“[Porcellino’s] line is confident, strikingly so, betraying no hesitation in hand or head. It is stolidly gestural, brawnily lyrical, unconsciously sublime.”
(Rich Kreiner reviewing Thoureau at Walden by John Porcellino in The Comics Journal 294, p. 132.)
I came upon these two sentences and stopped short. Describing artwork can be difficult. Trying to use words to describe the visual often leads critics to abstraction or flights of lyricism. Kreiner seems to give in to this tendency, to the detriment of any sense.
I’d start by wondering how the line could show (or not) hesitation. Perhaps if this were an original piece of art (that is, original as in the actual paper Porcellino drew on) we might make some judgments about hesitation, but in a polished piece of printed work that is all conjecture without basis. The series of adverb-adjective phrases which follow are contradictory or abstractly meaningless. “Stolidly” indicates lack of emotion, while lyrical and sublime are anything but. How does lyricism offer brawn? How is the sublime unconscious? Whose unconscious: Porcellino’s, the line, the sublimity itself?
I read these sentences and while I can, at first, be impressed with this flourish of adjectives and ten cent words, in the end, I haven’t learned anything.
This opening statement is followed by a comprehensible and more sensible description of the image found on the cover of the book (beneath the dustjacket). Unfortunately this description offers no real example of those qualities quoted above.
The paragraph ends:
“This is fluent, minimalist calligraphy writ prodigiously, the unstudied product of prolonged preparation.”
I can actually find sense in this sentence. Porcellino’s linework is minimalist yet “fluent”, in the sense that it is articulate and expressive, and is prodigious in skill (why the need for the archaic “writ”, I don’t know). His work does not look studied (overworked, too planned) yet this is accountable to the hundreds of pages of his work (preparation) as it evolved into this beautiful minimalism.
That last sentence also has some nice internal rhyme and alliteration, a rare attention to the poetic quality of critical sentences.
What’s my point, beyond picking on someone who is, on the whole, writing better criticism than I? Just some attention paid to the criticism itself, to it’s sense. I know it can be easy to get attached to some turn of phrase without thinking about what it really means or how effective it is at the work at hand. And I’d certainly like to see more work put into backing up these assertions with examples from the work. Show me how the work is lyrical or gestural. That’s not only good practice (backing up assertions), it would be educational and informative for the reader as they go about their future reading.
And yes, I know I’m guilty of these things in my own writing.