Re: Sam Thielman, "The Cute and Horrifying World of Jim Woodring"
Sam Thielman's retrospective of the cartoonist Jim Woodring is an exquisite and absorbing piece of writing. You don't have to take my word for this:
I’m jealous of how good this piece is. Just a model of how to write a long form review of an artist’s body of work. https://t.co/ov9GqBqdv2— Isaac Butler (@parabasis) August 10, 2022
Writing about art entails endless complications, but Thielman makes it look easy. Where I would have written, say, "Woodring's lines look really line-y," we're instead treated to this description of his style in the 2nd paragraph:
In Woodring’s huge new graphic novel, “One Beautiful Spring Day,” each panel is drawn in a style that looks like an eccentric woodcut. The figures are outlined in clean, straight, black lines, but Woodring has hatched in the shadows with a series of perfectly parallel, shallow waves that vary in thickness. Their amplitude, however, never changes—it’s the frequency at which the Unifactor seems to vibrate. The effect is something like Doré meets Dalí: stories of pure dream logic rendered as reverently as an etching of the infant Christ.
The best prose of this sort has the reader trying to conjure the image without having seen it. Then the reader could see the actual image and go further. To illustrate: I thought about "eccentric woodcut," "figures... outlined in clean, straight, black lines," and "[he] has hatched in the shadows with a series of perfectly parallel, shallow waves that vary in thickness." Somehow, I initially pictured panels dominated by a woodcut's grain, with some of the lines especially dark, containing other designs and hints of other figures. After I saw Woodring's drawings for the first time, I found Thielman's pointing at "perfectly parallel, shallow waves... [with an] effect something like Doré meets Dalí" resonant. I thought about stacking wavy lines upon each other: a massive, careful doodle becoming a sky. Then objects and figures wearing the line, mimicking the curvature of it all, marking the drawn world as generative.
I hope two other lessons from Thielman's prose will inform my own craft. First, Easter eggs in sentences. For example, "cylindrical chicken" in the third sentence of the opening paragraph. How the whole sentence gives a whimsical portrait of a whimsical protagonist and then ends with the phrase "cylindrical chicken." Words I wish I had, regardless of whether an image corresponds to them. Second, telling the whole story of an artist's work as a window into that work. Thielman takes the time to narrate the major episodes with interpretative comments which don't impose. His structure lets Woodring's story rest in miniature, a "gnomic parable" to introduce "gnomic parables." Far too often I've forgotten (or intentionally neglected) giving an overview of what I've read or seen, also forgetting that the joy of writing can lie in come see what I've seen.
Kyla Houbolt, "morning"
A few of my more fateful encounters have been with those obsessed with simplifying. So obsessed they froze themselves into a panic, either unable to throw anything out or eager to throw it all away. One in particular was clear the clutter in their life was everything I owned, even though it was confined to a small room away from anything of theirs.
morning Kyla Houbolt (from the author's Twitter) pale pears and small honey, a cup of weak tea, news on the breeze and the tattered wings of an aging butterfly.
Thus, I arrive at the breakfast of "pale pears," "small honey," and "a cup of weak tea" with an appreciation that simpler is not always better. Still, a quiet set of goods allows for more out of each one. We had a pear tree on the property growing up, and the best pears merged freshness and crispness like nothing else. Some things feel exotic because they are of an inexhaustible flavor. In a similar way, honey in tea possesses a deep richness, as honey and tea combine to bring out multiplicities within each.
These are bucolic pleasures, understood as open to the outdoors and the day as opposed to, say, eating Pop-Tarts from the glove compartment while rushing to work. Traditionally, bucolic pleasures are used in poetry to indicate distance from worldly affairs such as politics or war. Yeats' gorgeous "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is one peak of the genre. He says he will have "peace there, for peace comes dropping slow; / Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings." Besieged by light and noise pollution, we might consider Yeats' dreamy verse to be more fantastic than he does. But he's more than likely convinced that he speaks of moments belonging to a realm beyond the human. He concludes: "...[F]or always night and day / I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; / While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core."
What I like about these pears, honey, and tea is that they're open to whatever the day brings. That can involve news which is nothing but a "breeze," perhaps residing only on "the tattered wings / of an aging butterfly." However, I am tempted to think what's at stake is the news in a deeper sense. The bucolic is possible only in relation to humankind's affairs, their goings-on. Those goings-on shape the clime, and are themselves products of other myths and poems. "The business of America is business," sadly, is not an artless statement. So here we are, enjoying breakfast, aging like the butterfly, wearied from all the news we're getting. It is a republic of lies and cowardice, yet we're fortunate to have space to take things one at a time and reflect. The morning holds our sighs as well as brighter possibilities.
Ola Gjello, "The Lake Isle"
I'm a choir nerd. Sue me.