Belgium!

Welcome to Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp and Chris Shellen. Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. 9781616894153. 278pp

Gene: Did you ever see a documentary called Marwencol?
Sarah: The name sounds familiar but I don’t think I did.
G: It’s about Mark Hogancamp. He’s had kind of a sad life. He was married, he was in the army. After he got out his wife divorced him and he became an alcoholic living in, I think, rural New York. He went out with some friends one night a while back and got totally plowed — his blood alcohol level was 3.0 or so after this incident. He was drinking boilermakers — whiskey and beer, whiskey and beer. And he admitted to some guys that he’s a cross dresser. After the bar closed down, these guys beat him so badly he was in a coma, unconscious, for 9 days. Lots of brain damage. It knocked him back decades. He had been an artist, he drew a lot, but when he woke up he had to relearn how to walk and talk and it was awful.
And so — I want to admit I’m doing a piss-poor job of summarizing his life, you should see the documentary — he got these 1/6 scale action figures and started taking photos of them. Outside the trailer where he lives he created a World War II era Belgian village he calls Marwencol. There’s a character that’s him, Hogey. There are Nazi SS characters who are stand-ins for the guys who beat him up. There’s a bar, Hogancamp always wanted to own a bar.
Continue reading “Belgium!”

Sweet and Dandy

We Are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman Around the World by Nathaniel Adams and Rose Callahan. Gestalten Verlag, 2016. 9783899556674.

Mix one part men’s suits, one part vintage shop, one part avant-garde fashion, one part time traveler, and a liberal splash of big personality and you have a dandy. I feel like any of these fellows could be a Time Lord. If they aren’t too cool to go to the public library, the staff definitely have given them nicknames. Everybody who lives on their streets knows them by sight. “Hey, it’s that guy!”

The photographs are really fun. I appreciate that the “around the world” in the title includes dandies from outside the usual fashion centers of London/Paris/Tokyo/New York. The dandies from Johannesburg are really cool: their looks are sleeker and more form-fitting, looking modern without being busy. The American and European dandies used more accessories and had more theatrical looks. The Japanese dandies combined suits with modern casual or traditional Japanese clothing. Some dandies were photographed in their homes. As you might expect, their home decorations are just as eye-catching as their clothing, though I’ll admit to looking askance at the guy with three shelves of books color-coordinated with his wall — buying books solely for the sake of interior decoration just seems wrong.

Wow: Stick Man

Stickwork by Patrick Dougherty. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. 9781568989761. 208pp.

Gene: Patrick Dougherty is a sculptor who works with sticks. (opens book)
Sarah: Oh wow!
G: I know.
S: Are those elephant butts or faces?
G: He works onsite at museums and gardens and parks. When he goes in (he needs a bunch of volunteers to help) he has to figure out what kind of sticks will work with the site. Sometimes the site is trees or a building or the inside of a building. And then he has to find a source of sticks nearby. The intro says that because of urban expansion, trees are often cleared from lots, and small sticks will grow there. Before a lot is cleared again for final construction, there are enough sticks for him to harvest. Dougherty works in different layers, and the first phase is anchoring bigger sticks in the ground to act as structure. Then he weaves in smaller sticks, and keep weaving them in until shapes appear.
This book includes not just photos of freestanding structures but big swirly shapes, some look like they’re windblown or organic…
S: Like they’re put together by birds.
G: And others look like big houses. It’s a look at his career up until the publication date.  (looking at another photo) This is a giant swirly pattern in a room. It’s not quite as full as some of the other sculptures. It really looks like if you sketched the wind.
S: It’s cool that he uses local sticks. That makes it more environmental, right?
G: It’s renewable, and the sticks would be removed anyway…
This is one of my favorites, Holy Rope.
S: Twining through a tree…oh, you can go inside it!
G: It was in Chiba, Japan. It’s a swirl of a treehouse, and there’s a photo of two people inside looking out at us.
This is Little Big Man and it was in Denmark. It’s a weird guy who looks like he’s made of wind. He’s just above a pond or marsh.
S: Spooky.
G: Creepy as hell.
Continue reading “Wow: Stick Man”

Hi, How Are You

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Ricardo Cavolo and Scott McClanahan. Two Dollar Radio, 2016. 9781937512453.

Underneath the copyright information, this book starts with a disclaimer: while it draws from a real life, it should be considered a creative work of fiction. The text starts with a warning: “Beware: I don’t think you should read this. I’m warning you.” followed by “There are devils inside.”

The life it draws from is Daniel Johnston’s, a tremendously influential musician and artist shaped by his struggle with bipolar disorder. In this story, Daniel starts making art to counter the demons who tell him that he’s a piece of shit and make his thoughts race and his arms tingle. “He believed he could save himself by making things, but he was wrong. He was really wrong.” His periods of intense creativity are interrupted by breakdowns and recoveries with the help of family and friends.

The illustrations are in Cavolo’s stye: vivid pictures filled with angels, demons, flames, and eyes reflecting intense creativity and intense suffering. Cavolo includes some of common subjects of Johnston’s own paper-and-marker and watercolor art like frogs, comic book heroes, and a man with the top of his head missing. The story is simply told, almost like a picture book, and doesn’t romanticize Johnston’s life: “But then one night Daniel physically assaulted his manager with a lead pipe. So if you think this story is a cute mixture of mental illness and art — then imagine Daniel beating your ass with a lead pipe.”

The artist and writer have, like a lot of people*, fallen under Johnston’s spell. If you listen to his music (there’s lots on hoopla if your library has a subscription) and watch the documentary about his life, it’s hard not to. This book will hook you the same way, but it’s open about the fact that there isn’t a happy ending to his story, just like there isn’t a happy ending to any real story, and after reading it you’ll have a part of this amazing person inside your head.

*Yes, I am also under his spell. I started with a Dead Milkmen cover of Rocket Ship, then on to Kathy McCarty’s wonderful album of covers, then the documentary, then Johnston’s music.

Dark Dollhouses

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corrine May Botz. Monacelli Press, 2004. 1580931456.

Sarah: So in the 40s and 50s there was a woman who was born into money, an heiress — this is a true story — she got into forensic criminology and then used some of her money to sponsor forensic criminology classes and a department at Harvard. She ended up working for a police department, training police officers. To do that she made incredibly detailed 1/12th scale dollhouse murder scenes.
G: What???
S: This book is The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which was the name of her project.
G: (flipping through the book) Oh my God.
Continue reading “Dark Dollhouses”

The Big Book of Surgery

The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery by Max Aguilera-Hellweg. Bulfinch Press, 1997. 9780821223772. 128pp.

Gene: This is a Wow, but it’s also potentially an Ick. What I love about sharing books with you is that I’m digging into books that I’ve kept for a long time and asking myself why I’ve kept them, and if they’re worth hanging on to. This book freaks me out.
Sarah: Ugh!
G: It’s photographs of surgery. I’ve looked at it so many times, but so quickly, that I didn’t realize before the other day that a lot of the pictures are of the same surgery. I never read the essay before (I did a little this time) because the photos take over my brain and then I have to stop looking at it. Continue reading “The Big Book of Surgery”

I (Heart) Sequential Art

Sequential Drawings by Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books, 2016.  9781101871591.

sequential-drawingsSpot illustrations from the pages of The New Yorker by the author of the graphic novel Here. Some are groups of related objects, others sequential. Luc Sante, in his introduction, points out that “McGuire has a special gift for endowing inanimate objects with personalities. He accomplishes this with the most minimal means.” In “Three Friends” a parking meter on a bent post looks like Munch’s The Scream. “Rock, Paper, Scissors” stresses violence as well as cooperation. (The entire sequence can be seen at the top of this GQ review.) “Flamingo Umbrella” starts with irritation but ends with pure delight. “Pigeon” is my favorite sequence — the birds’ poses perfectly express their ridiculousness.

The beautifully minimalist illustrations seem designed to remind me both that anything can be represented via a few simple lines and that creating such pleasing drawings requires a level of skill few possess.

And, you know, if you know a comics geek like me, there could be no better Valentine’s Day gift than this.