Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Formal Blog- Sensitive Artists

Option #2) Discuss some element of the _form_ of Jimmy Corrigan in relationship to some element of the _form_ of House of Leaves. You should discover at least a tentative argument, and refer to a specific passage/panel/page from each book.

I am a sensitive artist.
Nobody understands me because I am so deep.
In my work I make allusions to books that nobody else has read,
Music that nobody else has heard,
And art that nobody else has seen.
I can't help it
Because I am so much more intelligent
And well-rounded
Than everyone who surrounds me.

I have to admit, while reading Jimmy Corrigan, this song did not pop into my head. But while considering the similarities of form between Jimmy Corrigan and House of Leaves, I have been unable to get it out of my head.

One of the most important things to know about this song, besides the fact that it was recorded by the band King Missile in the late 1980’s, is that the song is firmly tongue-in-cheek (but I’m guessing you already knew that). The “introduction” of the book Jimmy Corrigan and the “dedication” page of House of Leaves operate in a very similar way. They both baldly state, each in their own way - “This is not for you.” Both books directly challenge the reader to stop reading, while counting on the fact that you, the reader, will indeed ignore their warnings. They both warn you, the reader, that the material is not designed for you, that you cannot hope to understand it, that you may actually be in danger if you continue to read it. Of course, you continue to read…

It can be argued that Chris Ware’s use of this conceit is self-deprecating, funny and even engaging. In his (fake) article, “New Pictorial Language Makes Marks,” Ware implies that “dumb” people will be the target market of this new type of “Pictorial” narrative. Of course, he is being ironic, but he is also being quite authentically caustic about American culture and those who live within it and consume it. His warnings about the book not being “for you” and his denigration of the readers who typically consumes “Pictorial” narrative (read, comic books) actually effectively sets the tone of the book. As a reader, you already have clear indications that the book is not going to be a conventional “comic book” and is probably not going to be a happy story. If you are looking for either of these things – this is not the book for you.

Danielewski uses this conceit (this is not for you) in a manner that is similar to, but also deviates from, the way that Ware utilizes it. It still helps to set the tone of the book, but in a more menacing and distinctly darker way. You (the reader) do not venture far into the book before you begin to realize that it is not what it initially appears to be. Beginning with the “Contents” page, the book initially appears similar to many academic tracts critiquing a particular art form of one type or another. But in Johnny’s introduction, the reader is exposed to the fact that the “Navidson Record” is, in fact, a film critique (about a film that does not exist) written by a blind man. Importantly, the reader is also exposed to Johnny’s voice (by which I mean the distinctive quality of his writing). This is significant because Johnny interrupts the narrative quite a bit with his theories, ideas and stories. Johnny’s introduction (much like Ware’s first two pages in Jimmy Corrigan) provides a road map which allows the reader to become familiar with some of the “signposts” which punctuate the landscape of House of Leaves. You, the reader, become familiar with Johnny’s voice, you also learn that many of the articles, citations and references within the “Navidson Record” are frauds, and finally you learn that the film does not even exist (as far as Johnny has been able to ascertain) and is being described in such depth by a man who would never have been able to watch the film anyway. You also begin to realize that there is also something unnamed and terrible happening to Johnny. He is being menaced by something. Something that is contained within the materials presented in the book (or is he mentally ill?). The line “this is not for you” perpetuates this sense of darkness and danger. Again, if you are looking for a traditional book about a family living in rural American or a film theory tract– this is not the book for you.

Another similarity of form between the two books is evident in the way that each of them marks transitions. In Jimmy Corrigan, as discussed in class, color is the clearest designator of a transition between time and characters. The transition between each narrative is marked by the sun rising or sun setting, darkness or light, rain or snow. In House of Leaves, the transition between characters is marked by the quality of the text (i.e. the font used). Both books use clear visual cues to mark the transition from one character to another. In House of Leaves, the reader is additionally “cued” by the use of footnotes to transition from Zampano’s writing to Johnny’s observations and his own storyline.

But why have I had the song “Sensitive Artist” stuck in my head for the last couple of days? I finally figured it out. Formally, both Jimmy Corrigan and House of Leaves owe a huge debt to the artist’s book movement. Neither book so much resembles the examples of their own particular genre nearly as much as they resemble the books made by visual artists (and each other). Both books bear the mark of their respective authors'/creators' hand clearly upon them. Every element, every centimeter of Jimmy Corrigan is designed/constructed by Chris Ware to push forward or explore some element of his narrative (the layers upon layers of information grafted together in House of Leaves clearly shows the hand of its creator as well). The book, both books actually, by their very design, demand that the reader interact with them in a very physical way. You, as a reader, must turn the book this way and that way, flip the pages back and forth, and pay incredibly close attention to the visual details, or else risk becoming lost or even worse, frustrated.

Artist’s books demand much from their readers. They are designed to be interacted with, not passively gazed upon. Books by artists Ed Ruscha, Anselm Kiefer, and Max Ernst pushed beyond the boundaries of traditional narrative, traditional bookmaking and even traditional artistic practice. They challenged the expectations of those who might gaze upon their work, their books. In some ways, Danielewski’s use (on pages 119-148) of shapes, columns and reversal of type (making it appear as though the text goes through the pages) appears heavily influenced by some of the experimental books produced by artists, particularly those of Dada-ist origins. His liberal use of architectural terminology, film history, photo theory and mythology throughout these specific pages seems almost self-referential, an acknowledgment of his influences. As discussed in class, Chris Ware’s work is also heavily influenced by the historical, the architectural.

Both books transcend the traditional boundaries of their respective genres through their form and in how they function. Like many other artists’ books, they require active participation from their readers and are visually and intellectually complex. They can be a challenge to read, but definitely an interesting one.

And you can’t say that they didn’t warn you, now can you?


Adam Johns said...

It's great having someone with some real art training in this class; incidentally, one comic artist who is often discussed in the same breath with Ware, Dan Clowes, did a great & nasty satire of art school called "Art School Confidential" - I think they may have made a movie of it.

There's lots here that's worth commenting on, and I won't get to do all of it, but let me point out the biggest thing: you've already scoped out a final project, or more accurately a range of final projects. What does the Dadaist movement teach us about Ware or Danielewski's books? That's a great question, which could be answered at arbitrary length.

I like how you use the song to simultaneously analyze and skewere Danielewski, incidentally: not only is this book pretentious and ambitious, but it's intensely aware of itself as pretentious and ambitious.

erika mcclintock said...

I used to hum the song under my breathe whenever someone in a class critique would get too ponderous and/or self-righteous about their work. Kindof mean, but pretty funny too. I mean, we were already at an art school - how much more pretentious do you need to get?