Thursday, January 17, 2019

Minis: John Hankiewicz' N for Nadelman

It's been a while since I've written about John Hankiewicz, who I consider to be one of the greatest cartoonists in the world. He came out with a book (Education) and a short mini within the last couple of years which I haven't reviewed yet, so I did want to get to his latest release as soon as I could. That comic is N for Nadelman, which is a meditation of sorts on the sculptor, artist and collector Elie Nadelman. He was active in the burgeoning avant garde scene in the early 20th century as a sculptor and later put together (with his heiress wife Viola Flannery) a huge collection that focused on folk art. His own work was forgotten during his lifetime, and there's one detail in particular that Hankiewicz zeroes in on: he put all of his pre-1935 work up in his attic to slowly rot away.

Hankiewicz (along with Warren Craghead) is the premier practitioner of comics-as-poetry. His approach has always been to use the familiar framework of comics in an oblique manner, creating rhymes through repeating certain panels and lines of dialogue. It is a narrative, but it's an oblique narrative whose meanings must be teased out and contemplated closely. In this comic, Hankiewicz defaults to a six-panel grid, 2 x 3, and he collapses them from time to time to emphasize certain images. He also uses his super-dense cross-hatching technique here to help create the atmosphere not just of darkness, but of being lost in the dark. The story begins with the image of a duck juxtaposed against the darkness as a woman approaches a house during a thunderstorm. She has a small pin in the shape of a duck in her hand, and these are key figures because they are representative of the kind of folk art that Nadelman collected and created himself.

The comic is set in 1944, two years before Nadelman's death. The woman spells out some details: she works for an art gallery and they borrowed a pie plate with two carved owl heads as handles from his collection for a folk art show. Her narrative captions only loosely match the accompanying image, as though she was thinking about these memories from the future and she was dictating a parallel narrative. She notes that his house was mostly bare from losing a lot of money in the stock market crash, and that only plays into Hankiewicz's hands. The house is bizarre as a result: dark and empty of almost everything except sculptures.

Throughout the comic, Nadelman is never literally seen. Instead, his works and objects stand in for him, a kind of visual metanym for the reserved, defeated but proud artist. Along with that visual bit of reality shifting, the narrative itself shifts in terms of causality, confusing even the narrator as Nadelman himself is confused. Was she there to bring back the pie plate or to take it? She wanted him to tell him a fable associated with the owls while simultaneously flashing forward and back in time and experiencing déjà vu. Nadelman in this book is about precision of language even as his form changes from one of his famous busts to his Dancer piece to his Tango piece. There's a joy of movement in these pieces that translates into cartooning, animating the page more than the other drawings. 

All along, she's wondering where she had seen him before, even as the tale of two owls staring at each other in desolation played out on the page. She and Nadelaman were those two owls, talking themselves into being other than they were in the desolation of life. However, she couldn't quite let go of that nagging sense that she knew him. Know him she did, because as she saw him literally as an impression of his works, she had "seen" him through one of his works that she saw in the city. In a sense, all that was left of him was his art--at least in her eyes. His world was dark and fading from existence, yet he would live on. 

Accompanying this comic is Notes for N, featuring "unwanted text" and "sketches from the beach". The text was excised from the comic and paired with sketches (some of them in Nadelman's style) that he made at the beach. The juxtaposition of art and image here in a setting that is not-art because it was only a precursor to something larger is fascinating. Like with any ready-made and repurposed use of art, the juxtaposition changed the meaning of both word and image. sketch of a bird is captioned "The rain has stopped, so I ask that you leave". It's fascinating, because the images that Hankiewicz drew are folk art images: just people and animals at the beach. Some of the images were then repurposed for drawings of sculptures, but it's all part of the overall project: reconciling fine art, folk art and the role of the artist in treading these two worlds. 

1 comment:

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