“High Art” Comics

Comics Theory

When I was in college (oh so long ago, all eight months), I wrote my senior thesis on a work by artist Jim Shaw. The piece, My Mirage, is a neo-conceptual[1] comic book (“collection of artworks,” to paraphrase hesitant critics) made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The book itself, which was published in 2011, is a behemoth of visual and cultural references that even the most savvy comics, pop culture, and art aficionados would not be able to process upon first read-through. Shaw is an absolute master of visual and textual mimicry and creates uncanny pages that, if divorced from the rest of the work (as they often were when exhibited before the book was released), would require a great deal of attention to separate from their allusions. The page on the left, for example, is a perfect replication of Edward Gorey’s illustrational and narrative styles (see excerpts from Gorey’s series Gashlycrumb Tinies on the right; click any image to enlarge).
Excerpts from "Gashlycrumb Tinies"

There’s a tremendous amount to say about Shaw’s work, even just My Mirage alone, but I want to focus mainly on how Shaw’s work fits into the traditional art historical narrative. The book, published by high art publisher JRP|Ringier, was given a spot within the exclusive world of Art not afforded to other comics (even ones published by “fashionable”/hip publishing houses like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly).[2] As I’ve discussed before, it’s the labeling of the book that dictates an audience’s expectations and, more often than not, a comics’ public reception. (It’s easier to believe that a cow is a duck if you’re told that rather than if the cow is called a cow. That’s actually a really weird thing to say, never mind.)

As with any work of art accepted into the Art realm, it’s expected (if not required) that My Mirage be discussed in the context of the artistic movement into which it best “fits.” While it might seem restrictive to pigeonhole a work of art into a specific space, it appears to be something of a luxury to discuss the work as “serious” art–a luxury afforded to very few comics.

But hey, listen, it’s a start. Just being able to say that My Mirage is a high art comic is already a move towards legitimizing the medium. Plus, it lets us talk about a big, fancy concept that a lot of comics not seen as Art (yet, I hope) are trying to engage with: neo-conceptualism.

The way that I interpret neo-conceptualism is sort of different from and more specific than the way that the term is used in general. Frankly, though, since art criticism and historical writing are frequently decades behind art being made at the moment[3], it’s still hard to come up with a real “definition” of neo-conceptualism. Lemme step back, though. To understand neo-conceptualism it’s helpful to, of course, understand the conceptual art movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Architect Bernard Tschumi sums it up really well in an interview with Joan Ockman (via Mario Gooden’s short research summary of neo-conceptualism):

Tschumi: Theory is already there [pre-conceptualism], at least in France[.] Foucault, Barthes, Lacan; there was an existing intellectual discourse before ʼ68, a body of developed thought, a questioning of rigid ideas. […] Itʼs true that they belong to a particular moment of discourse; everyone was feeding off everyone else. And when ʼ68 happened, it created a phenomenon of acceleration for that discourse. Afterward it also brought about a very interesting split. There was a famous slogan in ʼ68, “Imagination takes power.” The split occurred around those words. There were those who opted for the world of power and politics, and those who opted for the world of imagination and creativity.

Ockman: […] Textuality supersedes language. And theory itself starts to expand and become a category all its own.

The way that I see it, neo-conceptualism develops its own “politics” (read: social/cultural environment), its own “language” through which it creates its own “text.” The textuality (the underlying constructed narrative) supersedes the “language” through which it is constructed, but it also references that language and encourages viewers to dig to understand what, exactly, the language is.

Here’s the best parallel I can think of: A made up language, Plergh, is used to write this sentence: “Zarpak mifs lepum.” Now, the first thing that most people would want to know is what, exactly, that sentence means. I would imagine the next questions would be what the language is like, how it’s constructed, and so on. So the first thing people think of is the intended meaning, the “textuality,” what the work is “saying,” and then what the work uses to say it–the “language.”

The language, and consequently the text, are constructed by the neo-conceptual artist, an imagined world that puts an additional layer between the work itself and reality.[4] It’s much easier to understand the layers (of possible understanding and interpretation) that build up within neo-conceptualism when it’s all represented visually (this is simplified, of course, and I’m speaking purely about canvas-based art movements since I want to stay relevant to My Mirage)[5]:

Layers of Seeing

For My Mirage, the first (light blue–visual representation) layer is the story within the comic book: the basic narrative of My Mirage is that of Billy who, after a hedonistic young adulthood in post-’60s America, experiences significant emotional trauma and becomes a Born Again Christian. The green layer (visual theory) is Shaw’s mimicry of other artistic and written styles (often the sort of content that is presented with these styles too; see the Dick and Jane-style image up top). The darker blue (I don’t really know what color that is) layer (conceptual theory) has to do with the implications of reappropriating the artistic styles of others and what Shaw’s modifications mean for this. And, lastly, the purple layer (the neo-conceptual element) builds off of the question of what within My Mirage is real. It’s more complicated than that, but here’s the best way to understand it (pulled from my thesis):

Shaw’s work from the late 1980s onward is complex largely because of this mixture of fiction and non-fiction: works like My Mirage [initially appear to be] non-fiction despite the fact that informed viewers must know that what they are looking at is not real. Encouraged by highly meticulous and consistent levels of detail, a plausibly true fiction is allowed to emerge. This is the strata of the fictive, the point at which the viewer can step back and see the collection of works in front of her. What allows Shaw to force the same viewer who had just before been convinced that these works were the creation of an artistic body, of Jim Shaw, to suspend her disbelief and momentarily view the work as a non-fiction (forgetting, at least for a time, the fictive frame) is the sense of self-awareness created by the constructed narrator.

[…]

Shaw has a hyper-authorial instinct, the drive to redraw the things that he appropriates and to make them his own, to heighten the viewers’ awareness that he has rendered these almost-reproductions. […] Considering the similarities between the two men’s [child and young adulthoods…] it seems that Shaw is […] interested in viewing his experiences through the lens of a character whose thoughts and knowledge he can control—not surprisingly, a common desire for any artist (visual or otherwise) working within a narrative medium. Billy, as it turns out, is engaging in the same experiment as Shaw.

And so develops this meta-narrative of self-reflection on both Shaw’s part and Billy’s part. Everything past purely looking at an image requires some knowledge about art or art history–the further the level, the more knowledge/awareness required. When details about Shaw’s life emerge, his intentions in writing a nearly autobiographical work (self-analysis) become clear. And so a new, conceptual world emerges, one that I can only readily compare with James Joyce’s fictional Dublin (this fake world figures prominently in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and later in Ulysses). In order to understand the entirety of pseudo-Dublin, it’s important to look at Joyce’s body of work as a whole–this meta-narrative spun across a number of books. More from the thesis:

A [hierarchy] between the micro and macro elements of [My Mirage arises] as the viewer’s mind steps away from the piece: My Mirage’s narrative is split into the implicit [visual and conceptual theory] and the explicit [“what is seen on the canvas”], which are both controlled by the first-person retroactive narrator Billy, whose narration is a piece within the larger meta-narrative of Shaw’s oeuvre, which has all been constructed by Shaw. My Mirage itself takes the shape of an ouroboros, feeding into and back out of itself until there is neither a clear beginning nor a clear ending and every element emerges out of and back into something else.

And so where’s the line between Shaw and his work? To what extent can the pages of My Mirage be considered both unreal (not an actual Edward Gorey, for instance) and real (relating to Jim Shaw as a living, breathing person)?

In a [1995] review of creative nonfiction writer Lawrence Weschler’s book on the [Museum of Jurassic Technology–see footnote 4 below], New York Times staff writer Wendy Lesser explains that “the point of David Wilson’s museum is that you can’t tell which parts are true and which [are] invented.” The museum, like My Mirage and many of Shaw’s other works that toe the line between truth and fiction-as-nonfiction, plays on viewers’ desires to believe[…]—even if it is simply momentarily—that if something is contextualized with enough detail, it must be true.

I’ll be back with more on Sunday (and, more importantly, there’ll be an all new Proxy [that page’ll be updated but every week’s new page will also be up on the blogroll/front page])–thank you guys for moving over with us to our new home.

Recommended reading (besides the book itself, of course):

Alexander Alberro, “Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology” (He’s a damn good professor–if you go to Columbia or Barnard and are interested in art history, take a class with him)
Doug Harvey, “This Side of Nirvana: The Delirious Bondage of Jim Shaw”
Claire Barliant, “The Artless Dodger: Jim Shaw and His Endless Compendium”
Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”
Dan Nadel, “Collective Vision: An Interview with Jim Shaw”

I can’t recommend enough actually purchasing My Mirage and reading it at least twice.

[1] Stay with me, I’ll explain in a second.

[2] I’d say that the work of Chris Ware is one exception, but since he had a career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and was included in the all-holy Whitney Biennal, he really stands on an island all of his own.[2a]

[2a] That said, there are certainly galleries and museums that focus on comics as a whole–like the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City and the disappointingly sparse Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco (though they did have an anniversary exhibit of Los Bros. Hernandez’ Love and Rockets, which was pretty great other than its lack of the presentation of continuous narratives [but I can complain about museum and gallery exhibits all day every day]). There are also galleries that incorporate comics into their presentation of modern and contemporary art. I’m thinking specifically of the Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York, which is really ahead of its time (or rather precisely on time) with its juxtaposition of comics artists like Seth and Renée French with more readily accepted artists Saul Steinberg (he made this!) and Alex Katz. I really don’t believe that the inclusion of comics artists in small galleries alongside standard high art means much to the public at large, or even to the art community, but it definitely doesn’t hurt.

[3] I understand why, though; it’s pretty hard to see the full effect and/or meaning of a work of art without being able to step back and take a look at the larger context (what came before and after) in which a work of art is situated. Additionally, it’s hard to understand a work’s eventual reception and importance in the moment (especially if it’s something that becomes recognized later like, say, Shaw’s friend, collaborator, and bandmate, the late Mike Kelley, whose work is gaining popularity these days–or, you know, Van Gogh).

[4] It’s most fascinating when it becomes difficult to tell whether the text (and even language) is fake. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles is a great example (though I’ve never been to the museum itself–sad; but Lawrence Weschler [who I have decided I want to be when I grow up] has a great book about it): the premise of the museum is to mimic a “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”-type exhibit of “too strange to be true” curiosities. The museum has spun a narrative for itself, one that plays with the concept of age as legitimacy. From the museum’s website:

The Museum [of Jurassic Technology] kept pace with the changes in sensibility over the years. Except for the periods of the great wars in this century (when twice portions of the collection were nearly lost) the Museum engaged in a program of controlled expansion”).

Sure, this passage is bullshit; the museum was only created in 1988. But if you didn’t know better, the confident voice in which these words are written would fool you into believing the statement to be the truth. Likewise, the institution of the museum (the concept of the museum–or Museum) is used as a means of “convincing” visitors that every exhibit is real (most of them, from what I understand, are fake–I believe there are a few real ones sprinkled among them in order to further blur the separation between the fake and the real). Basically, it’s all about working within the new concept–the neo-concept, the ersatz world–in a manner that comes off as sincere (irony inherently points to something as being unreal. It’s the identification of a reference point in the actual world that shatters the oftentimes playful worlds intended to be represented in neo-conceptual art. The fake world relies on at least a temporary suspension of the viewer’s skepticism, or at least their desire to know the “truth.” They just have to believe in what the artist is presenting them).

[5] There are sculptural pieces within the collection, but for the purposes of this analysis I am treating the book itself (in a 2D sense, not the 3D book-as-art-object)–the comic book as a whole–as the point of discussion.

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