Thursday, February 4, 2010

Odds and Gems # 4: The Buenaventura Catalog

Words: Gene Kogan
Art catalogues are a varied animal, like cats.  Some are huge and fierce, thick hardbound with big images pouncing at you.  Some are soft and meek, featuring listless images on standard house paper, enough to give you a sense of what’s represented, but little else.  Others are small, but feral, sharp and unruly in design, yet still graceful.  Still, others are bright, colorful and come with a cheerful disposition or black and white, somber and lackadaisical.  And they’re temperamental. You never know what catalog you’re going to get at a given show, if any at all.  Some absurdly expensive artists or exhibits have been represented by some of the blandest of catalogs, essentially little more than something to hold in your hand while examining the pieces, a paper glass of wine, if you will.  While some shows featuring unknowns have put out books that rival the work hanging on the walls.  Much depends on the artist and their appreciation of printed matter, or the gallery and it’s penchant for promotion, or the curator or the art director and what they feel properly represents the work or the artist.  I’ve seen them as giveaways at galleries or small run zines and I’ve seen them as signed and numbered slip-cased editions, which require a double bagging in Mylar, locked up in a safe deposit box and buried beneath a fallout shelter.  

Being the printophile (yes, I know that’s not a word, but it should be) that I am, the catalogue is often as interesting to me as the work itself and some of the most memorable shows I’ve seen are more so because of the memento that I keep on my bookshelf to remind me of that show.  Some of the best art catalogs I have include Ryan McGinley, Marcel Dzama, Mark Ryden and Kathy Grannan.  But of all the catalogs I’ve seen and collected, one stands out as a true oddity.  If art catalogs are cats, this one is, inexplicably, is a ferret.  
The one common denominator for most art catalogs is that they feature the work from the related exhibit, either by showing images of the work or detailed descriptions of pieces.  That seems pretty obvious.    But not, it appears, for Alvin Buenaventura, founder of Buenaventura Press, who published the Catalog of Original Art, to accompany the exhibit he organized in July 2003.  This peculiar little catalogue of 16 pages stands out in many ways, the least of which, but perhaps most endearingly, is that it features comic book artists.  If one existed before or since, I’m unaware of it.  Sure, there are some fine art auction catalogs.  Heritage makes beautiful ones.  So does Sotheby’s.  But these are necessary for commercial purposes.  As nice as these catalogs are, they all follow a pretty standard formula, meant to attract and appeal to as large a number of bidders as possible.  There is no aesthetic applied that is not meant to perpetuate its commercial agenda.  But I’ve never seen a catalog or book accompanying an actual exhibit of comic book art.  Hell, it’s not like there are a ton of comic art exhibits to begin with.  We’re lucky, in New York, to have fine institutions such as the Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art (MoCCA) and exceptional galleries that feature comic book art such as the Scott Eder Gallery in Brooklyn and Adam Baumgold Gallery in Manhattan.   And certainly, there are many fine museums, schools, galleries and other institutions the world over devoted to comics and comic art.  But considering the vast amount of comic book art out there, new and old, it’s truly amazing how few outlets there are for properly displaying and examining the comic artists and the work they produce.  A proper comic book exhibit would qualify as a veritable blue moon.  And a catalog to accompany such an exhibit, well, that’s about as likely as a blue moon made of cheese (blue cheese moon?).   So its very existence is an anomaly.  
But of course, that, in itself, would not qualify it for this column.  

The Buenaventura Catalog, as it’s become known, continues to stumble and trip over art catalog conventions.  To start with, it doesn’t actually feature the art exhibited.  Yes folks, an art catalog that doesn’t feature the art of the exhibit it accompanied.  That’s balls.  Instead, it asked the artists to submit an illustrated self portrait, some of which were created specifically for the catalog, and most of which were previously unpublished.  And rather than describing or ruminating pretentiously over the work, this catalog merely lists the works beneath the artist, generously providing dimensions, the medium and, if previously published, the source.  But, and here’s where it gets really interesting, the artists were asked to write a brief little something about comic art collecting, both in terms of their own collecting habits and their views of others collecting their work.  The result, as you can imagine, was extraordinary and illuminating.
First, a list of the artists exhibited: Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Jeffrey Brown, Daniel Clowes, Ivan Brunetti, Dave Cooper, Rick Altergott, Johnny Ryan, Seth, Ron Rege Jr, Max Andersson, Marc Bell, Ariel Bordeaux, David Collier, Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner, Kaz, Archer Prewitt, Richard Sala and Adrian Tomine.   A simply inspiring collection of cartoonists, who, while falling outside the mainstream boundaries of the comic world, are in actuality closer to mainstream culture and certainly closer to the established art world, in their singular vision and distinct form of expression.  It’s a group that exemplifies the incredibly rich diversity of material, forms and techniques deployed in comics.   A better collection of artists would be difficult to find.  
The catalogue was limited to 350 numbered copies, which makes each copy unique.  (My best infomercial voice here, I would say Billy Mays, but that would be creepy) But wait, there’s more.  As a bizarre added bonus, each copy of the catalogue comes with an “authentic” piece of trash from one of the participating artists, sealed in plastic and stapled to one of the last pages, making the catalogue itself a unique piece of art.   I mean, can this booklet get any more bizarre.   This is the stuff that gives collectors wet dreams.  And you really have to wonder and admire someone who can stitch all these disconnected pieces into one wonderful little pamphlet.   

The cardboard stock cover art was beautiful rendered by Ron Rege, JR and various participants from the exhibit hand a hand in the production of it.  The whole concept is so clever and novel that it betrays a certain cluelessness as to the mechanics of such devices and a clear fearlessness to even attempt it.  If all that wasn’t odd enough, Alvin admits so many errors in this 16 page booklet, that he devotes an entire page to corrections, inserting it as a lose sheet numbered 6.5, which, incidentally, has an odd Jeffrey Brown comic on back of it.  Frankly, for all my head scratching appreciation for this publication, it’s Alvin who describes this catalog best in the Epilogue “This catalog was printed letterpress and hand sewn for an edition of 350.  These archaic means of production were employed because of the publisher’s ignorance of all other methods of printing and bookmaking.  Hopefully, the novelty of these techniques will help fool you into believing that this is worth the money you paid for it.”  
Ultimately, as fascinating as all these disparate ingredients are, I derived the greatest pleasure in reading the artist’s views on collecting original art and, what must be a muddled pool of emotions, the notion of others wanting and collecting their work.  It was enlightening, to say the least.  It validated my own collecting habits, and at the same time showed how frivolous obsessive collecting could be.  And it was amusing to see how their views reinforced the broad diversity to this collection of artists, but also how alike people in this field are.  The opinions expressed truly reflected the unique personalities and voices of the authors.  For instance, several artists discussed their emotional response to lending one’s work for an exhibit.  Max Andersson embraces concept, stating that he likes the idea of his work seeing the world and meeting new people, while Chris Ware hates it, comparing it to letting his cats out of the house for two months and hoping they return.  It’s also interesting to note that while there views represent polar opposites, both anthropomorphize their work.  

Yet there were elements that appear universal to artists in this field.  Mentioned by almost every contributor was the practice of trading one’s art for another artist’s work, which seems to be the primary source of most of their personal collections, like some archaic barter system.  Or the how they obsess over flaws and techniques in other artist’s works and how that make them feel about their own work.  Two good examples come from Ivan Brunetti and Seth:
Ivan Brunetti:
 It’s comforting to see the other cartoonists struggling, revising, equivocating, fixing, and finally succeeding.  It makes me feel less insane and gives me hope…
I do think originals are interesting items in themselves – but someone else’s.  Sometimes it is because of a childhood love of the artwork, like Decarlo’s and Kirby’s.  It’s a thrill to own a piece of their work, which definitely has the quality of a relic or totem, since this is the actual page they drew.  It’s always interesting to see how many mistakes they made.  Mostly, it is a depressing experience studying someone else’s artwork because it makes you realize just how inadequate you really are.
Other really interesting musings:
Max Anderson:
 They have an emotional value to me, although some more than others.  There are a few that I would never sell, but I wouldn’t put them on the wall in my home either.  They’re in a drawer.  I’m not particularly careful with them, but I like to know that I have the possibility to go back and look at them now and then.  Looking at one of my old originals, I remember who I was when I made it, what I was thinking and feeling at that moment. It doesn’t work like that when I read the reproduced pages.
Ivan Brunetti:
  You know, we’re all going to turn to dust anyway, so I’m not that attached to the pages once they’re printed.  I’ll go through periods of loathing everything I’ve ever done, and I’ve discarded quite a bit of stuff when in a self-destructive mood.  Sometimes I’m surprised I have any originals left.
Charles Burns: 
Recently, I made a bad trade with an underground cartoonist.  I found my artwork that I traded to him listed on eBay a few weeks later.
Phoebe Gloeckner:
 I don’t like to sell my artwork very often so I rarely attempt to.  I guess I like to look at it.  Sometimes I need to keep it, to look at it and reassure myself that I actually did something.  I need physical proof that I exist and that I accomplished something, good or bad.
Chris Ware: 
Regarding artwork by others, I think that “originals” are probably the most important things I own.  I collect them enthusiastically... I find it very inspiring to have it all around…I also try to place the artwork in the artist’s life, and think about how old they were when they drew it, where they were living at the time, whether they were married, had children, or were living alone.  Mostly, I try to interpret how happy they were while working, or interested they were in what they were drawing by the relative speed or care with which they approached it
And one can’t help but feel thankful that Chris Ware can’t ever stop being Chris ware, so we’re treated to charming, digressive reverie such as:  “I worry about and feel sorry for the art while it’s gone… I realize that this is almost insane, but I can’t help it.  I anthropomorphize everything; sometimes I even pretend that empty jars and boxes “talk” to me in my mind, so that I’ll sympathize with them to the point that I can’t throw them out, and I do the same with some art.  It’s ridiculous, but I also used to kiss the television "goodbye” as a kid, so I guess anything is possible.  
And of course, Johnny Ryan “I keep my originals, hang them on the wall, and french them.”

It’s easy to poke fun at this little catalog that could.  It’s weird, it’s flimsy, it’s amateurish, the lose page, the staples holding the artist’s “trash” damaging other pages in the book.  These disparate ingredients never truly coalesce.  It’s quite easy to dismiss this catalog as a glorified zine.  But to me, it sings of the power of creativity.  It exemplifies the true spirit of art.  And it reinforces the notion that sometimes, one is better off not knowing what they’re doing, as this is when true innovation is born.  It’s easy to create something that has a precedent.  And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you strive to make something meaningful and worthwhile.  But when you don’t have the playbook, you have to use your imagination to get your vision across.  I admire and respect Alvin Buenaventura for putting together such an extraordinary exhibit (which I sadly never got a chance to see) and publishing this equally extraordinary catalog to accompany this exhibit.  It was a remarkable ideal and whether you feel it was executed well or not, it stands as a truly exceptional collectible and one I dearly prize.  And clearly it sparked something a fire under Buenaventura, as he shortly thereafter launched a terrific publishing house, which currently, publishes, among other things, one of the greatest comic anthologies ever, in Kramer’s Ergot and one of my favorite comic related publication, Comic Art Magazine, as well as high quality prints from some of the greatest cartoonists of our time, including many of those featured in this catalog.   In essence, this charming little gem birthed Buenaventura Press.
In the end, this catalog makes as much sense as a ferret yowling at the moon (made of blue cheese), but man, who wouldn’t rather see that any day.

Gene Kogan first wrote for Yellow Rat Bastard magazine (published by the hipster store chain of the same name), and covered luminaries including Peter Kuper, Tony Millionaire and Bill Plympton. Shortly after, he followed it up with online column Back Issue Reviews. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Liz, their son, Shaylem, their dog Mabel Eddie Campbell Kogan and way more stuff than is probably legally allowed in an apartment.