Tuesday, 28 February 2006

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRAGEDY AND MERE MISERY



Fans of Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman and other popular graphic novelists patiently explained to me last week that I am wrong to expect "slick, commercial" design in art that deals with higher truths about alienation and the tortured soul of the artist. Technical skill may be important for commercial art used to sell Coca-Cola, but is less relevant to today's more honest and personal artwork, with its tragic or subversive messages.

I admit it's difficult to criticize Maus or Fun Home merely because the authors do not draw well. But personally, I don't think the epithet "commercial" is a useful tool when seeking out quality art. Many bad pictures of sincere, personal subjects can be found hanging in art museums. Many brilliant pictures of dishwashing detergent can be found in magazine ads. As far as I know, nobody has yet established a connection between purity of motive and quality of picture.


It may be sad that, as Thoreau remarked, "most men lead lives of quiet desperation," but after reading Chris Ware, we might wish that desperate men would be a little quieter.



If artistic purity is what matters to you, I'm not sure you'll find much difference between commercial illustration, graphic novels and the pictures hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. They are all commercial. (Andy Warhol famously remarked that "good business is the best art.") Instead, try setting your sights a little higher and check out the true "outsider" artists. If the stink of commercialism offends you, you have to be prepared to hang around artists who don't use soap regularly.


Henry Darger


Often untrained, working in obscurity and poverty, ignored by the New York glitterati, "outsider" artists work only to serve their god or their muse, or sometimes their alien leaders on the planet Zarbtron.



For example, the artist Henry Darger was an impoverished janitor and dishwasher who lived for 50 years in a shabby apartment so tiny he had to sleep sitting up. He worked late into the night illustrating his magnificent graphic novel, In the Realms of the Unreal.



















Henry Darger

Darger led a life of isolation and pain that makes Jimmy Corrigan's life look like a day at Disneyworld. Yet, Darger's artwork is filled with dazzling images. He did not use his suffering as a justification for ignoring composition, design, color or the other standards inherent in his chosen medium. His beautiful pictures were able to advance, rather than work in opposition to, his troubling personal message.

It is also worth noting that Darger never dwelled on his own suffering and insecurities. Instead, he elevated his personal misery to epic tragedy with his art. You will find no self-obssessed whimpering in Darger's work.


Henry Darger

Darger kept these exquisite illustrations to himself until the day he died. He was not working to impress the critics or harvest royalties. He used art to struggle with his own personal demons.


Henry Darger

Another "outsider" artist, James Hampton, was a janitor who lived a lonely life of poverty. Beginning in the late 1940s, Hampton began writing about his religious visions using pictograms and secret codes.



He drew marvelous symbols such as lightning bolts and omniscient eyes. Hampton spent the last fifteen years of his life integrating these symbols and pictograms into astonishing sculptures comprised of aluminum foil, light bulbs and pieces of old furniture.



He called his strange and beautiful masterpiece, "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly."


James Hampton

Like Darger, Hampton was not out to impress Art News. He did not whine or complain about the unfairness of life. Hampton's own landlord had no idea what Hampton was up to. After Hampton died, his landlord was shocked to discover Hampton's masterpiece in the unheated garage where Hampton had labored all those years.


James Hampton

The Throne of the Third Heaven is made up of 177 separate art objects, combining words, symbols, drawings and sculpture. Standing before it, the cumulative effect is enough to inspire dread for your immortal soul.



Although they never received recognition during their lives, the work of Darger and Hampton is superior to anything I have seen from Spiegelman or Ware. Darger and Hampton worked with greater handicaps, under more difficult circumstances, and yet made better art.


There is also an important philosophical difference here, which should probably be irrelevant to a blog about illustration, but which I confess colors my judgment. It seems to me that the artistic response of these outsider artists to personal pain and the weight of their humanity was a more noble, less self-indulgent response. The guys who seem to know the most about this tragedy business-- Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes-- remind us that suffering and doom are an inescapable part of the human condition, and that our only meager defense is the tragic hero's capacity to elevate mere misery into the majesty of tragedy. This is done through courage, perseverance and understanding in the face of hopelessness. (Not much of a consolation prize, I admit, but hey, what other options are you offering?) My purely subjective judgment is that Jimmy Corrigan dwells at the misery level, and I find no nutritional content from visiting him a second or third time.



One of my readers, in explaining where I've gone wrong, compared Chris Ware to Shakespeare. In my view, for all his sincerity, Chris Ware's work is artistically feeble compared to Darger's.

There are of course thousands of other "outsider" artists, some making beautiful art, some making terrible art. But if you genuinely reject "commercialism" in art and strive for artistic purity, put down your graphic novels and invest a little time with real outsiders.

Saturday, 25 February 2006

ERICH SOKOL



John Ciardi once said, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves they have a better idea.” Since we've been rambling for the last few weeks about modern art trends, I thinks it makes sense to heed Ciardi's advice and spend a moment visiting the paintings of Erich Sokol, the gifted illustrator / cartoonist for Playboy magazine.





Sokol had a splendid sense of light, color and atmosphere. He was far more talented than traditional pin up artists such as Vargas, whose uninspired paintings now sell for tens of thousands of dollars.





Note the confidence with which Sokol handles the stripes of light on the beach in the following painting, or his treatment of the foliage in the background. Nothing is labored, and no unnecessary details.



Although the beautiful girl was always the centerpiece of the cartoon, if you look closely you will see that Sokol had more fun painting the male counterpart-- the fat doctor, the grizzled farmer, the blustering general all left him more room for creativity.









Friday, 17 February 2006

EXHIBITION OF GREAT ILLUSTRATION ART



If you are located within a thousand miles of New York City, I urge you to make your way to the Dahesh Museum of Art (http://www.daheshmuseum.org) to see a breathtaking collection of 90 original drawings and paintings from the golden age of illustration.



The exhibition is making a rare guest appearance from the private collection of Richard and Mary Kelly. If you don't take advantage of this oppportunity to see them, you may never get another chance.




The exhibit includes superb examples of art from all the greats-- Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Dean Cornwell, Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker and a host of others. It is impossible to walk through this exhibition, crowded with powerful, vivid images, and emerge without renewed respect for these talented, imaginative artists.



The exhibition continues through May 21, 2006. It is accompanied by an excellent catalog with numerous color reproductions.



In one of the catalog's essays, the chief curator of the Dahesh quotes a letter from Vincent van Gogh in which van Gogh admires Howard Pyle's "wonderful" drawings. When you look at the Pyle drawings in the Kelly collection, I'm sure you will agree with van Gogh
.




Tuesday, 7 February 2006

MARRIED LIFE IN WORDS AND PICTURES



Was there ever a comic strip marriage as great as the marriage of Mary Perkins and Pete Fletcher in Leonard Starr's fabulous strip, On Stage? Mary and Pete had a wonderful relationship, wise and funny and profound. For Valentine's day, I am putting aside my customary rants about quality in art, and offering a bouquet of wonderful moments about day-to-day love from On Stage.





Just like in real life, Pete and Mary chatted in the bathroom getting ready for the day, or in the bedroom decompressing at night. Their dialogue had all the rhythm of an excellent, mature marriage-- something very rare in the medium. Those of you fortunate enough to be in long term relationships this Valentine's day will recognize the following situation where the wife wants to discuss a couple from their dinner party that evening and the husband wants to go to sleep.






Studying these comic strips as a young boy, I learned a lot about drawing-- about anatomy, design, how folds in cloth worked, etc.-- but I also learned inadvertently how relationships were supposed to work. Leonard Starr got me as far as high school, at which time my girlfriend-- now my loving wife-- took over my education. God knows what I would have understood about relationships if I had grown up reading Chris Ware or R. Crumb.

Here we see one of the many diversions from the plot of On Stage, where Pete and Mary break into spontaneous play:






Next is a scene where Starr cleverly uses a domestic episode to show how Pete Fletcher is readjusting to life in the U.S. after a traumatic episode as a war correspondent in Vietnam. Mary stumbles across Pete and their housekeeper trying to make the most spectacular ice cream sundae they possibly can. Pay attention to Starr's unconventional use of the language:




In this final example, Pete throws the dinner dishes out the window, rather than wash them:


I just discovered that the whole wonderful On Stage series is being reprinted by Charles Pelto at Classic Comics Press.(http://www.classiccomicspress.com). I urge you to check it out. And Happy Valentine's Day.


Saturday, 4 February 2006

MORE ABOUT CHRIS WARE


Based on the traffic from my last post ("Drawing With Your Brains") I thought it was important to spell out my views on Chris Ware's artwork:

I enjoy Chris Ware's work, but the highbrow critics currently fawning over him drive me absolutely bats. Ware is being offered up as one of the few "Masters of American Comics" (the title of the exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art) and is feted at the Whitney Museum and in the pages of the New Yorker. Here is what the LA museum catalog says about him:


"I don't think anyone in any visual medium is making art that is more elevating."
"Ware is capable of creating beauty anywhere and always. Ware's work, in this way, is also quite like Bach's."
"There's glory there. We look at his work and we think of words like sumptuous and exacting and rhapsodic."
"His use of the page is unparalleled."

These people are morons.

50 years ago, there were a thousand anonymous paste up artists working for subsistence wages in commercial art studios across the country. They would sit at a drawing board with a T-square and a triangle, key lining ads for the backs of comic books and other lofty venues. Virtually all of them could draw as well as Chris Ware. Many could draw better. But because that was an era with different standards, they would have laughed at the suggestion that their drawings were good enough to hang in a museum. Today those artists have all disappeared, swept aside by technology and the invisible hand of Adam Smith. But Chris Ware is hailed for the same basic mechanical drawing skills.




I don’t begrudge any artist who has won the lottery in today's society, whether it’s Chris Ware or Thomas Kinkade. Ware has some admirable qualities. He is a decent writer and a diligent artist who has created his own interesting world. He is disciplined enough to create a substantial body of work, and the cumulative effect is showy. But if you deconstruct his accomplishment, you will find it easier to evaluate.



Ware’s work combines three disciplines: artist, graphic designer and writer. Taking them in order, it is hard to argue that his "art"-- the actual drawings inside the panels-- is anything better than competent. He draws in a monotone, with little of the variety, the sensitivity or wisdom of line, the composition, design, or the other qualities that have traditionally been the hallmark of great drawing. Ware would have made an excellent paste up artist, and that was an honorable profession, but anybody knowledgeable about sequential art or illustration should have no trouble identifying 500 superior artists.  (As an aside, Ware also hasn’t discovered that an artist who wants to depict a repetitive and bleak life cannot simply resort to repetitive and bleak drawings. Important lesson.)



Weak drawing skills are not fatal to a creative enterprise, so let's move on and talk about Ware's second (and more important) discipline, graphic design. Ware is more a designer than an artist. His designs can be interesting and sometimes even complex. However, the critic who wrote, “he really has no stylistic predecessors….No one can do what he does, so no one is even trying” is just plain ignorant.  He has obviously never heard of constructivism or the modernist school of commercial design, a mere 80 years ago. He must have missed the thousands of labels and posters and advertisements by underpaid and forgotten commercial artists who worked in the style Ware has now adopted.



That leaves the third component, his words. This is extremely important because the whole thrust of the "concept art" school is that so long as you are diagramming great thoughts or peerless words, it doesn't matter that you draw badly under traditional standards. My own view is that Ware’s words cannot compare with a good essay, play, or poem, so what is the advantage of reading literature adulterated by these pictures?  And that leads us to the bottom line:

Establishment art critics, always late to the party, think they are cool when they descend to the subculture of comix and sequential art. Yet, they can't seem to untangle the words from the pictures long enough to make an honest appraisal of either one. Literary critics tend to say "this person writes pretty well for an artist" while art critics tend to say "this person draws pretty well for a writer." But as a general rule one can't produce great works of art by combining merely good words with merely good pictures. Chris Ware's art is, IMO, merely okay. But that's not the worst thing in the world.




I hope this fleshes out my previous post on "Drawing With Your Brains." I have nothing against Chris Ware, who I'm sure is a fine fellow with a pure heart and deserves to make a good living as an artist.  Being canonized as a "Master of American Comics" unfortunately makes him a sitting duck for all of the silly statements and effusive praise from a tasteless group of taste makers.  However, I suppose that anyone who is repeatedly embraced as a genius has to be prepared to hear alternative opinions.

As I said my previous post, I sincerely welcome any examples, jpgs, quotations or explanations of Ware's work that help me understand where I missed the boat.