Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Christmas

Bearing down on Christmas. Please accept our best holiday wishes from GT.

Image: D.B. Dowd, South Carolina Church Lot, from a graphic story I'm working on. 2007.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Joe Deal & Artball

My to do list includes the final wrap up of the Artball lineups that were sent to me around the time of the World Series. This week, I promise. I had a wonderful exchange with my old friend Joe Deal about the concept. He was pondering a Gallic-inflected History of Photography lineup. Alas, my laptop meltdown devoured the exchange, and I've only just realized it. Drat! Perhaps I can coax a resend from him. He winkingly provided a hilarious Francophone take on Tinkers to Evers to Chance.

Fact is, a manager compiling a serious History of Photography lineup using Americans from the second half of the 20th century would have to give Joe Deal serious consideration. He hits for power and average. He's precise--plays the game it was meant to be played. He designs beautifully and thinks rigorously--a true switch hitter (shown as a lefty above). I've inked him in at the hot corner, which is one of several places he could play. These days he's lost a little mobility, but he can still DH. I see a heroic Kirk Gibson at bat in the 88 World Series against Eckersley--the guy could barely walk but he parked it. Same Deal. As it were.

Below are several images from Joe's Beach Cities series from the mid-70s. Above is a single image from his Topos folio, which was a documentary project associated with the construction of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I had craftily arranged with Betsy Ruppa, my dear old friend, expert printer and Deal spouse to email me some of Joe's recent work, a mission in which she was sneakily complicit, but this too vanished in smoking circuits. So now I'll have to ask.

Making his baseball card and looking at these images again have focused my thoughts on Joe and Betsy. So I say on behalf of more than a few: your old friends in St. Louis are thinking of you this holiday season...

Stanley Fish on Aesthetics

On one of the NY Times blogs yesterday Stanley Fish offered some comparative description of a new film, an old TV show and an art opening--with some harrumphing tossed in for good measure. His harrumph is a cousin to my complaint about the hot country radio format and the experience of viewing contemporary art that I expressed a week or two back. It's worth a read, even if it skirts close to the edge of the long established grumpy-at-art writing genre. Like most of us, he's best describing and reflecting upon the things he likes. He argues for directness and artistic engagement with the quotidian details of life, and responds less well to showiness of a certain sort:
"...Although randomness and chance are themes of this...exhibit, there is nothing random in either the concepts or their implementation."
Fish's objection to these highly crafted attitudinal stances in otherwise underplayed artworks is related to my objection to what I referred to as "artistic positioning."

In support of Professor Fish's views, I offer up a Stuart Davis still life [which typically requires almost no pretext on my part, as he is one of my favorites] from 1924.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Mitchell Report Illustrated

I recently acquired a variety of pulp magazines for research purposes and was delighted to discover this hilarious illustration triage job, which also put me in mind of a certain document...

Blogging was light last week, and I hope to make up for it in the next few days.

Image: Cover Illustration Tearsheet, Astonishing Stories, March 1942. A Popular Publication, Toronto, Ontario. The illustration is uncredited, although the inside front cover explains that "...the cover and story illustrations...are created and painted by a group of outstanding Canadian artists." The damaged cover has been lovingly if crudely restored with magic markers on a separate sheet inside.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Aristotle and Comics

As classes are wrapping up I’m reviewing student work from the semester and evaluating my own performance as a teacher. One of the things that turned out well this semester was a new thought experiment for young visual composers, especially those exploring the graphic novel and animated film.

Ambitious (and long-lived) primary sources rarely fail to produce meaningful learning for students. In this case I returned to Aristotle’s Poetics, an important text from my own undergraduate education.*

The Poetics is an incomplete set of lecture notes from a disquisition on the subject of tragedy specifically, and drama more generally. One would struggle to identify a more influential text on theater, the context in which I originally encountered it as a student. By contrast, studio art education does not engage the Greeks but for art historical round-ups of red-figure vases and figure sculpture even though Plato’s distrust of images and image-makers has reverberated through the centuries. (A pity, really, that fundamental concepts in the history of ideas do not generally make their way into studio education. Periodically I will address deduction and induction [and Descartes and Bacon] as modes of seeing and knowing to a roomful of student illustrators and designers. Typically they look at me like I am completely crazy.)

Aristotle’s contribution, like that of all important critics, begins with description and proceeds to evaluation. His work to complete the former task begins with basic definitions of tragedy and contrasts same with other forms, like lyric poetry. Aristotle goes on to identify six elements of tragedy, which refer to the creative building blocks of the form. They are, in descending order of importance to A.: plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle.

Plot is the causally-connected series of events that drive the story. Character requires no explanation. Thought refers to the ideas addressed by the work, and can be extrapolated into concept for contemporary purposes. Diction refers to the speech of the characters, music (elsewhere translated “song”) applies to the melody and rhythmic structure of the thing [I prefer the more formalist take of rhythm] and spectacle, lowest of the elements for Aristotle, refers to what we see: the visuality of the experience, and especially dramatic events—e.g., storms at sea.

I posed the following problem to the group: setting aside Aristotle’s rankings, which prize story above all, which of the elements of drama correspond to your interests, and knowing that, how would you choose to heighten those values as you compose graphic stories and works? Choose two or three.

It’s certainly possible to identify implicit interests in the careers of others. Milt Caniff and other serialists emphasize plot; Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) and Bob Kane (Batman) are all about character; Charles Shultz stressed thought, primarily via character, and Chris Ware has a strong conceptual bent. Diction is harder; I’m not certain who the graphic novel equivalent of David Mamet would be, although I am partial to Seth and think he writes well, but I think that may be too general. Ware applies very directly to music, because his work is rhythmic and structural. And spectacle? The king of same would be Winsor McCay.

I think this is an interesting exercise. I am planning some short graphic stories. It has helped to identify my three most important elements as character, diction, and spectacle, with special affection for the last.

Images: Bob Kane, Sunday Batman Strip, 1946, panel on Two-Face; Chester Gould, roster of villains from Dick Tracy strip; Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan page; Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, New York Herald, 1905.

*at Kenyon College, in Gambier Ohio, a splendid if isolated school and locale.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hot Country Proto-Fascism

An odd thought of the sort that one typically doesn't write down: while I was in the car driving to and from Ohio for Thanksgiving, I did as I tend to do when permitted by my family, which is to sample a broad range of radio stations along the way. Oftentimes I prefer the radio to premixed music of one sort of another, for the illusion of connection to others. The magic of AM radio late at night is difficult to beat, when you pick up a station four states away. Very dreamy.

At any rate, I listened to about 15 minutes of country music (which is not really country, but "hot country," or pop music sung by people with Southern accents and silly names like names like Rascal and Faith). I am fond of actual country music, which celebrates adult ambiguities and engages moral questions without fully resolving them. But this junk comes as prepackaged sentiment, and worse it aligns itself with coarse woodgrained majoritarian impulses: religious faith is good; children are precious; rural people are more authentic than city people; love is forever; parents are wise; simplicity is noble; and a mishmash of stuff about flags and eagles. The producers and songwriters and performers self-consciously position the artwork in a cultural and political context. You could call it proto-fascist, what with all the God and country and family stuff. Too much. And then it occurred to me that I am annoyed by hot country music in exactly the same way I am annoyed by a great deal of contemporary art, insofar as much of it engages in positioning before the fact. You know how you're supposed to feel; you know what ideas have been approved.

For students of expository prose: please note that here is an excellent example of writing on a general topic without benefit of examples--common among lazy editorialists--which deservedly annoys alert readers. I will work on citing actual songs and objects another day. For now I'd like to thank the blog format for having midwifed enough irresponsible opinion to make this seem at the least typical if not egregious. For now anyway, I've articulated that modest notion that flowered briefly on Interstate 64 West of Louisville, Kentucky on Thanksgiving Day 2007.

Image: Uncredited cover illustration, Rangeland Romance, January 1948. A Popular Publication.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Four-Color Puzzles

I have some wrapping up to do on a number of fronts here at GT, which I promise to address presently. In the meantime, here are some images which capture the old crude charm of multi-plate printing in the days before cheap four color and no-brainer separations. The illustrator Joseph Low, who died last February at the age of 95 (Steve Heller's Times obituary available here; registration required) produced hundreds of illustrations for the Rainbow Dictionary, published in 1947. I love these things. Very carefully reasoned as form and color statements.

That said, wow! Different era. Many entries make this plain, but none better than the unfortunate fox. We've grown quite a bit more sentimental since the days after World War Two, when no editor at the World Publishing Company saw fit to strike a straightforward pictorial description of an animal caught in a steel trap in a work intended for children. It's a tough world, kids.

Meanwhile Low's jumble of a fair (top) seems urgent, jangling and witty.

Images: Joseph Low, illustrated entries for "fair," “trains" and "trap," Rainbow Dictionary, World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1947;