This new story about conservator Mary Schafer’s discovery of parts of a grasshopper stuck in one of Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings is one of those amusing trifles that, at once, is publicity for an event, and a glimpse into the past of a great artist’s process. It’s also a reminder that life is messy and the things we do are all jumbled together with everyone else’s things.
I mean, it could be used for the frothing kind of inspiration that abounds in motivational circles: IF SOMETHING GETS IN YOUR WAY, PAINT OVER IT! But it’s really just that Vincent wasn’t so precious about his work that he cared if a little dust or a bug got stuck in a painting now and then. In a way, it puts us all on notice that art is more than the materials we make it out of.
We get letters. Or, I used to get them, when I did a comic book. Most of them were full of thanks and praise, liking the book, saying who their favorite character was, impressed by the progress from issue-to-issue. A couple of times they thought it was crap.
I don’t believe in working by inspiration. That is, to turn a sneering negative into a t-shirt positive, I believe you should just work, and inspiration will follow. Inspiration Is Work’s Bitch, to be internet about it. This isn’t my idea. I saw it in action all the times I went back to school, in my most productive colleagues. It’s a central pillar in Art & Fear, part of an art canon I refer to often and venerate. But I’m also lazy. I’m pathologically prone to long bouts of self-doubt, sullen depressions, existential apathy, hesitation, scorn for yesterday’s trays of half-baked and now stale ideas, disgust with my own abilities—it’s here that self-defeating habits really become starkly obvious, because how the hell can I avoid further disparagement of my lack of deftness and facility if not to practice more, but, then, that’s a cudgel with which to beat myself into torpor again so it is entirely apropos—and, hey, plain old giving up. So it’s weird to keep starting up every time. The trick I’d like to conjure is to start quicker and more often, until the previous bouts of inertia are the rarity and I’m making as the habit.
But that’s just more internal cheerleading via navel-gazing. That’s not what I’m posting about.
Yesterday, I was going through a stack of old comics I’d placed on a lower shelf in the bedroom bookcase when moving into the new apartment, because they couldn’t stay in my hand and the shelf was empty. They were close to the bed, and I had noticed them peripherally now and then, a few fat, brightly colored spines stuffed into a row of bagged-and-boarded slim issues. THB. Paul Pope.
I started thumbing through them. Paul was a colleague and a hero of mine (still is the latter 1) when I was publishing Greymatter, the comics series I did in the early 90s with my cousin. We did our first signing with Paul and a few other up-and-comers, and even then his work was stunningly different. He was confidence personified, a lean, scruffy rock star minus the adoring fan base, which had to come later. Or not, he didn’t seem to care. So cool. Had I more training, or wisdom, or maybe asked more questions, I might have understood what he was trying to do a bit better. He brought a fine artist’s sensibility and daring to the medium, and he always remembered how to relate to the giants of the past. I was mostly following what I could see in the comics I read, particularly Cerebus. It’s fine. I did what I was able to do.
But so 2 we would get these letters. Most of the time it was nice to know someone out there was buying my work and liking it. It was harder than anything I’ve ever done to keep making that comic book, spending nearly every hour we were awake of every day of every week of every month at respective drawing tables, hunched and making black marks on white illustration board. Appreciation kept me going, at least for a few years. Every so often, a review would appear, usually disparaging. A few times, hate mail. Hate e-mail, specifically. Maybe people who disliked the work didn’t go to the trouble of sending physical letters.3 Usually, I tried to ignore it. It still hurts to have someone, even a random anonymous someone, shit on the thing you worked on so long and carefully—I mean literally full of care. Art school has hardened me to criticism, but not enough.
Around issue 3 or 4, I got an email. It said, in part, “You guys need to get off Dave Sim’s lame jock and look at what people like Lapham and Paul Pope are doing.” And that hurt. But it hurt more because I thought it was a valid point. Sure, it was phrased in an assaholic way, but I agreed with them. I really did lean on Cerebus for most of my technique, if not as much for storytelling. And then I despaired. And then I went back to work, because I had to finish an already late issue, and wanted to get away from painful taunting. I never forgot it, though. I tried to find a style of my own, and as I went along, I got better and more different, but I never felt it was different enough. Me enough. Seven issues and over a year later, we were tired of being broke, of living on five bucks a day, and we quit. My cousin was in a new relationship and had bowed out a few months earlier to move down to L.A. I was in one, too, and overwhelmed trying to do everything by myself, and the work still wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.
I didn’t have an epiphanic moment that turned the series around, sales-wise, and propelled us to the heights of industry success. But. It was useful to get such a harsh metaphorical slap in the face. I did things differently, in a conscious way. The trick was, as always, to not let one obsession take over. Hate mail isn’t so bad, sometimes. If you’re going to read the praise, there are jewels to accept that show things you’re doing right. But the nuggets thumping you in the head from haters sometimes have a little gem, too.
It was unimaginably giddying to have someone I thought was the cool kid like me and my work. One of the most flattering things in my comics career was being included in a small circle of recipients who received a massive photocopied set of Alex Toth model sheets and sketches, which Paul, as a vocal fan, had been asked if he wanted, and he said he’d put a word in for me to get the same. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. If I’m wrong, apologies to Scott Allie, who sent it when he was working at Dark Horse. This one: ↩︎
It’s been way too obvious in my writing that I’m reading Infinite Jest. If you’re a fan of DFW—and that’s only too clear for adopting this kind of impromptu, roaming footnoting and unpunctuated conjunction strings, not to mention pretentiously initialing his full name but maybe not because saying his *full* name every time makes the former an apt, even humbly affectionate reference—it’s dangerous to assume you can appropriate these cool quirks. Because one is never as smart as DFW and with, I mean, reasons for doing it. ↩︎
A few times, fans sent packages, and oh, what joy lay within. Someone made little painted clay busts of the main characters, another sent a mixtape of Curve tracks, many sent their own books or minicomics. Amazon can only dream of the emotional impact of unexpected boxes and padded envelopes appearing, sent by people who Want to Give You Something. ↩︎
Looking at “Big Idea: Abel Alejandre and Kiel Johnson”
This is a bit late, as reviews of exhibitions go, but maybe since the show runs through December 3rd, it’s no big. The show is not huge, but has grown since it opened, due to Kiel Johnson installing another piece in collaboration with Orange Coast College students.
I’m already well familiar with Johnson’s work, and most of the pieces in this show aren’t totally new. Alejandre’s, though, I’d not encountered before. His half is mainly figurative, mostly close portraits done as if etched, on muslin or canvas. One section of small works is on an inner wall, but the majority, in black & white, stretch wide, tall, and imposing. They feel suffused with symbols of family and Latin culture. I felt a sense of awe, maybe even reverence, while I walked the perimeter. Most of the portraits also seemed straight out of the heart of Americana, perhaps like stills from a documentary. I thought of Mark Twain. I thought of Ken Burns. At the same time, the drawings seem endemic to the Southwest, rather than the so-called “heartland,” and to Los Angeles, specifically. These are familiar feelings, if not familiar imagery.
“Put ’em Up” is one of several portraits of male figures that meld heroic scale with a contemporary subject.
Is the boy a relative? A friend’s kid? He’s confident, assured. Cute, even. But is this a comment on our culture of violence? The obsession with guns in America, absorbed from childhood? Does this carefully rendered portrait talk about masculinity and its fragility in men, or perhaps the loss of innocence at a young age, something we as humans still struggle to quantify and evaluate? Maybe. There’s a lot to understand and consider in much of Alejandre’s work, and it directly aligns with contemporary Angeleno culture. Apologies for such a stale idiom. This is, though, what excites me when I encounter new art: the questions.
Alejandre included a masterful woodcut, already inked, with the drawings and prints. “A Tale of Two Birds” extends the theme of restrained or intimated violence, its central figure seated among or on a multitude of upthrusting rifle barrels of various calibers. The open-jawed and empty skull is a literal death’s head upon a shirted, but pantless, sinewy body, recalling the long tradition of conflating guns and sexual symbolism. And, again, if we’re just talking raw surface imagery, Death holds two cocks, if twelve-year-old me hadn’t driven the provocative interpretation all the way home. On the other hand, I realize now, it’s also evocative of a multitude of belligerent, drunken arrestees on the news and the show Cops who somehow managed to keep only their shirts on. But there’s so much more to wonder about in this piece. The futility of violence. Humanity’s brutal manipulation by unseen or unthinking forces to keep battering itself. The half-remembered symbols of the fighting cock, the partial nude, of death itself. All this under the ominous crosses of telephone poles and their entangling wires, simultaneously symbols of the holy future of technology and the stark oppression of the city.
I’m intentionally avoiding researching the pieces and others’ interpretations so I can start to build up some thought capital of my own. Because, really, who cares about my review (or, maybe, exposition) of a show if I just repackage someone else’s?
So, Kiel Johnson. No points for guessing that he’s one of my favorite artists.
I’ll try really hard not to use the term “whimsical,” because it’s trite and tired, but there’s an element of fun in Johnson’s work that’s sometimes difficult to pin down. The drawings are not careless, exactly, or even carefree, but they maintain a confident looseness that is more akin to sketch than the typical museum piece. They’re fun. And yet, Johnson is evidently and tirelessly industrious and thorough in his work. He is meticulous in his depictions, his deft linework describing curves and volume and weight and accuracy. I don’t have to study them, I’m instantly familiar with every drawing. I recognize the forms and the language he chooses. “Trophy Case” and “Cactus Patch” are part of an ongoing tradition of “everything drawings,” depictions of as many iterations of a concept as can be squeezed onto a page.
And it’s always fascinating to see his sculptures exhibited with his drawings, because the former can emanate a darkness usually absent from his drawings. More so for the pieces included in this show—other works trade places, with hints of menace in drawing and goofball fun in sculpture. I can’t tell if it’s the physicality of three dimensions that gives me this sense, or the more carefully finished forms, but I get a similar feeling from looking at World War I relics or old, abandoned houses. This is a good thing, mind, a sense of presence from these cardboard objects is always unexpected before I see them in person.
Something that struck me while I was at the show was that these sculptures of everyday/real world objects recall the aesthetics of a cargo cult. They reverently copy the details of useful things, but without a sense of what makes them work. These are things plucked from reality, but made special by their recreation. They aren’t copies, they’re homages, made from whatever is to hand, and that tends to imbue them with spirit and meaning.
Johnson’s work fascinates and delights me, in part because of its casual precision, but also because of its never-ending prolificity. His art exemplifies his relentless work ethic, and there seems to always be something big in the making, as if he can hardly contain the flood of bubbling concepts long enough to synthesize them into existence before the next project takes over. Nothing is cavalier, of course. It’s all done with loving care, but not too much: time is ever ticking on. I suppose that could be a value judgment, but I really don’t want to deify that approach. It’s just an aspect I enjoy and admire.
More people should see this. Since I was there opening day, Johnson has installed a new piece, a full-size “crashed” airplane, smack in the middle of the space. He collaborated with OCC students on the plane, everyone working together to create all the various parts and artifacts.
Big Idea: Abel Alejandre and Kiel Johnson runs through Dec. 3rd, 2016 at the Main Gallery of the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College.