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 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.

Friday, April 1, 2016

RIP Jed Foronda

Robert Boyd

One of Houston's most interesting young artists just passed away. Jed Foronda was only 30 years old. I first saw his work in 2009, right about the time I started this blog. He had two pieces in the Big Show that year at Lawndale. I really liked his work in the show which was made of "excavated magazines" and wood. Here's one of them:

Jed Foronda, The Wheels Keep On Spinning, primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009

Now in 2009, I was just starting to look at local art seriously. I decided I really liked The Wheels Keep On Spinning so I called up Lawndale and asked if they would pass on a message to Foronda that I was interested in buying it.

When Foronda contacted me, he seemed slightly suspicious. It was as if he didn't really believe I was serious, like maybe I was a scammer of some kind. So he asked me to bring $300 to a Starbucks near the Galleria on a certain day at a certain time. I met him st the Starbucks, handed him fifteen 20s and he gave me Wheel. I hung it in the front hallway of my Mom's house (and she really likes it).

Here are a couple of details of The Wheels Keep On Spinning:

Jed Foronda, The Wheels Keep On Spinning (detail), primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009

Jed Foronda, The Wheels Keep On Spinning (detail), primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009

Foronda has occasionally made an appearance in this blog--see this post, this post and this one. Thirty is a cruelly young age for anyone to die. I know Foronda was well-loved by many, and my greatest sympathy goes out to his family and friends.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Art's Greatest Whoremonger

Robert Boyd

William N. Copley is the subject of a major retrospective the Menil Museum called William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY curated by Toby Kamps.

In Linda Nochlin's classic essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", she also asked "Why have their been no great artists from the aristocracy?" Obviously the relationship of the aristocracy to art is strong--the aristocracy were the primary patrons of art for a good portion of human history (and in some circles remain so today), but for a variety of reasons, they haven't been the makers of art. And why not? They would be blessed with the time and wealth necessary to support such a career if they chose to pursue it. But she concludes that there are certain social situations--economic, familial, in terms of academic support--that mitigated against this, just as they mitigated against women art practitioners. She points out that there is no inherent reason why an aristocrat can't be a great artist any more than there is that a woman can't be--to claim otherwise would be to say that the spark of genius never occurs in aristocrats or women.

William Copley was an aristocrat in the American sense. He and his brother were adopted by the Copley family and raised to be heirs to this utilities/newspaper fortune. His adoptive father had made a fortune in utilities in Illinois (and served as a U.S. Congressman). Ira Copley and his wife Edith had tried unsuccessfully to have children; three died in infancy before 1910. So they adopted James Copley then William Copley shortly thereafter. The family moved to San Diego when William was about 10 years old where Ira Copley bought San Diego's two leading newspapers, the Tribune and the Union, and merged them into one powerhouse. For readers under 40, it may be hard to imagine just how important newspapers were in the 20th century. I think they were the most important mass medium of the century, more important than film or television or radio. They had real power, and their owners were among the most powerful people in the U.S.A.

Copley was at Yale when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. He was drafted early and served in North Africa and Italy. Ira Copley died shortly after the war and left his two sons equal shares of the Copley Newspaper business. The idea was that both men would run the newspapers, but they had a falling out over politics. William was left-wing while James (like his father) was a staunch Republican. William sued James in the mid-50s to force him to buy him out of his partnership. (James's papers would subsequently be a major force in California Republican politics, and James Copley was one of Richard Nixon's major backers.)

Copley had gotten interested in Surrealism in the late 40s and met Man Ray, who was living in Los Angeles, in 1947. Copley eventually met all the major surrealist artists and built up an extensive personal collection of their work. In this regard, he was fulfilling his socially accepted role as an aristocrat, being a patron of the arts. But in 1947, he started painting. He got encouragement from his surrealist friends.

William N. Copley, Portrait of Marcel, 1951, oil on canvas, 44.8 x 37.1 cm

Copley's 1951 portrait of Marcel Duchamp is highly atypical of his work. Most of his figures have a minimal amount of detail and the faces are often completely blank. Copley's focus on Duchamp's wrinkly face marks this to my mind as a highly personal work. Perhaps Copley wanted to get it right as a tribute to an important mentor. According to Copley, Duchamp encouraged his painting. Copley called Duchamp, "My best friend." On painting, Copley wrote of Duchamp,
He taught me all I needed to know about painting; that painting was a thing to do. ... When I finally had an opportunity to show him what I did, he told me only that I should continue. That was enough to dedicate me to work.
From their meeting in the late 40s until Duchamp's death in 1968, Copley financed many of Duchamp's activities--a monograph and a catalogue raissoné, a new edition of the Box in a Valise, a reconstruction of The Large Glass (by English artist Richard Hamilton), and Copley bought Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage . . .  (which Duchamp showed to him in 1966) for $60,000 ($438,000 in 2016 dollars) on the condition that he give it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duchamp had been working on it in secret since the 1940s.  That work demonstrates a connection between the overt eroticism of much of Copley oeuvre and Duchamp's own eroticism. In fact, Duchamp composed a dirty poem about his friend:
There was a painter named Copley
who would never miss a good lay
and to make his paintings erotic
instead of brushes, he simply used his prick
(Written in 1963). Nude women and prostitutes were eternal subjects for Copley. He liked to paint them naked or in sexy lingerie. He was married 6 times. A work he returned to on two different occasions in his life was a monument to the "unknown whore." (Which he painted first in 1965 and returned to in the mid-80s.)

William N. Copley, Tomb of the Unknown Whore, 1965, Acrylic on canvas, 190 × 285 cm

A review by Richard Flood of a solo show at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Artforum astutely observed, "It's not hard to understand Copley's neglect at the hand of American curators--the work is simply too naughty, a quality not sought after by public trusts . . . Naughty art in America has always been a private affair, something best appreciated over brandy in air redolent of cigar smoke." New Museum founder Marcia Tucker was one of Copley's greatest champions (Copley was included in her important group show, "Bad" Painting, in 1978--a show that signaled the return of figurative painting as a respectable activity). In 1986, she put on an exhibit by Copley called "The Tomb of the Unknown Whore." More of an installation than an exhibit of pictures, visitors were encouraged to leave graffiti (in chalk) on the walls. Perhaps Richard Flood would not have been surprised by some of the comments in the guestbook: "misogyny disguised as art" and "garbage," among others.

It surprises me a little that I haven't heard similar rumblings abut this current show. Copley spent a lifetime objectifying women. His paintings were often ribald and erotic. He grew up in all-male boarding schools, so a painting like Capella Sextina may have represented the ultimate adolescent fantasy for a young man in that environment.

William N. Copley, Capella Sextina, 1961, oil on canvas, 162 x 130 cm

But in one important way, these naked ladies are not particularly erotic. Copley's drawing skills were pretty limited at best. He couldn't really manage a naturalistic drawing. The figures in his work seem more like cartoons--flat colors with solid outlines, simplified figures and not much detail (often faces are completely left off). Curator Dan Nadel included Copley in his exhibit What Nerve!, which was dedicated to a tradition of "alternative figuration" in American art. It might well have been called "cartoon figuration". This has been an undercurrent in American art for at least a hundred years.

William N. Copley, On the Beach (A La Mer), 1962, oil on canvas, 116.2 x 88.9

Why is "cartoon figuration" important, lingering as it does just below art historical notice? I have a theory: it has to do with the ubiquity of comics. Not comic books--they were ubiquitous in the 1940s but fell off dramatically in the 50s and 60s--but comic strips. Above I spoke of the popularity of newspapers in the 20th century. They were a mass medium that reached just about everyone, and one of the most important, popular features of newspapers were comic strips. During Copley's boyhood in the 1920s and 30s, he surely saw comics like Popeye, the Gumps and other comic strips that featured simplified humorous figures. If there is a cartoonist I would reference in relation to Copley, it would be James Thurber. Thurber contributed cartoons to the New Yorker from 1930 through the 50s.

James Thurber, cartoon from the New Yorker, 1936

When I see Copley's somewhat shapeless figures, I see Thurber at the same time. However, this may be a case of "each writer creates his precursors", as Borges wrote in his essay "Kafka and His Precursors." As far as I know, Thurber had no influence whatsoever on Copley. And as we can see in On the Beach (above), Copley uses formal devices derived from comics that Thurber avoided (word balloons, for example).

William N. Copley, Mack n Madge, 1962, oil on canvas, 161.6 x 76.2 cm

Mack n Madge is a remarkable example of cartoon figuration. It is designed like a typical Sunday comics page from the 1930s, where the story takes up an entire page. The word balloons curiously are blank--they serve the purpose of representing the idea that dialogue is happening as we would expect on a comic strip. There is a kind of love triangle--Madge (the always-nude blonde) and Mack are hounded and stalked by the policeman. The figure of Mack, an everyman wearing a suit and bowler hat, shows up over and over in Copley's paintings. He kind of represents an eternal John. The pair are hounded into suicide by the cop (who seems to haunt their graves after death). Perhaps Copley was thinking of Krazy Kat, which had a similar triangle. But in Krazy Kat, Ignatz hates Krazy (and is continually hitting her in the head with a brick) while Mack loves Madge. The flat, simplified colors also suggest a relationship to Sunday comic strips.

William N. Copley, Harem (recto), 1958, oil on canvas, 186.7 x 190.5 cm

This hinged screen, Harem, is the first work you see at the Menil when you walk into the exhibit. Again we have the anonymous bowler hatted man, who may remind one of the similar figure from so many Magritte paintings.  And a room full of naked blonde women engaging in exercise. If this kind of thing offends you, you probably should stay far away from this exhibit. It's works like this that inspired the title of this post. I don't know if Copley was really a whoremonger, but brothels, streetwalkers, prostitutes and sexually available women are some of his favorite subjects for painting.

The catalog for the exhibit is excellent (if quite expensive). Copley was never one for grand art theories, and the essays here are blessedly free of theorizing. Toby Kamps writes a brief biographical essay, Jonathan Griffin writes about Copley as a patron of artists, Paul B. Franklin writes about his long relationship with Duchamp, and Gwen L. Allen (author of one of my favorite books on art, Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art) writes about Copley's quixotic publishing experiment in the 1960s, SMS. SMS were a series of portfolios that included work of artists that interested Copley. For an artist who seemed somewhat impervious to current trends of his time in terms of his own work, SMS was a bit surprising. You wouldn't expect Copley to respond to heavily theorized art like conceptualism or Fluxus. Allen writes,
And yet SMS suggests otherwise: that he was in fact deeply engaged with many of the most advanced artistic practices of the 1960s, including Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Mail Art, Earth Art, and Conceptual Art, as well as avant-garde music, poetry and performance.
SMS by selling relatively inexpensive editions of art was meant to be an alternative to collecting art through galleries. The exhibit has several issues of SMS on display in vitrines. Individual issues of SMS are prized collectibles now.

Copley had a gallery for about a year in the late 40s where he showed art by the surrealists. His standard deal was to guarantee them 10% regardless of how many pieces were sold. Because he sold almost none of the pieces, he ended up with a nice-sized collection of surrealist art. He continued to collect for the rest of life and built up a great collection of surrealist and contemporary art. (He said he thought all artists should collect art, a sentiment I agree with.) Because of financial reversals, he was forced to auction off much of his collection in 1979. Seven of these works ended up purchased by the Menils, including a Magritte and a Jean Tinguely which are on display in the entryway as you walk into the Menil from the North. The Menil also owns a large number of Copleys. Copley and the Menils clearly shared many interests.

After seeing and enjoying this exhibit, I'm still not sure what I think about Copley. Was he an aristocrat who willed himself into becoming a great artist? So much of his work seems risible (and he explicitly loved humor in art), and the clumsiness of his drawing is unappealing to me. But many of the works have memorable visual appeal. Maybe they would be most enjoyable, as Richard Flood suggested, in a room full of cigar smoke and booze.

William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY is on display at the Menil Museum until July 24, 2016.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

I Like That

Robert Boyd

In his blog, I Like That, R.J. Casey wrote about a different artist every week. They were short personal essays--Casey is writing about an artist, but he (she?) is writing about his personal reaction to the artist as much as the artist's work. I wouldn't like all criticism to be like this, but I think there is value to it--objectivity, after all, has no place in art criticism.

Anyway, the thing about good ideas is that ideas are the easiest thing to steal. I like what Casey did and even though I'm too late to start at the very beginning of this year, I thought I'd go ahead and write a short, personal piece every week about some artist I like, in any medium. I'll start this week. I think my first artist will be Jules Feiffer. Look for it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Robert Boyd's Favorite 2015 Art Books

Robert Boyd

This will be a bit similar to my "best comics" list in that it reflects my favorites among those books I read that were published in 2015. And reading art books is a bit different from reading comics and graphic novels. Almost all the comics I read are very recently published--usually within the same year I read them. This is absolutely not the case with art books. I might become interested in an artist (for example, both David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield this year) and in researching them, I read old biographical works or catalogs. If it's an older book I read, I left it out of this list. Only 2015 books are listed here here, even though they constitute less than half of the art books I read in 2015. And, of course, this list reflects my own passions; that implies that there are undoubtedly many great art books published this year that are not listed here just because I wasn't interested enough in the subject to read them. With those caveats, here's my list.

Derek Boshier: Rethink/Re-entry edited by Paul Gorman with essays by David Hockney, John A. Walker, Chris Stephens, Lisa Tucker, Guy Brett, Paul Gorman, David E. Brauer and Jim Edwards, and Christopher Finch (Thames & Hudson).

This year I have followed an interest in British Pop art (as mentioned above), so it is only natural that I'd want to read this book. Additionally, Boshier has an important connection to Houston: he taught at the University of Houston from 1980 to 1992 (with a return term in 1995). Many artists I know remember him as a beloved teacher. As a fan of comics, I always think of him as a teacher of two of my favorite cartoonists, Eddie Campbell and Scott Gilbert. His career has been unusually rich and diverse. He was indeed a pioneering Pop artist, part of the second wave of English Pop artists (the first wave occurred in the mid-50s; Boshier and his classmates, including David Hockney, were students at the Royal College of Art in the late 50s/early 60s). In 1962, Ken Russell filmed a very amusing documentary about Boshier, Pauline Boty, Peter Blake and Peter Phillips, which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube.

Boshier's early work definitely reminds me of Hockney's early work--they shared a studio and both had quite painterly styles. Eventually Boshier's work evolved in a more hard-edge direction. And as the 60s progressed, he gave up painting in favor of other media--photography, collage, film, etc. It was a path a lot of artists were taking, but what Boshier couldn't do was be a minimalist or post-minimalist. He comes close at times, but his work remained too much a part of the world. He was interested in culture and politics and couldn't turn away from that completely.

He was also teaching art in the 60s and 70s. One of his students was John Mellor, who later changed his name to Joe Strummer. This relationship lead Strummer's band, The Clash, to hire Boshier to do two books of illustrated Clash lyrics (generously reproduced in the book). In addition, he did the cover of Lodger, the great album from David Bowie's Berlin period.

By the time he moved to Houston, he had started painting again, and his painterly approach seemed to place him right in the then current Neo-Expressionist movement. His paintings from that period are scabrous and often satirical, but it's his handling of color and mood that make the biggest impression on me. A painting of male and female KKK lovers is not just funny and outrageous, it's beautiful as well. When I look at these works, I am reminded a bit of Earl Staley's 70s and 80s painting, and I wonder if there was any mutual influence.

The work he's done since then while living in Los Angeles has in a way combined all the previous tendencies--multi-media, painterly, Pop, collage, satire, etc. The only new thing is that much of the work reflects his love of the city he adopted, Los Angeles.

The book is beautifully designed and the essays are pretty good. And it is very generous in terms of the quantity of art reproduced. I know Boshier has had retrospectives before, but this volume suggests another one is due.

Welcome to Marwencol by Mark E. Hogancamp and Chris Shellen (Princeton Architectural Press)

 I've written about this book already, so suffice it to say that it combines a compelling biography of Hogancamp with Hogancamp's amazing photographs. In an ideal world, the biography of the artist wouldn't matter, but it does to me as a reader. I like good stories, and Mark Hogancamp's is harrowing and inspiring.

Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century by Jed Rasula (Basic Books). 

You take a few art history classes and you think you have the basic story of Dada, but you don't. Part of the reason is that what art historians learn and teach about Dada is all about the visual art. Maybe a little about the performances and some of the provocations that feel like modern performance art. But Dada was a literary form, too, and many of the greatest Dadaists were poets. Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, the co-founders of Caberet Voltaire, Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck and many others who have well-known associations with Dada, but never produced any of the visual art associated with the movement. To Ball and Hennings, Dada was primarily about performance. They were Germans who fled Germany shortly after the outbreak if WWI because of their antiwar activities. Hennings was forging passports for war-resistors and had been caught. Using false passports she had made, she and Hennings slipped into Switzerland, where they worked in low-level vaudeville shows. This gave them the idea for an artists' cabaret, which became Cabaret Voltaire. It was surprisingly popular.

We Americans are proud of our part in Dada, when Duchamp and Picabia showed up in New York and met Man Ray. But outside of Switzerland, the center of Dada was in Germany. This history felt a little more conventional than one might expect--artists who liked or disliked one another, trying to decide who was really a Dadaist or not, etc. The story of the affair (which was both artistic and erotic) between Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch turns out to be an important part of the story. There are figures like Johannes Baader, aka "Oberdada", who I had never heard of until I read this book--he was a self-aggrandizing figure who managed to alienate the other Berlin Dadaists.

The thing is that Dada really only survived a few years. By 1921, it was mostly over, even though the people we associate with Dada--George Grosz, John Heartfield, Jean Arp, Ray, Duchamp, etc.--were really still at the beginning of their creative lives. Destruction Was My Beatrice does describe how Dada's ripples landed on other shores around the world, but focuses primarily on what was happening in Switzerland, France, the USA and Germany above all. Rasula makes a point of writing about female Dadaists like Hennings, Höch and Mina Loy and the sexism they faced even within the Dada community.

Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic's History of 20th Century Graphic Design by Art Chantry (Feral House).

Art Chantry is a designer perhaps best known for his design for The Rocket, a music newspaper published in Seattle form 1978 until 2000. Because he was there during the rise of grunge, you can also see a lot of his design work on album covers of the era. He was a resolutely low-tech designer. When his peers had adopted the computer, he continued to use X-Acto knives and rubber cement. For example, in designing the column headers for The Rocket, he used one of those old plastic label-makers. The effect felt really "punk" without imitating any of punk's classic design (like Jamie Reid's immortal "ransom letter" type for the Sex Pistols).

For several years, he wrote blog posts on Facebook about the weird, sometimes vernacular and anonymous design that inspired him. This book collects those posts, He was quite influenced by what he called 20th-Century American industrial graphic design, which seemed in a way Modernist, but was effected by guys who had "never heard of Milton Glaser or Paul Rand or Helvetica" and learned their trade "by either working in a print or sign-painting shop, in the Army, or taking mail order classes advertised in the back of Popular Mechanics." One of Chantry's best known posters was a direct homage to this kind of design.

Art Chantry, poster for the Night Gallery, COCA Cabana, the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle, Washington, 1991.

The book looks at design trends and individual designers from the past that have largely been written out of the history of graphic design. One thing Chantry does is show us design ideas that were ubiquitous once but now forgotten. But at the same time, he also digs up obscurities that were never very well-known or influential in the first place. He's the kind of guy who spends his time combing old magazine shops (these used to be not uncommon businesses, believe it or not), junk shops, etc., for something that catches his eye. Then he researches it. This book is the result of those obsessions.

The book is the size of a standard prose trade paperback, but is generously illustrated in color. It won't surprise most people to say that it looks great. Personally, I think it's difficult to be an original graphic designer these days. In fact, the last time I was really excited by print design was when I was living in Seattle and Chantry was un-writing the rules. This book reminds why that was so exciting.

The Collected Hairy Who Publications 1966-1969 by Dan Nadel (Matthew Marks Gallery).

Dan Nadel curated a show called What Nerve! which I saw at the RISD Museum. It traveled to one other location. It was a weird place for a museum show--Matthew Marks Gallery. But we've started seeing this a lot more lately--large New York art galleries acting like museums. The relationship Nadel established with the gallery was clearly a productive one, as they published this deluxe reprinting of all the Hairy Who's comic books/show catalogs.

In 1966, when they had their first group exhibit, the Hairy Who (Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum, Suellen Rocca, Art Green and Jim Falconer) decided to publish a comic book instead of the traditional show catalog. This went over so well that they did it for all their shows (four in all). These four comics comprise about 2/3rds of this book. Nadel has taken a lot of care to reproduce them legibly while retaining their status as objects. (This is not typically how comics are reprinted, even in the most deluxe editions. They usually foreground the artwork independently from its previous existence as an object--a comic book).

Karl Wirsum, Serration Saturation from the The Hairy Who Sideshow, 1967

The book ends with a section of posters, artists photos, drawings, chairs (!), installation photos and other ephemera. I like this because it gives one an idea of what it looked like to be a member of the Hairy Who. And while I like looking at the artwork very much, I also want a catalog like this to provide contextual/biographical information, whether written or photographic.

I have to say I have coveted these comics ever since I read about them as an undergraduate in the mid-80s. They were listed in The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide by Jay Kennedy (a bible for me at the time, not because I cared about the prices, but just as an encyclopedic handbook), but I never actually saw one in the flesh until decades later. Now here they are, published in a beautiful hardcover. The wait was worth it.

Dime Stories by Tony Fitzpatrick (Curbside Splendor). 

I saw a lot of this work on Tony Fitzpatrick's blog. A blog post would contain an image, consisting of drawn elements and collaged elements, and a prose section. The images would incorporate poems written by Fitzpatrick. It's very dirty art--written, drawn, pasted, prose and poetry all mixed up.

Fitzpatrick comes across as a kind of professional Chicagoan sometimes--the city and its mythology is one of his favorite subjects. The essays (or feuilletons) touch on whatever is capturing Fitzpatrick's attention at a given time--places he's been recently (New Orleans, Ohio), characters from his life, past and present, politics (local and national), art and culture. His writing is at its best when he's telling a story.

The relationship between each essay and the accompanying piece of visual art may only be tangential, but they work together. And if he seeks to embody a certain urban, Chicago sensibility in his writing (with middling success), his images always feel like Chicago in my eyes--busy and dense like a crowded neighborhood. The collaged elements show Fitzpatrick as a nostalgist (many of them are matchbook covers for long defunct businesses), and his drawing reminds me a bit of the great Chicago "outsider" artist Joseph Yoakum. His flea-market/"outsider" aesthetic shows his connection to the Chicago Imagists (such as the Hairy Who), but he is about 20 years younger than they are. It suggests that maybe there is a thing in Chicago that produces artists with these sensibilities (earlier artists like Leon Golub and H.C. Westerman had it as well as contemporaries of Fitzpatrick like Kerry James Marshall).

I love Fitzpatrick's art and enjoy reading his essays, and this handsomely produced volume displays both very well indeed.

Philip Guston: Prints: Catalogue Raisonné (Sieveking Verlag).

I was a little surprised by how few prints Guston did in the course of his career. He started relatively late--the earliest print listed is from 1963. The first 19 prints (mostly lithographs but also one silkscreen on plexiglass (!)) are abstract. They were all done between 1963 and 1966. What struck me is that figuration was trying to break on through. Perhaps this is a side effect of the graphic, drawn nature of the work. But almost all of these prints show a field of distinct visual objects or figures. They're still abstract, but it seems clear that Guston just needed a little push.

There is a gap until 1970 for his next lithograph, and suddenly we are seeing the figuration that we came to expect from Guston. But the medium itself is not an important one for Guston. After the first figurative lithograph from 1970, he doesn't do another print (except for a poster design) until 1980.

Guston died on June 7, 1980, and that half year was a semi-annus mirabilis for graphic work. He published the majority of the prints he would ever do in those short five months. Twenty-five beautiful editions were published in 1980 (all printed by Gemini G.E.L.). Additionally, he had 12 unpublished proofs in his studio when he died, which are included here. Most of these unpublished proofs look finished to my eyes, but there are a few which I can imagine that had Guston lived, he might have worked on a bit more.

These 1980 prints are bold and grungy. This book is a beautiful document of an aspect of Guston's art that was only reaching its peak the year he died.

Out of Sight: The Los Angeles Art Scene of the Sixties by William Hackman (Other Books).

By this point,  a LOT has been written about the 1960s art scene in Los Angeles. The standard story is that a bunch of young artists in the late 50s were discovered by Walter Hopps, Ed Kienholz and Irving Blum and shown at Ferus Gallery. A lively scene happened for a few years but then fell apart by the end of the 60s and L.A. art went into a period of decline. This story is only partly true--L.A. art never really declined, just the commercial gallery scene. Plus, there was a lot of stuff happening that had nothing to do with Ferus.

My favorite book on this subject is Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, but William Hackman offers a more expansive view. For one thing, he looks at the establishment and growth of various institutions that played a key part in this history, specifically LACMA and the Pasadena Art Museum (later the Norton Simon Museum). He gets into the story of the politics and personalities behind these museums. We tend to think of museums as solid institutions; they have always been here and always will. But Out of Sight shows just how difficult it is to will such a place into existence and how fragile their existences can be. (I've read an early draft of an upcoming book about Houston's art scene in the 1970s by Pete Gershon, and one of the most intriguing parts of it is a history of the Contemporary Arts Museum during the late 60s and 70s, and how it nearly went under twice. This book will be called Pow Wow--keep an eye out for it.)

The thing is that the art scene as a site for mostly white men really did die in the late 60s. Galleries closed or moved and the artists themselves scattered hither and yon. The scene grew much more diverse and disconnected in the 70s. There's a good book about that, too--Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s by Michael Fallon, which was published in 2014. These three books form an unintentional trilogy of narrative art history tied to Los Angeles. I recommend them all.

 Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple (Harper).  

Molly Crabapple is an artist best known for her pen & ink & watercolor journalistic illustrations. She is one of the few contemporary artists who specializes in drawing as journalism, in fact. (Joe Sacco, who provided a blurb this book, is one of the others.) This kind of art is mostly ignored by the contemporary art scene, which shows how narrow the contemporary art scene can be sometimes. This book is a memoir of the 33-year-old artist. It may seem like a young age for a memoir, but she has had an unusually action-packed life. One thinks of artists often as inherently un-bourgeois, but most artists I know live utterly conventional lives compared to Crabapple. The daughter of a professional artist and a political activist, she was roughing it in Europe as a teenager, sleeping on the spare beds at Shakespeare and Company and sleeping with older men who acted as her mentors. She used her beauty that way, and writes about her affairs thrillingly. She also posed nude regularly at the Society of Illustrators in New York, which allowed her to make contact with many of the best illustrators in town. She got involved with the revived burlesque scene in New York and was one of the first Suicide Girls. But she quit them when their contracts and business practices became oppressive.

All along, she was drawing, ultimately studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology (which she hated and derides repeatedly; she eventually dropped out). As an artist and a "professional naked girl" (as she puts it), she became deeply involved with the culture of alternative sex work, becoming at one point an artist-in-residence at Box, a high-end sexy cabaret in New York that charged its Wall Street bro clientele top dollar for bottle service to see some truly wild burlesque and live sex entertainment. But while painting a mural for a new Box opening in London, she became aware of the anti-austerity protests happening at British Universities and started to wonder whether her work titillating the ruling class was what she really wanted to do with her life. (This was in 2010.)

That winter in London politicized her and her art. She was very much involved with Occupy and has done journalistic writing and illustration from Guantanamo and Greece and Syria and elsewhere.

Crabapple has a fast-moving writing style. Her art is full of little flourishes and filigree, but her writing has a journalistic directness. She has a talent for an inspiring aphorism or quote. Here are a few:
"Why should I feel bad for using my looks? Or the fact that I'm a woman?" Cosette asked. "Think of all the things I haven't gotten because I'm a woman."
When I was seventeen and drawing at Shakespeare and Company, art felt closer than my skin. I'd cared about things beyond professional advancement. I used to think my pen could fight me into a new world.
But for the past few years, I'd let that part of me die. What had started as a scramble to scrape together enough resources so I could afford to draw had become an obsession with the resources themselves. I was twenty seven [...] I had spent years--wasted years?--doing work for cash instead of desire.
In the winter of 2010, the world started to burn.
I was painting pigs in Nero's nightclub.
There are a lot more like this. She has some zingers for the art school establishment and especially for MFAs (and most especially for MFAs from Yale), whom she refers to as trust-fund artists. She is obviously someone with little interest in art theory, conceptualism, high-end white cube galleries, and much of what we think of as being "the art world." She sees the difference between the art world and what she does as a class issue. She referred to artists like herself as possessing a "blue-collar level of craft." And Drawing Blood is written in a prose style that is the exact opposite of international art English.

As I read Drawing Blood, I imagined that bohemian 20-something-year old girls might find her an aspirational role-model and bohemian 20-something-year old boys might fall in love. But I was a little put off by the way older men were into her--the kind of guys who think of themselves as progressive and "cool", like comics writers Neil Gaimen and Warren Ellis (both of whom have walk-on roles in Drawing Blood). Here was this super-talented, interesting, politically progressive artist who also happened to be a sexy (often naked) goth girl. Crabapple allows them to be dirty old men without guilt. But I think her view was the same as the one she assigns to her friend Cosette above. She uses this interest by older men to her advantage repeatedly and without apologies.

The book is heavily illustrated. I think many of the illustrations were original for this book, but others are examples of the work she was doing during whatever episode in her life she is writing about. The art is mostly reproduced in color and is well-integrated with the text.

I have mixed feelings about her art and writing, but I love the fact that she is writing and drawing with evident passion. So much art these days seems bloodless and designed to slot easily into some artistic or intellectual tendency. That kind of art pushes me away. And despite my somewhat mixed feelings toward it, Crabapple's art and writing have the opposite effect on me.

I realize that this "best of" list makes it appear that I am not interested in sculpture, nor in performance art, conceptual art, photography, social practice, installation, video, etc. Not so! But I confess that this year has been a year in which I looked back at art that barely registers on the art world, that is mostly untheorized, that doesn't come out of the académie (the MFA system). Hence my stronger interest in comics this year, for example.

But part of it is simply that art books I read in the specific fields listed above tended to be older. For instance, Words for Art: Criticism, History, Theory, Practice by Barry Schwabsky which I read this year would have definitely been on my list except for the fact that it was published in 2014. I read several great photography monographs and collections this year, but they were all published years ago.

Still, there is something about this list of books that probably reflects some of the issues that made me quit writing this blog (for the most part). I only want to read what I like to read, and I only want to look at art that gives me pleasure. That inherently narrows the field. To write a good art blog, you have to be willing to engage everything, and I did that for years before I got tired of it. And in a way, this reading list reflects that.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Betsy Huete’s Top Ten of 2015

Betsy Huete

What can I say? I like to keep it super specific. Without further ado, here are my top ten pieces exhibited in Houston in 2015:

10. Paul Krainak, Rural Phase at the Emergency Room Gallery, Rice University

I’m not sure I can officially call this a piece as it functioned more as a handout accompanying this exhibition of hard-lined, geometric paintings. However, it was unexpected, off-the-cuff, yet ambitiously structured, and it was the best part of the show. Thorough and expansive, the hand-out was designed as a newspaper headline, in which Krainak incorporated a disjunctive essay that flowed in and out of making sense, that abstractly yet incisively advocated for and explored the problems of maintaining an art practice in the midwest, and how to locate all of that within the larger aegis of the art historical canon.

9. Patrick Renner, Dylan Conner and Alex Larsen, circumherniadebaser at Some Assembly Required: Exquisite Corpse Sculpture at G Gallery

Whether it’s Funnel Tunnel or any number of the other public commissions he’s had, most of us by now are familiar with Patrick Renner’s more participatory work, most of which is usually in wood. But the Renner piece, done in collaboration with Dylan Conner and Alex Larsen, I was most drawn to was large and imposing, yet also felt more quiet, introspective, and fragile than most of his work I’ve seen. It looked like a dominating, much-too-thin hamster wheel, a modest pink bulge throbbing like an infection or the beginnings of a pregnancy.

8. Lavar Munroe, The Zoo Keeper (2015), Zoo at the Edge of the World: A Continuum of the Exotic, Art League Houston

We may be in 2015, but Lavar Munroe nevertheless keenly reminds us that we are still confined by our innate desire to castigate someone into the other, and to gravitate and fixate our gaze onto the grotesque. He does this with the tantalizing, gooey cotton candy corpse sadism that is The Zoo Keeper, as we bear witness to a mildewing corpse giving birth to a star-studded baby.

7. Camilo Ramirez, Untitled (Shark Teeth) (2014), 33rd Annual Juried Membership Exhibition, Houston Center for Photography

When I ran into this photograph, I felt sick and excited. There’s a certain wonderment in artificially glowing gums, and giant teeth cascading diagonally like a slide. It’s all the more curious situated in an innocuous parking garage. We have no idea if this is stage, or if Ramirez chanced upon it, and the complete lack of context is what makes it brilliant.

6. Jillian Conrad, Parts (2015), Exact Nature, Devin Borden Gallery

With Parts, Conrad reconstitutes fragments—exactitudes, couplings, and fractures that flit between the external and fleeting, vulnerable acts. The banal material, an everyday usefulness of hands quickly shifts to the possibility of wings; ceramics we make become decimated by scratches. Looking pointedly and blankly into asphalt visually represents the white noise she suggests in her final lines. As Parts insinuates poetry, it also suggests sound: is this music sheet meant to be played, to be written upon? Or do we let the lines cut across in looming silence?

5. Stephanie Syjuco, Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room (2012), Corpocracy, The Station Museum 

Walking into Syjuco’s installation felt like being a kid in a candy store. There has been a lot of work in the past thirty or so years that is ephemeral and valueless, for us to take home with us. But there was something generative about the possibility of giving us information in the form of essays, by not giving us any answers per se, but rather planting seeds for us to read on our own. My first thought in seeing this piece is that it should exist in the street and not in a museum, but I quickly retracted that thought. There’s something special about being able to walk out of a white cube with a handful of tiny papers and mountains of reading material.

4. Henning Bohl and Sergei Tcherepnin, Early Awnings (2015), The Blaffer Museum

Early Awnings was nauseating. On view during the dead heat of Houston summer, this installation provided little respite, as non-functional awnings were situated in such a way that they could not provide a comfortable respite for the viewer, or felt claustrophobic by entrapping her. The sound, the color, the sculptures, the bland lighting all felt like a droning whirlwind or a courtly video game. When I left Early Awnings, I felt drained and empty. It was incredible.

3. Demetrius Oliver, Instrument (2015), Anemometer, Inman Gallery

I could not take my eyes off this work, a simple and mesmerizing view of two spinning roof turbine vents. The curved metal in the vents blurred, slowing, cutting lines feeling dangerous. Instrument echoes how I so often feel about Oliver’s work: cosmological references falling into the every day, making the most banal actions feel ethereal, making them feel like they’re on a precipice of falling into chaos.

2. Autumn Knight, Performance held in conjunction with the In-Situ In-Residence Program (2014), BLUEorange Gallery

I can’t help but feel like a voyeur in this deeply private, personal work by Autumn Knight. And it’s not because this work is confessional—it’s because there’s so much buried in what she doesn’t say. A full throttle, deep kind of ancestral pain emanates from her body as she sings and moves, and as viewers, we want to partake in her vulnerability.

1. Danielle Dean, Hexafluorosilicic, 2015, Core Exhibition, Glassell School of Art 

For some strange reason, it seems important we know this video takes place in a run-of-the-mill apartment in Alief. This completely disjunctive story needs to take place in such a general yet specific location. Family member actors recite a nonsensical soap opera-sounding dialogue culled from commercial ads; there’s a strange middle-aged man who won’t stop squinting. Hexafluorosilicic is silly and strange, and wholly terrifying. The characters keep staring behind this Alief apartment bathroom door. It’s probably just a porcelain toilet, but as Dean so poignantly shows us with her bombardment and cyclical pacing of signs, there’s probably much more to the bathroom than we can acknowledge.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Favorite Comics of 2015

Robert Boyd

The list below is a personal list of my favorite comics for the year. It's not really a "best of" list. For one thing, it excludes all the possibly great comics I didn't read this year. But more important, it reflects some of my own long-standing obsessions as a reader, which are hardly universal. (I go into more detail on this at the end of this list.) That said, here are the comics that impressed me most in 2015. They are in order by the name of the first-named artist or editor.

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel (Broadway Books).

I have been following Abel's career since the 90s, when I first saw her self-published comics. She's done quite a lot since then, but I think this might actually be my favorite work by her so far. In it, she reveals how narrative radio shows do what they do. She talked to the creators of This American Life, The Moth Story Hour, Radiolab, Planet Money and several other radio shows operating in this more-or-less narrative genre. Out on the Wire is structured a bit like a "how-to" with chapters on ideas, character and voice, story structure, sound and editing, but calling is a "how to" book would be selling it short. There are two other things Abel is doing in this book. First, it's an excellent piece of reporting. She spent significant time talking to and observing the creators of each of these shows, and while they each operate a little differently, she masterfully synthesizes their techniques and philosophies. The second thing she is doing above and beyond a "how to" is making a powerful case that this kind of radio show is art.

It's one of those hybrid arts. Think opera, film, and, yes, comics. These are all messy arts, not just because they combine elements that are often are war with one another (music and drama, writing and drawing, etc.) but because they often exist outside of a world where we think art is supposed to happen--the world of the radio dial, the multiplex, the comic book store, etc. One can listen to these radio shows and podcasts and think, that's not art; that's journalism. Or that's entertainment. But Abel pulls you slowly toward this realization that what we are listening to is a kind of art, and her case is strong. Out on the Wire is a great book.

Incidents in the Night Book 2 by David B and translated by Brian Evenson and Sarah Evenson (Uncivilized Books).

The second volume doesn't really require that you have read the first (although you should). I loved both. David B is an artist whose work I always admire. Along with some of his contemporaries, he brought a new sensibility to comics: a surreal edge, a bookishness. With his generation of French cartoonists, comics became less a visual thing (over-sized pages, lots of color) and more a literary form. (Not that David B's graphic sense is anything less than extraordinary.) His work confused me for a long time. I related it to Oulipo, the French literary movement founded by Raymond Queneau which included George Perec and Italo Calvino. And indeed Davis B is closely associated with many of the members of the comics branch of Oulipo, Oubapo. But it wasn't until I read Patrick Modiano's The Occupation Trilogy that I found a good literary analog to what David B seems to be doing in these two books.

There is kind of a pulp plot happening--secret societies of assassins, a cult to "the unknown god" Enn, and a cursed publication called "Incidents in the Night". David B himself is the narrator and protagonist of the first volume, but as his investigations get too close to the truth, he is murdered. Now dead, he continues to narrate volume 2. His brother Jean-Christoph seeks vengeance (this fictional brother is the same person as his real brother, who was the main character in David B's classic memoir Epileptic). Soon a small group of characters are investigating an implacable secret society, the Fleet, with the aid of a group of booksellers, one in each arrondissement of Paris, who have occult links to one another. In that way it slightly recalls From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, but its humor makes it feel more like the Adele Blanc-Sec books of Jacques Tardi (as well as the aforementioned prose-writers). If like me you are a booklover and a lover of bookstores and someone who feels that cities have secret connected stories not easily discerned by casual observers, you will love Incidents in the Night.

Trashed by Derf Backderf (Harry N, Abrams).

Derf Backderf spent most of his career doing a comic strip that appeared in alternative newsweeklies. I was surprised when he turned out to be an unusually talented long-form storyteller. Trashed returns to an extent to what he did with his book My Friend Dahmer, combining real life and research into one package. Trashed is not as smooth at this mixture as My Friend Dahmer because in the earlier book, he combined his own high school recollections of Dahmer with biographical details about Jeffrey Dahmer that his younger self could not have known. In Trashed, he takes his own experience as a trash man, updates it to the present and fictionalizes it to a certain extent while interstitially including facts about trash and the way we deal with it as a country. It is a little odd at first, You'll be reading the story then suddenly you're learning statistics about what percentage of trash is packaging (29.8% percent, if you're wondering). But as I read it, I was reminded of Moby Dick, of all books. Melville did the same thing; you'd be deep into the story when--ert!--he changes direction completely and does a chapter on scrimshaw. Anyway, once you get used to this, Trashed is a great story full of the kind of gritty working class weirdos that populated Beckderf's earlier graphic novel, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks . His style is perfect, too--he has high command of his art (that's what doing a comic strip for 14 years can help you achieve) with just enough funk and dirt in his drawing to be especially appropriate for the subject matter. When a character falls into a stream of raw sewage, you feel it.

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story by Peter Bagge (Drawn & Quarterly).

Peter Bagge is one of my all-time favorite cartoonists. I don't think he gets the respect he deserves because most of his work has been out-and-out funny (and funny cartoonists, like funny filmmakers, are sometimes not as respected as the more serious types). I seriously doubt he's ever going to give up being funny, but that doesn't mean that his work hasn't evolved or that he hasn't taken risks. Women Rebel is a non-fiction graphic novel about the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. This is in no way an obvious choice of subject matter for Bagge! Writing a biography, much less a biography of an early 20th century fighter for the rights of people to use birth control, is a surprising turn for him.

But maybe not completely. He has for the past few years been doing brief humorous stories about the Founding Fathers, so we know he has a history bug. And what worked with those stories--short, funny episodes from their lives--is continued in Woman Rebel. Instead of trying to tell a continuous biography, Bagge splits it up into numerous short vignettes. On their own, they have a kind of dramatic unity (or the unity of a good joke), but taken together they manage to be a coherent, eye-opening biography of this remarkable figure.

Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection by Kate Beaton (Drawn & Quarterly).

Beaton has been running her webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant! for several years now, and this is her second collection. The first collection was kind of a mish-mash. What worked fine online as kind of a laugh-a-day thing didn't work nearly was well in a book. In Step Aside, Pops, she has denser, better-reproduced artwork and longer piece. Some of these pieces are already classic, like "Strong Female Characters", "Ada B. Wells" and "Nasty." Beaton has really gotten very very good, and this book is delightful.

Eat More Comics: The Best of the Nib, edited by Matt Bors, Eleri Harris and Matt Lubchansky and featuring 45 contributors including Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, James Sturm, Jen Sorenson, Eleanor Davis, etc.

For about a year and a half, political cartoonist Matt Bors edited a comics section, the Nib, for Medium. About half the contributions were more-or-less standard "alternative newsweekly"-style comics by some of the best artists working in that genre. But in addition to that, Bors ran a variety of longer-form comics that really stuck with me. Most of the work falls into the category of commentary or opinion, but there were many pieces that I would classify as journalism. Especially good were "A Lost Possibility: Women on Miscarriage" by Ryan Alexander-Tanner, Eleanor Davis's witty demolition of the idea of meritocracy in "Highgate County Fancy Chicken Show," "Bikram Addict" by Eroyn Franklyn and "Crossing the Line" by Josh Neufeld. But there are 300 pages of stories, most only a page or so, and the quality is generally really high. A really satisfying anthology.

Bacchus Omnibus Edition Volume 1 by Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf Productions).

Eddie Campbell started writing and drawing Bacchus in 1987. As I recall, it was his attempt to create a "mainstream"-style comic, distinct from his humor work and his very personal autobiographical work starring his alter-ego Alec MacGarry. Bacchus in the comic is in fact the god of wine of Greek and Roman myth. I don't know why he is called Bacchus (his Roman name) instead of Dionysus, because he definitely identifies himself in the stories as Greek. He is quite old and looks it--apparently being a Greek god doesn't exactly make you immortal in Campbell's world. Early on his adventures come off as rather bent versions of a superhero adventure--Bacchus has an antagonist, Joe Theseus (the Theseus of Greek myth, in fact), and there is a lot of violence. It's not quite a regular superhero comic (Bacchus never even finds Theseus in the first storyline), but the elements are there at least.

Campbell apparently quickly realized that the real value in the character was in the myths and his embodiment of them. The stories he did around this idea are the best, particularly the cycle of stories called "Doing the Islands." Bacchus and Hermes travel around the Greek islands (being the only two surviving Olympians); Hermes is trying to round up a few souls who managed to escape from Hades--he still feels bound to fulfill his duties as a god, even though Zeus, Pluto and the others are long dead. Bacchus mainly engages in some sentimental storytelling. But accidentally stranded on a small, uninhabited island, he exercises his godhood and causes a truly Dionysian event to occur. This cycle of stories has some of Campbell's most beautiful art, as well. This volume collects over 500 pages of Campbell's Bacchus stories.

Poems to the Sea by Erin Curry (Grindstone Comics & Czap Books).

Poems to the Sea is one of a series of minicomics published collectively as Ley Lines. Each issue is by a different artist and deals with a different idea or person from the history of art. These have been a mixed bag so far (I'm a subscriber), but I loved Poems to the Sea. The artists she references are Cy Twombly and Agnes Martin, artists who would seem to have no connection to comics at all--their work is, on the surface, completely devoid of narrative qualities. This comic consists of grids filled with a lot of nothingness--textures, small scribbles, etc. as if Twombly and Martin had collaborated. In the back, Curry quotes Rosalind Kraus: "The grid announces, among other things, modern art's will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse." And certainly that is what one might feel looking at an Agnes Martin painting. But the irony is that for those of us immersed in the comics world, the grid suggests just the opposite--it suggests not only narrative, but infinite narratives.

For Curry, the same is true of Twombly, who often did series of drawings. Curry calls them comics (using the overly expansive definition pioneered by Scott McCloud). She considers this minicomic a sequel to Twombly's series of 24 drawings called Poems to the Sea. Curry's Poems to the Sea is not a comic about Martin and Twomby, but a dialogue with them. And I thought it was quite beautiful.

The Eltingville Club #2 by Evan Dorkin (Dark Horse Comics).

For about 20 years, cartoonist Evan Dorkin has been occasionally producing stories about the "Eltingville Comic Book, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror & Role-Playing Club." These have appeared here and there, usually in Dorkin's various one-man anthologies. They were very funny stories about four deeply unpleasant friends from the Eltingville neighborhood of Staten Island. Dorkin made vicious fun of geek/fan culture, and it rang true because he has been a dues-paying member of this culture his entire life. In an interview, Dorkin described the club-members as "the people at the comic book store that everyone hates. They’re the angry fans, they’re the battling fans." And in The Eltingville Club, he breaks up the club and has them reunite at San Diego Comicon ten years later.

In the intervening years, all of them have gotten jobs that come out of their teenage fan obsessions. I can relate--I grew up loving comics and then got hired by my favorite publisher, Fantagraphics, back in 1989. On one hand, that's great when it happens. On the other hand, I sometimes felt like I had a kind of unhealthy, parasitical relationship with comics. I think a lot of fans who turn pro must feel this way sometimes. (I'm glad I'm just a fan again.) And in the Eltingville Club, it's 10 times worse because they aren't just super-fans turned pro--they were horrible people when they were mere fans and now that they're pros, they still are! It's brutal and brutally funny. (A book collection of all the Eltingville stories is scheduled for next year.)


Treasury of Mini Comics Vol. 2, edited by Michael Dowers, featuring work by Fiona Smyth, Steve Willis, Jeff Nicholson, Marc Bell, Molly Kiely, Lisa Hanawalt, Esther Pearl Watson and many others.  (Fantagraphics Books).

This is the third (and reportedly last) volume of minicomics edited by Michael Dowers. The title is therefore a little confusing, but the first volume is called Newave!: The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980s. All three volumes have the same format--a small trim size that reflects a popular minicomics size (4 1/4 x 5 1/2 inches) combined with a huge page count (over 800 pages). These books are bricks. This volume is primarily devoted to self-published micro-press comics from the 1990s to almost the present. I'm somewhat surprised at the low profile these books have--this series is a monumental publishing achievement. 2400 pages of the most ephemeral comics ever--comics that regularly had print runs in the 10s--including some of the earliest work of artists who would later go on to great success. The book starts with a series of modern day Tijuana Bibles (perhaps to remind the reader that regardless of its content, the minicomic is an outlaw form, a temporary autonomous zone outside the capitalist system of editors, publishers, distributors and shops). Some of the pieces are well known--Jeff Nicholson's demented classic "Small Press Tirade", for example--but I found a lot of stuff in here was new to me even though I was aware of most of the artists. I wrote a column about self-published comics called "Minimalism" from 1991 to 1996, and I was on top of the genre then. But it's a truly underground form, and it takes a great deal of effort to be aware of what people are doing with it. That's why these books are so valuable. I hope Fantagraphics changes its mind and keeps publishing this series forever.

Extra Good Stuff written by Dennis P. Eichhorn and illustrated by a variety of artists including Ivan Brunetti, David Collier, Pat Moriarty, Colin Upton, Noah Van Sciver and J.R. Williams (Last Gasp).

Dennis Eichhorn was a writer who passed away this year. This was his last book and contained a variety of new stories as well as reprints of a few classics. Inspired by Harvey Pekar, Eichhorn's stories were autobiographical and illustrated by various artists. But while Pekar's stories tended to be quiet character studies, Eichhorn lived a fairly action-packed life which included a stint in prison in Idaho for drug-dealing. And he played up the more exciting bits of even the most mundane aspects of his life. The result wasn't high comics art, but it sure was entertaining. And it helped that he found artists who had the same grungy, working-class vibe that typified his stories. One of the young artists who worked with him, Tom Van Deusen, illustrates a story about an incident when Eichhorn had a job as a medical courier. This is typical--bottom-rung employment, a job that was probably uneventful 99% of the time, but Eichhorn zeros in on one notable incident. And it's great! I've been rereading this to write this little review and the hardest story to reread was "What Next?",  illustrated by one of Eichhorn's long-time artistic partners, R.L. Crabb. Eichhorn is in the hospital for an unexplained procedure, when he sees on the TV playing in his room that Harvey Pekar has died. (Pekar died in 2010.) He imagines the angel of death in the room with him, and the man in the next bed dies. This book was published in September, and Dennis, who was an old friend, died in October.

Mould Map #4, edited by Hugh Frost and Leon Sadler featuring art by Grace Wilson, Will Sweeney, Brecht Vandebroucke, Hanna K, MOSA, Gilbert & George, Stathis Tsemberlidis and many others. (Landfill Editions).

This is called "The Eurozone Special," and many of the artists this issue come from EU countries, but the main thing about this issue of Mould Map is how political it is. This is a strange magazine. It is about half visual art and half comics (and this mixture reminds me of Exu, although Exu is weighted more towards the visual art side). It has a few articles and interviews as well, including a history of the great Italian comics magazine Frigidaire that links its origins to the massive left-wing movements in 70s Italy. The comics have a vibe not unlike Anarchy Comics , the Jay Kinney/Paul Mavrides comic of the 70s and 80s, as well as the work of English anarchist cartoonist Cliff Harper from roughly the same period. They've stated that Adbusters was an influence, and that shows. It's kind of a voice that I haven't seen in comics in a long time.

For example, an untitled story by editor Leon Sadler is an ant ostensibly applying for a job with Bayer. In it, the applicant is asked three standard HR-style questions: "Describe a time when you have taken a leadership role, either of a task or a team of insects. What challenges did you face and what was your part in overcoming them?", "Describe a change that you have initiated at work. How did you develop your ideas and how did you encourage others to adopt those changes?" and "And now describe a situation when you exceeded customer expectations by displaying total commitment to providing solutions of the highest possible standards, and how you maintain the pathway to achieving and surpassing your goals.". My blood ran cold as I read them, remembering terrifying job interviews in my own past. The satire works because these are entirely real, straight out of HR 101. This kind of détournement is very Mavrides-esque. I also liked Brecht Vandenbroucke's piece a lot, which surprised me because I hated his book, White Cube, which struck me as witless and cruel. But his satire of the anti-homeless spikes was funny and powerful.

The visual art tended to be dense with digital effects and less overtly political than many of the comics. I was especially pleased to see some Gilbert & George pieces where they made great use of digital graphics software--you can teach elder statesmen some new tricks, it seems.

Mould Map #4 could have been a continuation of #3, and that would have been great. But the political satirical content was an unexpected surprise that really worked great. I liked that it wasn't the scolding political style you see in so much political art these days, nor the earnest satire seen in Eat More Comics (which I loved), but a restless postmodernist approach combining pastiche and détournement with an instinct for finding the jugular of its targets. Mould Map #4 is way "artier" than Eat More Comics, and between the two lies a fruitful range of approaches to doing political comics.

Invisible Ink: My Mother's Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist by Bill Griffith (Fantagraphics Books).

Bill Griffith is best known for his daily comic strip, Zippy, a real oddity on the funny pages. And Griffith's career has been odd--he started as an underground cartoonist in the late 60s and it might be fair to say that he made his mark most as an editor--first for a title called Young Lust and later for Arcade. But as he was working on those titles, his character Zippy was gaining a following and was eventually chosen to be a daily strip for the San Francisco Examiner in 1985 and was picked up by King Features a few months later. Griffith has been doing Zippy every day ever since. And the strip is flexible enough that he was able to do a lengthy sequence to write about his troubled relationship with his dad within the confines of the strip..

But it's 2015 and everybody's doing graphic novels. So to tell this highly personal story about his mother's long-time affair with Lawrence Larier, a successful hack cartoonist from the 50s and 60s, Griffith took the plunge into long form comics. It's no surprise that this book is great because Griffith is a great cartoonist. He's a miniaturist (as are all great comic strip artists), but here he make excellent use of the larger pages and the ability to string a sequence out over many pages. But what is really interesting for me is to see Griffith take his satirist hat off. He's still the observant, analytical artist he has always been, but the subject matter is personal and emotional in a way that one doesn't expect from him. He's never going to wear his heart on his sleeve as a cartoonist, but nonetheless Invisible Ink is very moving.

Crickets nos. 4 and 5 by Sammy Harkham (self-published).

I've written about Crickets a couple of times before. I'm really glad that Harkham has gotten two issues out this year. We are now very deep into the story "Blood of the Virgin," the story of a young film director making a z-grade horror movie "Blood of the Virgin," for a Roger Corman-like movie studio while his marriage seems to be heading towards some rocky shoals. It is so pleasing to read this because Harkham creates an entirely believable world--or maybe worlds would be better. The b-movie world intersects with the world of Iraqi Jews in L.A., and it never seems like he's telegraphing period details to you. "Blood of the Virgin" is set in the early 70s, but unlike so many period movies, there is nothing really obviously early 70s about what you're seeing. I mean it's there, but it's not telegraphed. Movies usually slap you in the face with their period soundtracks and crazy period clothes. But Harkham seems to realize that authenticity is not about period or cultural details, it's about making you forget that you are doing anything but read a story about some characters--a story you just can't stop reading. Eventually he'll finish "Blood of the Virgin" and it'll be printed up as a graphic novel which will probably be a more satisfying way to read it than the current multi-year cycle of comic books. But I love this comic so much that I just can't wait, so I'm sticking to reading it serially in Crickets.


Impressions and Glass Surfaces and Still Pools by Aidan Koch (Peradam and self-published respectively).

I hate to use the word "minimalist" to describe Aiden Kock's work because it seems like a cliché and not quite right anyway. But it certainly fits parts of Impressions, a small graphic novel. There are pages where the panels are completely blank or where they have just a small bit of what a viewer might be seeing if she were standing in the room. The story is about an artist's model, and these partial representations are what the artist is painting. So we see a shape, a line, a splash of color and ultimately the nude body of the model. But this makes it sound a lot more programmatic than it is. The way it's depicted is described in the title--it is impressionistic, and it is only through the building up of subsequent images that we get an idea of what's happening and the mood of the scene. The model visits a sick relative (or perhaps one in a nursing home) where our impressions are, if anything, even more fragmentary. The main character has a conversation with a friend about the artist, and we viewers see only shapes of color representing facets of their skin or hair or clothes. And the model complains about the artist: "It's almost like he really doesn't see me. I'm just a shape."

Glass Surfaces and Still Pools is a formal experiment. As the title suggests, it is about reflection, and the concept is that the top half of each page reflects the bottom. But this isn't literal--only on a few pages is the top half a mirror-image of the bottom. There's no particular plot, just a minimal monologue by a naked young woman waking up. But it's a beautiful piece of work.

Pope Hats #4 by Ethan Rilly (Adhouse Books).

This is one of those comics where I kick myself for letting three issues go by before discovering it. And by "discover," I mean it was hand-sold to me by the publisher, Chris Pitzer at Comics Crossroads Columbus (aka CXC). This is one very good reason to go to comics festivals. I had previously been turned off by the stupid title. Anyway, I'm glad I finally picked it up. These little stories drawn in a clean style with tasteful colors turned out to be very affecting. I'm sure Rilly must hate being compared to Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes, but he works in their mode. Characters are neurotic or alienated, stuck in situations where there is no clear way out, and nothing is resolved. I know this sounds like a damned frustrating read, but I found it powerful because it feels so familiar. It brings to the surface the anxieties that modern bourgeois people have, and it doesn't flinch from the insolubility of these problems. I realize this kind of story is not for everyone. A very reasonable criticism is that in a world full of horrors, where unarmed 12-year-old African-American boys can get gunned down by police for no reason, who cares about the problems of some white middle class fictional characters? Well, I do--these stories pierced me.

The Eternaut by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López (Fantagraphics Books).

This book was originally serialized in Argentina between 1957 and 1959. There is much that could be said about the historical circumstances of its creation and about its creators. Much of this is covered in the introductions to the book itself. The thing to remember is that in 1957, there weren't really many serious, post-apocalyptic entertainments. The Eternaut is an astonishingly grim story. We're kind of used to this now, with all the zombie stories out there, but it must have been a shocker for its readers. Although both Oesterheld and Solano López evolved quite a lot as artists after The Eternaut, this is still a surprising and compelling piece of comics. A classic and a key piece of comics history.

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir by Riad Sattouf (Metropolitan Books).

This is a memoir by a popular French cartoonist that is unusually timely due to the author's Syrain background. But the Arab world Sattouf grew up in is quite different from the Arab world today. The memoir covers the period when he was two years old. His parents were a French woman and a Syrian man who met while graduate students in France. His father, Abdul-Razak, got a doctorate in political science and went to teach in Libya. At the time, Gaddafi was offering foreign academics a very good salary to teach in Libya, which he ruled through his very unusual ideology. For example, no houses we permitted to have external locks because private property had been eliminated. Of course, this meant if you left your house, you might return to discover that it was occupied by someone new! Life in Libya eventually becomes intolerable, so they moved to Syria. While Libya had a distinct ideology, Syria was a multi-ethnic country where certain ethnicities held power and wealth. Abdul-Razak's people were Sunnis living near Homs and were relatively poor. Here baby Sattouf experiences prejudice for the first time as mean boys call him "Jew" because of his blonde hair. This part of his life is about how he learns to navigate life with other kids his age and older without speaking very good Arabic.

But the most interesting character is the father, Adbul-Razak. He's a mass of contradictions--intelligent but curiously foolish; a believer of pan-Arabism but also a snob who looks down on Arabs based on their background, their religious affiliation or their status. He believes in war but is a coward. I don't know if he is still alive, but if he is, it must have been hard for him to read this book. Arab politics of the early 80s pervades this book, but it is really the story of a foolish father dragging his family from country to country without much of a plan. Riad's depiction of his own two and three-year-old understanding of the world is quite masterful, too, even as we readers understand so much more.

Art Comic #2 by Matthew Thurber (Swimmers Group).

Thurber has a talent for analyzing (and satirizing) a thing by taking it to almost surreal extremes. That's what he did to the internet and cyberpunk in the great INFOMANIACS , and it's what he is doing to the art world in Art Comics. There are two parallel stories. One is about a group of students at Cooper Union in 1999. An art professor is undermining his students during a crit, and refusing to answer their practical questions about their post-college career. But it turns out that he is a minor member of a secret artistic cabal that suppresses promising art students to maintain the cabal's artistic dominance. This silly plot is over the top (the cabal member that visits the art professor can turn himself into a bat) but given the seemingly arbitrary nature of the art world, why not? This plotline is linked to another that began in the previous issue about a knight (armor, a horse, the whole thing) who is making his way south to Art Basel Miami on a mission of vengeance (it turns out that his parents were killed when an improperly secured Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture fell on them).  Art Comic is a very funny comic. Issue three is out, but I haven't received my copy as of this writing. It'll probably show up several minutes after I hit the "publish" button.

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly).

Tomine is another artist I have been following since the beginning of his career, when he was still a teenager doing minicomics. (I wrote the minicomics column, "Minimalism," in the Comics Journal for several years, which is where I encountered the earliest work of people like Abel, Tomine and James Kochalka.) He's an artist who has gotten progressively better and better, and it is exciting to say that Killing and Dying is his best work (so far). The book consists of six short stories. Tomine experiments with styles and formats here. "Hortisculpture" is told in a series of 4-panel black-and-white comic strips with a full-page color "Sunday" strip after each group of six "dailies". "Go Owls" employs a very limited palette (kind of a series of duotones) with no black lines. "Intruders" has no panel borders and is drawn in a style much sketchier than Tomine's usual precision. But if you are familiar with Tomine's work, any of these stories will instantly be recognizable. What seems a little bit different about this book than his previous books is a visual distancing. We never get close to the characters. He accomplishes this in two ways. One, does relatively few closeup images on his characters. And even when he does, he minimizes their impact by making the panels quite small. I wonder if he is being influenced by Gabrielle Bell. The distancing effect in Killing and Dying is similar to what one experiences in her comics.

The stories tend to be pretty mundane, but their emotional impact is all the more brutal for that. The title story, for example, is about a shy teenage girl with a stutter who wants to be a stand-up comedian. About halfway through the story, her mother dies of cancer. If Tomine were writing a Hollywood melodrama, that would be the point of the story--the death would be its climax. But Tomine focuses more on the extreme awkwardness of the girl's patently absurd ambition and the way her father is torn between supporting it and discouraging it. That is a theme running through the book--futile ambition. Characters make a wrong decision about what they should be doing with their lives at the beginning of the stories and we watch them crash and burn. It seems a little cruel except, I think, it's about us. We all make these wrong decisions that keep having consequences for us. At least, I know I have.

Not quite comics


Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels by various writers, artists, etc. (Drawn & Quarterly).

Drawn & Quarterly is my favorite comics publisher. They decided to celebrate 25 years of their existence by publishing a massive book of remembrances, tributes, and comics. I shouldn't include it on the list because I contributed to it (I wrote a short piece about cartoonist Jason Lutes). But it's such an enjoyable compendium that I had to mention it.

If they had just taken the comics featured here and published them as a comics anthology, it'd be one of the best of the year. But there is so much more--lots of pictures, a detailed timeline and a huge selection of really excellent essays by people like Jonathan Lethem, Ivan Brunetti, Chris Ware, Lemony Snicket, Françoise Mouly, Joe McCulloch, Aaron Cometbus, Margaret Atwood, Tom Spurgeon, and many others. At 775 pages, there's plenty of room, and most of that room is taken up by the comics. Some are odds and ends that haven't been collected before, some are excerpts from longer works. Just the names of the cartoonists tell all--they are among the greatest ever. Here are 15 greats featured herein: Shigeru Mizuki, Gilbert Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Joe Matt, Kate Beaton, Lynda Barry, Julie Doucet, Mimi Pond, Marc Bell, Rutu Modan, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Dylan Horrocks, Joe Sacco and Chester Brown. And again, that is just some of them.

I always fear that comics publishers publish these things right before some transformative change for the worse (bankruptcy or purchase by a publishing conglomerate run by MBAs). I hope that's not the case. I want Drawn & Quarterly to keep on publishing great comics for decades. But even if a meteor struck D&Q headquarters tomorrow, obliterating them from the Earth, they've already changed the history of comics very much for the better.


Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America by Bill Schefly (Fantagraphics Books).

I reviewed this book earlier this year. This mammoth biography seems to have everything, and for me it unlocked a lot of what happened to Kurtzman. Kurtzman was a very innovative cartoonist and writer who is revered by generation of artists who worked for him or were taught by him. His golden decade was the 1950s, when he did a series of ground-breaking comics for EC, created Mad Magazine, and created two more humor magazines that while much less successful than Mad, are considered classics by those who follow such things. Then in the 60s, everything starts to go downhill. There's a famous quote that Robert Crumb wrote in a sketchbook which was something like, Don't let what happened to Kurtzman happen to you. In other words, don't sell out your gift for a paycheck. Kurtzman's paycheck was from Playboy Magazine, where he did a soft-core satire strip, "Little Annie Fanny".

This history is fairly well-known, and Schelly's book isn't a revisionist take on it. But we learn a little bit more. Kurtzman had a family and needed to take care of them. One of them was his son Peter, who was autistic and required special care. In 1957, Kurtzman might have felt confident enough to risk everything starting a magazine, Humbug. But when you have lives depending on you, you can't take those risks anymore. I know lots of artists who would love nothing better than to work on their art 24/7, but they have spouses and children they love who need health insurance and a reliable roof over their heads. So they teach at a university and do their art when they can. I think Kurtzman's tragedy is a common one. We just see it more acutely with Kurtzman because he accomplished so much early on.

Welcome to Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp & Chris Shellen (Princton Architectural Press).

Mark Hogancamp lived on Long Island and worked in a restaurant. His hobbies were drawing, dressing in women's shoes, and drinking. He had been drinking for a solid four hours when he was attacked by five men and had his head kicked in. He was in a coma for nine days and woke with vast areas of his memory gone, his alcoholism gone, and his ability to draw gone due to a tremor in his hands. The men who attacked him were caught and went to jail, but Hogancamp suffered serious PTSD. And money for therapy soon ran out. So he turned to art as therapy: he started building a small town in his back yard, made to1:6 scale. He bought G.I. Joe style dolls from specialist makers of military miniatures. Soon this little Belgian village was inhabited by World War II era military men and women of all armies. They come to seek peace after war. A truce endures in the village at all time. And their leader is an American soldier named Hogie. Hogie is Hogancamp, and he is a survivor of torture by the SS.

Hogancamp imagines scenarios and, indeed, a whole history of Marwencol. With a cheap 35MM camera, he has taken hundreds of remarkable photos. That's how Marwencol first became known--he entered a photo contest for military miniaturists (a whole subculture that I knew nothing about until reading this book) and won first place. In 2005,  neighbor, David Naugle, saw Hogancamp walking a 1/6th scale Jeep like a dog on a leash down the road. Hogancamp did this to give the Jeep a proper look of wear and tear. He met Hogancamp and introduced him to Tod Lippy, the editor of Esopus, a beautiful art magazine. This was Hogancamp's introduction to the art world. Since then, there have been gallery shows, a documentary, and now this book. I've been obsessed with Hogancamp's world for years and bought one of his photos for my collection.

Part of this art book is a series of photocomics. It seems natural--Hogancamp's models and figurines are  beautifully made, and can be posed in any scenario. His photography is excellent. And he has made up stories about Marwencol since the beginning. Why not go the next step and create photo-narratives? So he did and they take up about half the book.

They aren't great because the writing isn't great. But they are pretty amazing to look at. And as I looked at them, I wondered why more comics artists don't do this kind of thing. Why always drawing? There are so many ways to get images down on paper (or on the computer screen) now, but almost every comics artist draws her comics, whether on paper or on a tablet. I hope comics artists look at Welcome to Marwencol and maybe get some ideas.

There have been several  best-of lists published in the past couple of weeks (for example, in The Guardian, Salon, Paste, the Onion A.V. Club and Slate). When I look at these lists, I notice not so much how many comics we disagree about (although I will note that the Salon reviewer is coming from a whole different planet than I am), but rather how many comics there are on their lists that I haven't even read. It's impossible to keep up these days.

My comics buying habits strongly affect what showed up on this list. Every week Joe McCulloch (at the Comics Journal) and Tom Spurgeon (at the Comics Reporter) make a list of notable comics shipping that week. I look at these lists, and if something interests me, I'll buy it via mail order. Occasionally I hear about something that sounds interesting, for instance on podcasts like Comic Books Are Burning in Hell or Inkstuds, and I'll pick that up (again by mail-order). I very rarely go to a comic book store--maybe twice in 2015. I do try to go to a comic festival at least once a year, and which one I go to strongly affects what I end up reading. I went to CXC this year instead of Comic Arts Brooklyn, and I can assure you that what was available at CXC influenced my list.

I'm not very interested in superheroes. I mostly got that out of my system when I was 13 or so. So none appear on my list. (That said, I have been enjoying all these cheesy superhero TV shows, like The Flash and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) I haven't been keeping up with manga--it's a little overwhelming to try to follow. So no manga this year.

And along those lines, everything on my list is in English. The majority of comics published in 2015 were not in English. Which is to say that there is literally a world of comics that were not considered for my list, even though I can assure you that some great comics were published in France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, etc.

As readers of this blog know well, I am into contemporary art, so not only do a lot of the comics on this list come from comics' artier precincts, but several of them cross over into the art world in one way or another in terms of subject matter.

I know many of these cartoonists, and have known several for decades, so it's hard for me to be objective about them.

For all of these reasons, this is a "my favorites" list and not a "best of" list.