Jon Haddock Questions Your Philosophy In "Idios Kosmos: Koinos Kosmos," at SMoCA
The aged and seemingly immortal "The More You Know" public service announcement campaign on NBC elliptically implies "The Better Off You'll Be." All this knowing, apparently, will lead to enlightenment, empowerment, and better living. Socrates, however, thought himself wise only because he knew one thing: that he knew nothing.
Socrates, I kinda feel you. Leaving SMoCA's tandem exhibitions "IDIOS KOSMOS: KOINOS KOSMOS" — one curated by and the other created by artist Jon Haddock — I came up against my own curiosity about the vivid and fascinating worlds these artists create.
I also came up against my own philosophies about idios kosmos and koinos kosmos, Greek terms made contemporary by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick in his own metaphysical essay about schizophrenia and the I Ching. Both exhibits focus on what is private (idios) and what is collective (koinos) and how much of each we do, or can, bring to the other. Are we individual agents or members of something greater? The cop-out answer is, of course, both. But what if we had to choose?
Those questions and ideas permeate Haddock's own work in the exhibit "Us Versus Them," and they also are interesting to consider in the gallery next door. Haddock, who acted as guest curator of "Masters of Collective Reality," chose nine artists whose work he admires and has been influential to his own. I took in "Masters of Collective Reality" first, took a break to investigate a noisy installation happening in the next gallery, came back again before taking in Haddock's solo exhibit, then went back a third time before leaving the museum.
I sat in my car for a minute, letting June heat seep into my industrially air-conditioned bones, utterly exhausted. But this was nothing like the aftereffects of waiting in a long line to see the next and then the next and then the next Monet. My head was spinning and has been since. I don't know about you, but the Impressionists don't do that to me.
In fact, that's it! I felt as though something had been done to me. I sent a few "you have to see this exhibit" texts because I wanted some friends to have it done to them, too, so that we could experience — hey, wait a minute! — collective reality? I completely fell for the dollar bill glued to the sidewalk. If these tandem exhibits are some kind of Jon Haddock-engineered psychological experiment, then I am a willing subject.
The nine artists in "Masters of Collective Reality" vary so distinctly that labeling their creations "comics" really begins and ends the comparisons. Their works are gathered in a bright room with color and bold lines on every wall. In the middle of it all is a sitting area with stacks of books about comic arts (not to be confused with comic books) and even a table with paper and crayons where visitors might draw their own comics. But this exhibit isn't really geared toward 10-year-olds who want to draw robots. Kids will no doubt be excited by and interested in the graphics here, but their parents will linger at the walls and display cases over frame after frame of the graphic — violence, politics, sex, substance abuse, isolation — alongside the graphics.
Fred Guardineer (1913-2002) and Basil Wolverton (1909-1978) are the resident masters in "Masters of Collective Reality." Guardineer's work will be familiar to aficionados. He contributed to the 1938 DC comic that introduced Superman, and his body of work, influenced by pop culture and wartime, includes the character Blue Tracer (of the Military Times series) and contributions to another series, Crime Does Not Pay. One digital reproduction (most of the work in the exhibit is digitally reproduced) from that series, "The Laughing Sadist," features a woman about to meet her maker at the hands of said sadist. Her black eye — neat blue lines drawn across part of her anguished face — stands as proof that he's the only one laughing.
Wolverton, another Golden Ager, drew from both science fiction and biblical worlds. He's the creator of Marco from Mars and is responsible for fantastic narratives like "The Brain Bats of Venus." The good/bad and us/them binaries and the focus on violence, retribution, and terror so present in science fiction are natural fits for stories about the apocalypse. Wolverton was an ordained Protestant minister, and his Bible-story illustrations are among the coolest work here. In 1958's Girl with Snake, a prepubescent cross between Jane Russell and Liza Minnelli (wearing a virginal summertime romper) kneels and stares into the serious if not sinister eyes of a serpent. Her wide-open expression says, "Bring it on!"
Aside from Guardineer, Wolverton, and John Stanley, creator of both Little Lulu and Goblin's Ball, the other work in the exhibit feels more contemporary. Even Rory Hayes, who died of a drug overdose in 1983, seems to be speaking to distinct 21st-century alienation. His work pushes drug use, base sexuality, violence, and paranoia, in all their tragedy and darkness, right up in our grills. Often, it's his teddy-bear alter ego (which he began drawing at age 7) that does the pushing.
Jim Woodring's work is also weird or beautiful or both. He confronts sex, addiction, and hallucinatory "reality" in dreamscapes based on his own childhood idios kosmos. Some of his amazing drawings, Escher-like in detail, drawn us right into the hallucination. You're looking at Michelangelo's David and his perfect, beautiful foot, but then you're not, because you're seeing the scene from Disney's Jungle Book in which the elephants march with tails and trunks interlocked, but this sweaty monster is some kind of pig and he's cutting off his own tail — with a spoon! Other work here features Woodring's protagonist, Frank, a mutation of a 30s animated character, who navigates, wordlessly, alien worlds and realities. Sort of a Felix the Cat on LSD.
Joe Sacco is a journalist working in war-torn places like Sarajevo and the Gaza Strip. Rather than the straight-up war reportage we're used to, Sacco offers himself up, drawing his image into the corners and margins of his black and white comics and narrating his experiences. We see what he sees, looking out, but there's a postmodern Waltz with Bashir perspective to Sacco's work, not because it's surreal — it's not, except in that war itself is surreal — but because we're also aware of being seen. The cameras, so to speak, are turned.
R. Sikoryak is doing something else entirely. Well, maybe not entirely. He confronts alienation using the canonical texts you studied in high school and college. Imagine Dostoyevsky's introvert Raskolnikov as an ax-wielding Batman. Or Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray as Disney's Nemo. Also exhibited here are parts of Sikoryak's own collection of texts and one panel's journey from note to plotting on graph paper to transparency overlay to final product.
Jennifer Diane Reitz uses a computer — just a mouse and some outdated graphics software — to draw anime-inspired images she calls "mangastrips," a hybrid of Japanese manga and the American comic strip. For three years, she drew and posted to her website a new strip every day in her ongoing narrative Unicorn Jelly. If you have the patience and the eyesight, read Reitz's narrative for such priceless bits as "'Slimes' and their uppity cousins the 'Jellies' are the lowest rank of monsters, disposable, sad, forgettable." All 666 strips are here in a dizzying installation representative of self-discovery, especially sexual identity.
Look at Matthew Allison's work last. He's the youngster of the group, born 30 years after the Golden Age of comics, but he recycles themes and imagery from that era. Then he deconstructs story and all the stereotypical narrative "weaknesses" of the genre, messing with our linear expectations of exposition and dialog. His drawings, such as the cover from his series Calamity of Challenge, do that, too. He gives us an icky, melting monster skull, à la Iron Maiden's Eddie, but Allison's terrifying creature is bubble-gum pink.
Jon Haddock's own work — "Us Versus Them" — is in the next gallery, and the transition is from bright light and busy color to dark and stark. The text panels in both exhibits are integral to navigating them in tandem. Of course, nothing's stopping you from looking at Haddock's solo work without considering the context he's provided, but to use an old teacher's aphorism, you'll only be cheating yourself.
Haddock acknowledges the stigma comic fans risk and/or live with. He acknowledges the escape provided by the metaphors that the artists in the next room create. Clearly, Haddock venerates those artists. But he also acknowledges the possible dangers inherent in "dwelling too much in an isolated personal world." How weird is too weird (us=idios)? When do we stop making sense to others (them=koinos)?
There are two nearly identical rooms in the installation. Painted dark gray, they are framed by the wall at which we stand looking in through a heavy screen that distorts the image, our perceptions, or both. Looking closer doesn't clarify much; it only gives you a headache. In Workspace, a custom-crafted bear suit hangs like a raincoat on a hook on the wall. Whatever corpus inhabited this suit has also shed its papier-mâché cartoonish mouse head and left a comically oversized gun on the table. There's a film noir-esque foreboding here, and in the other room, My Life in Comics, there's compelling isolation. A ratty recliner faces a wall with nine acrylics on boards arranged in a tic-tac-toe pattern. You think some of what you see is recognizable — in one painting, that's definitely Shaggy and Velma standing over Scooby-Doo's corpse. You want to step through the screen and confirm — but, of course, you'd better not.
Haddock's Tool Rack is an assemblage of eight 3D papier-mâché and casein weapons of specific destruction, such as the FH Planet Blaster 02. They're cartoonish in proportion, ergonomically designed for the likes of Mickey Mouse's gloved three-fingered hand. That is, if he should ever hang his mouse suit on the wall and get up to whatever nefarious business he pursues after Main Street closes.
They're not intended, however, for use by the eight papier-mâché and casein human sculptures that constitute Haddock's Legion. These are sculptures of real people — Philip K. Dick is here again, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Octavia Butler, though not all the figures are sci-fi writers — with details such as tattoos, rings, belts, ties, eyeglasses, handguns. A legion of what isn't exactly clear, although idios might be a good guess. In any case, they're confronting us as a legion would while, overhead, Haddock's Serial, a five-minute digital video production, loops. The video is of a human eye in extreme close-up, onto which is reflected the reading of a comic book. The eye blinks occasionally. The pages rustle loudly when turned and provide the only sound, save for the faint, and faintly annoying, music from the Woodring animation in the next gallery.
Finally and mysteriously are Haddock's Sigils 1 through 5, a series of five paintings on boards that the artist describes as "attempted actualizations based on the work of Peter J. Carroll and Austin Osman Spare." Both Carroll and Spare are associated with chaos magic, a sort of belief based on belief that I'd be foolish (or wrong) to try explaining — but sigils, like runes, are symbols charged with magical or spiritual powers. Haddock has placed a light above each painting of a geometric symbol. About two feet in front of each painting floats (from invisible wires) a red curtain panel, which obscures the work from head-on viewing. Oh, you can see them, with some maneuvering.
As Haddock explains in a comic book (mature content) he created to accompany the show (in the proof stage with plans to sell — for 50 cents, natch — in the museum gift shop), "sigils are a fun and easy method of actualizing your idios." There are steps, the first of which is to "formulate a sentence of desire." In this work, Haddock may not be hiding his paintings behind those red curtains as much as protecting his articulated desires.
There is much to learn here. Some viewers will, but I'm guessing that most will not know most of what's going on in Haddock's solo work. The tandem exhibit next door pays homage to the collective reality, or koinos, that we're all part of, however unwillingly at times. And in that bright gallery, we nod our heads in recognition of the eternal good-versus-evil struggle. But in this dark space, Haddock reminds us that creating a collective reality requires bravely actualizing the idios, which is always lonely, scary work.
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