That’s Art

Friday’s comic Art Exhibit had been sitting in my comic directory incomplete for quite sometime. I remembered an art show I attended some time ago and finally completed this comic by making it what’s termed an institutional critique.

On the the first Thursday of every month, Portland art galleries open new shows. I’ve only managed to make it down to one so far as I’ve learned that by-and-large the pieces at these things are more enjoyable to hear stories about rather than to actually see. That’s because the idea of most of them far outstrips the execution. While there are undoubtedly exceptions to that and somewhere in this town something both interesting and visually impressive exists, I was not lucky enough to find any.

While part of me wants to take the artists aside and quietly explain to them that they’re helping to make artists everywhere more difficult to take seriously, the more pragmatic part of me remembers that I make comics about suicidal stick figures. It could be construed as freeing to remove any possibility of monetizing artwork. I can’t imagine anybody buying any of these things. Having no concern for what someone might be willing to pay frees the creator to explore more interesting ideas. Even so, sometimes even the underlying idea of some of the things I saw that Thursday either left a lot to be desired, or was so cryptic that it only served to tempt the viewer to ask “Really? This is art?,”. Some of the curation was pretty questionable. A name plate would tell me not only who made the piece, but clarify that what I’m seeing even is a piece.

The wall on which the word “poop” was crudely scrawled in burnt sienna crayon for instance at least had a note not to clean it off of the wall, but offered no insight as to who put it there. In public restrooms it’s author often the only thing the only thing the graffiti will tell you. Though this piece does have me wondering if the endless telephone numbers connecting to nothing therein might actually be a considerably more interesting large-scale installation than I had realized.

There was a video of a casually dressed man sitting and calmly speaking in generic acknowledgements like “Interesting”, “I don’t know about that”, “huh”. He’d pause between each of these to light a cigarette backwards and stub it out immediately. This Process continued until the pack was empty and the poorly-lit space he occupied was opaque with filter-smoke whereupon the video repeated. Watching it through a couple of times I was left with the troubling sense that I’ve been party to a number of interactions where this video could have been substituted for either participant. Perhaps “blowing smoke”? A bit heavy-handed, but something there maybe.

Another that could have used a label of some kind were the two monitors playing back either end of Starcraft game complete with an audio track of the players interactions in a language I’d bet most viewers couldn’t understand. I’m not sure if it was the gallerist or the artists who decided to place both monitors prcariously on the window-sill. I was left with the somewhat disturbing thought that online gaming may well be the most globally unifying phenomena there is– on an individual basis. I don’t want to decorate with it, but there is quite possibly an insight to be found.

My personal favorite was appropriately at the center of the weird little room(it felt like the result of poorly planned remodeling). It consisted of a kiddie pool filled with about an inch of water that looked like it should smell like sewage, but thankfully didn’t. At the center of the pool a paper mache turd-man urinated the sewage down it’s front back to the pool in which it stood. It may have been more effective if the water had indeed reeked of feculence, even so it managed to declare itself metaphor for the gallery itself. It was my favorite piece from that particular show.

I felt embarrassed on behalf of the artists and for myself as someone who might one day like to call himself an artist. There may have been a lot more to get out of those things than I did, but as little labor as any one of these may have taken, two years later I still remember them and I still think about them. The ideas whether intentionally placed there or wholly projected onto them by my own mind, were at least interesting. The sense that they were all assembled lazily was however inescapable which leads me to imagine that the idea wasn’t actually important enough to the artists to bother putting their backs into their work. Still, I’m constantly amazed at how much work 3 panels of stick figures can be. I think all I really resent in retrospect is that every single piece was art aimed strictly at people who study art– the proverbial academic circle-jerk that builds a bubble around itself so as to live in a vacuum. My affection for those pieces has waxed somewhat as I have studied art further, but that is what it took.

We give each other a similar benefit of doubt when we hand each other comics we’ve made. A look over and a quick chuckle(hopefully) and whichever of us wrote it asks “Can you tell me what the hell this is about?” Not as a test of it’s efficacy in communicating a planned notion, but a genuine request for guidance through the thicket of gibberish we try and mostly fail to use as our minds. We never shoot for in-jokes, but there’s an extent to which self-reference is unavoidable.

Some, like Ax, remain shrouded in the gibberish from which they sprang. This was before we started using any direct scans so I copied this to digital format manually a time during which I considered from which faulty neural spark-gap this came. I was pretty sure “sappy fucker” was to direct us away from the actual meaning. If I imagine this narrative is unfolding while I’m tied to a chair, it becomes downright frightening. I’m also reminded of Gary Paulsen books I read in elementary school. Adjusting to society after protracted isolation is notoriously traumatic, it’s possible Brian fell back on some unwritten and frankly dangerous objectifilia with bizarre undertones of role-playing. I was later asked what it was about by the author. I’m pretty sure my response was “I…have no idea,”.

More recently Uhh, What? seems to have a tragic back story. Two people who lived together for years, perhaps even decades fell so far out of love that they divided up their things and parted ways in the kind of anticlimax that leaves a lingering vacuum. He doesn’t know her anymore and she left for no particular reason, he wants to unload the fish not because of the painful memory of her, but rather to finish voiding the vacuum of their departure. An alternative potentially implied back story has these two as part of an organized crime syndicate. The gifts signify an encoded message; exchanging the fish for the sword connotes a contracted hit perhaps. It also, a third party pointed out, has some elements of a one-act play our friend wrote about the awkwardness of breaking up and returning each others things. No particular intentional meaning was declared by the author of this comic.

Sometimes we purposefully hide some facet of meaning beneath the surface, but generally not too cryptically or deeply buried. If I Could, for instance is about two people who are definitely going to die. “If I could take anything with me to heaven, I’d take you,” tells us they both know that they wont both be headed there. The twentieth posted, it’s still probably my favorite comic so far. I can only take credit for the rendering itself. The original was handed to me inked and ready to scan. Worth pointing out that this one is fraught with vagaries. How did their lives came to this end and what they were to each-other before that tale began? Is that the bilge of a ship? A sewer system? Have they been magically shrunk only to die in a medium sized fish tank? There are religious questions to ask here too.

I certainly don’t have a degree in semiotics. I feel that the peripheral character details, intentionally implied or not, are as open to the audiences imagination as the characters faces and cloths. I probably extend this licence a little too far in my day-to-day life imagining the tumultuous lives my professors couldn’t possibly have time to lead, but this is a web-comic, this is art(huh, drowning in what could be sewage in If I Could…) A hole in presented information is always an invitation to imagine what fits in it, and imagine you should! Lord knows I do.