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A Theraputic and Cathartic Medium.

July 19, 2010

I was really pleased to have my comics discussed in a short essay on ‘Graphic Life Narratives’ by Dr Kylie Cardell, a Lecturer of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University in Australia.  The work featured in a conference and exhibition at Sussex University last month and included a handful of other ace artists working in a similar field.

In what appears to be a distinct sub-genre of the graphic diary, Isabel Greenberg and James Nash present conventionally recognisably diary-style narratives that are chronological and sequential in appearance and layout. These diary comics are also notable for being part of much larger and ongoing projects — Greenberg has been publishing a seasonal diary for two years and Nash’s annual comic is in its sixth year. The scale of the project itself often prompts reflection from Nash in the comic. Is this a discipline or an obsession? Even the artist seems unsure. For both artists, the diary is also a vital organising structure and imperative in their material that causes them to reflect on days missed or lost in their chronicles. For Greenberg, these days missed reveal the disciplinary aspect of her work, ‘I’m getting really lax, need to stop missing days!’ (Swings & Roundabouts 12th May). Nash’s omissions reflect a periodically overwhelming emotional state, ‘Haven’t drawn this for weeks/I’m just too sad/And this fact only makes me sadder. So here it fucking is’ (The Present is Not a Purgatory 09/02). The longevity of their respective projects means that Greenberg and Nash also have the opportunity to reflect on how previously published versions of their diary have been received, to respond to complaints from those who feel alternately offended at being excluded or annoyed at being included — diaries are often ‘too personal’. (Greenberg, Swings & Roundabouts 2nd June) And while we expect that a diarist will use their diary to some degree as a therapeutic and cathartic medium, and as a record later available to self-analysis, the assumed privacy of the diary means that this is a task ostensibly carried out for-the-author by-the-author. Nash and Greenberg’s serial publication, means they confront the problems of personal disclosure in subsequent texts. Nash in particular contemplates the inadequacies and distortions of such a subjective medium (Speaking of Not Knowing 06/10). However, reflecting on the problems that comes with publishing and circulating his diary has a twofold consequence in this context; Nash not only display his discomfit at the level of personal exposure he has engendered for himself, but also serves to assure the reader of the authenticity of the project: ‘I thought about leaving something out possibly. That would invalidate the whole idea of doing it. So fuck it.’ (Speaking of Not Knowing 13/01).

Read the whole essay after the jump. >

Drawing a Diary: Graphic Art Autobiography. International Auto/Biography Association (IABA) Conference, Sussex. 2010

Isabel Greenberg, Swings & Roundabouts: A Summer Diary; Sarah Lightman, Diary Drawings; Phillip Marsden, Untitled, True Stories by P.M, and Chandler’s Quay; James Nash, The Present is a Purgatory: Diary Comics from 2008 and Speaking of Not Knowing: Diary Comics from 2009; Steve White, Thoughts From a Humble Home.

By Kylie Cardell

Exhibitions of diaries are always slightly transgressive occasions. An invitation to view the usually private, intimate ephemera of an individual experience can arouse the sense of being a voyeur — which is a pleasure or a provocation, depending on your point of view. Like most diaries everywhere, the diaries in this exhibition chronicle the personal and intimate lives of their authors. The authors here are visual artists, they are young, and they are self-published. To varying degrees they reproduce conventions of the diary and in various ways they reinterpret and renew the genre. Their use of the diary reflects an evolving perspective on a traditional form and demonstrates some of the ways in which the genre exists in the contemporary sphere: the works in this exhibition are examples of an emerging genre in graphic life narrative.

In recent years, graphic life narrative has become a significant autobiographical form and graphic memoir in particular has become a distinct and popular genre. The popularity of graphic memoir, however, has not obscured its provocations: cartoon styles of illustration are hyperbolic, understood to be distorted, exaggerated or conflated, and even when autobiographical, as also whimsical or escapist. The use of a conventionally non-realist style to represent an autobiographical experience is part of what has proved equally troubling and compelling, for example, to readers of Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus, where cartoon mice narrators render a real-life intergenerational holocaust testimony.

The tension between representation and reality already signalled in the graphic memoir assumes further layers and nuance in graphic diary. An emphasis on chronological, sequential content that has an ‘in the moment’ perspective means that diary forms can conjure very strongly associations with the personal, the authentic and the real (and maybe even more strongly than autobiography, with its often overt aesthetic and structural links to the novel). Using visual and textual elements to create an autobiographical perspective that is intimate, quotidian, personal and mundane — a perspective that is diaristic — the works in this exhibition take up some of the conventional expectations of the genre but they also productively negotiate new and exciting territory: hand-drawn, often pencilled, on generic materials, contemplating everyday experience, and using non-realistic methods to represent real and intimate personal experience, graphic diaries tap into a range of expectations and possibilities surrounding autobiography in the 21st century.

——-

Authenticity, reality, and subjectivity are themes for the artists in this exhibition. ‘I just want to experience real stuff’ proclaims the cartoon avatar of Steve White in Not a Simulated Experience, an illustration accompanying his diary Thoughts from a Humble Home. In this work, using the dated, chronological format commonly associated with diary genres, White juxtaposes large blocks of word-processed text with hand-drawn cartoon images, reproductions of his artwork as well as some photographs. The effect is intense, claustrophobic — the dense passages are long and tightly spaced. There is a collage feel to the work here, a layering and splicing of different styles and media. The effect is of a diary that is also a scrapbook, a repository of varying materials. Diaries are personal and intimate documents and we are confronted with this aspect in White’s work very strongly — this is a document of almost uncomfortably intense self-scrutiny and reflection. And the reflection is layered – the author himself has reviewed his narrative, adding comments and further reflections in the margins. Where has the author corrected mistakes and where has he not? Which entries are revised, and why? (‘Conversations with a fellow loser intellectual, Apparently. 22/03’) As a diary, such engagement piques the viewer’s interest. Is he censoring, or correcting? Works that nominate themselves as diary always spark this expectation of secrecy.

Sarah Lightman’s diary drawings remind us very viscerally that the diary is a private genre, even when published or available to view. Depicting in realistic detail objects or scenes that enable her to reflect on a particular emotional experience or personal insight, Lightman creates a mood that is intensely personal, frequently melancholy. The sequence Food Diary, for example, records the mundane staples that have become imbued with metonymic significance for the artist: ‘Oatcakes fill the silence when my friends don’t call.’ Lightman’s sketches compress a larger lived experience into a momentary object or scene to convey concealed depth and context. These are intensely private, personal, and deeply and touchingly honest drawings. As a contemporary engagement with a traditional but still flourishing genre, Lightman’s diary drawings remind us that the everyday and the ephemeral are always sites of intense meaning for individuals. Traditionally, diaries have also often been used as modes for spiritual and individual reflection and in this context were perceived as forms that encapsulated a value for care of the self. The therapeutic value of this diary drawing to the artist is clear, and is embodied not only in subject matter – where the artist isolates and meditates on the connection between ordinary objects and emotional experiences in her life – but in the choice of medium and technique. Using ‘pencil on paper; the simplest, cheapest, most basic elements of art-making’, reflects both a traditional form of the diary, seen as the everyday form of life narrative, and a desire to value and inflect with worth the ephemeral and everyday experiences of modern life. Lightman’s diary drawings offer moments of private experience in an intimate, and intimately public, context and form.

While Lightman produces highly detailed, mimetic images, and White uses an exaggerated and unsophisticated cartoon style, it is Phillip Marsden in particular who produces works that appear to detach themselves from a recognisable everyday world and so who pushes the boundaries of what we might otherwise comfortably consider autobiographical diary narrative. In Untitled, for example, Marsden depicts a comedic and slightly surreal exchange between two unnamed figures, that may or may not be self-representations, but that do pivot on a mundane and very personal problem for the artist, making a living from his work. (‘I wanted to show you my art’ Untitled p.7). In his comics Chandler’s Quay and True Stories by P.M, Marsden uses a more recognisably autobiographical representation but in narratives that again appear to oscillate between fact and fantasy. Whilst appearing at first to be on the margins of the form Marsden instead reminds us that diaries, though privileged as documentary objects, are also, and primarily, intensely subjective. These quirky comics occupied with the artist’s everyday life are also flights of fancy — they are thoughtful reflections of a mundane reality and a true representation of the artist’s inherent need for a creative interpretation and experience of that reality.

In what appears to be a distinct sub-genre of the graphic diary, Isabel Greenberg and James Nash present conventionally recognisably diary-style narratives that are chronological and sequential in appearance and layout. These diary comics are also notable for being part of much larger and ongoing projects — Greenberg has been publishing a seasonal diary for two years and Nash’s annual comic is in its sixth year. The scale of the project itself often prompts reflection from Nash in the comic. Is this a discipline or an obsession? Even the artist seems unsure. For both artists, the diary is also a vital organising structure and imperative in their material that causes them to reflect on days missed or lost in their chronicles. For Greenberg, these days missed reveal the disciplinary aspect of her work, ‘I’m getting really lax, need to stop missing days!’ (Swings & Roundabouts 12th May). Nash’s omissions reflect a periodically overwhelming emotional state, ‘Haven’t drawn this for weeks/I’m just too sad/And this fact only makes me sadder. So here it fucking is’ (The Present is Not a Purgatory 09/02). The longevity of their respective projects means that Greenberg and Nash also have the opportunity to reflect on how previously published versions of their diary have been received, to respond to complaints from those who feel alternately offended at being excluded or annoyed at being included — diaries are often ‘too personal’. (Greenberg, Swings & Roundabouts 2nd June) And while we expect that a diarist will use their diary to some degree as a therapeutic and cathartic medium, and as a record later available to self-analysis, the assumed privacy of the diary means that this is a task ostensibly carried out for-the-author by-the-author. Nash and Greenberg’s serial publication, means they confront the problems of personal disclosure in subsequent texts. Nash in particular contemplates the inadequacies and distortions of such a subjective medium (Speaking of Not Knowing 06/10). However, reflecting on the problems that comes with publishing and circulating his diary has a twofold consequence in this context; Nash not only display his discomfit at the level of personal exposure he has engendered for himself, but also serves to assure the reader of the authenticity of the project: ‘I thought about leaving something out possibly. That would invalidate the whole idea of doing it. So fuck it.’ (Speaking of Not Knowing 13/01).

The diary artists in this exhibition use their diaries as workbooks, taking up the potential of the genre as a discipline, a daily task that hones the observational senses and encourages a routine of drawing practice, and they also produce diaries that are deliberate and crafted artistic products. While conventionally, the diary has been seen as a domestic genre, a form of life writing in which an autobiographer might practice a style or gather material, but as an informal or accidental rather than a formal and artistic mode of self-representation, this exhibition presents diaries that are conceived of as artistic forms and that take diary as a mode of deliberate address. Self-published as zines, they are vehicles for the artists’ self-expression and they are examples of their professional work, part of an ongoing task of self-promotion. These records of the artist and becoming-artist are also examples of a cultural phenomenon: the proliferation of life writing in the twenty-first century is part of a cultural and technological moment where the potential for individual expression is rapidly expanding and where, because so many now speak, speaking subjectively has become an authoritative act of authenticity.

Dr Kylie Cardell is Lecturer of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, South Australia. She researches and teaches in the field of life writing and specialises in contemporary uses of the diary. Recent work on this topic has appeared in Biography and ARIEL. She is also co-editor with Assoc. Prof Jane Haggis of a special issue of the journal Life Writing on contemporary perspectives on epistolarity to be published in early 2011. She is currently enjoying maternity leave.

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