Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Imperious but Fragmentary Woman

Things are really busy! Dreaming of getting some drawing done. Tonight I looked through some shopping mall drawings from almost a year ago. Want to go back for more--mall, that is, as well as documenting highway construction that will soon be complete. The half-finished stuff is fascinating to me.

There was an Indian family in the sitting area where I was drawing that day, outside Macy's. Mom and Dad, son and daughter. Three of the four were on cell phones. Mom was somewhat squat, very elegant, almost haughty. She seemed to be evaluating her phone as much as texting on it. Great shoes, too. I ended up drawing pieces of her, with hopes of reassembling her. But she looked much better in this more spontaneous fragmentary guise. I loved the way she held her right hand.

The really chunky woman in the middle part of the image was someone else.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Watchmen 1: Book Report

As readers of GT know, despite the recent paucity of posts, I write on the general subject of commercial images–typically, the lower the better. Lower, that is, in terms of critical recognition and overall seriousness of reception. I am especially fond of the fifty-year stretch of periodical illustration between 1915 and 1965; modern spot-color packaging; illustration for children's primers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s; and informational images in general.

GT readers may also know that my recent studio work has embraced some of the visual conventions of comic panels and sequences. And yet I will readily admit a handful of facts as they relate to my own personal history with comics:

Un: Despite the fact that I enjoyed the odd Submariner and Fantastic Four comic as a kid, I never actually embraced the popular insurgent myth of comics, any more than I bonded with the modernist insurgent myth of art. Insurgents, they bore me. (Not skeptics. Skeptics breathe real air and squint. Insurgents smell their own armpits and smile.)

Deux: In practice, very often I am frustrated by the cognitive experience of consuming comics, as the experience tends to fuse looking and reading, with an almost inevitable bias toward the latter. Although I am quite fond of reading, I am more drawn to the act of looking. So I see an integration of word and image which happens (typically) to be ruled by word as a loss. John the Evangelist says, "In the beginning was the Word." I beg to differ. In the beginning was–and at the end, will be–the Eye. Just ask Samuel Beckett. (An obscure reference The Unnamable, the sort of novel one would only read in a college class. I'll come back to it.) For the record, I really love certain contemporary cartoonists, especially Seth, who manages to be quite writerly and very visual. (Example below especially so)

Trois: Latter-day comics very often suffer from a tendentious sense of themselves. Simple notions dressed up as complex thoughts. Alas, this is related to the impulse–simplifying abstraction–that marks the act of cartooning. Except in reverse. The most exasperating popular art takes a simple thing and makes it seem complicated. Think superfrilly sentimentalist junk. The best cartooning–and the best writing–takes a complicated subject and distills it into something simple. (Not fake simple, as in simplistic. I mean Sesame Street simple. Or Fred Rogers simple. And both of those references are meant in high praise.) The superhero tradition by itself pretty much qualifies as over-elaborated simplicity.

Which brings me to the subject in question. The Watchmen.

I finished the graphic novel about a week ago as a prelude to seeing the film with my one of my sons, who was hot to see the thing. I had considered the book unfinished required reading. So I plowed through it over the course of a couple of days.

First the good. I appreciated the density of the informational weave that the graphic novel provides, though a certain chunk of that weave is actually delivered in prose, provided in Moby Dickish alternating background chapters. Plenty of postmodern formal stuff--different varieties of texts (biography, journal entries, reference works, newspaper editorials, etc.) providing variable points of view on the total story. Which is itself a postmodern razzmatazz, telling the tale of a bunch of former dressed-up heroes, retired to obscurity or drink or covert government work. All of them in an alternate version of the year 1986, which features a very hot cold war indeed, as well as polytermed president-cum-emperor Richard Nixon. (It's easy to see Watchmen as a precursor text to Brad Bird's script for The Incredibles.) There's a history of comics angle to the comic-within-a-comic, The Black Freighter, which is meant as a sort of paean to pre-code comics.

But just as horror literature tends to be the most morally uptight genre going, the ghoulish freighter tale and the larger story it spices involve ponderous miscalculation, violent death, and punishment both deserved and undeserved. Plenty of winking at the traditions it exploits and spoofs, but the spoof stops short and finally re-embraces its material: the modern gothic tale, complete with a faked but extremely costly "Armageddon." Snappy dialogue, splattering blood, jaded heroes, millions dead.

And a big blue guy on Mars.

And women who could only have been written by men.

And a wise but terrible secret.

And I'm thinking that maybe I'll skip the movie, because it's likely a circuitous, ponderous bloodbath.

But perhaps I am unkind to the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons masterwork. I will entertain counterargument. And maybe I'll go see the movie anyway, just to bitch about it... In which case my son will tell me to shut up and find something else to worry about.

Images: Promotional digital desktop, Watchmen motion picture, 2009; Jack Kirby, Ben Grimm, panel from an issue of The Fantastic Four, 1964; Seth, page 115 from It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, 1996; Joe Shuster, cover, Action Comics #33, February 1939.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Commercial Modernism Grab Bag

It's been three weeks since my last post. That's a little frustrating, although given the workload in the classroom, it is at least somewhat understandable. The good news is that I've been chugging my way through the semester in Commercial Modernism, and learning new stuff along the way. I promised to provide more information about my spring courses, and haven't really done so, save for a discussion of Leyendecker, Parrish and Susan Sontag. So here'a an overview of CoMod, as I have dubbed the folder in which I'm dumping the slides and lectures and research.

Description below, with some elaboration to follow:

Commercial Modernism 1865-1965

This course will explore contributions to and expressions of image-based visual modernism within the commercial tradition. We will focus on periodical illustration, the comic strip, and animated film. Content will address the birth and expansion of industrial image production; the history of relevant technologies; modernist art theory and the experience of modernity; the parallel but culturally distinct traditions of illustration and cartooning; issues of race and gender in the production and reception of these works. A sampling of practitioners to be considered: E.W. Kemble, Howard Pyle, Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, N.C. Wyeth, Winsor McCay, J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, George Herriman, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Al Parker, Robert Weaver, Mary Blair, Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Ezra Jack Keats, Jack Kirby. Four required film screenings will be scheduled during the semester. [short on time, I just cut that to three]

Images from the commercial tradition typically fall into a cultural and academic blind spot. They exist outside the realm of art history as traditionally defined and suffer from the textual basis of most culture studies experiences. As a result, many careers and works which would otherwise attract interest remain effectively invisible. This course will seek to integrate the close study of objects associated with art history and the embrace of the embedded in common to culture studies. We will draw on the collections of the recently founded Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University.

We've just wrapped up the first half of the course, which focused on getting a few definitions straight, covering the history of platemaking and printing technologies, and addressing the rise and fall of periodical illustration within those 100 years.

It is perhaps a little nutty to be trying to cover that much territory, and I am working to be very upfront with the students about the hazards of the approach, but the alternative–not attempting it at all–seems far worse. The most important important dimension of the enterprise is its synthetic nature. The interwoven influences of commerce, technology, aesthetics and small c culture must be acknowledged, it seems to me, if the material is to be understood at all. The Story of Achievement, Style and Influence, which tends to be the art historical approach, leaves out much of the foregoing.

Anyway, for fun, I've posted a set of images which have come up in the course for one reason or another. Seemed like a decent way to capture the adventure. Citations below.

Images: Illustration unattributed, Sears Roebuck Catalogue, 1900; image captures the reach of the mails, the advent of the woman-as-consumer, aggressive, vulgarian color, and some great display lettering; Timothy O'Sullivan, The Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, silver print, 1863; among other things, this photograph anticipates the dethroning of documentary illustration, then nearing its height in the Civil War era; from a purely visual perspective, the image highlights the new pictorial sensibility of the machine: the focus on the corpses brings the viewer's gaze down, very nearly past the horizon line, opening up an abstract field of composition unconcerned with the grand pictorialism of declamatory history painting–instead, a gritty look-at-that! as well as a new kind of two-dimensional design for images; Hashimoto Sadahide, Picture of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise, 1861; here, a flattened-space window onto the east-west exchange which, moving from Japan to Europe and America, had such an influence on visual modernism, dubbed japonisme by the French; Le Bois Protat, the earliest extant European woodcut block known, dated to 1380; a historically signficant item, but also, a perfectly good example of one-color line art, just like the next example: below, Unattributed, El Exigente, the choosy coffee buyer, packaging illustration for Savarin Coffee, c.1977.

More thoughts on the history of illustration, particularly, coming presently.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Onsite Research, Punctuated

I gave myself the months of January and February to wrap up the onsite experiments that began in earnest last May, and intensified during the fall. I have learned, I think, what is necessary to proceed to the next phase, which will involve more of the same, but importantly will require the composition of sequential works using the same methodology. I am beginning to put together some ideas for same. In the meantime, I am going to shift my energies to writing for the next few months.

Here are a few efforts from the last little stretch. I posted this image months ago, with a few other airport drawings I made on a trip to Denver last September. I decided to execute a more finished version in a pretty strict two-color system, almost as if it were a relief print. I had been working with full value ranges of given hues, so thought I'd change it up on this one.

I made the trip in part to see a curator at the Denver Art Museum, which is a fascinating case study among American art museums for reasons I'll articulate another day. But they have an excellent collection of American Indian art, which is very effectively and provocatively installed. I hung around and drew for ninety minutes or so, and produced this drawing. I had been thinking I'd go back and paint it, but it never happened. I think I'm calling it done. But this image marked a point of departure into comic panel formatting in the sketchbook work, so I think of it as important. This formatting will play an important role in the longer things I'm thinking about.
Finally we traveled to Florida at the end of last month to visit my folks and celebrate my father's 80th birthday. I sat in a golf cart at the edge of the practice green at the development where my folks spend a few winter months. I made this drawing, then came home and painted it. I had intended to finish it, but I guess I lost interest. I added a few clarifying pencil lines to wrap it up and call it done. I think it may have benefited from my moving on.