Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Big Show: Betsy Huete's Top 10

Betsy Huete

As always, Lawndale’s The Big Show is a giant conglomeration of artwork from a wide array of artists, the only real commonality among them being that they are from Houston. Many familiar names like David McClain and Elaine Bradford crop up year-to-year, but then again we get to experience a slew of fresh talent that we might not have seen otherwise. As overwhelming as the exhibition can be, it’s also a lot like hunting around a flea market: it is enticing to think there could be a hidden gem lurking right around the corner. Juried and curated by Erin Elder, Visual Arts Director of the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, this year’s exhibition is much more subdued and even-keeled than Duncan MacKenzie’s selections last year. However, with 115 works by 106 artists, there are undoubtedly wide ranges of media, concepts, themes, and pieces to consider. Without further ado, here is my top ten:

10. Torie Shelton, Wonder & Curiosity, 2014
Walking up to Torie Shelton’s Wonder & Curiosity, it was hard to suppress the Oh Christ not another curiosity cabinet groan gurgling in my throat. But the “needle felted specimens” that she’s filled her cabinet with are well crafted, childlike, and incredibly sincere. Frankly, I wish Frippo was my friend, and Squirrelephant looks like a curmudgeonly old man who wants me to get the hell off his lawn.


Torie Shelton, Wonder & Curiosity, 2014, Wood cabinet, lithograph prints, needle felted specimens, found objects and screen printed insects, 82”x98”x21”


Torie Shelton, Wonder & Curiosity (detail, “Frippo”), 2014, Wood cabinet, lithograph prints, needle felted specimens, found objects and screen printed insects, 82”x98”x21”


Torie Shelton, Wonder & Curiosity (detail, “Squirrelephant”), 2014, Wood cabinet, lithograph prints, needle felted specimens, found objects and screen printed insects, 82”x98”x21”

9. Michael Sean Kirby, Caerulia, 2014
Michael Sean Kirby’s Caerulia looks like a stone from the future. It doesn’t look like it came from the actual future, though, but instead a shitty B-movie from the 1960s depicting the future. Sexy, sleek, cheesy, smooth, nostalgic, distant, and cold: Kirby manages warmth and evasiveness all at the same time. I have no idea how to feel around Caerulia, and that is precisely why it works.


Michael Sean Kirby, Caerulia, 2014, Painted cast stone, 8”x32”x5”

8. Kamila Szczesna, Ungraspable Territory No. 10, 2013
Garish and very very gold, Kamila Szczesna's Ungraspable Territory is completely over the top, and completely unapologetic about it as well. Its slow ascension and bulbous, pointy surface reads as a decadent virus, or a tipping, orgiastic tree trunk.


Kamila Szczesna, Ungraspable Territory No. 10, 2013, Resin and gold leaf, 21”x34”x15”

7. Vincent Fink, Curiosity (2), 2014
Vincent Fink’s Curiosity (2) at first glance looks like a run of the mill urban scene: concrete, an apartment building, clothesline, and a chain-link fence with a cautionary sign comprise a tall, skinny acrylic panel. But things quickly get weird as six parrots perch atop the breast pocket of a giant office shirt as an oblivious origami cat, sitting next to an errant Gatorade bottle, stares quietly off into the distance. With vivid colors and tightly controlled surrealist moments, Curiosity (2) feels like a wistful daydream.


Vincent Fink, Curiosity (2), 2014, Acrylic on panel, 48”x15”

6. Leticia Garcia, Mourning, 2013
Speaking of control, it is immensely difficult to maintain it while attempting to convey sadness and loss. Yet in Mourning, Leticia Garcia does so expertly. A subdued figurative painting teetering on abstraction, Garcia depicts a crowd of people gathering for what looks like a funeral procession. Foggy, elongated figures feel like they are crying as a murky, torrential sky looms above.


Leticia Garcia, Mourning, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 20”x26”

5. Luisa Duarte, You Are Not Stronger Than Me, 2014
We all make plans. Sometimes we make lists, or share them with friends, or opt to simply keep them in our heads. With collage in the form of geometric abstraction, Luisa Duarte plots a coup. We don’t know who it is that’s stronger than her, or what it is she thinks she needs to overcome. But it is easy to root for these seemingly mundane white squares as they propel themselves off platforms, or hold our breath as a clunky white car nearly plummets Thelma and Louise style into an orange ravine.


Luisa Duarte, You Are Not Stronger Than Me, 2014, Collage and canvas over art board, 11”x14”

4. Mack Bishop III, Earth Child 1, 2014
Mack Bishop’s Earth Children look like a couple of infantrymen having a side meeting away from their drifter army of shards and trash. But even with glass horns and wire fists, short and pudgy Earth Child 1 looks as though it’s just as likely to play catch in the back yard as it is ready to go into battle. It may be a little silly and dumb, but here Bishop makes a compelling case that not every artwork needs to be smart.


Mack Bishop III, Earth Child 1, 2014, Driftwood, mirror, wire, and board, 3’x2’x5’

3. Adair Stephens, Going Dutch, 2013-4
Whether it’s the first date or a twenty-five year relationship, shared silence can be tense. With Going Dutch, Adair Stephens shows a young couple fumbling, looking upward in opposite directions, each seemingly clueless as to how to move the conversation along. Heavy, self-deprecating brush strokes, nauseating skin tones, and a disorienting corner make this piece equally vulnerable and claustrophobic.


Adair Stephens, Going Dutch, 2013-4, Oil on wood panel, 24”x32”

2. Caroline Sharpless, Between Pine and Grief, 2014
This dull, deadpan painting of a home interior by Caroline Sharpless feels thick, burdensome, and ominous. Mid-afternoon sunlight peers in through an unseen window, as a background staircase leads to places, or situations, unknown. It is as incriminating as it is innocuous, as if we are glancing at a foreshadowed moment, or a ghost.


Caroline Sharpless, Between Pine and Grief, 2014, Oil on canvas, 30”x40”

1. Christopher Wallace, Haunted House, 2013
Unlike Sharpless, Christopher Wallace doesn’t see ghosts as ominous—but he does think they are assholes. As much as he seems to hate them though, they are lovingly rendered everywhere in Haunted House. Skeletons, angels, and walls with faces pop up at every turn in a drawing bursting at the seams with imagery. Residing somewhere between an extravagant doodle and a densely layered mind map, I could spend hours poring over Haunted House, trying to piece together what exactly it is going on in Wallace’s head. Also, it’s hard not to love a work that references Dan Havel and Dean Ruck and a NASA Lego man.


Christopher Wallace, Haunted House, 2013, Pen and ink on paper, 30”x44”


Christopher Wallace, Haunted House (detail), 2013, Pen and ink on paper, 30”x44”


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Comics vs. Art, part 1,000,000

Robert Boyd

I stole the title of this post from a great book by Bart Beaty. Comics Versus Art, dealing with the relationship between the world of comics and the comics world, is required reading if you want to think about these two things together. But it's not the last word since comics and art keep on going. For instance, this month Artforum turned its gaze on comics. Why not? Summer is the slow season. Everyone's on vacation. The New York galleries are full of second stringers from the provinces. Anyway, every few years the art slicks turn their attention to comics. It's been like this since the late 60s.


Artforum, Summer 2014. Cover from "I Am My Goals" by Julien Ceccaldi.

One of the essays in the special section on comics, "Wonder Worlds" by Stephen Burt, covered some of the same ground as I did in the previous post, particularly discussing Thierry Smolderen's The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay. There was a curated section by Art Spiegelman showing the comics that have been meaningful to him after a lifetime of thinking about the subject. Among other things, he discusses the Heta-Uma ("unskilled-skillful") movement in 1980s underground manga, which parallels a tendency in North American comics starting with artists like Gary Panter and Mark Beyer in the late 70s and early 80s and which continues until today.

But in a way, there is something rather old-fashioned about this comics section. It touches briefly on the most recent trends in comics, but it seems obliged to educate Artforum's readers on the totality of comics-as-art--a task too big for one section in one issue of a magazine. (Comics from outside North America, for example, are barely discussed.)

In The Comics Journal, there was a brief exchange about the issue between Paris Review managing editor Nicole Rudick and Comics Journal editor Dan Nadel. Rudick wrote:
I imagine this will get lost in all the comments about comments, but the comics section in the Summer issue of Artforum is pretty terrible. If you’re interested in reading about a specific strain of comicsmaking positioned as the history of all comics, then you’ll love it. It’s absurd to try to describe the history of a medium in a few pages, with a handful of representative examples. Would they have taken the same tack with, say, the history of literature, or the history of art?
Nadel (who was mentioned in glowing terms in the essay "Disreputable Sources" by Fabrice Stroun in the special section) replied:
Yep, that issue is an epic disaster. I was fascinated by how aesthetically conservative it is and how blinkered in its scope. That issue could have been published in 1990 or 2000 and not changed much at all. Ah well. It’s not as though the recent book length overviews of the medium are much better.
Rudick and Nadel are two of the most important public intellectuals about comics, so their disapproval really suggests that Artforum really dropped the ball. I am more in agreement with Rudick than Nadel, but Nadel has a point about the out-of-datedness of the section. The Spiegelman-centric feel of the section speaks to Nadel's complaint. Spiegelman is obviously one of the most important artists and editors in the world of comics-as-art, but his signal achievements, Maus and RAW, were done decades ago.


Art Spiegelman, "High Art Lowdown," originally published in Artforum in 1990, reprinted in the Summer 2014 issue

I was astonished and disappointed to see Artforum reprint a strip he drew for them in 1990 criticizing MOMA's High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture. Talk about beating a dead horse. The point is that comics being produced right now are contemporary art no less than the artists whose exhibits are reviewed in the back section of the magazine. If Artforum treated these comics as contemporary art and covered them regularly (as they do with film), they wouldn't end up attempting (and failing) to cram the entire art history of comics into a few pages every few years, as they have done here.


Erró posing in front of Tank, which is mostly an image by Brian Bolland reproduced without credit

And speaking of art versus comics, score one for comics in a battle between Brian Bolland and Erró. Erró is an artist who employs appropriation and collage in his work. The work strikes me as amusing at first glance, but a little goes a long way. For one piece, Tank, he took a "Tank Girl" painting by Brian Bolland and combined it with what looks like some Red Chinese propaganda art. OK, Bolland is hardly the first artist to have his work appropriated. But he was annoyed to find that a signed poster of Erró's appropriation was selling for 600 Euros at the Pompidou Center gift store. He wrote an open letter that is worth reading in whole (it has been reproduced on the comics site Bleeding Cool), but here are a few choice excerpts:
You consider yourself “a kind of columnist or reporter”. Reporters quote their sources all the time in order to get at a greater understanding of events. Their reports, like your work, are made up almost entirely of quotes. The difference between reporters and you, Erró, is that they name the source of their quotes and an honest reporter would be careful not to misrepresent his sources or take their quotes out of context.
[...]
You compare yourself to Rubens? he was surrounded by “an incredible number of assistants”? Well I’m delighted that you consider me to be one of your assistants, albeit one of your unnamed, unpaid and unwitting assistants. I have a feeling Rubens’ assistants would have known they were his assistants and consented to be his assistants and he would have paid them
What this is is a kind of colonialism. You, Erró, have found a place for yourself in the land of the Fine Art Elite, in “Gallery-land”, and you have gone out and discovered a dark continent inhabited by pygmies – barely more than savages really – people with a colourful but primitive culture. Like the Victorian explorers you find what they do ghastly but somehow alluring so you steal from them, give them nothing in return and dismiss them.
So what happened?  Erró's agent wrote back the following:
Sir
Following your email, we have decided to no longer sell this edition “Tank”. We have made 20 copies, we sold three copies, we have given 5 copies to Mr. ERRO.
We’ll give him the 12 remaining copies.

Brain Bolland's original Tank Girl painting, which was used for the cover of Tank Girl: The Odyssey #1 in 1995

In 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis said that the difference between fine artists and commercial artists is that fine artists are essentially bourgeois while commercial artists were working class. This has nothing to do with their respective incomes or wealth, but with their autonomy as creative people. If you agree with Davis's formulation, then score one for the working class!

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Art History of Comics

Robert Boyd


Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present

When I was an undergraduate, Thomas McEvilley taught a film class which he memorably described as the "art history of film history." This was his way of letting us know that we would be studying films that were not necessarily the most popular but which had artistic significance. It seems like a simple enough idea (even though it's also a path strewn with esthetic landmines). My interest in comics is similar. And finding books that treat the history of comics as a species of art history is difficult. The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics comes close, but its text is pretty skimpy. (Not that I'm complaining--I rate this book as the single best volume of comics ever published.)

If I were a professor teaching the art history of comics, what would I use as my Janson's History of Art or Gardner's Art through the Ages (two art history survey texts that were popular when I was an undergrad)? Two candidates have been recently published. The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay by Thierry Smolderen (translated by Bart Beatty and Nick Nguyen) covers the very early history of comics, while Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner, deals with the recent history of comics.


The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay

American comics fans understand that there are comics all over the world, but have little knowledge of the histories of those comics. In terms of comics history (much less the art history of comics history), nothing could be more limited and useless than the American fannish' schema that divides all comics worth discussing into "ages": "golden age," "silver age," "bronze age" and so on. This history narrows comics history to American superheroes published since the first appearance of Superman. While this is obviously limited--by time (ignoring comics' long history before Superman), by region (ignoring all non-American comics), by genre (it ignores anything that isn't a superhero), by delivery system (it ignores almost anything that didn't originate as a comic book) and by style (it ignores almost anything created outside the ultra-constrained "house styles" of the large corporate superhero comics publishers)--it is nonetheless ubiquitous in much fan-oriented discussion of comics history in the U.S.

While it is too much to hope that these two books break through the parochialism of the average American comics fan, one could hope that these books might be adapted for classroom use by those teaching comics history, where they could do some good. I remember being astonished by the films I saw in McEvilley's class as a neophyte film buff--and enthralled by A Short History of the Movies by Gerald Mast (1981), the text for the class. I read and reread that book until it fell apart. If Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present or The Origins of Comics had a similar effect on some current undergraduate, the authors would have reason to be proud.

The two books are quite different in tone, but their similarities are what make them plausible candidates for classroom adoption. Each is well-designed, featuring substantial numbers of illustrations--specifically reproductions of entire pages of work. Both books recognize that showing sequences--such a basic feature of comics-- is necessary. Isolated panels or images are not enough. In addition to reproducing full pages of comics, the books reproduce much of their work in color. They are handsome volumes whose arguments are greatly aided by the design decisions.

In looking at these books, I don't want to approach them purely as works of critical art history, even though they are certainly that (The Origins more than Global History). I want to also look at them from the point of view of Janson or Gardner or Mast--books that introduce a reader to a broad swathe of art history. I want to consider them as the kind of books that might get assigned in an art history of comics university class. How effective would they be if used for this purpose?

The Origins of Comics is less a general art history than a thesis about the development of early comics. This means that while it might be a good text for a more specialized class or an excellent book to refer to for a research paper, it would not necessarily be a good book for a comics history survey class. This is not really a criticism. The Origins actually functions very well on two levels. First, it makes a case for situating the origin of comics with William Hogarth, but more important than that, it places the early development of comics within the context of other contemporary arts (the novel, photography, pantomime) and theory (Lessing's "Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry," for example).

The other level on which The Origins succeeds is as an illustrated book. I would go so far as to say that even if one didn't read the text and only looked at the illustrations and their captions, one would get the gist of the book--that comics are a thing that have been around for at least a couple of hundred years. It would be hard for even the most curmudgeonly American super-patriot to argue in favor of an American origin for comics after flipping through this book. Not that Smolderen is the first to make this observation. David Kunzle's amazing (and sadly out of print) The History of the Comic Strip,The Nineteenth Century (1990) demonstrated the pre-Yellow Kid origins of comics beyond the shadow of a doubt (and Smolderen depends on Kunzle's scholarship to help him build his case). The only reason I mention this is because even today, there are still many who cling to the idea that comics were born in American newspapers in 1897.

But the title, The Origins of Comics, might lead one to believe that Smolderen is primarily making a case for William Hogarth (1697-1764), the artist who created the novelistic print series A Harlot's Progress, A Rake's Progress, Marriage ala Mode and others, as the father of comics. And Smolderen does make this case, but that is only a small part of the book.


William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress, plate 4, 1735

Smolderen identifies Hogarth's narratives in prints as the starting point of comics not just because they are sequential visual narratives--after all, there are many of them in the history of visual art. Hogarth wasn't even the first to present a narrative in etchings (i.e., in an early mass medium). But Smolderen identifies in Hogarth a quality that will continue to be a part of comics--Hogarth's work is "polygraphic":
Hogarth's prints addressed a culture already saturated with a seemingly infinite variety of graphic systems of representation: his satire pushed the humoristic tradition towards the domain that I propose to call polygraphic humor. [...] To decipher Hogarth's images, the reader had to navigate a multilayered visual text saturated with allusions to conflicting systems of representation (ranging from the highly rhetorical language of history painting to the rebellious insolence of graffiti drawings). It was a game of stylistic collisions, ironic contrasts, and hybridization, and it gave Hogarth a powerful visual tool for making sense of the modern metropolis. (p. 9)
The task of the rest of the book is to demonstrate that this vaguely defined polygraphic quality carries on after Hogarth through the 19th century and is a quality that we can associate with comics in general. After discussing Hogarth and his work, Smolderen moves on to Rodolphe Töppfer (1799-1846), the Swiss artist that many consider the true father of comics. Töppfer's early comics are fairly well-known--they were widely translated and published in the 19th century and you can even get a current edition of his complete works in English. Smolderen places this work within the world of theater (Topffer was an avid amateur actor). Smolderen relates Töppfer's use of sequential gestures in his picture novels to the theories of acting and pantomime that were common at the time. For a visual artist like Töppfer, various theories of theater--among others, Smolderen specifically references Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Laocoon, which theorized in favor of a poetry of progressive actions as opposed to descriptive poetry--spoke to a way out of detailed, realistic academic images and into sequential storytelling with images.


Rodolphe Töppfer, (top) from Histoire de M. Crépin, 1837 and (bottom) from Histoire de M. Jabot, 1833. These series of gestures are similar to the rhetorical gestures employed by actors and illustrated in contemporary instructional texts for dramatists and actors.

Smolderen seems to have read every scrap written by Töppfer--essays, novel, letters--and synthesized a theory of comics from it. Töppfer was by no means as rigid as Lessing, and his work was "polygraphic"--it constantly undermined its subjects, as befits satirical work, but also undermined its own storytelling conventions. We're used to seeing this in modern comics, where there are long-established conventions that are quite easy to toy with. Töppfer on the other hand barely gave his readers a moment to understand his newly created manner of storytelling before he undermined it.

Töppfer's innovations were eagerly imitated in Europe and the United States by such artists as Gustave Doré (1832-1883), George Cruikshank (1792-1878) and Cham (Amédée de Noé, 1818-1879), who redrew some of Töppfer's books for publication in magazines. To modern readers, many of these subsequent comics will seem like backwards steps away from our modern conception of comics compared to Töppfer's original picture books.
This paradox requires explanation: Töppfer's albums, at least when read superficially, correspond more closely to the concept of comics we hold today than do their immediate successors. This is mainly a  distortion caused by hindsight. The landscape of humorous images of the 19th century has lost many of its dimensions for us. A century of symbiosis between comics and the cinema separates us from this era, a period during which the audiovisual steamroller has radically simplified the model of progressive action by shifting it from the rhetorical domain to the cutting room. To look at the novels in prints of the era, including those of Töppfer, exclusively from the point of view of narrative sequence drastically blunts the complexities of a culture penetrated by many other dimensions of the readable image. (pp. 65-66)
This effect will be familiar to students of art history--when we see still-life paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, we are impressed by their charm and the artistic skill on display, but their complex layers of visual symbolism usually require expert explanation. Ironically, some contemporary cartoonists whose high level of invention makes their work challenging to readers--Gary Panter and Chris Ware, for example--have deliberately abandoned the mechanical "cinematic" progression that has typified comics for just over a hundred years. Their work occasionally has an odd "19th century" feel to it.


A. B. Frost, from Stuff and Nonsense, 1884. Frost makes fun of an old-style painter who refuses to incorporate the new knowledge of horse movement, discovered photographically by Muybridge.

Subsequent chapters take the development of comics throughout the 19th century for granted. Now the question is not "Is this a comic?" but rather  "How are comics evolving?" New technologies, as mentioned above, affect this development. Photography not only changes the physical production (photoengraving removes the need for laborious wood engraving and allows drawn artwork to be reproduced directly) but also the content. One chapter deals with cartoonist A.B. Frost (1851-1928), a student of Thomas Eakens, who was influenced by the motion-capturing photographic experiments of Eakens and Eadweard Muybridge. Another chapter deals with the relatively late importation of the word-balloon from satirical and political drawings (such as those by Thomas Rowlandson) into picture stories. Each of these developments evolves the 19th century comic a little more towards the art form we are familiar with.


A.B. Frost, from Harper's New Monthly, January 1880

The Origin of Comics is an excellent work of scholarship, but because of this it might not be a very good introductory text for classroom use. It presents original research and proposes novel theories--neither of which are what you really want in a survey textbook. This is not to say that students of the comics form shouldn't read this book--on the contrary, it is, as far as I know, the only book currently in print that deals with the broad, international landscape of 19th century comics. It's an erudite, eye-opening study, translated into clear, readable English.

A better candidate for a survey of the art history of comics is Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present. The starting year for Global History seems a bit arbitrary. It opens with American underground comics which exploded onto the scene in 1968, and they reflect the seismic upheavals occurring all over the world in that fateful year. But while American undergrounds are a decisive break with tradition, such breakages happened even earlier in France and Japan.
In 1964, [Sanpei] Shirato and editor Katsuichi Nahai launched the independent monthly Garo, which published work by maverick older artists (its flagship series was founder Sanpei Shirato's politically charged period drama Kamui-Den) but also welcomed new talent and experimental styles. Garo represented the first true, concerted movement toward comics as a medium of personal expression and creative freedom anywhere in the world. (pp. 15, 16)
Given this, one wonders why Mazur and Danner didn't pick 1964 as the starting year. Or they could have picked 1962, the year that saw the publication of Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella. Choosing 1968 suggests an America-centric focus, which fortunately is not carried through the remainder of the book. Nonetheless, by picking the 60s as the starting decade, Global History is focusing on the era of comics-as-art, an era of "personal expression and creative freedom." This is not to suggest that personal expression and creative freedom are necessary for creating artistically excellent comics--this is obviously not true. Look at the work of Frank King, Harry J. Tuthill, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, etc. Conversely, most comics created under conditions of total artistic freedom are undistinguished. The revolution that started with Garo and the undergrounds didn't necessarily make comics better, but it did broaden our conception if what comics could be.

Global History is in effect two things combined--an annotated list of great comics and a history of comics. It's hard to pull this off. There have been numerous examples of the former (I helped write one such list for The Comics Journal in 1999. Other examples include 500 Essential Graphic Novels by Gene Kannenberg and 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die by Paul Gravett). As for histories of comics, they're too numerous to mention. But they differ from Global History in concentrating on personalities, business history and the culture of the comics world(s). Global History can't help but touch on some of that, but its focus is on the works within the context of history.


Comics, A Global History p. 239. The page design emphasizes multipanel sequences and breakdowns.

Global History tells three parallel stories: English-language North American comics (primarily from the U.S.A.), Japanese comics, and French-language comics (primarily from France). Work in other languages and from other countries is touched on--comics from Spain, Italy, the UK, Belgium, Germany, Argentina and Korea get decent treatment.  But many other national and linguistic traditions of comics are passed over, which will disappoint fans of Mexican or Australian comics, for example. There are by necessity other omissions and slights, as well as inclusions that may seem inexplicable. To list them would simply reveal my biases, though. Suffice it to say that as the volume gets closer to the present day, the choice of what comics to discuss gets more problematic. History hasn't had time to form a consensus yet for many of these comics--this is one pitfall of writing an art history survey that effectively goes up to the day the authors turned their manuscript in to their publisher.


Yoshiharu Tsuge, page from Akai Hana (Red Flowers), 1967

Each geographic/linguistic area is broken down further into "mainstream" and "alternative." This feels a little jarring, but Mast also dealt with this dichotomy in film. While the 60s saw the birth of a comics culture that put artistic and expressive considerations first, most comics were still primarily commercial propositions. This means that an unfortunate amount of space is devoted to the market for comics in each country and the business of comics. One might wish that these things were irrelevant to the art history of comics, but that is not the case.


Lapin, the square-bound anthology magazine of L'Association, deliberately set itself apart from the glossy French comics magazines of the 70s and 80s. Releasing black-and-white minicomics, such as the ones on the right, aligned L'Association more with the American small-press moviement than with the mainstream French publishing industry.

For example, Global History describes how France in the 70s saw the founding of L'Écho des Savanes (1972), Metal Hurlant (1975) and (À Suivre) (1978), artist-driven (and in some cases, artist-run) publications, and Futuropolos (1972), an artist-driven comics publishing house. Each offered considerable freedom to their creators and were venues that hosted comics of real artistic merit by such cartoonists as Moebius, José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, and Jacques Tardi. But these magazines over the course of the 80s found themselves struggling and the comics art in them stagnating. Many ended up purchased by corporate publishing entities, under whom quality deteriorated even further until finally the plug was pulled. Even Futuropolis was sold to publishing giant Gallimard before being retired as an imprint in 1994. The French comics industry had by that time become increasingly conservative, putting out hardcover albums by known quantities and sure sellers. This is spelled out in chapters 8 and 9, but the story picks up again in chapter 16, where we see the birth of L'Association, another artist-run publishing house founded more-or-less as a spin-off from Futuropolis in 1990. If the big corporate publishers were intent on strangling creativity in favor of proven commercial properties, artists would have to seize the means of production themselves. In a sense, we see this story over and over again in various countries at various times. This may feel to a casual reader a bit extraneous to the primary subject of Global History, but this cycle is a key feature of the history of art in capitalist countries, and therefore deserves to be discussed in an art history text.


Late Osamu Tezuka: left, Ayaka, 1972 and right, Burakku Jakku (Black Jack), 1972

But the discussion of this is in passing. The authors dwell more on particular artists and writers and particular works. No artist is discussed at length--the format of the book doesn't permit it. But some artists and works are mentioned very briefly, primarily as exemples of a certain tendency or movement, while others are given more space to explain their relative importance: Robert Crumb,  Yoshiharu Tsuge, Hugo Pratt, Alberto Breccia, Jacques Tardi, Alan Moore, and so forth. Occasionally, space is given to artists who are important in their own country's tradition, but are little known outside of it--for instance, the work of shōjo manga artist, Yumiko Ōshima, and the feminist comics of Chantal Montellier. Only one artist gets his own chapter, Osamu Tezuka. It's a brief chapter dealing with Tezuka's often quite pessimistic work for seinan (young men's) manga in the 1970s (for example, Ode to Kirihito). One of the problems with Global History is made obvious in this chapter--many comics artists have long careers, and the time period for this volume means cutting those careers in half. Tezuka's late work is well-respected and Tezuka, like Leoš Janáček or Philip Guston, is notable for drastically changing direction at an age when most artists are very much settled in their ways. But to discuss Tezuka without discussing his early work is a bit strange but necessary given the structure of the book.

Most knowledgeable comics readers would, if tasked with writing a book like Global History, would come up with books that have different emphases and vastly different details. That is the inherent problem of books of this sort, but it's far from fatal. These books are designed to lead a relative novice in--her future path (for scholarship or deeper reading) might be encouraged by a single paragraph here or illustration there. Global History is not meant to be the last word on its subject--it is, on the contrary, the first word. It will be, I hope, the starting point for young scholars and enthusiasts in the same way that Gardner, Janson and Mast have been.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Pan's Philosphy

Robert Boyd



I'm reading The Essential New Art Examiner, an anthology of writing from the great Chicago-based art magazine, and a passage by Derek Guthrie, one of the co-founders with Jane Allen, resonated for me. Allen and Guthrie had been critics at the Chicago Tribune when they were suddenly fired, apparently for writing an article about the Illinois Arts Council that made the wrong people mad. He blamed the Chicago "collector/dealer/trustee" cabal. He writes:
This was a disaster for us and made clear that we had no professional future in Chicago. Jane was not prepared to be shut out of her home town and said in simple, practical terms, "If we want to be art writers we are going to have to be oir own publisher." A fearsome prospect. But Jane drew strength from the fighting spirit and wisdom of her great aunt, Jane Addams of Hull House, who said, "There is no point in going elsewhere to find greeener pastures; what you have to do is look after your own backyard, and if you do it well, eventually others will notice." (Emphasis added.)
A good philosophy for a regional blog like The Great God Pan Is Dead, no?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Beyond Physical: Sharon Kopriva Speaks

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

She spoke of visiting the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, and it was fun to imagine Sharon Kopriva examining the artistic possibilities of centuries-old Sicilian corpses. In the same breath she said it wasn’t until she went to Palermo that she understood her grandfather’s garden. He planted orange trees, and fennel, and other plants she discovered to be in abundance there in the city of his birth.


Sharon Kopriva, Riding the Pices Moon, 2013, Mixed media on photographic print, 42 x 49 (Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery)

It was unnecessary for Art in America to call our attention to forest imagery in Kopriva’s art. For years it’s been evident that nature is on an equal footing with the longstanding themes of death and Catholic religious mythology. Arguably, forest landscape intermingled with gothic cathedral architecture has precisely the same connotations as sculptural mummified religious figures. They serve as referents to actuality that is inexplicable and transcendent. On a recent studio visit I learned the following:

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: After a number of years of incorporating nature into your work, the landscapes should now be thought of as established orthodoxy. Self-portraiture on the other hand, numerous examples of which appear in your solo exhibition Illuminations (at Deborah Colton Gallery through June 26), is relatively new. It’s my assessment that depictions of your flying nude body in paintings such as Time Traveling and Riding the Pisces Moon, similarly to those of dogs that fly through forests and gothic cathedrals, originate from something buried in your psyche. This will probably piss a few people off, but have you ever floated out of your body?

Sharon Kopriva: Only one other person has ever asked me that - Walter Hopps.

VBA: The late Walter Hopps organized your solo exhibition at the Menil Collection in the year 2000.

SK: I floated through the walls. My out of body experience took place almost twenty years ago when I was in the hospital. I realize now that if I had not been there in the hospital I probably would not be here today. The thing I remember most as I look back was an incredible freedom, and I recall having absolutely no fear. It is the only time I remember flying THROUGH anything, and it was different than any dream I have ever had. It was very real. I do remember hearing my name called, and called again, and I came back to a doctor who looked more anxious than I was.

VBA: My father did that when he was a kid. He slipped through an inner tube, and found himself up in the sky looking at his body on the pier, and he told me he saw the older kids who were supposed to be watching him crying and screaming. Then he was back in his body vomiting water and crying. Surely Hopps recognized this in your art.

SK: That conversation with Walter was a very brief but memorable moment when he asked me if I had ever “traveled.” Walter was special, on the edge of many things. He sometimes called in the middle of the night. For him time was eternal.

VBA: Even if you hadn’t admitted to floating around the hospital, openness to extra-dimensional reality is easily detected in the sculptural dead, decaying and mummified figures, and paintings of ghosts and phantom dogs. Have you experienced other things not of this world?

SK: Pop, the man who raised Gus, appeared to me after he died. I saw him clearly. He had something important to tell me. It was very personal, advice I followed. I think we all have these opportunities to communicate. Most of the time, we do not allow them to happen. Your questions have allowed me to think about the few times in my life when I reached beyond the physical. They are being revisited in my memory.


Sharon Kopriva, From Dust Thou Art, 1997, Papier-mâché and mixed media, 54 x 23 x 39 (Collection of Nancy Reddin Kienholz)

VBA: It’s well known that travels in Peru shaped the rotting-mummy aesthetic in your art. I traveled that entire country with my archaeology group, so I recognize how closely derived your sculptures are from their Peruvian mummy sources. It was unexpected to see the open pits at Nazca, and mummies with hair preserved and textile wrappings remarkably un-faded, the colors of which by the way account for the ocher, reds, and earth tones in your art. Archaeological interest though was not my sole reason for going to Peru. As you know, Peru is considered the most significant area on the planet for extra terrestrial sightings, and I figured if that is real and it probably is, then it’s the most important thing anyone could talk about, so I went there to talk to Peruvians about their experiences, and heard some marvelous stories. Be assured Robert Boyd will receive a few complaints about silly ass interview questions, but have you had any extra terrestrial encounters?

SK: My experiences in Peru were totally wonderful, but unfortunately remained earthbound. I have not abandoned the possibility of experiences at a later date. I did see the Nazca lines which some believe are the work of extra terrestrials.

VBA: I was certain I would die seeing those lines, kept waiting for the plane’s single propeller to malfunction.

SK: And the planes make those scary loops and turns. I would love to talk more about Peru with you, and although I have not seen extra terrestrials, I believe I experienced an earlier life, which might have been in Peru. We saw the mummies when we first went there in 1982, an elderly guide took us to the burials, and we saw bones, bleached by the sun, thrown everywhere. There were whole limbs, hair, sculls, and of course, missing was the pottery the thieves took, and the wonderful woven cloths. On our next trip almost 25 years later, that spot was "cleaned up," there were still a few bones off in the distance, but the site was suddenly organized. There is a picture of it in my New Orleans Ogden Museum exhibition catalog.

VBA: Masterful is the only word to express the manner in which you capture knotty leg joints and muscles in three-dimensional renderings of your Peruvian hounds Luna, Pluto and Thor. I once saw a superb bronze of Thor with the figure twisted as if about to chase its tail, which reached to Degas’ level of observation and nuance. But the way you distorted your dogs’ images in the Seven Deadly Sins installation at Project Row Houses in 2011 was shameful. Spread through the row house were dog sculptures meant to represent the seven human transgressions. In the rear of the house was Gluttony asleep on the floor, in the form of an obese stingray, surrounded by Frito bags, Big Mac containers and dog shit. You disgraced those animals.

SK: One day I’ll do another sculpture series of the dogs, probably in bronze. Gus and I are forever watching our dogs spin around and interact with each other. Long ago we decided they have all the same qualities as humans when dealing with each other. So when I was invited to do an installation at Row Houses, it was Gus who actually suggested I use my sculptured dogs as actors to demonstrate the sins. What fun. I managed to reserve the only house still divided into rooms, and off we went. Humor is good. I have so often seen my dogs demonstrate envy and greed, of course gluttony and lust. And I have seen anger and vanity.


Sharon Kopriva, Insomniacs Nightmare, 2010-11, Oil and mixed media on canvas, 68 x 40 (Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery)

VBA: The thought of you arranging doggie excrement in the row house brings to mind Kienholz with whom you studied after graduate school. As an art history student I was haunted by my first encounter with Kienholz’s The State Hospital, which must have required meticulous manipulation of materials to construct the diseased and decaying figures, as well as unpleasant installation of bloody, urine-stained mattresses. When you handle, complexly, animal bones, clay, cloth, and papier-mâché or arrange sculptural tableau such as in The Confessional are you conscious of Ed Kienholz’s influence?

SK: I am very aware of the Kienholz’s influence. I also knew Ed Kienholz through art history books long before I met him and Nancy. It was Ed who inspired me to move into the more complex installations and multi figure pieces, he continually pushed me to explore new territory. The Confessional was one of my first multi figure works, and perhaps my most important piece to date. I’m grateful to both Ed and Nancy for moving me to a new level. How lucky to not only get to meet my heroes but to become so close.

VBA: Perhaps even more influential than Kienholz was your sculpture teacher James Surls, whom I had the opportunity to meet in 2010 when I wrote a newspaper article about one of his exhibitions. Let me remind you of 2005 when Gus Kopriva organized the group exhibition Still Crazy After All These Years to celebrate Lawndale Art Center’s 25th anniversary, and to evoke the dissipated art student environment of the University of Houston Lawndale studio. As much as the event honored the U of H Lawndale and the subsequent Lawndale Art Center, it was a tribute to James Surls who set everything in motion. I came across an Art in America article from the late eighties in which Surls was quoted as saying he “exploited” his students by arranging exhibitions so they could interact with collectors and curators to experience how “real” artists conducted themselves. In my estimation Prey for Us, your sculpture of an altar boy figure over which a shadow image of a predatory cleric was projected, was a focal point of the show.

SK: Wow, Still Crazy! You aren’t leaving any stones unturned. That was a great show. I saw that exhibition as a chance to re-live history. As you know, the old Lawndale was a separate animal from Lawndale Art Center, it was part of the university and directly involved the students. James Surl's soul was all over it. I was there in 1979 when we put the first coats of white paint over the yellow walls of that old cable factory. Even after Surls moved on, his spirit stayed. The new Lawndale is a wonderful alternative exhibition space, vital to this city, and now has a history of its own. Lawndale and the MFA exhibition Fresh Paint were responsible for kicking off the careers of many young artists in Houston.

VBA: I recently saw some of your wall-mounted relief works at the Spring Street Studios exhibition and witnessed how their mysterious quality silenced a few viewers. You achieved the meditative intensity required to re-direct thoughts to life, death and the nature of reality, which for you obviously stretches beyond the physical.

SK: The four small works at Spring Street were done originally for an exhibit in India. I think we all have the capacity to think or be "beyond physical." I also feel most of us do this intuitively rather than consciously. And I think that many things come forth through art that may not have through the spoken word. Images do come that are sometimes totally conscious and sometimes not. I’m especially interested in art that is beyond real, surreal and most often spiritually motivated. I love the art historical trail through romanticism and symbolism, and believe many of the artists were reaching into metaphysical states in their visions, in search of the spiritual and the sublime.

VBA: You are speaking about the 2011 Mumbai gallery exhibition Phantoms and Milestones in which the ghost dogs appeared with depictions of historically significant events related to struggles for liberty. I’ve not yet been to India, but I’m drawn to the Hindu notion of an energy or force that connects all living and inanimate things, and one day hope to see Banaras where Hindus go to prepare for passage to the unknown reality beyond the borders of life, and pray to escape rebirth. Sharon, you already mentioned a possible past life in Peru and in a 1996 interview you stated “everything cycles.” Explain more about how reincarnation fits into your philosophy.

SK: Cycles of life interest me probably more than any other condition of our existence. I think all of my art is related to cycles in one way or another. Long before India I saw the cycles clearly in Peru. The mummy forms in my sculptures come out of the cycles there. In Australia, I also saw evidence of transformation and cycles in the aboriginal life and art, as I did in India. I do not know if all people reincarnate, but I believe some might. I do not know if I will, but I believe I could. There might be complicated reasons about why and how, but I do believe it happens. Matter is not created or destroyed, it is transformed and recycled. But that's the physical part. There are places where I have stepped where I feel I have been before, particularly in Peru. That's the spiritual part. In Australia, beings are believed to move in and out of inanimate objects. I find that fascinating. A rock may possess the spirit that will become a person and a person's spirit may yet become one with a rock or a tree or an animal. I didn’t have much time to spend in India but hope to return and experience more of that land and culture and learn more about how it fits into the "whole" picture. I do not believe the spiritual part of a person disappears. Some think we just cease to exist, some we either go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. I think we might not all do the same thing. I believe the souls of some float around earth, some because they cannot figure out where to go, some because they choose to or have unfinished business. I believe some might take on a new form and cycle again.


Sharon Kopriva, Joan of Arc, 1988, Papier-mâché, burned wood, mixed media, 72 x 36 x 28 (Menil permanent collection)

VBA: The years haven’t dimmed my memory of your Menil show. Why did the sculpture Joan of Arc unsettle me?

SK: The Joan of Arc sculpture is one of three of my works that entered the Menil Collection. I think Walter and Mrs. de Menil chose this work together to be donated by Edward and Nancy Kienholz. Mrs. de Menil was especially moved by the female martyrs. She personally chose Catherine's Wheel to have a permanent home at the museum. And I think of the series of martyrs whose legends found their way into my studio in the mid to late 80's, Joan was my favorite, and she is most people's favorite. It's her story, her role as an early, strong feminist that moves us. She was caught up in politics, first a hero, then proclaimed a heretic and burned at the stake in her teens, thanks to the Catholic Church, then 400 yeas later, proclaimed a Saint. Surely she had out of body experiences, had to be in a trance when she led the army into battle and when she was ablaze. In fact, don't you think all of our martyrs experienced religious induced trances? I think Joan's story is so compelling because she is in regular history books. That puts a mark of “TRUE Reality" on her that I do not believe others have. As part of the process of making Joan I actually set her on fire. A faint smell of that burn remains. Martyrs have always held a special place for me. As a child, I wondered and hoped if put to the test, I could risk my own life for a cause. I have seen real martyrs in my life, like those who acted to help others without thinking of their own safety, silently without needing glory, such as those in 9/11.

VBA: Not martyred, but known for bizarre self-mortifying, was Rose of Lima, on whom you based an important sculpture. It seems her head is in the Basilica in Lima, “uncorrupted” like the head of Catherine in Siena, which I saw a few years ago. Rose wanted to suffer at the saintly intensity of Catherine, so she wore a spiked crown on her head to endure a crown of thorns, and was dead not surprisingly by 31, after which the required miracles made her the first saint to be canonized in the Americas. Did you see Rose in Lima?

SK: Of course, Rose of Lima is so loved in Peru. Yes, I visited the beautiful Church which houses her relic. I have visited it twice. The people are very proud of their special saint. The Cathedral was filled with worshipers the times we went. Rose was a beautiful woman who worked hard to destroy her beauty. You mentioned Catherine, and there are many saints whose bodies are believed not to have decomposed, I have a book, I think it is The Incorruptibles. My Saint Rose of Lima sculpture is in the collection of the museum in Lima. Love that city!


Sharon Kopriva, Saint Rose of Lima, 2006, Papier-mâché, mixed media, approximately 50 x 30 (Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery)

VBA: Those shoes! You’re never more perverse then when devising shoes for the religious figures. When I was a kid in Catholic school, the nuns wore black leather lace-up shoes beneath their floor length habits, which to me looked ridiculous. And the priests’ heavy leather shoes seemed ill-suited to their long robes. Comment on the shoes.

SK: It is getting harder to find those nun shoes. All the kids are now in sneakers. The priests’ etc., are a bit easier to find. Once Gus left a pair of damp shoes outside the door to dry out and when he came home they were on a bishop. (I thought he was throwing them away) They looked great on my sculpture and Gus got a new pair of shoes. I have actually spent a great deal of time working on and making correct clothing, rings, shoes and even the belt buckles on my Catholic figures. I have a very good friend who is an ex-nun and enjoys helping me research these details. It is important that they be correct, and I love the research.

VBA: We know from statements you’ve made that the religious sculptures are not a condemnation of the church’s canon as dead or stuck in the past, as has been critically asserted, and that to interpret the art as a denouncement of the church and your Catholic upbringing is overly simplistic. You did say the figures are frozen in time performing rituals that you witnessed when younger, and that in each piece you are searching to try to understand yourself. Essentially, the mummy sculptures, akin to your fantasy landscapes, invite us to contemplate the ultimate enigma, where do we come from and where are we going, simply put, they encode our spiritual search. In that bodily putrefaction, recycling, consciousness, and the eternal imagination are part of the universe’s energy, the artworks facilitate deeper levels of awareness.

SK: Yes, the figures are frozen in time. I liken them to the bodies of saints that refuse to decompose. Years ago the Church sucked us in with ritual and fear, bells rang and we beat our chests and felt holy. All of that fear and ritualistic participation are in my religious figures. They are frozen in time performing their acts of religion. They similarly denote the death and ritual close to the surface in primitive societies. The art signifies my search for self knowledge, an attempt to reach a higher state. My forests as cathedrals, with tree branches superimposed over church architecture, reflect broadening of my religion, an expansion of my spirituality.


Sharon Kopriva, Cathedral Green, 2012, Oil and mixed media on photo canvas, 81 x 186 x 2.5 (Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery)

VBA: In 2012 the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans mounted From Terra to Verde: The Art of Sharon Kopriva, a survey of works created between 1982 and 2012. At the time curator Bradley Sumrall wrote that the exhibition reveals “the breadth and unity of her career.” Was it fine to look back on thirty years of artistic expression?

SK: It was so wonderful to look back at thirty years, all in one spot, one clean, lit spot. Bradley did such a wonderful job in preparing the exhibition, he worked on it for a full year, even traveled to my home in Idaho where we hiked my favorite trail and he really "got" the place and understood how it became such an important influence on me in the last ten years. Back to the question: I was looking at the path my life and art had traveled through thirty years and decided to arrange the show to begin in the early 80's underground in beautiful, spiritual Peru, move through my examination of my life and religion, and end with nature imagery represented by paintings such as Cathedral Green. It clarified where I am and where I had been, and the lovely closure was that it mentally created space for whatever comes next, in my own time. There were works in that exhibit that I had not seen in many years and reunited with. I guess we should call it the family reunion, when all the kids come home. Virginia, some might find it surprising that I publicly discussed those personal out of body experiences, but what the heck! Those experiences are part of my life and my art.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Slow Posting

Robert Boyd

A quick apology to readers for the slow posting. I'm in the process of moving, and it is sucking away every spare moment I have.



I have a few posts in the pipeline, but if you're really jonesing, here is a choice John Waters quote from the book Art: A Sex Book.
You have to participate in the art world. You have to learn to see art, but that's what's so exciting. After going around to look at what's in galleries all day long, when you walk home--it doesn't last for more than a couple of hours--but every single thing you see reminds you of art: the trash, the signs, the bus stop. It fades a little as time goes by so you have to return to the galleries to get the 'art' back into your life.



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