Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Morally Compromised Comics Reviews

Robert Boyd

I've known Matt Madden and Bob Fingerman for many years. An issue I often have is how do you write about people with whom you have a personal relationship. That's become an issue writing art reviews in Houston. I've come to be friends with many Houston artists, for example, which over time became a problem for this blog. I picked up two recent comics by Madden and Fingerman that I want to talk about, but I wanted to warn readers that I've known these guys a long time. Hell, I've stayed in Fingerman's apartment with him and his wife! I attended Matt Madden's wedding! I am totally biased. So keep that in mind.

Drawn Onward by Matt Madden (Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, 32 pages).

Matt Madden has been making comics since the early 1990s (the first Madden comic I ever saw was Terrifying Steamboat Stories, which was published when he was an undergrad at UT in the early 90s). I've been following his career pretty closely since then.

Madden has always been a formal experimenter, and a few years ago joined a group of French comics experimenters who call themselves OuBaPo (which stands for ouvroir de bande dessinée potentielle, which roughly translates as the "workshop for potential comics"). Literary-minded readers might recognize OuBaPo as a spin-off of OuLiPo, in which a bunch of writers used specific formulas to write novels and poetry. Raymond Queneau founded OuLiPo in 1960, and the group included such writers and Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. They would come up with arbitrary, slightly absurd rules for writing. For example, Perec wrote a great novel without the letter "e", La Disparition (A Void, in English). Think of the complex poetic rules that used to be de rigueur--the number of syllables in each line, the arrangement of stresses, the rhyme scheme, etc.

OuBaPo cartoonists do the same thing. Some of the exercises they do include "larding" (taking an already existing comic and adding extra panels between the existing panels), "reduction" (taking a longer comic and summarizing in a few panels), and "reversibility" (making a comic that can be read forward and backward). The goal is to use these constraints as a creative boost; essentially, they don't believe that absolute freedom is all that good a way to come up with original ideas. (Perec wrote, "I set myself rules in order to be totally free.")

The most famous example of reversibility is The Upside Downs by Gustave Verbeek, which appeared in newspapers from 1903 to 1905, nearly a hundred years before the creation of OuBaPo. (OuLiPo refers to such examples OuLiPo-like texts avant le lettre as "premature plagiarists".)

Then you turn the page upside down and read the rest of the story.

Drawn Onward is a example of reversibility. Not only can it be read backwards and forwards, it is necessary to read it both directions to get the whole story. Formally, it's an amazing feat. But the same could be said about The Upside Downs, which had pretty dumb stories. You as a reader never care about its two ongoing characters, Little Lady Lovekins or Old Man Muffaroo, which is not the case with great contemporary comics strips from the early 20th century (see for example the great characters in The Katzenjammer Kids or Little Nemo in Slumberland.) This is the fundamental difference between an Oulipo novel and the world's longest palindrome. The Oulipo writers tried to make literature worth reading. And Matt Madden, as a OuBaPo artist, is trying the to do the same.

When I first read Drawn Onward, I didn't realize that it was a reversible story. It wasn't until I got to the end of the comic did I realize that it had to be reread backwards. Unlike The Upside Downs, you don't turn Drawn Onward upside down--you just read the panels in reverse order.

It starts with the sentence "This comic is a double suicide note..." The first three panels depict the studio of a female comics artist, drawn in a light style with very little chiaroscuro. It's almost clear line, but not as perfect as we expect from clear line. There is a human quality to the drawing; the panel borders for example are hand drawn--no ruler was used. But when we turn the page, we see what has been drawn by the comics artist--a flashback. The style is completely different. The line-drawing is done in these flashback segments with a heavy brush, with lots of solid black and occasional drybrush touches. The protagonist encounters a young man who appears distraught and says something cryptic to her. He acts like he knows her, but she has evidently never seen him before.

As the comic progresses, she sees him again several times. She perceives him as a stalker of some sort, but starts to grow amused by him. She writes in the narration of the comic, "My god, was I developing a crush on my stalker?" Once she finally expresses her feelings (in the center spread of the comic, in which she kisses him), though, he starts to grow colder and becomes sarcastic towards her. She sees him in the subway several times after that, but he avoids her.

In the last page, she instructs the reader to read the story backwards: "The beginning of my story was the end of his."

Below is a typical two-page spread. Please note that it makes sense read backwards or forwards. Reading it forward is like a typical comic--you start in the upper-leftmost panel of each page. To read it backwards, start in the upper-rightmost panel of each page.

Matt Madden, Drawn Together pp. 10 and 11

Drawn Onward fulfills what I think of as the requirements of OuBaPo (or OuLiPo)--to be formally interesting (based on the constraint underlying the form) as well as interesting as a work of comics storytelling. As you read this, you are interested in the young woman cartoonist and her mysterious crush. One fault it has it that it has to tell you to read it in reverse, and as part of the story that is a bit awkward. But given the way we ordinarily read comics, I don't know how else one would do it.

Minimum Wage Volume 2: So Many Bad Decisions by Bob Fingerman (Image Comics, 158 pages.)

I first became aware of Bob Fingerman's comics when I was working for Fantagraphics Books. He did a humorous porno comic for us called Skinheads in Love (1992). I thought it was funny, but the art was a bit overwrought. Later, as an editor for Dark Horse Comics I took over a comic he was producing when the previous editor abruptly left. It was a social satire called White Like She (1994), a take-off on the Freaky Friday body-switching genre, except instead of a mom and teen-aged daughter switching, it was a 50+ year old black man switching with a bratty suburban white teen-aged girl. It was pretty funny, but the art was even more stiff than Skinheads (it was almost completely photo-referenced).

Fingerman decided around this time that he needed to loosen up his art. He started his comic series Minimum Wage (1995-1999), a roman à clef about the engagement and wedding of his alter-ego Rob Hoffman to Sylvia Fanucci. A lot of that book (collected in one volume, Maximum Minimum Wage) dealt with life as a barely-scraping-by 20-something freelance artist in New York City. I would say that aspect of the story was for me the most interesting thing about Minimum Wage, but I loved the whole story. By this time, I had gotten to know Bob personally pretty well, and he included me and some of my co-workers in the background of one panel. Because it was a lightly disguised roman à clef, part of the pleasure in reading it for me was to try to figure out who all the people in the story were in "real life"--a lot of them were from the world of comics, so I knew a bunch of them.

Anyway, that was the work that really demonstrated that Fingerman was an important comics artist, in my mind. His drawing style didn't really loosen up all that much (Fingerman just cares too much to just let go), but the cartoony drawing (as opposed to photo-realistic style of White Like She) was an appealing direction. And it pretty much set the course for Fingerman's subsequent comics. For example, in his post-apocalyptic comedy, From the Ashes, he drew the whole thing in pencil, which I have always taken as a deliberate attempt to loosen up his drawing by changing techniques.

After the 2013 publication of Maximum Minimum Wage, Fingerman decided to revisit the characters from Minimum Wage in a new Minimum Wage series. He starts the new series almost instantly after immediately after Rob has broken up with Sylvia. The series is all about Rob getting back out on the market for love. The first volume of the new series, Minimum Wage book 1: Focus on the Strange, has Rob briefly dating a 30-something hippie lady, a 50-something former TV actress and a woman who edits a gay porn magazine. (I assume these are fictional analogs to real people--I'm totally wondering about the identity of the former TV actress.) None of these assignations seem too disastrous, but they don't lead anywhere for Rob. Rob is 25 years old and a very eligible bachelor. He has a new well-paying comics gig drawing PRIX (sort of the analog in the Minimum Wage world of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose comics Fingerman drew for about a year 1993. In Minimum Wage, instead of being turtles, they are horseshoe crabs.) He's kind of uptight about some things, but he is good boyfriend material. Of course, that could be self-congratulation on the part of Fingerman, of whom Rob is a quasi-autobiographical counterpart.

Book two leans more on disastrous dates. Rob meets a goth woman via a dating site who turns out to be horrible on many levels. The unrelenting horror of their brief relationship is the source of any of the books' funniest moments. But worse, he hooks up with his ex-wife. He needs some way to process what's been happening to him. So Rob starts drawing autobiographical comics just to amuse himself. He gets encouragement from professional colleagues to continue on that path.  It's weird. In a sense we get Fingerman drawing Rob drawing an early iteration of Minimum Wage.

The art has a really loose feeling that I've never seen from Fingerman. The character designs are more-or-less the same as in the original Minimum Wage, but everything is more exaggerated and the ink is slung on the page more expressively than ever before. It may be his best artwork ever, although I loved the pencil art on From the Ashes as well. It is colored rather simply in a duotone (black and white and light blue, similar to the way Dan Clowes colored Ghost World) but with occasional full-color pages. The fill-color sequences tend to be dream sequences, which aside from an opportunity to show off some very nice drawing and painting, don't add much. I know they are meant to give a glimpse into Rob's inner life, but this comes out well in the plot and dialogue, which makes the dreams feel redundant.

Bob Fingerman, Minimum Wage book 2: So Many Bad Decisions, p. 37. Rob's first terrible date with Bekka, the Ayn Rand-loving gothmedienne

Aside from the dream sequences, I loved everything about this comic. And the dream sequences aren't bad, just unnecessary. But one problem with Minimum Wage book two is that there is too much filler. After 124 pages of comics story, there is a 36-page "bonus section" of covers, sketches and pinups. The pinups are by various guest artists, so you get to see some art by Rick Altergott, Collen Doran, Jason Little, Stan Manoukian, Troy Nixey and many others. But while I like some of the drawings, I don't think they add much to the book.

I'm not sure if the story is over with this volume. It does end with Rob decisively calling it off with ex-wife Sylvia, but there is a hint of a continuing story. It does seem as if Fingerman is taking a break from the regular comic book, but I hope he launches back into it. I think there is more to Rob's story.

Take these two reviews with a big grain of salt, as I've known both cartoonists a long time and can't really be objective. But both of these comics are worth reading, and in the case of Minimum Wage, I would strongly suggest you read the two earlier volumes if you are going to read book 2.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Kingly Gift to the Menil

Robert Boyd

REVISED June 14.

Thursday night, a show of artwork from the art collection of Stephanie Smither and the late John Smither called As Essential as Dreams opened at the Menil. This is the second time in two years that works from this amazing collection have been on display (the last time was in 2014 at the Art League in a great show called One of a Kind: Artwork from the Collection of Stephanie Smither, which I reviewed). The show opened on the same day as the announcement of a huge gift to the new Menil Drawing Institute, currently under construction on West Main Street between Loretto and Yupon Streets.

The gifts were from Louisa Sarofim and former Hosuton gallerist Janie C. Lee; they include works on paper by Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Cezanne, Willem de Kooning, Brice Marden, Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, Georgia O'Keefe, Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, Barnett Newman and others--a total of 100 drawings by 41 artists.

As I looked at the art on display, I noticed the labels all identified the art as "promised gifts to the Menil Museum." So on the day they announced the Sarofim and Lee gifts, the Smither gift was effectively also announce.

This photo of the foyer of the Smither home is reproduced in the catalog for As Essential as Dreams

And the Menil will be perfect home for her collection. The Menil has already shown a willingness to collect visionary or outsider art work (see for example their holdings of Charles A.A. Dellschau, Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, etc., much of which was displayed in the excellent exhibit Seeing Stars: Visionary Drawings from the Collection). And with the new Drawing Institute, there is a renewed commitment to works on paper and the conservation challenges they pose (Martín Ramírez drawings must be a special challenge for conservators). I think it is great that the Menil is going deep into this kind of art with the Smither gift.

Just three days later, Stephanie Smither died. She had serious health problems and had had both lungs transplanted. The timing is poignant but at least she got the opportunity to see her collection in its new home.

(As an aside, when Dan Nadel came to town to discuss Copley, he and I buttonholed Menil curator Toby Kamps about how cheap it would be to add an excellent comics art collection to the Drawing Institute. We pointed out that superb examples of, say, Chester Gould original art could be purchased for less than $500 at auction. A museum hoover up this stuff cheap by going to Heritage and Artcurial. I suspect some collectors here in Houston might be willing to donate examples of this kind of work to the Drawing Institute if asked!)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dribs and Drabs

Robert Boyd
  • Dream About Mark Flood
I dreamed that Mark Flood had made two animated automata, one a homunculus (specifically one identical to Tejadora by Liliana Porter) and one life size. For some reason, I had to pack them both up in a box. Fortunately, the lifesize automaton was made of papier mache, so was really light. (The rest of the dream had to do with studying a really hard kind of math for a college class and taking a funicular railroad to the top of the cliffs of Galveston.)

Liliana Porter, Tejadora (From the series: Trabajos Forzados), 2009, Pink wool and figure, 110 x 27 cm x variable

  • The Family Fang 
I just watched a movie called The Family Fang, directed by Jason Bateman adopted from a novel by Kevin Wilson, about a pair of adult children whose performance artist parents used them in their cruel performances. It's not bad but not great.

While I was watching it, I couldn't but help think of Hillerbrand+Magsamen, the Houston husband and wife artistic duo who use their own children in their work. Their use of their kids as performers in photos and videos is not cruel, but I've often wondered if as the kids grew into teenagers if they would come to resent it or be embarrassed by it. For example, in the piece below, their son stands in his underwear and breaks plates. I can imagine that at a certain age, that will be an embarrassing artifact for him! In The Family Fang, what the parents did is devastating to their adult children. In the case of Hillerbrand+Magsamen, it may be slightly embarrassing as the children age. But it doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would permanently damage them.

Family Portrait from Hillerbrand+Magsamen on Vimeo.
  •  Swag from NADA
So I went to Frieze and NADA in New York last week. NADA is the New Art Dealers Alliance and they hold a couple of art fairs every year. Printed Matter was set up at NADA, so I bought a couple of things there:

A Book About Colab (and Related Activities) edited by Max Schumann

Bizness is Bizness by Kikifruit

A Book About Colab (and Related Activities) is about the artists' collaborative Colab that was started in New York in the 70s and is responsible for some important institutions (ABC No Rio) and exhibits (The Real Estate Show and the Times Square Show). It's less of a history than a collage of images and texts in more-or-less chronological order.

The second item is Bizness is Bizness by Kikifruit, a zine composed of full-bleed drawings of clowns and sexy blondes. I got it because I liked the deliberately crude drawing and found the drawings funny.

The Pit zine

The Pit is a Los Angeles gallery that was displaying work at NADA. The artist whose work I liked best at the Pit was a guy named Andrew Sexton who made these furniture-like sculptures.

Andrew Sexton

The Pit made a zine that they gave away at NADA.

The Lamb is a London art gallery and they were showing art by a Peruvian artist named Fernando Otero. His art intrigued me because it was installation based and incorporated old-fashioned stadia rods, which were tools used by surveyors.

Fernando Otero installation at the Lamb booth at NADA

The people at the Lamb gave me a Spanish-language catalog from an exhibit by Otero, Ya Nada Volverá a Ser Igual.

Fernando Otero, spread from Ya Nada Volverá a Ser Igual

Packet is biweekly art magazine from Brooklyn that is designed to look like a syllabus given out to students at the beginning of a semester. Every six issues, they are collected into a big packet (similar to course packets of readings for a college class). I got the Packet collecting issues 74 to 79.

Packet, issues 074-079

spread from Packet, issue 76, by Catherine Murray

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Who Doesn’t Like Penises: A Few Questions for Tod Bailey

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

 Tod Bailey, Redneck Disco, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 48x60

To promote its exhibition of oil paintings by Tod Bailey, the Ted Casablanca Gallery in Palm Springs “borrowed” a few sentences I wrote in a 2008 newspaper article about Bailey. I had to laugh at that tiny bit of plagiarism, my words were hardly brilliant. In fact I was flattered because the gallery owner Ted Casablanca is famous in the entertainment industry. This fellow had a long reign as a bitchy gossip columnist.

Casablanca apparently has vision and guts. After viewing digital images of Bailey’s art, he flew to Houston, spent time in Bailey’s studio and offered him a show, financial and personal skin in the game that marks a committed gallerist. Casablanca seems to share my opinion that the under-known Bailey is an exceptionally exciting painter, so with his Palm Springs exhibition approaching on May 14, I decided to ask Bailey a few questions:

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: As long as we’ve been acquainted, you’ve been reluctant to talk too much about your art because you believe the paintings should speak for themselves, and think it’s stupid to explain them or create a narrative.

Tod Bailey: Yea, it’s bullshit to talk about it. It’s just canvas and paint. I go through the process and this is what comes out, a painting, and I feel uncomfortable saying all this stuff. But collectors want to hear something, and some people believe the artist’s words and titles can be a helpful tool, I don’t know.

VBA: Regardless, when I wrote about you in 2008 you stated decisively that emotional distress, pain and fear, inspired the art. You painted haunting representations of the human figure in fragmented forms to symbolize emotional discomfort and the psychically fractured self. The artworks expressed violence and cannibalism, your Medusa painting is an example.

TB: Back then I had crazy shit stuck in my head, psychologically I was a mess, angry about my past and fearful of rejection. I composed figures in fighting and wrestling poses, with contorted faces, real fear and confusion in their faces. But I don’t paint that way anymore. I’ve been evolving and kicked away detrimental and distracting things, and am allowing good things to come into my life, and feel happy now, and I want that to come out in the paintings. I’m not fighting myself anymore and I believe I can see this in the paintings. Those frightening things I used to paint, admittedly that was my true nature then, but all that warped perspective was imagined in my head, it wasn’t reality. I think different now, and the paintings represent that.

VBA: You think different now because you’ve discontinued assailing your brain with excessive amounts of cocaine and booze, bound to exacerbate emotional fragility.

Tod Bailey, A New Primavera, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 99x72

TB: Precisely. I was very sick. But I’ve been straight for two years.

VBA: Although just as vibrant and expressive as paintings from the past, the new works feel infinitely more controlled, more focused, your marks appear purposeful, brushstrokes more definitive. The colors remain intensely sensual.

TB: I am very interested in colors and line and in learning what the paint does. Does the painting feel true? I want to make art that is beautiful. You know that Rumi quote - let the beauty we love be what we do.

VBA: Even deep into dissipation my friend, you can’t deny you painted a few lovely paintings.

TB: Sure, there were some beautiful ones. I actually made many beautiful paintings, very drunk, but the window of open mindedness began to close, and I became stuck in misery, when the booze quit working cocaine helped, then that quit working, so what worked in the beginning stopped working and I spiraled, was even unable to read and retain, which was a horror. I can take from the past what worked and what didn’t, same with the paintings. I’m connecting back to myself, and I focus on what succeeds. Picasso said, “I do not seek. I find.”

VBA: Tod, the way I see it your art was shifting into more lyrical expression back in 2012 when Jay Wehnert organized your exhibition “Some Assembly Required” at Nau-Haus Art. You showed seductively colored quasi abstract gestural and angular figures that were memorable. Say something about your up-coming show in Palm Springs.

TB: My exhibition “Happiness is Freedom…and a Nice Penis” opens on May 14 at Ted Casablanca Gallery in Palm Springs, and runs through June 6. I’ll be showing 19 oil paintings all made within the last two years, between 2014 and 2016.

VBA: I’m wondering how good ole boy comportment will be received in glitzy Palm Springs, where you’ll predictably use hick words like “Howdy.” Will they will find you peculiar?

TB: Sure, but I hope they’re attracted to the art. I’m looking forward to connecting to people I don’t yet know, and hope they connect to me, and to my art.

VBA: Will Joe Bob attend your show?

TB: Joe Bob can’t make it to Palm Springs, but my dad is my biggest fan.

Tod Bailey, Portrait of Munch and I in His Garden, 2015, Oil on Canvas, 68x60

VBA: We’ve discussed through the years the fact that you see your university art training as formative. 

TB: I do. For my journalism degree, I studied art and art history as electives. My art history professor was a Yugoslavian woman named Ivana Spalatin, a brilliant artist gypsy who was personal friends with Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell, and she introduced me to their writings, follow your bliss, and that impacted me significantly, to realize I could be part of this beautiful thing called art by which man expresses life, that life and art are integrally linked, and that art forms a continuum, all the eras artistically expressed humanity, and she was so passionate about relating this. It inspired me to study comparative religions and mythology and literature, and to understand bigger truths, which was important for someone brought up in a tiny religious town. It made me want to become an artist. Ivana was living with a graduate student named Conrad Richter, a brilliant painter, a brilliant guy, a real crazy fucker, and he taught me how to stretch canvas, and I learned so much watching him paint. Trenton Doyle Hancock told me he learned a great deal from Conrad.

VBA: Some might be surprised by the extent of your literary knowledge. Compared to most, I consider you an expert on Faulkner.

TB: Yea, I read Faulkner and need to re-read it, that guy was whiskey crazy out of his mind, and still made those beautiful sentences, was so aware of the humanity, the suffering, he wrote of frightening things, poverty, abuse, slavery, people not necessarily enslaved but enslaved in their own families or things they were unable to escape. His characters could not escape their history, their story.

VBA: Describe your painting process. Do you approach the canvas with a set idea, and preliminarily lay it out? Do you first make a sketch? Or is it all spontaneous, like stream of consciousness?

TB: It’s like stream of consciousness, what is called automatism, Pollock did it, Gorky too, he spoke about it. For me it’s more authentic to paint that way. I make plenty sketches though, but not as preparatory works for the paintings.

VBA: Your paintings usually include sexual references, which the gallery obliquely phased, “filled with sexual energies.” Collectors enjoy trying to recognize the painted figures’ dismembered penises and vaginas.

TB: They are often rendered in abstracted form, or hidden, like the triangles for the females, and circles for boobs and butts, but it’s not a big deal, all the painters did it, sexual expression is a primary subject throughout the history of art, so yea there are lots of dicks. Only a few basic shapes exist in the world, a circle, square, cylinder, and triangle, and artists have used them to express human essence since the Neolithic. Sex is how we got here, who doesn’t like penises?

Tod Bailey, Orgy On The Inside, Oil on Canvas, 2015-2016, 48x48

VBA: Comment on art historical influences. It’s easy to detect genuflection to Picasso, de Kooning, even Matisse. You admire Guston.

TB: Of course I use what I admire in other painters, it’s impossible not to.

VBA: Your time with Dick Wray must have been influential.

TB: Oh, I have Wade Wilson to thank for the introduction. Dick was ill, but painting, so we agreed I would assist him part time in his studio. He told me, “don’t be passive as an artist or as a human being, make a lively and living response to life.”

VBA: I’ve noticed that the mythology of Dick Wray bad-assery persists even though the guy was sober for years before his death. One night after he died, I was in a gallery which showed some of his art and overheard an artist nostalgically proclaim, “I saw Wray pissing outside!” He was a prolific painter and known as a dedicated teacher, many would be surprised to hear Wray bought one of your paintings because he never did that.

Tod Bailey, Self Portrait as Harpy, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 72x48

TB: I learned so much from him, loved his work, and his passion for painting. When Dick was dying, he could only paint a short time and then had to rest, and one day he went to lie down and said, “you probably think I’m a pathetic old fuck,” and I said, “No sir, I think you are remarkable.”

VBA: A dying man struggling to paint brings to mind that lovely quote by Professor Elsen, “art remains like an act of love, a potent gesture of life, a fist clenched against death.” Contemporary Arts Museum’s Bill Arning also bought one of your paintings.

TB: Yep, Bill owns “Butthole Petting Zoo.”

VBA: An absurdly Rimbaudian title. I got so excited months back when “Papercity” published that article featuring the interior of David Lackey’s home. Lackey has exquisite taste in art and antiques, such discernment, and there grouped over his fireplace was one of your paintings. You need to thank “Papercity’s” editor Catherine Anspon for that sweet bit of exposure.

TB: That was nice.

VBA: Readers might be interested in hearing about your day job, assisting part time with art maintenance and restoration, for galleries, and collectors. Houston’s fat cats have important sculptures on their “grounds” which require cleaning and maintaining.

TB: I help clean.

VBA: You’re probably reluctant to discuss rich clients’ private art collections. Child, I’m remembering the fun we had in Italy. Don and I were on one of our trips, and you were living there, moved there to follow a woman, and we hooked up and toured hill towns, and Donnie treated us to that elegant meal near Siena, with the prosciutto and melon and figs and those yummy wines.

TB: And this dumbass was too drunk to taste anything.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Rokudenashiko Found Guilty

Robert Boyd


As I mentioned last post, Rokudenashiko was to be judged shortly on whether or not she had distributed obscene materials by distributing electronic three-dimensional files of her genitalia to supporters of her crowd-sourcing campaign. According to The Tokyo Reporter, she has been found guilty and fined ¥400,000 (about $3700).
Presiding judge Mihoko Tanabe fined Megumi Igarashi 400,000 yen for mailing links for the download of 3D-image data of her genitals to donors of an art project.
Tokyo Metropolitan Police first arrested Igarashi, 44, in July of 2014 for the distribution of the data. She was arrested again in December of that year for displaying a plaster cast of her vagina in an exhibition at an adult shop in Bunkyo Ward between October of 2013 and July of the following year.
The prosecution had claimed during the trial that Igarashi’s works too closely represent genitalia to be considered art, according to the Asahi Shimbun (May 9). “The shape is such that it is clearly female genitalia,” the prosecution said. “It can not be said that there is a higher artistic quality that lessens its obscene nature."
Igarashi, who goes by the pseudonym Rokudenashiko (or Good For Nothing Girl), maintained that she made the works to remove the image of female genitalia being obscene. “These are art works,” the defense said. “They are not obscene.”
The court ruled in favor of Igarashi in the exhibition of the plaster casts. ["Tokyo court fines ‘vagina artist’ ¥400,000 in trial over ‘obscene’ art", The Tokyo Reporter, May 9, 2015]
This is a disappointing result, of course. I doubt she'll have trouble paying the fine (she has lots of supporters to step up and help her if she needs it), but now she is an official criminal. Presumably she can't really risk distributing any more pussy art. The article ends with a little bit of gossipy news--that  Rokudenashiko is now engaged to Mike Scott, the leader of the Celtic rock band The Waterboys. Scott composed a song in her honor, which you can hear below.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Jailing of Rokudenashiko for Making Art from her Pussy

Robert Boyd

Rokudenashiko and her manko kayak (photo by Eigo Shimojo)

Last year, there was a flurry of news about Rokudenashiko (the pen-name of Megumi Igarahi) who had made a vagina-shaped kayak and found herself arrested for obscenity. I suspect it struck most Americans and Europeans who read about her as absurd—vaginas are not particularly controversial images in the West, where nearly gynecological photos and video has been an element of easily accessible pornography (including Japanese pornography) for decades. Furthermore, we tend to think of fine artists as a somewhat protected class—in the U.S. at least, where in 1973 the Supreme Court in Miller vs. California defined obscenity thus:
The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. [Emphasis added]
(I’ve often wondered if the conviction for obscenity of cartoonist Mike Diana in 1991 was in part due to the low status of comics making it hard for them to be judged on the basis of serious literary or artistic value. Maybe now that the status of comics as art has risen in the U.S.,  it would be harder to obtain an appeal-proof conviction of obscenity for a comic.)

Rokudenashiko and her manko kayak (photo by Eigo Shimojo)

It turns out that Rokudenashiko is a mangaka (comics artist) who has created a book, What is Obscenity?: The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and her Pussy, about her arrest and trial that combines comics, photos and prose to describe her bizarre legal experiences. Her pen name means “good for nothing” in Japanese, and she was a typical struggling cartoonist before achieving notoriety as a “manko” (i.e., "pussy") artist. The book was translated by Anne Ishii and published by Koyama Press.

Rokudenashiko specialized in non-fiction comics, and when she saw an ad for vaginal reconstructive surgery, she thought it might be a good subject for a first person non-fiction comic. After she had the surgery and documented it in manga, she had the idea of making a mold of her manko. She made a cell phone cover out of it and decorated it, calling it a “Deco-man.” A columnist saw it and suggested she do a workshop on making Deco-mans.

The problem was that pussy is quite taboo in Japan. She was accused of being a pervert and a sex addict, and her husband divorced her. She tried to make a living creating manko art, but it was impossible to publicize the work. News outlets were interested in covering her story, but wouldn’t show pictures of her artwork unless the images were pixilated. But a random positive encounter with a fan revived her spirits as did a positive response overseas (a manko diorama was exhibited at an erotic art festival in Seattle in 2012). But her artwork was still being made from the mold she had made, which limited the size of her pieces.  (Note that this book publishes the manga in the traditional format--you read the book from "back to front" and the panels from "upper right to bottom left".)

 Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p. 154

Rokudenashiko decided to create a digital file of her pussy that could be made into a sculptural object of any size using three-dimensional printing technology. She decided to make a kayak with a manko on top because it was a form of transportation that required no license and presumably because a kayak is already somewhat pussy-shaped. But producing a three-dimensional printed object of that size was quite expensive. She decided to fund it via a crowdfunding campaign. As a premium for contributors, she gave away copies of the digital file of her pussy. This is what she was arrested for—distributing three dimensional digital files of her own pussy.

 Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.23

She was arrested and taken to jail. Made to do a perp-walk in front of TV cameras, she got no love from Japan's traditional media, which called her a "so called" artist. As she was lead into the police station and officially arrested, her thoughts were about how it would make a great non-fiction comic story. And right she was! A lot of this part of the story was about Rokudenashiko's unrealistic expectations (formed from watching cop shows on TV) and the reality (the police try to intimidate her into signing a document saying that they had read her her rights, when they had totally forgotten to, and how they told her multiple lies about how much she would have to pay for her lawyer and how they had a scientific committee that had already compiled a report on how her art was obscene).

After processing her, they transport her to a women's prison, where she will be housed until it's time for her trial. Prison in Japan is a highly regimented and totally dehumanizing experience. She shared a cell with four other women who had been arrested for various minor crimes--one was an illegal alien, one had assisted her husband in a burglary, and one was in for a minor assault. Rokudenashiko's crime was so insignificant that she probably could have been released from jail if she admitted guilt and paid a modest fine. But that was unacceptable to her--she didn't think that her manko art was in fact actually obscene. Furthermore, if she admitted guilt, she wouldn't be able to make art anymore.

 Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.62

The best part of Rokudenashiko's manga shows her life in jail. The rigorous discipline and hellish trips to the prosecutor's office and to court helps one to understand why Japan has a 99% conviction rate. Police have an amazing 23 days to interrogate prisoners. As a result, many find it easier just to confess than to fight in court. Rokudenashiko had a large legal team working for her, but many Japanese prisoners don't even have lawyers. She was able to get out of jail after only a few days. She was arrested again on the same charges in December 2014. Her trial for the second charge began in April 2015; apparently a verdict is expected on May 9 of this year.

(This is the second manga I've seen about Japan's totalitarian prison regime. I highly recommend Doing Time by Kazuichi Hanawa who did three years in prison for possession of illegal replica guns.)

Now the utter absurdity of this incident has been widely remarked on. Japan apparently has a double standard when it comes to penises and vaginas. For example, no one is convicted for participating in the Kanamara Matsuri (aka the Festival of the Steel Phallus) in Kawasaki, Japan. This is a Shinto festival, so perhaps it enjoys protection for religious reasons.

A giant wooden phallus from Kanamara Matsuri (photo by Gulhelm Vellut)

But what about My Lonesome Cowboy by Takashi Murakami? How is this different from Rokudenashiko's manko art? The only real difference is that it is a penis spraying jizz and not a pussy.

Takashi Murakami, My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998 Fiberglass, acrylic, steel, 9.5 feet x 46 inches x 35 1/2 inches, edition of 3

So what about pussies? Can you get a mass-produced pussy in Japan without being arrested? Well, if this page from a Tokyo sex shop is any indication, the answer is yes. So the question is why did they pick on Rokudenashiko, arresting her twice for the same "crime." Part of it is obviously sexism--her manko art is art made by a woman. And she worked hard to get maximum publicity for it, so it was on the radar of the police and prosecutors. The question I'm left with is why is Japan so hung up about pussy? One of the most amusing things in the manga is the absolute discomfort that many of her interrogators have with the word itself. She insists on using it in her official statements and making people read it back to her. She revels in their discomfort because she finds it clearly absurd.

Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.82
Another question is why was Rokudenashiko arrested a second time? This may have been political. After her first arrest, she started serializing "What is Obscenity?" in Shukan Kinyobi (Weekly Friday), a leftwing political magazine. This is unusual (normally this kind of thing would have been serialized in a manga weekly); Weekly Friday is known for its antigovernment stances on war crimes and its opposition to nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe. At the same time Rokudenashiko was arrested a second time, Minori Kitahara was also arrested. Kitahara owns a woman-centered sex shop, the Love Piece Club, in Tokyo. She is also a writer who has opposed Shinzo Abe in print. So it has been suggested that the obscenity arrests were perhaps merely a pretext to silence or hurt some nettlesome government critics.

We should find out the outcome in about  week. If they do issue a verdict on May 9th, I will update this article.

Friday, April 15, 2016

George Sugarman Sighting

Robert Boyd

Hey Pan fans--you might remember a post I wrote six years ago about corporate sculpture. One of the things I wrote about at the time was how a large sculpture from 1971 by George Sugarman, called variously the Saint Paul Commission or the Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, had been purchased by commercial real estate firm Grubb & Ellis and dismembered. The firm used the dismembered parts to decorate various office properties it owned in Houston, Austin, and I believe in the Woodlands (north of Houston). (Grubb & Ellis went bankrupt in 2012, so I wonder who now owns all these scraps of Sugarman's sculpture.) Three years later, I happened across a piece of the Sugarman sculpture in Austin. And this morning, as I walked through back streets in Montrose, I found some more pieces of it.

George Sugarman, part of the Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971

Unlike the other pieces I've seen, these two were not well-maintained or marked with a plaque. The black struts had bits of blue paint from what I assume was an attempt to repaint the circular elements. But they were permanent--they were bolted to the ground.

George Sugarman, part of the Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971

So what did this thing look like when it was installed up in St. Paul? I have found a few photos online.

George Sugarman, Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971

 George Sugarman, Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971

 George Sugarman, Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971

This last photo is quite interesting. It's from the website of Lippincott, a firm that specializes in the fabrication and conservation of large metal sculptures.  The man in the picture is George Sugarman.