Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sequart Reprints: Kenneth Patchen & Tim Gaze

THE WALKING-AWAY WORLD, by Kenneth Patchen. This book straddles a number of different media, featuring the "picture-poems" of a figure who meant an awful lot to a number of different people. Patchen was a huge influence on the Beat poets and his work, reprinted in a single volume by New Directions, feels fresh today. I could easily see it being reprinted in an art-comics anthology, given the way that he merged word, image and typography. The physical qualities of each was as important to Patchen as the meanings of those words and images. As a result, each reading yields a slightly different impression, revealing a number of levels for readers to grapple with.
The effect is a bit reminiscent of William Blake or Grace Hartigan's paintings of Frank O'Hara's poems. It's not a true synthesis of word and image in the way we usually understand from comics; rather, word and image comment on and supplement each other, making us aware of their physical qualities. The compositions are clearly meant to be read, yet the layers of distance Patchen puts between the reader and his words forces the reader to either fully engage or disengage. The way he uses his handwriting as a crucial aspect of his pieces both unifies each work in terms of its formal qualities and calls greater attention to his formal process.

There's a playful quality to his images that comes out in both his paintings and doodles and his text. "there's no point saying anything except what you can't" is a line from "Wonderings" and sort of sums up his work. Patchen spins yarns, drops bon mots, creates aphorisms and fiercely promotes the idea of "peace or perish", and the handmade feel of each page adds to the sensation that one is reading instant folklore. The visual quality of each drawing is clearly important (though often secondary) to the poem itself, so it's not quite a poem with an illustration accompanying it. It's not quite what I call "comics-as-poetry" either; it doesn't work within the rhythms of comics. It's somewhere in-between and as a result, it's a fascinating artifact for readers interested in the ways word and text can interact.

That line is being crossed more often in interesting ways. Artists like John Hankiewicz and Tom Neely fall squarely into the "comics-as-poetry" camp, given the way the way they use beat and rhythm in their panels. Poets like Gary Sullivan and Tim Gaze are more frequently using visuals to express ideas and feelings. Gaze's "Pseudocomics" is a series of abstract images deliberately constrained within comics panels. From page to page, there's a sense of order giving way to disorder, as the rigid panels seem to whirl around a vortex by the end. The image start off contained in panels but soon break out, as several panels together form one image. I hesitate to attach any other narrative meaning to the piece, but it's an interesting way to frame and thus change the nature of images. Comics have always been an ideal vehicle for juxtaposition, so it's interesting to see a piece that's purely about contrasts in every surface sense of the word.

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