Thursday, December 31, 2009

Corporate Plop, Continued

I promised an additional example of corporate plop that has an origin and purpose rather different from the usual large sculpture in front of an office building. This is a sculpture that you might call an accidental sculpture. It's not meant to be art, and yet can be visually interesting and even beautiful. This example, in front of FMC Technologies at 1803 Gears Rd. is a perfect example of what I am talking about.

FMC Christmas tree

This is a wellhead/christmas tree assembly, the complex of pipes and valves placed on top of an oil or gas well to control the flow of the oil or gas. FMC Techologies manufactures christmas trees, so it's natural that they might put one up in the front yard to show off an example of their wares. It also identifies them in a memorable way and works (as in earlier examples) as a landmark. In addition, it just looks really cool. This is a prime example of accidental corporate plop. If found objects can be art, then this christmas tree can be as well. Like all found objects, it has been removed from its standard context and function. (I am nearly certain there is no oil well underneath it.)

Note on Footnotes in Gaza
Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Sacco seems to have realized the futility of being a reporter who reports his news in the form of comics. Comics are too laborious, too time-consuming, to be an appropriate medium for reporting, which depends on at least a degree of immediacy. Hence this book is a history--he is investigating events from 1956. He shows the investigation as it unfolds, but already that time is itself in a past that is substantially different from today (he was researching this at the beginning of the Iraq War).

But one is forced to ask, why is this a comic book? People write excellent non-fiction books like this all the time (i.e., books where the author is part of the story, which combine history and personal stories. For example, I just read a supurb example of this genre, Methland.) Comics is Sacco's chosen medium, and he does it well, but prose seems better suited for this kind of book.

The answer may come be comparing Footnotes in Gaza to Robert Crumb's Genesis. It comes down to the faces. The stories of the massacres at Rafah and at Khan Younis and the story of Genesis share one important feature--a huge cast of characters, most not very important by themselves but important to the fabric of the story as a whole. In prose, a sea of names can overwhelm you. What Sacco and Crumb do is to give faces to the names that are unique and memorable. Of course, this requires consummate cartooning skills, which both artists have.

There are many things non-fiction prose can do with ease that are obviously difficult for Sacco to do. But he trades these for the ability to depict his subjects visually--their faces especially--which makes them memorable and gives them life.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Robert's Houston Art Map

View Robert's Houston Art Map in a larger map

This is a map I have been keeping as I visit different art venues around town. It's not nearly complete, although I can say I have visited most of the commercial galleries and non-profit galleries/museums in the area. Obviously stuff is concentrated inside the Loop--and within the Loop in spacific areas, like the Museum District (duh), Montrose, the West End, the Heights, and the area immediately north of Downtown.

As I continue to add to this map, I expect I will add more "outside the Loop" venues. I know many of the regional community colleges have galleries on campus, for example, and I'd like to check them out. But as in most cities, art venues tend to be clustered where there is the largest number of potential artists, aficionados, intellectuals, and collectors. And for Houston, that sweet spot is mostly inside the Loop.

"I Yam What I Yam"

Robert Boyd

Jeet Heer, in a recent post on Sans Everything, pointed out that gay people have long been portrayed in comics, but usually negatively. It almost seems ridiculous to comment on--of course they would be portrayed negatively. When was the first positive (or neutral) portrayal of a gay person in popular culture?
There are enough of these gay characters that one could easily do an anthology called “The Gay Image In Comics before Stonewall.” The general point to make about these characters is that they are all homophobic stereotypes, although the tone of the representation varies greatly. Sometimes the cartoonists were mildly satirical (as swishy she-men), sometimes melodramatically hostile (as vile seducers of children).
But as I was reading Popeye vol. 4: Plunder Island (reprinting strips from December 1933 to July 1935), I came across something weird. Cartoonist E.C. Segar repeatedly has Popeye wearing women's clothes--and liking it.

The first example I found is from June, 1932.

Which is followed by:

Popeye isn't reveling in his female attire (he reasserts his manhood in the second strip), but he clearly is not one bit uncomfortable with wearing a dress or even being mistaken for a woman.

Then in January, 1934, Popeye finds a homeless woman and her baby. He gives the baby clothes that he has purchased for Sweetpea, then trades his own clothes for her ragged dress.

What is interesting here is that Popeye seems to enjoy his women's clothes. It's done is a jokey way, natch--he and the now rather butch woman in Popeye's sailor outfit have a good laugh together.

It is later that year that Popeye spends an extended period in drag. He dresses up in fancy women's clothes to disguise himself for the purpose of infiltrating a gang of criminals.

Surprisingly, the men of the gang are totally smitten.

Popeye then changes into a tutu in order to get a job as a dancing girl at the local saloon. The leader of the gang falls in love with Popeye.

Popeye uses his hold of the love-struck villain to find out his secret, a drug that turns men mean.

As they are about to get married, Popeye reveals that he is actually a man. he says "I yam amphibious. I wears both women's an man's clothes-arf! Arf!"

I don't want to make too much of these comics. Obviously Segar is playing on the hilarious notion that someone as crude and macho as Popeye would be so comfortable in drag, or that dressed so, he would be attractive to other men. Still, it is an example where behavior associated with gay men was presented in early comics without the negative judgment implied in many of Jeet Heer's examples.

Corporate Plop

One of the most common ways that people experience art in Houston (and probably many other places) is that they see large, usually abstract sculptures on the grounds of office buildings. Cousins to public art (aka plop art), I call this art "corporate plop." I think it has three basic purposes. First, it's there to "class up the place." Related to that is that is is designed to show that the owner is wealthy and powerful. Finally (and most practical), it makes a useful landmark--something that people will remember about the building. It is a branding device. For instance, this piece in front of the ABB building on West Sam Houston Parkway between Richmond and Westpark.

George Schroeder, Synergy

If I were giving directions to this building, I would totally describe the three interlocking, chrome-plated ellipses out front. (ABB is a Swiss conglomerate that makes equipment used in power transmission, among other things.) So it definitely provides a landmark, and it shows off ABB's wealth--but does it show taste? Well, yes and no. It shows that ABB has typically grandiose yet bland corporate tastes. It likes its sculptures large and uncontroversial. Its sculpture should look like a slick, well-made manufactured item, because ABB is in the business of providing slick, well-made manufactured items to its clients. So all in all, I guess this is a pretty successful bit of corporate plop, even if it is a really boring piece of art. [Update: I recently learned that this piece is by San Antonio sculptor George Schroeder and is called Synergy.]

Two sculptures that send a different message are located in front of buildings at 6420 and 6430 Richmond Ave. These are low-rise office buildings, and unlike the ABB building, are occupied by several different tenants. Here is the sculpture in front of 6430:

And here's what's in front of 6420:

As landmarks, they aren't so great because they are rather small--and there is way too much visual clutter on Richmond for them to stand out. (That said, I've noticed the red one for years, so maybe it would work as a landmark.) I'm guessing these were placed here by the owner of the buildings, and if so, I assume their purpose is, in part, to signal to prospective tenants that these are classy locations for offices. (Demonstrating the classiness of these offices, given their location, must be a truly quixotic task.) But their small size and general lameness prevents them, I think, from serving as signs of the building owner's wealth or taste. And while I didn't like the ABB ellipses as art, I can see that they have a conceptual relationship with ABB's core mission, as I mention above. I don't see any similar relvance for these two sculptures. So as corporate plop, I give these two failing marks.

One of the most interesting but controversial examples of corporate plop is at 602 Sawyer, just north of Memorial Dr. This is a building with multiple tenants, and it is owned by Grubb & Ellis, a national commercial real estate firm. I'll get to the controversy later. Let's look at the sculpture first.

This is in the front of the building. Then in the back entryway (the one most people use, because it's where the parking is), we have a similar piece.

 Along the side is this piece of alien cursive.

 Similar examples of unearthly typography are hung on the back of the parking garage.

OK, if I didn't know anything about these four sculptures, I would say that they work fine as landmarks--they are distinctive and visible. They definitely show that the property owner has taste and wealth, and signal to prospective tenants that this is a classy place to have an office. And, unlike the ABB sculpture (and so much corporate plop), they don't come off as grandiose and self-important. On the contrary, they are rather playful.  In short, on all practical levels, they work very well as corporate plop. (And as a side benefit, they are nice pieces of art.)

But wait--there's more to this story. These sculptures turn out to be by an artist named George Sugarman. Specifically, they were all part of a single large sculpture, the "St. Paul Commission." This was a hanging vertical sculpture in the lobby of the First National Bank of St. Paul. But when that building was sold (along with the sculpture), the new owner didn't want it the piece. They sold it to Grubb & Ellis, which used pieces on various properties in Houston and Austin (there's another piece of the work up in the Woodlands somewhere).

So this is a weird situation--the piece has been rescued but dismembered (like so many pieces of ancient art that ended up in the loving hands of European museums).
When Ross Crowe, a Grubb & Ellis senior vice president, heard about the sculpture’s availability, he recognized Sugarman’s name because he’d seen the artist’s work at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art in Austin.
Acquiring, restoring the sculpture and installing its components — a total of 19 installations — at various Houston and Austin properties fit into Grubb & Ellis’ efforts to improve its curb appeal and project "a high-caliber image," he said.
"Frankly, when I made this decision, while I knew (Sugarman) was important, I didn’t understand how important," Crowe said. (Douglas Britt, The Houston Chronicle, July 17, 2009)
Naturally, this caused a certain amount of anguish among Sugarman fans and family. 
Arden Sugarman, director and president of the Novato, Calif.-based George Sugarman Foundation, said she wishes Crowe had discussed his plans with her. She first learned of the sculpture’s dismantling when Mark K. Thompson, a St. Paul attorney and blogger, e-mailed her.
"I had always loved the sculpture (it’s right across the street from where I go outside to smoke cigarettes), but I really didn’t know anything about it," Thompson wrote on about two weeks after seeing construction crews dismantle the artwork.
Arden Sugarman and Thompson weren’t the only ones who were shocked. Attorneys for Public Art Saint Paul had drafted a agreement with building representatives for title transfer and permission to remove and store the sculpture "pending restoration and identification of a new site" in St. Paul, the fall 2008 issue of the group’s newsletter reported.
But they never received a signed copy of the agreement. Two days before the deadline for removal, the group learned the work had been sold, Podas-Larson said. (ibid.)
I don't have a strong opinion about this. It's too bad it was disassembled, but at least it was saved from the scrap heap. And I have to say that the individual parts are quite delightful.

But this is not the last word on corporate plop. In fact, I intend to document interesting examples--good or bad--whenever I can. But there is a special category of corporate plop that deserves its own post, and as soon as I can get a good photo of the example I have in mind, I will share it here.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Note on Cara Barer

I saw this show at De Santos. It opened November 7, so it may not still be up--but no other show is listed on their web site, so interested viewers may still have a chance to see them.

Cara Barer works with books. About half of her work takes big paperpack books with very flexible spines (or saddlestitching) photographed from the bottom, opened up to resemble flowers.

Cara Barer,  Road to Robin Hood Bay, photograph, 2009

Most of the rest are sculptural works where the book is part of the sculpture. She encases these poor books in wax.

Cara Barer,  Hurly-Burly, book and wax

This yellowy wax looks like beeswax, and if so, its use is very appropriate in this piece:

Cara Barer,  Word Hive book and wax 

Some of the sculptural pieces are wall pieces, like this:

Cara Barer,  Mummy #2, book, cloth, and wax 

And in one case, the book has been cast in bronze.

Cara Barer,  Book of Spells, bronze

The black metal compostion, the title redolent of black magic, make this a somewhat sinister object. (I find the Stephen Malkmus song, "Black Book", popping into my brain.)

Cara Barer speaks in her statement of the death of books (as electronic means of communication supplent them), and the idea that libraries will become museums (or mausoleums) to this extinct form. She worries, however, that these electronic substitutes may be fragile, and in some distant future we may need to return to these old books. She views her work as about the preservation of books. (Preservation in a symbolic sense, since she is actually destroying books to make her work.)

Electronic storage and retrieval of knowledge implies a certain high level of civilization and a complex economy made up of millions of individuals. So far it's been petty robust, but we're just at the beginning of it. There are definitely events that could end electronic storage and retieval--any horrible extinction level event that greatly reduces the population of Earth, or some huge electromagnetic disturbance (like a magnetar explosion in the cosmic neighborhood of Earth) could do it. Books, on the other hand, require simpler technology and smaller economies (fewer individuals with fewer hyper-specific skill-sets). I therefore agree--repositories of physical books should be made, no matter how advanced we get with electronic data storage and distribution.

And I find these wax encrusted books beautiful. They shouldn't be in a white-wall gallery though--they feel ancient and deserve dark, smoke-stained wooden walls.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best Comics of 2009

Robert Boyd

I was going to do the top 10 comics of 2009, but I just couldn't limit myself to 10. So here are my top 15. Some big caveats going in. First, there are comics that came out this year that look really good that I haven't read yet. (For example, the new Joe Sacco book.) There are also probably comics that came out this year that are really good that I just don't know about. And finally, this list is personal and idiosyncratic. It is the list of a guy who values art comics and alternative comics far more than mainstream comics. My tastes were formed in the 80s and 90s, and I think that shows. I am someone who loves the comic strip form, especially as practiced before World War II. Also, I have found over the past few years that I haven't been reading many comic books. So the only comic book on this list is Multiforce (and calling it a comic book is kind of a stretch).So with that in mind, here we go!

The Top 15

1) Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. See my review here. A beautiful, rigorously structured, funny and moving book.

2) You Are There by Jean-Claude Forest and Jacques Tardi. See my review here. This is, like so many things on my list, actually quite an old work. But this edition is the first published in English.

3) Jack Survives by Jack Moriarity. This powerful body of work was mostly published in RAW in the 80s. Moriarty approaches these comics as a life-long painter, and this edition reproduces them as paintings, not as high-contrast line drawings, which is how they were originally printed. The result is mesmerizing without detracting from the stories. The stories are kind of abstractions of early 50s manhood. A guy in a hat with his family and his house... Brilliant pieces of minimalism created with a neo-expressionist painter's brush.

4) The Book of Genesis Illustrated by Robert Crumb. Awe-inspiring. In a way, Crumb has been too faithful. Using a very literal translation of the Bible by Robert Alter as his starting point, he tries to keep interpretation to a minimum. One result is that the comic form is compromised in at least one obvious way. The Bible will have passages that read, "He said, Blah blah blah" In the Bible, there are no freestanding quotations of spoken words. So in a panel where Crumb is depicting someone speakings, there is always a little caption preceeding the word balloon that says something like, "And then Jacob said" This is really weird. What these captions are saying is being shown through the use of the visual device of the word balloon. This was just one of the awkward things that comes from including every word of a prose work in a different medium (comics). Of course, his artistry makes up for a lot of awkwardness. You can stare at this book forever. One aspect of Genesis that is really boring is the listing of names--the "begats." But Crumb, drawing all these hundreds of faces, turns that weakness of the text into an overwhelming strength--each face, so individual, implies a story, a life. It's a beautiful piece of work.

5) George Sprott (1894-1975) by Seth. This ran in the New York Times Magazine, and for this book, Seth has added some incidental art (spectacular, of course--it includes cardboard models of the buildings from the story) and two short recollections of Sprott's boyhood and youth. Seth uses a technique that I think really works better for him than telling a story as a straight narrative. Each page is its own little episode--set in its own time, focusing on a particular person. The sum of these episodes is George Sprott's awful life--an asshole whose career is an extended riff on one minor achievement of his young manhood. It is amazing how compelling this nasty character is!

6) The Complete Little Orphan Annie, vol. 3 by Harold Gray. See my review here. An unusually powerful melodrama from the depths of the Depression.

7) Popeye, vol. 4 by E.C. Segar. This is the volume with the great "Plunder Island" sequence, which introduced many of us to the genius of Segar when it was reproduced in the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics. But the whole of this book is top-notch, Segar at his greatest. Includes a lengthy and hilarious sequence of Popeye in drag, romancing a baddie.

8) Journey, vol 2 by William Messner-Loebs. An underappreciated classic from the 80s, published in the first great flush of "independent comics" that brought us classics like Love & Rockets and Yummy Fur. MacAlistaire and the failed poet Elmer Alyn Craft (who was introduced in the first volume) are stranded in the barely there settlement of New Hope for a winter. This village is claustrophobic and full of horrible secrets. Craft is obsessed with finding them--MacAlistaire is interested only insofar as it will help him survive the winter. Messner-Loebs' drawing has lost what little polish it exhibited in the first volume. It becomes ragged and urgent here, fitting the psychologically intense and unsettling story.

9) Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, vol. 8. This is a particularly rich volume. Gould made a decision to not send Dick Tracy to war, but the war pops up. Pruneface is an enemy agent that Tracy must shut down. His most terrifying villain in this volume, however, is Mrs. Pruneface, a hulking skullfaced woman seeking revenge for her man's death. And of Tracy's iconic villains, Flattop rounds out this volume (and we meet Vitamin Flintheart, who will be a recurring character). The art is, as always, excellent.

10) Multiforce by Mat Brinkman. I've read a lot of these strips here and there, and only now realize that they all sort of fit together.This oversized, saddle-stitched book brings the whole saga together. And "saga" is the right word. Multiforce is simultaneously the kind of epic a ten-year-old boy would conceive of and at the same time the kind of art that a sophisticated product of elite art education might create. The work slithers between these two poles trickily. And Brinkman never fails to be amusing. This may remind some people of Trondheim and Sfarr's Dungeon books, which are clever and funny, but frankly feel contrived next to Multiforce. Great, weird art and storytelling.

11) Cecil and Jordon in New York by Gabrielle Bell. Very good--Bell's art is outstanding in a non-showy, matter-of-fact way. In some stories, she never shows you someone's face in a close-up, and in some of her autobiographical stories, almost ever figure is drawn full-figure--in other words you see their feet and heads in every panel they are in. The distance from the observer and the characters is pretty large. It's a weird way to tell an autobiographical story--its as if the author was pretending not to know what was going through the mind of the character. It creates an interesting contradiction, as if Bell were alienated from her earlier self. That feeling carries through in her fiction stories too. The characters seem to feel disconnected from their lives, even as they have what (on the surface) seem like pretty engaging experiences. Her characters never get happy, which can be kind of a downer. The title story even features a character who would be happier as a chair--she'd feel useful that way, and not have to struggle the way she did when she was a full-time girl.

12) Everyone Is Stupid Except For Me by Peter Bagge. This collection has been a long time coming. Peter Bagge has been doing these reportorial strips for Reason for years, and before that he did similar strips for the late, lamented web magazine Suck. His reporting is infused with his own style of humor, which will resonate with fans of Hate (like me). But what is different is that he is actually reporting here--going out, covering events, talking to participants, doing research, etc. Satirical reporting may have been around forever, but in modern times, Spy was the first big practitioner of it. Spy spawned a host of mostly online followers--Suck, of course, and nowadays websites like Gawker and Wonkette. But those sites are mostly picking up news and adding their own snarky spin. Like the writers for Spy, Bagge is going out and doing the digging himself, and like the great magazine reporters of the '60s and '70s, he puts himself in the stories. Most of this work is in service of Bagge's (and Reason's) libertarian beliefs. Don't expect him to be "fair"--he has a point of view and he is going to hammer it home. But he is a humorist first, so he is constantly mocking his own side (if they are mockable) as well as the protagonists of his stories. But if you are not a libertarian, you'll find yourself muttering "That's outrageous!" at many of Bagge's broader caricatures of liberals or conservatives. Get past that! These strips are very, very funny, and if they force you to work harder to defend your point of view against Bagge's arguments, is that bad?

13) You’ll Never Know book 1: A Good and Decent Man by Carol Tyler. Great but somewhat confused biography/memoir. Carol Tyler is attempting to tell the story of her dad in World War II. She is faced with a problem, though. Tyler's dad doesn't want to talk about a certain part of it--his time in Italy. We are given hint that he saw a literal "river of blood," and the trauma has kept him silent for decades. Even his wife doesn't know. Tyler herself is going through her own stuff--an absent husband, a beautiful teenage daughter, life. Tyler is better at short pieces, where she can focus. This is a glorious mess, but a moving and beautiful one. The format is unusual too. Tyler uses the horizontal format of a scrapbook. Also, for some reason, the whole thing is not being told in one volume. I suppose I will wait long frustrating months (and years?) for the next volume.

14) Map of My Heart by John Porcellino. I think this could have been better edited. As it is, they just reprinted whole issues of King Kat, including letters to Porcellino. This approach, however, feels consistent with the basic vibe of King Cat. The stories are slight, filled with simple joy or being alive or with small regrets. In between the stories, there are journal entries and annotations where Porcellino tells us about the arc of his marriage, his sense of failure at getting divorced, his mysterious chronic illness. etc. These are almost never the subjects of his comics. At least not directly. His work is oblique that way, but never obscure. On the contrary, emotion is right on the surface. Lots of very moving stories here.
15) Nine Ways to Disappear by Lilly Carre. This is a collection of witty little stories. Some have the flavor of modern fairy tales ("The Pearl"), and all of them have an other-worldly quality. She uses a primitive panel progression--one panel per page, like the old woodcut guys (Lynd Ward, Franz Masereel). To emphasize the separateness of each panel, each one has a decorative border (recalling Lynda Barry, perhaps). But the stories flow perfectly well, and doing it this way made me linger a bit over each panel. Which is nice, because they are lovely. My favorite story is "Wide Eyes", the story of a man who falls in love with a woman with widely-spaced eyes, but feeling oppressed by them, finds he can hide from her by standing very close to her face, between her eyes and apparently outside her field of vision. My favorite character is the only recurring one, a lonely storm grate.

(A little side note--of the top 15 books, four were published by Fantagraphics, three by Drawn & Quarterly, three by IDW, and one each by Norton, Buenaventura Press, Pantheon, Little Otsu, and Picturebox.)

Honorable mention
Here are some other 2009 comics I liked.
The Best American Comics 2009 edited by Charles Burns
The Cartoon History of the Modern World vol. 2 by Larry Gonick
The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, vol. 7
The Complete Little Orphan Annie, vol. 2 by Harold Gray
A Drifiting Life by Yoshiharu Tatsumi
Ho! by Ivan Brunetti
Humbug by Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, Will Elder, etc.
Key Moments from the History of Comics by François Ayroles
Low Moon by Jason
Masterpiece Comics by R. Sikoryak
A Mess of Everything by Miss Lasko-Gross
The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack by Nicholas Gurewitch
Pim & Francie by Al Columbia
Stitches by David Small
Terry and the Pirates, vol.6 by Milton Caniff
West Coast Blues by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jacques Tardi

Art Books
I also want to acknowledge a few great books that came out in 2009 that are more "art books" than comics, but which contain comics and/or have a strong relationship to comics. All of these books are really beautiful and quite worth investing in a big new coffee table on which to display them.

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics
The Art of Tony Millionaire
Hot Potatoe by Marc Bell
Wayne White: Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve