Opening confession, I am writing this while drinking a cocktail at home. Please excuse any typos.
It will probably come as no surprise that much of my childhood was spent in comic books. It would also come as no surprise to me that most of you readers did too. Comic books, graphic novels, webcomics — just the latest links in a very long chain. The way most of us were first introduced to art and literature. There’s no single name for this particular art form — and I do see it as a single type of pop art, carried on throughout the millenia — but I think they came up with the most elegant name for this form back in Victorian England. A penny dreadful. The stories we tell children and the adults who never quite grow out of childhood.
I won’t go too much further into my semi-drunken theories of comic book lore but I want to take this blog post to highlight one particular artist. An artist with a kick-ass name: Ben Templesmith.
A well-known artist in the graphic novel community, famous for the hugely popular 30 Days of Night and the much less popular but still amazing Silent HIll: Dying Inside. A quite dapper man (image) who makes exceedingly disturbing art. The whole package!
I think Silent Hill: Dying Inside is the perfect example of his artwork and is also a perfect of example of what I want to highlight in his work, which speaks to a larger trend in comic art. Chiaroscuro. By no means a completely foreign concept to comic books but shows something in the evolution of comic art into something more than the cliche cheesy form many still think of it as. His styles shows that the audience no longer expects a straight-forward view of the fantastic. They make allowances for an artists’ prerogative. Much like the early Cubists, there was an expectation for realism in comic books (funny, I know) that the audience demanded and artists such as Templesmith had to demolish. His world is all shadow and shading and darkness and charcoal and smudge. Beautifully diffuse.
You can increasing see his influence in the comic book work (not that I actually have stayed in touch with that world, except for the odd trip to Forbidden Planet to gawk at the comics). I look at all this as generally a very positive development. The maturation of the comic art world into a more complex and interested aesthetic. Like the street art aesthetic, it took a long time but has finally reached a level of duly earned respect and appreciation. From more than just us nerds.
P.S.: Check out Ben Templesmith’s work at his website. He is honestly one of the most interesting artists you will see out there.
For one, in spite of being a smaller gallery, the collection was impressive. There were a couple of Robert Maplethorpe photographs I had only ever seen in class but never though I’d see in real life. I also really enjoyed their choice to pair most of the works with literature or videos (usually a news reports or flyers from protest for/against) about why it was censored and the controversy surrounding the decision. And perhaps the most surprising aspect of the show, is the fact that all of the examples happened in the last 20-30 years. Which is a real statement about how quickly LGBT rights have grown, since I suppose before the 70s there was no possibility of displaying Queer art in any public way.
A really well-done show that deserves your patronage. You, yes you.
Michael Waugh, an artist, has spent years desperately trying to reach a journeyman shipbuilder dying alone in the cold of a frozen bay. Except, he has no hope of reaching him or saving him. Gideon Dexter died 188 years ago, January 31, 1827, in a small rowboat on “Holmes Hole,” Massachusetts. Martha’s Vineyard was/is a cruelly short row away from where Dexter’s boat was found. Dexter was Waugh’s great-great-great-great grandfather.
I’ve been fortunate to know Michael Waugh for quite some years and am always in awe of his work. I’ll let him describe himself and his work, from his blog profile:
“I am a Brooklyn-based artist with historical ties to southeastern Massachusetts. My work spans several disciplines: I make drawings, sculpture, installation, and video. I tie these things together through historical research and social practice.”
However the bulk of his previous work, and the first I saw of it, was his digital manipulations of text into image. Meaning, he takes digital copies of texts (for example: sections of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith or The 9/11 Commission Report by…..the 9/11 Commission) and manipulates the words themselves to form a new image. They’re stunning. I can even remember the first work I saw. I knew him personally before I had seen any of his work, and without knowing exactly what to expect, I walked in the gallery at my first showing and immediately saw this:
The actual work is huge. From afar you can hardly see the text but when you get close, put your nose almost against the glass, you can read the words and see every choice he made, every word that went into the clothes on the figure or the pillars of the house. There’s nothing quite like seeing his work for the first time.
But his current project is no doubt his most personal and most ambitious. He started to building an entire rowboat and oars from scratch (which I believe might be complete now) and once they are done he will use them to row from the spot where his ancestor died to the ancestor’s past and Waugh’s family current home of Mattapoisett. He has chronicled the entire journey thus far at his blog. It is definitely worth a read. Aside from the sheer madness of learning to make a rowboat from scratch with no prior experience in shipbuilding (his great⁴ grandfather’s trade), he has had to face old injuries, new injuries, funding issues, and the very real danger of a hard 20 mile row, which he is not quite convinced that he can complete in his current health. But he carries on.
As you can tell from my previous post about the artist tiptoe, I don’t feel quite right talking about what I think an artist’s motivations/intentions are, especially someone I actually know quite well. But I will say just one thing. Michael and I share an interest in the terribly interesting story of the founding of the Massachusettes Bay Colony — a topic on which the always brilliant Sarah Vowell has written beautifully on in The Wordy Shipmates — and one of my favorite quotes comes from the first governor of the Colony, John Winthrop, who stated very simply his and his fellow Pilgrims goals in founding a new state: “Justice and Mercy.” (I understand that most readers’ views/ideas of the Pilgrims and other colonists are generally less kind than my last sentence allows and, rest assured, I have an equal belief in the heartlessness of their sins, but if you are to look at their intentions, their writings, and some of their deeds, it’s easy to see them as grey people with measures of goodness and wickedness in their hearts. They were people who did what people do best — find ways to fuck up a good thing. But that’s a topic I may explore in more depth in another post.)
I can’t say for sure but I would imagine Winthrop’s line resonates with Waugh as well, since as you can tell by his blog posts, the texts he covers, the projects he undertakes, and the pains he chooses to suffer, he has a deep abiding belief in the idea of social justice. I know that phrase is pretty much a catch-all these days for any number of causes and/or personal crusades (which I suppose is a good thing) but for Waugh I believe it is also a literal meaning. Justice — the world being repaired in some way, whether that is payment, punishment, remembrance, memorial, or just completion. Michael Waugh isn’t rowing from his home to the place where Gideon Dexter died or from his home to the place of death and back, which seem to be more straightforward attempts at memorial. Instead, he will start where Dexter stopped and finish it. Waugh will become the vessel through which Dexter can finally complete his journey home. For Dexter there might finally be a measure of completion and, through completion, — some measure of Justice.
In Waugh’s own words:
And through this process, I will rewind the cynical accounting that led to Gideon’s solitary and fatal exertions. I will not just row back in the opposite direction, I will reverse all the decisions, all the aesthetics that devalue labor. I will refuse the tragic end of one person by returning him to the interconnected and continuing histories of many.