the frog keeps returning, to Adrian's extreme displeasure.



The story of not told in a linear fashion. It keeps switching back and forward in time, and we readers have to decide what is "real" and not. Some episodes seem like fantasy (Adrian attacked by a giant monster frog). Some involve violence committed by May against pushy assaulty men. The question the reader has is has May become an avenging angel killing men who have mistreated her (inspired by her "prince", the frog)? Or is there a supernatural frog creature going around killing men who abuse May? Or is it all an hallucination?

The open, minimal detail and bizarre content remind me a little of Olivier Schrauwen, but Liam Cobb doesn't commit to surrealism to the degree that Schrauwen does. But The Prince was interesting and amusing.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes

Robert Boyd



I've had this book for a while in my "to read" pile, but I was a little intimidated by it. But then I picked up a copy of Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties by Lev Rubinstein and as I started to read Rubinstein's book of poems, I realized that he had been a friend Ilya Kabakov and an associate of Collective Action, two of the main subjects of The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes.I thought it would be useful to give Rubinstein some context if I knew more about the milieu he arose from. And I was right.

This book analyzes the work and actions of artists from the era under discussion (Moscow, from the beginning of the "Thaw" after Stalin's death (1953) and Khruschev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin in February 1956, until the end of the Soviet Union in 1989. It specifically focuses on "unofficial artists" like Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, the team of Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, and Collective Action, the group lead by Andrei Monastyrsky. But in addition to all of these highly conceptual artists, author Mathew Jesse Jackson looks at the broad swathe of unofficial art activities, including work by Ernst Neizvestiny and Oskar Rabin. In other words, it's not just a book of criticism, but is also a history of the scene that grew up mostly in artists' apartments. Boris Groys blurbed it on the back cover very aptly:
Matthew Jackson combines vast art historical and theoretical erudition with a rare ability to understand specific social milieus and psychological motives that govern individual artistic strategies. His book offers a fascinating--and at the same time precise--description of the Moscow artistic scene during the times of the cold war.
One almost doesn't need to write a review after that blurb. It really describes the book in a nutshell, both in tone and content. (It's weird that the quote comes from Groys--who is one of the subjects of the book!)

Jackson's "vast theoretical erudition" is evident is almost every paragraph--he seems to have read every important work of theory and criticism (in French, English and Russian) and deploys them all. He doesn't just focus on the artists but writes a lot about Soviet society and life in the Brezhnev years. He describes key public events in the history of unofficial art in the Soviet Union (such as the exhibit in 1962 called 30 Years of Moscow Art in which Khruschev angrily encountered Russian abstract art for the first time, and got into a shouting match with sculptor Neizvestiny, who he called a faggot, and the infamous "bulldozer show" in 1974, when a group of unofficial artists arranged an outdoor exhibit that was violently broken up by police and bulldozed.) It was events like this that gave Americans the idea that unofficial artists were dissidents, but for the most part, this wasn't true. They lived double lives--by day productive Soviet citizens, by night unofficial artists in their apartments. In a way, there was a secret society of artists working off the grid. Hence the term "unofficial artists". Official art was produced through artist and writers unions, for official publishing houses and galleries, and with very proscribed subjects matters and styles. (Although not as restrictive as we often imagine--after all, all of Tarkovsky's movies were made in this system. He was an "official" artist.)

Here it's important to mention apartments. During Stalin's rule, people lived in collective apartments, forced to room with strangers. This was mainly due to a lack of housing but also served the state as a kind of panopticon--everyone kept an eye on everyone else. Under Khruschev, a massive building program of cheap apartments was begun. These apartments have come to be called Khrushchyovka. They were utter crap, but they made private lives possible. The double lives mentioned above were greatly facilitated by the Khrushchyovkas. (Good descriptions of Khrushchyovkas and their effect on society can be found in Svetlana Alexievich's powerful oral history of the end of the Soviet Union, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.) For unofficial artists, who had almost no public space for exhibiting art, apartments were of supreme importance. They provided a place for artists to meet, to look at each other's work, and develop ideas. Kabakov's apartment was an important meeting place for all of the unofficial artists of the 1970s. Jackson quotes Groys, "There was no art market, no spectators from outside. This means that these artists made their works for their colleagues--other artists, writers, or intellectuals involved in the unofficial art scene." And Lev Rubinstein remarked, "I am from the underground, and for me the public is a certain aggregate of my friends and acquaintances that serve as a reference group that forms my aesthetic values."

(As an aside, this work did slowly leak out into the West through the efforts of dedicated, oddball collectors like Norton Dodge, an American academic who studied Soviet economic practices and frequently traveled to the USSR. His mission of collecting unofficial art is described in amusing detail in John McPhee's The Ransom of Russian Art. Then during the Gorbachev era, the market in the West for this work was accelerated.)

The thing was, the artists were never sure how tolerant the state was going to be at any given time. For example, Kabakov didn't participate in the bulldozer show, even though he was invited to do so. He knew it was a provocation and he had a lot to lose. Kabakov was an official artist in his day job--a member in good standing of the artists' union, working as an illustrator of children's books. We like to think of unofficial artists in the USSR as heroic dissidents, like Joseph Brodsky or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I think we in the West valorize those dissident artists because we imagine that we would act in a similarly heroic way in the same situation. But I think we would act more like Kabakov and Monastyrsky and Rubenstein--work quietly, leading double lives, constantly negotiating within our hearts what the state will let us get away with.

 
Collective Action, Slogan--1977, performance documentation

Collective Action was Andrei Monastyrsky's group that did what in the West we would call "performance art." But while "performance art" here is done for generally small audiences in public venues, Collective Action's performances were done for handpicked audiences of friends. The friends would often be participants in the actions, which often took place in open fields or forests on the edge of Moscow. For Slogan--1977, the group went to a field on the edge of some woods, two members raised a banner between two trees (that read, "I am not complaining about anything and I like this, although I have never been here before and know nothing about this place"--similarly mysterious lines are found in Lev Rubinstein's poetry). But an even more obscure performance involved Monastyrsky mailing a banner to Georgy Kizevalter with instructions. Kizevalter lived in Siberia and was instructed to raise the banner between two trees by himself, walk a certain number of paces away, and photograph it. It was a performance for one person, who was both the performer and the viewer!


Collective Action, To G. Kizevalter (Sogan--1980), 1980, performance documentation

Jackson's criticism and interpretation is erudite but he sometimes outsmarts himself. Writing about Erik Bulgatov, he writes "His best paintings sidestepped irony, offering unremarkable landscapes interrupted by precise rows of red letters. It is often said that such works "critiqued" Soviet reality, and no doubt they did, but the canvases amount to much more than postmodern political declarations." He then goes into a fascinating and detailed analysis of the painting Danger (1972-73) which is undoubtedly correct, but it seems unreasonable to deny the easy irony of the painting--a realistic scene of bucolic beauty superimposed with the word "Danger" four times. Irony is hardly "sidestepped" here--it is in fact shoved into the viewers face.


Erik Bulatov, Danger, 1972-73, oil on canvas

Ilya Kabakov eventually started doing "albums", which were series of drawings and texts that he would perform for guests in his apartment. Here, Jackson writes, "[Kabakov] had grown interested in narrative, grids, serial images, and frames--devices that seem incompatible, given the grid's presumed hostility to narrative." Presumed by whom? Here Jackson's erudition fails him. I've always thought that Kabakov's albums bore a resemblance to comics (which are, after all, narratives told in grids, with serial images in frames). I kind of dismissed this given the performance aspect of the works. But given the descriptions by Jackson, it seems reasonable to view albums like Ten Characters as a type of comics.


Ilya Kabakov, The Flying Komarov, 1972-75. Page from album 6 of Ten Characters

 And in the albums, we can see how his day job as a children's book illustrator affected his night job as a conceptual artist. His drawing style, combining linework and coloring, is like illustration and indeed very similar to much comics artwork. Indeed, this relationship between Soviet unofficial artists' day jobs and their art is underdeveloped in Jackson's book. (For example, Lev Rubinstein's poems were written with one line on a separate card, not unlike a card from a card catalog. His day job was as a librarian.) I have long wished that someone would publish Ten Characters as a book (dual language, of course), so we could read Kabakov's narratives.

But these are minor complaints. The Experimental Group is an amazing work of art history and illuminates an almost entirely underground scene brilliantly.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Rough House 3

Robert Boyd



In my ongoing effort to read all the books in my unread "pile" (more like "unread shelves"), I just read Rough House 3 which was published in 2015. I don't know how long I've had it--a good long while, I think. That said, they haven't published one since 2015 so now I'm all caught up.

The idea behind Rough House has been to be an Austin-based anthology, but by volume 3, contributors come from all over--Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Tel Aviv, Croatia, etc. And it's the best volume yet--the drawing is varied and wonderful. I love the drawing of Shawn Eisenach who contributed 4 mysterious silent one-page strips.


Shawn Eisenach

Another artist whose visual style I liked very much was Lea Heinrich. She had what I would call a very "Nobrow" style after the English publisher--a very designy illustrational style that seems extremely well-suited to the risograph. Her highly stylized drawing is layered with brushy blue tones. For her story "5 Finger Discount", she is adapting a poem by Lynn Gentry.


Lea Heinrich

Keren Katz's "The Man on Floor 319" is a little fable of the dangers of separating yourself from real life as well as the very real dangers of embracing life. It is drawn in black and white (not using the spot color capacities of the risograph printing) in a funny, clean cartoony style.


Keren Katz

Sarah Welch's untitled wordless story switches between a sleeping woman (drawn in blue and black) and a truck driving through what appears to be a dry, West Texas landscape, depicted in black and an intense shade of pink.  There's not really a story here--there's nothing obvious to connect the two parts, and nothing much happens. It's really just a sequence of evocative images forming the barest hint of a narrative.


Sarah Welch--for some reason, my scanner didn't scan the hot pink truck, so you'll just have to imagine them

The book is printed on a risograph (with various spot colors) and is really well designed. However, the table of contents just lists the names of the artists and it is slightly confusing to figure out who did what story. Page numbers would have helped!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures

Robert Boyd



Yvan Alagbé published Les Nègres jaunes et autres créatures imaginaires in 2012, collecting stories that were originally published in Le Chéval sans tête, which Yvan Alagbé co-edited in the early 1990s. The longest story is Les Nègres jaune, which was originally published in 1994. It is widely considered a modern classic of French comics. The New York Review of Books has in recent years been publishing comics, many translated from French and belonging to Alagbé's generation and general style--experimental, artistic and somewhat oblique.It's taken more than 20 years for the USA to catch up with this masterpiece, with New York Review Comics publishing Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures in English with a new story as an afterward.These stories of migrants from third world countries seem more urgent than ever, although for Americans the situation is a little different. We didn't have, as France did, a vast African empire. Alagbé was born in Paris in 1971 of Beninese parents, and lived for three years as a child with his family in Benin. His stories are often about undocumented workers from Africa who end up in France. However, the stories don't exist to make a political point, even if such points are inherent in the stories. Alagbé is not a polemicist. His work is too subtle and inflected with modernism to be propaganda.

At first glance, his drawing seems very sketchy. He likes to slather black ink on the page. He has an expressionist style. perhaps related to José Muñoz, an artist whose work he published through Amok, a boutique avant garde comics publisher in France. But he sometimes lays off the heavy blacks and uses fairly delicate line work or even a humorous, cartoony style. It all depends on the needs of the story at a particular place. This willingness to change the art to suit the story recall's Muñoz's teacher, Alberto Breccia. But Alagbé's drawing style is not what sets him apart--it's the structures of his stories.


Yvan Alagbé, page from "Yellow Negroes" featuring the charcters Mario and Martine, 1994-95

"Yellow Negroes" has the most conventional structure. The story of Alain, Claire and Mario--Alain is an undocumented Beninese man, Claire his white French girlfriend, and Mario, a former Algerian policeman who worked for the colonial government repressing the Algerian revolutionaries, making him a persona non grata in Algeria and an embarrassment to the current French police. Mario's awkward place between two worlds, neither of which want him, make him the most interesting character in the story. As an elderly retired policeman, he continually tells Alain and his sister Martine (who works as a housekeeper) that he can use his "connections" to help them get papers. But he is mainly a lonely man, who uses their abject state as a way to insinuate himself into their lives.


Yvan Alagbé, panel from "Postcard From Montreuil", 2012

But a totally different structure is used in "Postcard From Montreuil". Here each panel shows a view of the street in Montreuil where the "Hommage à la Résistance 1939-1945" monument is. This abstract sculpture pops up in some of the panels, which otherwise mostly depict ordinary street scene--buildings, pedestrians, etc. Meanwhile, each panel has a caption below that describes how this was the site of a months long occupation of an employment agency by undocumented Malian workers. This jobs protest goes on for almost a year until the agency is moved without warning. It is not explained if the protest followed or not, nor are the protesters depicted in any way. Except for a few images of job notices pinned to a wall, almost every panel could indeed be a postcard of picturesque Montreuil and its "curious sculpture." Alagbé quotes the base of the monument: "If the echo of their voices weakens, we shall perish." The quote is attributed to Paul Éluard. In a way, the story itself shows that the echo of the voices of the protesters is weakened by the abrupt relocation of the jobs agency, but in a sense Alagbé's story itself becomes an echo, preventing the protest from perishing from memory.


Yvan Alagbé, two pages spread from "The Suitcase", 2012

"The Suitcase" is a good example of how Alagbé changes his drawing style to fit the work. The barely there story is about Jeanne Martine Egbo returning from her "native land" to "France/Hollywood", carrying fish in her suitcase. The style is very abstract and symbolic, except for a few images of Egbo dealing with her suitcase, which are depicted in a completely different, comedic manner.


 Yvan Alagbé, panels from "Sand Niggers", 2017

The new story "Sand Niggers" was drawn in 2017. Alagbé directly addresses the issue of "migrants" fleeing their homes to Europe, comparing their plight to another classic French comic from the 1990s (which I hope The New York Review translates)--Demonic Tales by Aristophane. The text is a meandering first person essay about migrants and refugees and survivors, as well as the dead. The images have an oblique relationship to the text. (Indeed, Donald Trump appears in one in one of his trademark signing ceremony poses.) "Sand Niggers" will perhaps help the American readership to make sense of what they just read.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars

Robert Boyd


Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars (cover art by Charles Dellschau)

Jay Wehnert has been writing about outsider art, specifically Texas outsider art, since 2011 on his blog, Intuitive Eye. And now he has taken his research and put it together in one very handsome volume, Outsider Art in Texas: Lone Stars. He's not an academic, but the level of research here is impressive. In addition to learning what he could about each artist (and that varies with each one--in some cases, their biographies are well-documented, in others not so much), he bases a lot of what he writes on the ideas of Jean Debuffet and Roger Cardinal. Debuffet created the category with his essay "L'Art Brut préféré aux arts culturels" (1949) and Cardinal's book, Outsider Art (1973) which coined the term now in common use. But writing since 1973 has called the terms Art Brut and Outsider Art into question, although the basic ideas are still valid in my opinion. For me, the go to book on the subject is Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity by Gary Alan Fine, which I wrote about here. Fine was a sociologist so he was not just interested in the work of these artists and the artists themselves but the whole world in which the existed--the artists, but also the people interested in outsider art (collectors, scholars, etc.).

Key to that world is how the work was "discovered"--how the work of an isolated artist not working within a particular folk tradition is found by someone who sees that this work is something that the art world might find interesting. The classic example of this was when photographer Nathan Lerner discovered Henry Darger's art in his apartment shortly after Darger's death. Lerner was sophisticated enough to realize that Darger's work was something special--one shudders to think what would have happened if Darger's landlord had been almost anyone else other than Lerner. Similar stories can be told for any number of great "outsider" artists.

And these discovery stories become part of what Wehnert writes about.  The complicated story of how the notebooks of Charles Dellschau (1830-1923) were discovered and preserved is a miracle of several people coming across his notebooks which were thrown out by his family in 1967. If any of these people hadn't stumbled across them, they might have been lost. But the stories of Ike Morgan, Felix "Fox" Harris and Vanzant Driver are more typical. In each case, one person discovered the art and brought it to the attention of the art world.


Ike Morgan, George Washington, 2004, acrylic on poster board

Ike Morgan was locked away in a state mental hospital when he was 19 in 1977 after murdering is grandmother. He was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, and like many mental patients turned artist, drawing for him started as a form of therapy. In 1983, Jim Pirtle, a budding young artist, got a job as an orderly at the Austin State Hospital and met Morgan. He befriended Morgan and saw his drawings. After Pirtle moved to Houston and took on his vocation as an artist, he showed Morgan's work to people and began selling the pictures, sending the money back to Morgan. Morgan has developed a small, devoted following. (Long time readers will know that I'm a big fan of Morgan's portraits--I used one of them on the cover of a magazine I published called Exu, which can be ordered here.) He is currently represented by the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. They provide Morgan (who is no longer institutionalized) with high-quality art materials for his work. And Pirtle is now a well-known performance artist in Houston.

 
Vanzant Driver, Untitled (Church), not dated, broken glass, mirror and wood

Vanzant Driver started building churches out of shattered pieces of glass. (Indeed one of the things one finds with many of the artists described here is a deep, traditional religiosity. They often ascribe their work to a religious impulse.) Once he began making his churches, he brought them to various art institutions in Houston, which showed no interest. But he lucked out at the Contemporary Arts Museum when his work caught the eye of Sheila Rosenstein, director of the museum bookstore. Wehnert doesn't describe the meeting, but it seem reasonable to assume that he went to the bookstore because it was one part of the museum that is always open to the public. It's not like the director or head curators are out and available to any random person who comes in. But not surprisingly, Rosentstein was, and she had connections that  made it possible for Driver's work to be seen by collectors and curators.


Keith Carter, Homestead, Felix Fox Harris, 1983, photograph

Felix "Fox" Harris is one of those artists who takes to decorating his lawn. Like Driver, he was a visionary artist, inspired by God to create his elaborate yard art. This is one example where the "outsider" label seems false. This sculpture garden approach has a long tradition. It's known as a "yard show", and Wehnert points out that some writers suggest the tradition goes back to "Angola-Kongo influence". So while it might not be a folk art in the sense of a traditional craft passed down through practitioners over generations, it is something that continually pops up. In fact, I was surprised that Wehnert left out Cleveland Turner, the "Flower Man" of Houston who decorated his house in a similar fashion. To me, this kind of tradition suggests that "outsider art" might be a bad term, particularly for certain kinds of African-American vernacular art. I prefer the term "self-taught", but that is also inadequate fior the entire range of such art.

In any case, part of the reason we know about Fox Harris is that an excellent Beaumont photographer Keith Carter stumbled across Harris's house and started recording it in photographs. Harris's yard show was acquired by the Art Museum of Southeast Texas after Harris's death in 1985. Without the "discovery" of the work by Carter, it would probably be gone.

Wehnert gets to claim his status as a "discoverer" of an outsider artist. Richard Gordon Kendall was a homeless man who drew obsessively detailed drawings of buildings in Houston that he could see from the streets where he lived. Wehnert found him through a friend who mentioned seeing a homeless man in downtown Houston, where Wehnert subsequently found him in 1995. Unfortunately, in 1998, he "disappeared"--or at least stopped hanging out at his usual haunts in downtown Houston. He was quite old at the time (68), and I doubt if living on the street was doing his health any good. So he may have died. In any case, Wehnert was never able to find out.

The book rather inexplicably leaves out Cleveland Turner and Jeff McKissack, creator of the Orange Show. It may be that Wehnert felt like those artists have been discussed in detail elsewhere, but in any case, they are both prime examples of outsider artists in Texas. However, it does cover the work of eleven artists, with ample information (where it's available) about each and lovely reproductions of their artwork. This is an illuminating book.