Monday, October 12, 2020

Ley Lines Monday: Whit Taylor's Smile

Welcome to a new weekly feature here at High-Low: Ley Lines Monday. I've accumulated quite a few new issues of this joint production between Kevin Czap's Czap Books and L.Nichols' Grindstone Comics, and rather than review them all at once, I've decided to spread them out over a few weeks. Ley Lines is a series where a cartoonist does a comic about a particular work or works of art and the artist(s) who made them. The results have been straight-up narratives, comics-as-poetry, historical examinations, and even abstract ruminations. It's one of the most original ideas for a comics series I've ever seen.

First up is Whit Taylor's Smile, subtitled "Anatomy of ambivalence." It details five-year-old Taylor's first exposure to Leonardo da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa, as she was assigned to be the woman behind the painting for a class play. She rejected this out of hand, thinking it was boring that she just sat there. She wanted to do something, like "make the pasta," as in Tomie de Paola's children's book Strega Nona, the other text that Taylor examines in this comic.

Taylor the adult examines her feelings about this experience but does so through the prism of ambiguity. The mystery of her wry smile gets at the heart of an artist's intentionality. Taylor dances around the idea in providing the reader with biographical data regarding both da Vinci and Lisa Gioncondo, as well as details regarding the sophistication of da Vinci's painting technique and firm understanding of optics. It's not a coincidence that the subject of the painting's eye seem to follow the viewer; da Vinci's painstaking studies of corpses led him to an understanding of human anatomy that few other artists possessed. 

The question Taylor asked was, "What did it all mean?" That's a question with no answer. The circumstances surrounding the actual creation of the painting and Leonardo's intent are lost to time. The Mona Lisa is the soul of ambiguity, and this is one reason why it is so recognizable. Its ambiguity is a feature, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions and feel justified in doing so. 

The last image of Taylor is stirring a pot of pasta as an adult. It's a funny image, but it reflects the way she not only looks at the world as a scientist, but also as an artist. Taylor's entire project has been about confronting ambiguity and giving it a name. Whether it's confronting political injustice or her own personal mental health, Taylor approaches every topic with bracing honesty and a dash of whimsy. This particular comic sees her going to her strengths as a designer, turning anatomical drawings into elegantly decorative figures. By keeping her figures simple, she allowed herself greater complexity with regard to other details. The result is a charming comic that claims no answers other than the right to perpetually ask questions.

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