This post originally appeared at The Panelists on January 27, 2011.
This isn’t a comic. Or is it? Does it matter? I’m really not concerned with definitions (at least, not recently), but I am concerned with stretching the limits, expanding the family that is comics.
Mark Laliberte’s Brickbrickbrick (BookThug, 2010) is labelled “poetry” on the back and published by a literary press specializing in experimental literature (primarily poetry). Yet, the connection with comics is unmistakable, and I can’t help but read it as comics, as perhaps a poet would find herself reading it as poetry. I’m not really familiar with the concept of visual poetry (which this book is, I understand, an example), my knowledge of poetry at all is surely a bit above average (which isn’t saying much) but nowhere near the point where I would even say I’m well read. So I can’t address this book as poetry, but I can address it as comics, of which it is an abstractly immersive example.
BrickBrickBrick consists of nine titled sections of 8-12 pages each. Each of the pages shows a single square image of drawn bricks accompanied by a single word above it. Going into the book (and the reason I originally searched it out), I knew that the brick images were all appropriated from a variety of comics. The words above each image, one quickly realizes, are the last names of the source artists, which show a great range from the familiar to the unknown (to me at least), including Schulz, Clowes, McKean, Gerhard, Bachalo, Herge, Verbeek, Vaughn-James, Barks, Miller, etc. I’m guessing many of the ones I am unfamiliar with are French artists from the mainstream (of which my knowledge is limited) or perhaps even mainstream American artists (ditto).
From 'The Sleepwalkers' section.
While the images at first might look like simple appropriations without the hand of Laliberte himself, they are in fact much more of a construction than that. In a brief video interview posted by his publisher, he explains that the images are a product of copying, erasing, drawing, shifting. Laliberte has constructed his own walls from the bricks of cartoonists. Yet, those bricks still retain the stylistic markers of their original sources. And one, immediately perceivable, reading of this book is as a series showcasing, through the simple and easily overlooked brick wall, a stylistic microcosm of all those artists. The high contrast Miller, the sharply inked Burns, the white-on-black scratching of Ott, the smooth simplicity of Barks: the style of each artist is, in some ways, hidden within these images, outside the bounds of figuration where the most recognizable stylistics of a comic artist usually lie.
At this level alone, the book is an engaging read. As a dictionary of brick drawings, it provides a lesson in varieties of line, texture, and form. But, these images of bricks are organized, both into the named sections and within those sections. The images within each section often share certain visual connections. For instance, the “Urban Gothic” section contains dark images that have show textured line work or a sense of wear (cracks and the like). “Sleepwalkers” is primarily images with shadows on the bricks. “Past Midnight” has images that are primarily black. Beyond this visual grouping, the order of the images within the sections seems to be quite purposeful.
From the 'Into the Wilderness of Everyday Life' section.
I first noticed this sequencing in the “( Wal (l) ow )” section which starts with images that have a vertical emphasis, switches to those with horizontal emphasis, and then to those diagonal and more chaotic. “Tetris in a Tempest,” a series of unfinished walls and those with missing pieces, ends with “Barks,” a brick wall showing a single hand, holding a brick, coming into the top of the image about to add another brick to the wall. Admittedly the connections are subtle or perhaps even primarily created by my own desire to see sequence where there is only series (that is, to see an order where this is only contiguity). But there is an unmistakable rhythm to moving through the images that is outside of any narrative sense. These sequences have very much in common with abstract comics, where the thrust of narrative in sequence is replaced by purely visual (repetition/variation) means of connection.
Only after multiple readings of the book did I find the video interview (see above) wherein I learned that Laliberte considers each page its own poem, while I was reading each grouping of pages as the poem. My tendency to “read as comics,” looking for sequence/series/juxtaposition, created a different work, or at least a different emphasis than intended. It speaks, I think, to how much “comics” is about reading protocols (which got touched on a bit in the comments of my last post). Is it comics because I can read it like comics? How much does my method of reading change the work? Some of the books in the Abstract Comics anthology rest in that grey area, where, depending on your approach, they either read as comics or they read as drawings/paintings/illustrations. A series of images could just be a bunch of images next to each other, or they could be a comic, a narrative, a sequence of some kind. If I read them as sequential, if I make my own connections from one image to the next, have I changed the work?
Brickbrickbrick itself provides an interesting metaphor for these shifting readings, through the movement from part to whole. If most comics rely on the panel as a building block (multiple, sequential, iconically solid(arity)), the images in this book are themselves formed of small parts built into a whole. Laliberte didn’t just copy brick wall images, he builds them anew brick by brick. And if he (again see the video) sees them as words building a poem, I (again with the different reading) see them, metaphorically, as panels in a comic. Oddly enough, I can’t read those bricks like a comic. I can’t read each one brick by brick, left to right, top to bottom. To me, they read as a whole, single image, one my eye moves around, if not randomly then at least with no set path. It’s only at the next level that I begin to see the order and conglomeration of multiple, sequential parts.
I shouldn’t fail to note how lovely the images in this book are. Laliberte has done an amazing job putting these images together, they are seamless, only occasionally are repeated brick obvious (at least, when I was really looking for them). Any drawing work he has done shows his skill at pastiche. And in the end, there is something comic-ally (comic-esque) primal about these brick walls, harking back to the bricks of Krazy Kat, the conversations atop a brick wall between Charlie Brown and Linus, or the brick buildings lurking in the background of scores of superhero fight scenes.
You won’t find this book in your local comic store or probably most bookstores, so you’ll have to go right to the publisher for a copy (link above where the book is first named), and I think it’s worth the investment.
A few comments from the original post at The Panelists:
The question if something is a comic or not unfortunately invites discussions of definitions. It’s a question to be avoided (because it’s boring) except in the case of liminal works like this. By virtue of the fact that it is on the border it becomes interesting to you. You then review it on a comics website. So BrickBrickBrick starts off as poetry, occupying the social space of poetry, published by a press that primarily publishes poetry. But Laliberte has set himself up in his artistic practice as a liminal artist, working on the fuzzy borderlands of comics, visual art, and poetry. His work is published by Koyama Press, an institution that has also set itself up to straddle comics and visual art. And your review tugs BrickBrickBrick into the comics world while acknowledging its place in the poetry world.
Things like comics and poetry and visual art and other categories of artistic expression are best identified by social and economic indicators (as opposed to formal definitions). I buy a comic, published by a comics publisher, in a comic book store. That is a stronger “definition” of a comic (to me) than any meditation about sequential images, etc. But social and economic indicators are constantly shifting and are pretty fuzzy to begin with. I find works on the boundaries like this to be fascinating because they force us to think about where those boundaries are, and why.
I’ll be tugging a bunch of works into the comics world in upcoming posts.
For me, though, I tend to be more interested in the formal than the social/economic, so that’s where my posts tend to end up.
See, that’s the distinct advantage of formalism: its indifference to social and economic barriers is what allows it to juxtapose works in interesting new ways, and to create new critical genealogies for that work. This is precisely McCloud’s opening gambit in Understanding Comics.
On the comics/poetry connection, see Kenneth Koch’s Art of the Possible, Jan Baetens et al.’s Self-Service, and Joe Brainard’s C Comics. On the latter, see:
Things like comics and poetry and visual art and other categories of artistic expression are best identified by social and economic indicators (as opposed to formal definitions).
Yes, something I was trying, without success I think, to articulate in response to Derik’s previous post on Blaise Larmee.
But an interesting wrinkle here is that the process of asserting (and arguing over) formalist definitions is almost inevitably one of those social indicators. That is, genres may be socially constituted, yes, but some assertion of artistic autonomy and distinctiveness, some move to place the genre’s definition above or outside shifting social factors, almost always becomes part of the discourse of those who care about that genre.
But social and economic indicators are constantly shifting and are pretty fuzzy to begin with. I find works on the boundaries like this to be fascinating because they force us to think about where those boundaries are, and why.
Yes. And perhaps the art world’s selective fascination with “outsider artists” also has something to do with a reflexive awareness of its own boundaries? With the fact that artists “outside” the art world pose a challenge to those fuzzy boundaries, forcing us to think differently about our own activity?
(Of course, then the art world seeks to contain and co-opt the challenge, no?)
“Contain and co-opt”? I guess so, but I tend to think that when the art world, for example, embraces something that is socially from outside the art world, it does so the only way it knows how. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you’re the art world, anything that becomes interesting to you looks like art–and ends up in galleries, art spaces and museums.
Ditto comics. Comics critics are constantly trying to fit comics-like things into the world of comics. Our ability to co-opt is probably a bit weaker than the art world’s, but we still try to do it. (And it’s not just high-brow critics–think of things like “Twisted Toyfare Theater.”)
More and more, I’ve come to see formalist (or other essentialist) definitions to be dead ends. (This doesn’t mean discussions of formal qualities of this or that work are dead-ends.) I’ve become more interested in how something exists in the world. This is an argument that is current in the art world. Someone recently wrote that the problem with lots of reviews in Art in America and Artforum is that after reading them, you would not be sure that the things described actually existed, much less that they were merchandise that was for sale.
Hence I liked it that Badman mentioned that the publisher was a literary publisher that specialized in poetry. Because it tells us that this work doesn’t exist in the world as comics. At least, not necessarily.
I think the relationship of the art world to outsider artists is primarily an ethical rather than an artistic problem.
Derik, excellent essay, as always.
Robert, you said: More and more, I’ve come to see formalist (or other essentialist) definitions to be dead ends. (This doesn’t mean discussions of formal qualities of this or that work are dead-ends.)
In the essay Derik links to in his first paragraph, he talks at length about Samuel Delany’s notion of a “functional description.” (That links to the Delany piece on Google Books.)
I like Delany’s concept very much because it skirts the middle of the two extremes you note, between “universal” definitions that end up being essentialist and discussions limited to single works: Delany recognizes why the kinds of generalizations that characterize “definitions” are valuable for analysis while eschewing the idea that there can be an “essentialist” definition, one that’s right in all circumstances.
Shorter Views is a terrific book (Delany’s discussion of McCloud starts on page 224 for anybody who isn’t familiar with the book.)
Delany’s remains, I think, the strongest critique of McCloud.
“I think the relationship of the art world to outsider artists is primarily an ethical rather than an artistic problem.”
It’s both. I don’t think the two are really separable.
Have any of you seen the UK Channel 4 special that Jarvis Cocker did on Outsider Art? It’s particularly interesting because he focuses on art that is very place specific — artists who constructed environments for themselves, dwellings and gardens and monuments, rather than “works.” Unlike, say, the Visionary Art Museum (in Baltimore MD), the special very much emphasizes outsider art as a way of “existing in the world.” (Although I do love the VAM and highly recommend it.)
Cocker’s introduction makes a point similar to what Robert is saying:
This is the City of London. I’ve lived in various flat and houses in various parts of this city for almost 10 years. Of all the places I’ve spent time in down here, the one that had the most effect on me is this one, because this is St Martins School of Art. And the reason I moved to London in the first place was to study film making here. Although I never actually did any painting whilst I was there, I was in an art college, and that meant I got to hear lots of other people’s ideas of what art was all about. It soon struck me that these people did not have a clue about what interested everyone else on a daily basis. It was as if art and everyday life had become mutually exclusive.
Towards the end of the course I had to write a thesis. And by then this divorce between art and reality was getting to be a bit of an obsession for me. So desperate to find a spark of inspiration, something that would help to put these feelings into words, I began to scour the college library. There was no shortage of material on offer, but none of it seemed to fit the bill. I needed to find something outside all this, something that had not been analysed to death. And then when I had all but given up hope of such a thing existing, I found it: in a book called Outsider Art.
The book was about art made by people from all walks of life, who didn’t think of themselves as artists, but were creating things because they thought they had to, rather than because they had been taught to. Although the book featured paintings and sculptures it was the photographs of unusual buildings and monuments that really caught my imagination. How could there be a gap between art and everyday life, if every day you lived inside the work of art you had created? This was exactly what I was looking for.
I’d found much more than just a subject for an essay, I’d found something that I could really get excited about. And I vowed if I ever got the chance, I’d go and find more about these incredible places and the people who’d made them. Now almost a decade later that time has come.
My thesis was awarded the second lowest mark in the year.
Really fantastic way to spend a few hours if you can find a copy.
I don’t think Crocker is talking about what I am talking about, except in the sense that outsider artists are, until someone discovers them, outside the art world. So how they interact, how the art world comes to recognize what they do as art, is interesting. And I like some outsider art quite a lot. Adolf Wolflli, Henry Darger, and people in Houston (where I am) like Jeff McKissack and the Flower Man. I recently saw a great movie like Marwencol about a guy who created his own alternative reality after being attacked which ended up being discovered by artists.
But Crocker seems to be saying that outsider art is superior because it’s outside; outside the art world therefore more connected to the “real” world. That argument can be made, but it’s not that interesting to me.
When i speak of art as it exists in the world, I mean as it exists in its world. So Crocker talks about the kind of art his fellow students were doing. Imagine there’s an artist and she is a fairly recent MFA recipient. Since school, she has been surviving on occasional small grants and adjunct teaching. She’s single, in her 20s, and has no health insurance. Her art is ephemeral, performance and process based. For the past three months she has had a residency at an artist-run space. The space is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, operating out of a rented warehouse. Her residency is coming to an end and she will be doing a final performance. The artspace is having a big opening and she is part of it. Her residency was paid for with a grant from a large local foundation that was established 60 years ago by a local timber and newspaper tycoon. The curator is the boyfriend of a woman who works for the artspace part time. The people coming to the opening are the artist’s friends and members of the local art community. These include artists, professors at local universities, and a few collectors as well as some general enthusiasts. Weirdly enough, there are more than one art community in town that only occasionally overlap. A local blogger is present, snapping photos. The artist does her performance. She subsists on next to nothing, but she isn’t worried because there is a real good chance at a local community college will be hiring her full-time in the fall.
Without knowing really anything about her art, I know a lot about it. This is an example of what I mean about how art exists in the world.
I love the concreteness and specificity of this example, Robert, esp. the pragmatic considerations, for example, how surplus capital and philanthropic intent enable all sorts of art-making. Sounds very convincing to me.
I’ve become more interested in how something exists in the world.
Exactly Eddie Campbell’s riposte to Scott McCloud.
At about 8:00 they finally get down to the issue that bugs me. I understand that outsider art is inevitably interesting, but I find it distasteful when people on the “inside” used a romanticized notion of what is “outside” in order to enact a kind of rebellion against the very terms of their own success; in other words, when the educated and the thoroughly incorporated long for the putative authenticity of the unincorporated, the untutored, the socially marginalized, even the institutionalized. There’s a kind of self-serving assumption of authenticity accomplished by a facile “sympathy” with or vicarious living through the lives of the insane, the destitute, or the “humble” and folksy unassimilated. It’s Romanticism’s love affair with the peasantry carried to a gross extreme. I can’t deny the extraordinary aesthetic power and interest of many works gathered under the outsider umbrella; even the aesthetic and conceptual unity of vast, accumulative lifelong projects like Darger’s. The obsessiveness on view is like an ideal of art personified. But, still, there’s something that isn’t quite licit about this insider attraction to outsiders, this exploitation of narratives of madness, alienation, compulsion, aloneness, lost-ness. Granted that fantastic art works may be discovered by enlarging the compass this way, so to speak, but it inevitably smacks of exploitation since, as Robert has said, the boundary lines around the art world are socially and economically drawn and no one gets inside those boundaries without becoming, even posthumously, often posthumously, part of that circuit of exchange.
This is what I meant by co-optation, and by the ethical question that appreciation of outsider art raises. At least for me. Always.
There’s a bit at the end where a French woman in the audience points out that the difference between “art brut” and “outsider art” is that the former puts emphasis on the work and the latter on the creator…
I was struck around minute 8 too — by the particular notion of authenticity-as-purity, the idea that it’s important to validate the purity of the outsider artist, confirm through biographical research that the person’s really had no training, no exposure to “influences” in any systematic way. It’s very much “Here is the box. You must stay in the box. We will commodify the box on your behalf, but you must stay in the box.”
They do get into discussing later on the inevitability of socio-cultural visual influences and the impact the ubiquitous media presence has had on this genre of art — they mention, for example, the influence of comic books on Darger, the narrative he was conveying through and in his art, and the way that the work getting split up from the beginning made this narrative originally hard to parse. And JC points out that so many of these artists are very old — the emphasis on purity forces the genre to embrace madness and marginalization because there are so few ways for people to meet that standard of purity now. But there really is a very strong sense of exactly what you describe, and I agree with Noah that it’s both ethical and artistic — because the practicalities of the ethical problem here, grounded as they are in the different status (practical and potential) of the outsider art vis-a-vis the Art Establishment, expose and illuminate so many problems within the larger discourse of art that are obscured by the greater ability of insider artists to make informed choices about their careers and work: problems of the commodification of art; of the relationship between art and artist; of the importance of the artist’s identity and “statement” to artistic meaning, of the independence of the artwork and the possibility of “de-contextualized” art. Either outsider art is no different, its context no more or less important than for insider art — or context is a bigger deal inside than artists want to believe. Close scrutiny explodes it all to bits…
But I do still really like the way JC makes it about “living in art” rather than about the inside/outside binary. I hope they manage to get that special out on DVD with the extra hours of interviews…
I think this discussion of outsider art is very relevant to the way comics are often handled in the art world or the public sphere. Gallery shows of Kirby art seem like shows, not of art, but of collectibles, for example. Even a book like “Art out of Time” and its successor treat comics as artifacts more than as art, I think. It’s interesting to look at someone like Fletcher Hanks, but it’s hard for me not to view that work with some degree of condescension (“oh, that kooky guy!) and appreciate the story surrounding the work more than the work itself. I know Paul Karasik wouldn’t feel that way about it and Nadel probably doesn’t either, but I think many people would engage more with the work as weird and wacky (kitsch, even) more than as serious art. Not that it has to be serious, it just feels slimier and more superior to relate to these cultural product in this way than as art made by someone seemingly more “self-aware.”
I hadn’t seen that post before, Noah, but it sums up my conflict about outsider art pretty well. I really like this sentence:
“a lot of his appeal is the outsider-art one of being naive/incompetent in a surprising way”
It’s that complete left-field perspective that gets me. I love some “outsider art”(Dolemite), but I feel uncomfortable calling it great art. Darger is so problematic for me; his colors and compositions are so beautiful, but the “content” is so bizarre that I can’t get into for itself – Darger’s “intentions” are antithetical to the point.
If a person was interested in art for what they could read into it wouldn’t the end of that path be a blank canvas, page, or panel?
No, because we actively seek obstacles or checks to our own solipsism, in the form of material works that can surprise us rather than just reconfirm our own ideas again and again. We may still be “reading into it” according to our own predispositions and desires, but we are partially thwarted in that process, which is part of what makes art so wonderful.
What I’m saying is there are people who might prefer art with very few guide posts, art which is open to broad readings. This could be reduced in theory to a blank slate, in which case the blank slate becomes the medium for creation.
Great piece, Derik. Thanks, I’ll definitely check this out. I think there’s a strong connection in the way visual poetry and comics both can convey meaning through composition on the page. Whatever category one puts these in – and I’m not advocating on that – there’s something to be learned by comics makers from poets and I think vice versa, resources that enrich both art forms. I find myself increasingly interested in the visual flow of the page in the way I imagine visual poets do as well. Anyhow, thanks for the writing and the reference – Nick
Thanks, Nick. And I agree on the potential for cross-pollination. Wish I knew more about visual poetry. I need to do some research. If anyone reading this has any recommendations, I’d be happy to hear them.
Thanks, Derik. Without doing the research (!), I think the poet’s use of pauses, empty space, the control over reading rhythm, can very much mirror how one thinks of organizing space on a comics page. Thinking in this way, having the shape of the page itself shape my content, i think has opened up some exciting possibilities for me, and a tighter visual-verbal weaving/feedback loop. But that may all just be me! Ordered brickbrickbrick – thanks! Nick