Friday, November 13, 2009

Artist Introspective, Part 1: All And Sundry

Rob reviews Paul Hornschemeier's sketchbook and rarities collection, ALL AND SUNDRY (Fantagraphics), as the first entry in a three part series on artists with recent publications that look back on their careers.
Most artists, in evaluating their own work, often find it difficult to revisit old pieces because all they can see is what's wrong with them. For some, it's a matter of having moved on to a different phase or set of interests; it's as though a completely different artist had created these older works. For others, it's a painful reminder of what they had to go through in order to create the work. In this series, I'll be examining recent books by Paul Hornschemeier, Zak Sally and John Porcellino that touch on these concepts in different ways. These books are unusual in that they not only present a work of art for a reader to absorb and interpret, they also contain extensive notes by the artists themselves that contextualize their comics. The sort of comments that each artist chose to make reflected on them directly as individuals, as well as the internal and external forces that were at work while they were writing their comics.

I've been reading Paul Hornschemeier's work since he was self-publishing SEQUENTIAL, an ambitious and gorgeous comic that focused heavily on formal experimentation. Hornschemeier has always hovered between an expressly downbeat, naturalistic style (characterized by heavy tones and thick lines) and a deliberately off-the-wall, cartoony style that frequently juxtaposed the lightness of the line with the subject matter at hand. The latter style felt like a conduit straight to his id, while the former seemed more deliberate and cerebral--even if he was usually exploring a series of tragic events. His book THE THREE PARADOXES was a remarkable marriage of his different impulses, combined with his impeccable design sense and subtle use of color. In many respects, it was the culmination of his artistic and intellectual career to date, embracing his degree in philosophy, his love of old comics and his desire to explore human emotion.
Hornschemeier obviously draws a lot of inspiration from Chris Ware, especially in terms of color scheme and alternating between naturalistic and iconic styles. There's a different level of emotional impact in his comics, however, a certain distance that reminds me more of what Daniel Clowes or Art Spiegelman do in their work. In his cartoonier work, I sensed a Skip Williamson influence in terms of the looping way he drew hands, heads and facial figures. Considering that ALL AND SUNDRY collects his sketchbook work from the time he was writing THE THREE PARADOXES, I was curious to see what it would reveal about the struggle he had creating that book. I was especially interested in taking a peek at his process as an artist, given that this book was a return to his more aggressively experimental style after having toned it down a bit for MOTHER, COME HOME and even his MOME serial, LIFE WITH MR. DANGEROUS.
I found the experience of reading and looking at this collection to be an oddly ephemeral. I rarely got a sense of the artist, the process or the work. In his introduction to the book, Hornschemeier justified the book's existence as a sort of self-validation, tangible proof that even though he's only published a small number of books, the actual work he does on a day-to-day basis has added up to something. What we got was a book that's pretty much for Hornschemeier completists only. The "Drawings and Stories" section was dominated by alternate covers in other languages for his books and reprints of his short stories from MOME. There were two items of interest here: first, a clever comic for the Luaka Bop Records album Yonlu that leaned a bit on his Skip Williamson chops in depicting the label as a home for the unusual and hard to categorize. Hornschemeier is at his best depicting wanderers in dreamlike landscapes, and this strip played off that motif but gave the wanderer a certain sense of purpose--even if he wasn't quite sure he knew what he was looking for. The second strip of interesting was "Huge Suit Among The People", a strip that once again used a Williamson-like figure as a God stand-in, randomly inspiring people to do horrible things. The way he connected characters and played off different moments of time was both clever and moving, and it made me wish the strip had appeared in a different book.

That highlighted one of the problems of the book for me: it was neither fish nor fowl. I would have liked to have seen a more extensive Sketches & Drawings section that went deeper into his philosophical & personal ideas surrounding "The Three Paradoxes", for example. More drawings from life combined with more personal notes (ala Chris Ware's ACME NOVELTY DATEBOOK) might have also been interesting, but Hornschemeier is one of my favorite thinkers in comics--and we didn't see enough of his thought process in this book. Even worse than ephemeral, it felt like it came all too easily to him, a notion that is probably far from the truth, yet haunts the page. Once again, there were fleeting moments in this section of the book that grabbed me: mimicry of classic comics and cartoons, character studies (I like how his initial drawing of Amy from LIFE WITH MR DANGEROUS is labled "John Pham rip-off?"), drawings of togas, a page about a particularly meaningful moment. Most of it was nice enough to look at but left me cold as a reader.

ALL AND SUNDRY is less about the work itself and more about the artist as worker. It's a justification of time spent, a validation of illustration projects undertaken. It's like his comics were a math problem and he was told to "show his work". Quite honestly, Hornschemeier's actual work was far more revealing than this behind-the-scenes look at his process. We don't get much of a sense here of why Hornschemeier became so obsessed with the ideas in THE THREE PARADOXES, or why loneliness recurs so often in his comics. There's almost a sheepishness on some of the pages included here where he indicates that his life is going well and that he's comfortable. Certainly, it's not that I want to read about an artist suffering for their work, but in reading a sketchbook/coffee table book/miscellaneous story book, I want to get a sense of why they're doing what they're doing, and why I as a reader should care. Hornschemeier's concept was to give the reader a little of everything, but this wound up frustrating me as the servings of this fish/fowl mishmash were too small. Fans of his work will find some intriguing nuggets and beautiful images, but this sketchbook contains few of the qualities that make Hornschemeier's work so consistently engaging and challenging.

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