The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights 7-9 p.m. EST in New York City. Presentations vary weekly and include everything from historical topics and technical demonstrations to creators presenting their work. Check out upcoming meetings here.
The 114th meeting of the NY Comics & Picture-Story Symposium was held on Tuesday, February 10, 2015 at 7 p.m. at Parsons The New School, 2 West 13th Street, in the Bark Room (off the lobby). Aidan Koch discussed the prevalence and participation of comics and comics format in contemporary art.
But is it art?
Aidan Koch began with this simple if not polemic question. For nearly 100 years—since the unveiling of Duchamp’s Fountain—the role of the Art World has been to simultaneously ask and answer this question. And like the urinals of the past, Comic Art is also up for consideration.
Soon after asking, Koch quickly dispelled the weight of the question. “It’s pointless to ask.” She explained that she really wasn’t there to answer this question, but to point out that the question exists not only within the cultural world at large but in the assessment of her work as well.
Even at first glance it’s easy to see that Koch’s work is part illustration, part comics, and part art with a capital “A.” It fits well within the New York Times op-ed pages, it makes for a dreamy comic read, and it makes sense framed on a gallery wall. There is graphic order, but there are no didactics. As a viewer you are granted all the wiggle room you could hope for. Spending time with her drawings is like visiting a remote part of your brain where all things delicate, natural, and vaguely Victorian are stored.
Where traditional comics are structured by a linear story, her work is really about comparing images and seeing what narrative evolves from the combination. It’s what our minds are naturally wired to do. When looking at images in spatial or time sequence—whether in film or juxtaposed side-by-side—we look for continuity between images, which results in narrative. Comics theorist Scott McCloud refers to this phenomenon as “closure.” This natural urge helps us to create order and make sense out of the world and its many flashes of incongruous information.
Perhaps seeking continuity within her own art practice, Koch presented instances where the Art World has made room for comics. Comics Abstraction (2007) debuted at MoMA and showcased 13 “Art World” artists whose abstract work demonstrated a comics influence. Splat Boom Pow! (2003) showed at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Its exhibition graphics relied heavily upon trite imagery like the talk bubble and classic superhero lingo. More recently, there have been museum retrospectives of popular comics mainstays like R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman.
Although it is encouraging to see comic art coexist within contemporary art spaces, Koch laments that these shows are presented mostly with the flashiness of a clichéd comics aesthetic and without the subtlety and variation that the contemporary landscape of comics includes. This institutional attitude toward comics resonates like an American shouting loudly at a foreigner, thinking it’s a matter of volume and not language that disconnects them.
Although not part of Koch’s presentation, it is informative to note the instances in which the opposite has occurred—where comics have embraced the Art World on its home turf. Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor (2015) tells the tale of David Smith, a sculptor struggling to gain the attentions of the Art World elite. Jamie Coe’s Art Schooled (2014) is about Daniel Stope, a small town guy who moves to the big city to go to art school with hopes of becoming an art star. Finally, The Salon (2007) by Nick Bertozzi is a murder mystery that takes place in Paris of 1907. Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque number among the infamous characters of art history in this fictional story.
Koch’s inquiry on the categorical separateness of the Comic and Art worlds is a timely one. Categories in general are under question and with good reason—they are a limited way of making sense of ourselves and of others. They always fall short of our inevitable complexities. We are not always male or female, gay or straight, black or white, autistic or not autistic. There are more spectrums and shades of gray to embrace than are categorizable.
But maybe the Comic and Art worlds are categorically separate for legitimate reasons. Most obviously, there is an economic and accessibility disparity between the two. Comic art is built on mass culture. It’s available and accessible to the many, and its success depends on this. Art is built on scarcity. It is available for a limited time on exhibition and to a much smaller audience for purchase. Art is generally about itself—about whether it is or isn’t art. Comics are about other things. The point of engagement with comics—reading—is temporal and done privately. Works of art can be viewed instantaneously and within a social moment, with drinks in hand and conversations overlapping. It makes sense that different types of people would gravitate toward one or the other.
Koch’s wish that these worlds were more integrated is an understandable one, and her work may present a third option to the two categories. It is her hope that people start to loosen up about the definitions of “Art” and “Comic Art.” Perhaps there is a forthcoming word that will define this crossover work—work that is simultaneously comic art and “Art” art. Something akin to a gender-neutral pronoun or Tiger Woods’s “Cablinasian” ethnicity. Whatever is to come, Aidan Koch asks us to consider the ways in which comic art and “Art World” art exist separately and how they unite.
Images © Aidan Koch.
Aidan Koch is an artist working in New York City. She has released several graphic novels including Xeric Award winner The Blonde Woman, and Impressions. Her sculpture and installation work has been exhibited in Antwerp, Paris, Austin, and Brooklyn.
About the Author: Monica Johnson is a comic artist and student debt activist living in Brooklyn, NY. She holds an MFA in Integrated Media Art from Hunter College. She self-publishes mini-comics through Wool & Brick Press, and is working on a full length graphic novel titled The Adventures of Dorrit Little, a tale of the average student debtor in the United States today. Connect via @woolandbrick.