A: Geoff is in the book
B: Andrei is also a friend of mine, as is his contributor Henrik Rehr, and I've published their abstract comics in an anthology I co-edit and also shown them at a gallery I co-curate in Brooklyn.
C: I haven't (properly) read the Abstract Comics anthology yet - although I did see the related show at The James Gallery at CUNY in NYC.
Fair enough? Well, anyway, here goes:
In an earlier incarnation, I used to write art criticism for magazines up in Canada - which, unlike blogging, actually paid some (admittedly modest) cash money - and one time I was asked to review a show of "video art" in Vancouver. Now, I went to art schools that were pretty steeped in Conceptualism, so I've had to develop lots of patience for obtuse and difficult art: I know better than to expect to actually, you know... enjoy myself in an art gallery. But Jesus Christ, these were some boring-ass videos I had to watch! Had to, because I was being paid.
To be fair to the artist (I can't even remember his name after all this time*), the videos were gorgeous. They consisted of various snippets of footage - most of it quite compelling - strung together in a, well, abstract fashion. The problem - for me at least - was that after about a minute of watching these various disconnected sequences I started to zone out. Without something to tie them together - a narrative, or even some sort of clear theme - they got really, really boring.
And let me the first to admit - I said as much in the review - that other viewers might have had longer attention spans. But isn't it also true that people used to go suffer through the entirety of Matthew Barney's marathon video installations because it became some sort of art world badge of honor to have survived them? Like going to a sweat lodge or something? Art as endurance test.
(Image by Matthew Barney)
So for me, and I suspect for lots of other earnest artlovers, the problem with video art boils down to its relationship to time. Video art, like performance art, is what gets called a "time-based" medium. It expects you to sit (or worse, stand) there and pay attention, for whatever the duration of the piece is. Whereas pretty much all other forms of western visual art have, traditionally, been ambient.
I mean this in the same sense that Brian Eno applied the term to music (for airports!): work that doesn't care when you come or go. You can take it in in little sips, obliquely, whenever it suits you. The ideal ambient art experience might be a painting in your house that you gradually come to know intimately, through a thousand little glances out of the corner of your eye. A very different experience of art than shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot waiting for an interminable video to finish.
Now comics - as always, a hybrid special case - are both time-based and ambient. For starters, although they unfold in a (typically) specific sequence, the panels co-exist in pictorial space, beside and on top of each other, not at all like a film or performance or video. You can experience a group of them simultaneously as a page or spread. You can flip back and forth through the book, etc, etc. More importantly, each panel can be considered in isolation, a condition so obviously ambient that art schools to this day are rife with Pop art paintings of blown-up comics panels.
Comic book panels also have a narrative order, a path between them that entails a necessary duration - however much the reader might care to bend or interrupt it. But in abstract comics most of the elements used to create this path - characters, settings, texts in balloons, plots and subplots, etc. - are absent. What's left tends to be the naked organizing structures of comics (panels, grids, pages) and the formal relationships between the ambient elements contained by the panels - and this minimal narrative apparatus is expected to engage us for the duration of the piece. That's where I have a problem - I pretty much zone out after four or five pages.
Of course, your attention span may be more robust: check out this review on Jog the Blog to see just how involved it's possible to become with an abstract comic (please feel free to skip over his disparaging remarks about my own work). But let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that this level of engagement is rather more the exception than the rule for abstract comics. If so, does this make them an esoteric waste of time, doomed to be confined to the margins (or gutters) of art comics history?
Not at all. First of all, most abstract comics tend to be fairly short - I suspect their authors are well aware of the limits of their audience's patience. But more to the point, I don't think these comics really belong in books**. I think they're more suited to ambient display, by which I mean either on computer monitors or a good old fashioned wall - places where the experience of the work requires less of an appointment or commitment. Let me just make this quick point, based on my peculiar position of having both published and exhibited abstract comics:
When my co-editor, Alex Rader and I put experimental or "difficult" work into Blurred Vision, we take a certain perverse pleasure in it. "Suck on this, bitches" is a phrase that gets used as we lay out the books, knowing that many readers will lack the fortitude to make their way through, for example, all 32 pages of Doug Harvey's Captain Eelbegone. And so it's been with the abstract comics we've published - we don't expect them to be a walk in the park for most readers, but we think the work is strong and important and needs to be seen - so in it goes... heh, heh.
But we've shown some of the same work in ArtLexis, our gallery space, as prints hung in sequence, and the experience is very, very different. Once I'm excused from the responsibility of "reading" them all at once - once the experience of the work is ambient - it's possible to return to the piece many times and gradually build up a sense of the relationships between panels and pages, to see the larger abstract forms that emerge from the confluences of the smaller ones and to absorb a sense of the "narrative" while seeing the work as a whole. All of this happens both slowly and quickly, while you're talking or thinking about something else or walking by on your way somewhere - outside of any particular time. These are ambient comics.
(installation view of Andrei Molotiu's work)
*okay, okay, it was Bill Viola.
**I'll grant an exception for beautifully produced "coffee table" books like Andrei's anthology - which are meant to be experienced in sips, after all.