Friday, July 24, 2009

and Speaking of Apollo...

I think Geoff hits several nails on the head with his first post, which might as well serve as a manifesto for this blog. There does seem to be a dawning recognition that the dominant model for "art comics" is too straightjacketed, but even when when this is explicitly discussed it's striking how close to the expressionist/symbolist/romantic pole everyone sticks:

(image captures from

Given this, I want to expand on Geoff's comment about the "few exceptions" he sees to the reliance on notably older modes of art in art comics by looking at some artists who venture farther afield and which directions they take.

When I was in art school (this was in the early 1980's) we used to throw around various glib ways to categorize art, mostly as a way to get our own bearings and reassure ourselves that we had a handle on all this weird shit. One term we liked was "stupidism": a type of art characterized by bright colors, "looseness" in execution, obsessive patterning and repetition, and childish (or infantile) subject matter often drawn from pop culture.

Stupidism as we defined it was very countercultural and opposed mainstream art dogmas like formalist abstraction, minimalism, conceptualism, and postmodern "critical theory" in general. Chicago's "Hairy Who" were the only artists we applied the label to that made much of a splash, but it seemed like every art school in the 80's harbored some young guys attracted to this style - usually they smoked a lot of pot and skateboarded in the parking lot.

The reason I bring this label up is that most of the few "art comics" I've seen that bear a clear relationship to contemporary, postwar art - Paper Rad, CF, Matthew Thurber, Brian Chippendale and so on - strike me as "Stupidist".

(image by Matthew Thurber)

(image by Paper Rad)

(image by Brian Chippendale)

These cartoonists belong to a broader generation of artists who came up in the 90's and reacted against the triumph of the "Pictures Generation" brand of 70's/80's conceptualism. It's a large and interesting group - I guess you could include Raymond Pettibon in there as an early member, and "Beautiful Losers" like Chris Johanson, and my fellow ex-Winnipegger Marcel Dzama, and hundreds of others.

On the whole, these artists are clearly much less interested in the sort of systematic "readings" the Pictures Generation artists (Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, etc) brought to bear on art and all its academic reliance on poststructuralism and related critical theories.

(sculpture by Sherrie Levine)

(image by Richard Prince)

(image by Barbara Kruger)

I'm on board as far as all that goes. I've always felt that the rise of "critical theory" was made possible by a weakness in art at the time: theory should be chasing after the work, trying to catch up and describe it - not serving as art's basis. And I've always enjoyed a lot of this type of "anti-intellectual" work - up to a point. It's just that all its avoidance of logic and rigor and coherence can start to make for pretty thin gruel after a while. As someone (I think it was artist/critic Doug Harvey - something of a Stupidist himself) said: "once you've seen 10,000 Raymond Pettibon drawings, you've seen them all".

(Raymond Pettibon at work)

At any rate, my point is not to critique the relative merits of these styles - it's to emphasize their relationship to that expressionist/symbolist/romantic pole that Geoff brought up. The art - and the comics - coming out of this group is overwhelmingly oriented towards what Kenneth Clark, way back in the day, used to call the "Dionysian" side of art.

This is half of the old split that always gets made between the two supposed main currents of culture, the other being "Apollonian" (other distillations of this same dichotomy get played up too: expressionist/conceptualist and romantic/classic for example). The Dionysian side of culture is seen as dark, raw and primitive, while the Apollonian side is said to be light, ordered and civilized.

In art as a whole, these two poles act as the extremes between which the zeitgeist tends to swing, but in comics - especially "art comics" - the Apollonian side is little in evidence. Without wanting to advocate for one deity or the other (honestly! I like both), I think it's fair to argue the creative benefits of a little balance. So - just for balance - here are a few examples of comics artists working the other side of the fence, with nary an emotional outburst, a lurid color or an expressive mark between them:

(image by Icecreamlandia)

(image by Paul Dwyer)

(image by Ethan Persoff)


  1. What's interesting about the Dionysian branch of the art comics movement is the fetishization of "craft" and "evidence of the hand." But then they produce work that is intentionally (I hope) sloppy in its appearance. Apparently when you're drawing like a child, you need to draw it yourself, without any reference or digital mediation, or it just doesn't have the same impact.

  2. You guys are making very good points. I would agree.

    I'd love to see a Sherrie Levine type of artist working in comics, re-imaging old comics in a straightforward way. Or a Jenny Holzer text heavy type of artist.

    One could easily say it's the reliance on "drawn" imagery, on line, on the hand that's kept avant garde comics straightjacketed. And I'd assert that there's a prejudice against comics made from borrowed imagery, from photography.
    Comics is kinda like a pissing contest - who can draw better, who can riff like an expressionist alto player is given props. Intellectual re-imagings ends up appearing like an equally obsessive game as being "jazzy" to most comics fans. (One of the reasons why I think sober, realistic styles like Frank Quietley are applauded by both mainstream and alt comics fans) Yet, that's the loop we find ourselves in. Too comics-y for the art guys, too art-y for the comics guys.

    Anyways. Definitely a lot of stuff to chew on.

  3. Shhh... Stick your head out the window and listen... The wind is bringing faint strains of "Cumbaya," being sung all over the world...

  4. Frank - thanks for your comments. I think your point about a prejudice against the use of photography is especially relevant in the context of a discussion about expressionism vs conceptualism (and modernism vs postmodernism) since it goes to the heart of what we mean by "style" - something that seems to get discussed a lot in comics but rarely questioned.

  5. "Too comics-y for the art guys, too art-y for the comics guys." Love it. It's the last off-the-radar frontier. Do you cats realize how hot it is that nobody has nailed down the vocabulary for much of this stuff? Or that nobody has figured out how to be a millionaire at this. We're using the language of the f-art world because it seems to be following a similar reactionary path, (albeit slower). We just have to keep making stuff. It's important that some of comics traditions (ink on paper, explicit narrative, etc) are approached with a fuckyou attitude by some artists to get some passion behind the alternatives, and to get the traditions to step up or get left behind. I can't explain for myself why I love those Finnish GLOMP anthologies as much as I love downloaded scans of DC's 'Blackest Night'.

  6. Jason - I wasn't familiar with the GLOMP anthologies so I Googled them - they look extremely cool.

  7. yeah, i was really bummed i couldn't getta copy of Glömp 10...maybe i'll get lucky somehow & find a copy, but w/ this issue in particular, how the "theme" is 'off the page', is of major interest to me...

    ...&, i've been learning some Finnish lately, which puts further fire under my ass...hmmm, maybe i should send them a box of my junk & see if they'll trade?


    this may be a beautiful thing,

    it'll just be a thing.