Slide Her Under the Door

Bath Street Gallery
19 April - 14 May 2011

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Dialogue is the real acid-test of a writer of fiction. That’s not just because decent characterisation depends upon it, but also because a writer’s breadth of voice-choice dictates the extent to which they can make their narrators intriguing alternatives to themselves. Non-authorial narrators generally make, in the long run, for the most rewarding reading.

Meanwhile, dialogue accounts for almost all of the writing in comics and graphic novels – implying, I guess, that the creators of comics should be more than well-equipped to produce the more traditional forms of fiction, possibly if they couldn’t also draw.

But perhaps, as well, they shy away from the arrogance, the control and conceit, the know-it-all-ness of the traditional literary narrator. While comics do usually make some small use of an explicit, “exterior” narrator – in those corner-boxes for example – by far the greatest part of their narration takes place through the succession of visual frames that comprise the backbone of the story. These pictures exist in a realm of representation deeply different from the kinds of worlds that words make. The graphic image evinces nothing like the implicit claim to authority of a narrating voice.

Yet this is not like in the movies – where the visual so dominates that even the most mind-clangingly awful dialogue seems often to go unremarked. In comics, forward progression – the unconscious turning of pages – depends on an asymptotic convergence, an unnameable aesthetic logic, worked out across that ever-invisible cognitive space between the pictures and the script, between the figures and their dialogue – in the music between the image and the text.

Because of this, both image and text manage to go somewhat unnoticed by readers, who proceed through the narrative along unknowable corridors of the imagination, performing this anonymous work, pulling the story together in their minds, seldom quite adverting to the individual, discrete stills that cumulatively give continuity to the experience.

So when these stills are removed from their context and they stand alone, they are – without warning and by surprise – infused with a particular, iconic (and iconoclastic) status, exhibiting naked the unmistakable marks of the anarchistic impulse that hides in plain sight throughout the comic-book genre: sexiness, darkness, irreverence, pluck; the side of the underdog being always championed against the grey, conservative forces promoting silence, and obedience, and your inevitably humiliating, acquiescent death.

Yet the comic book must skirt around these matters – must never speak its own name – and that is why it is so appropriate that it signifies only at the fringes of its own apprehension – as a thing barely noticed despite the ferocity with which it is devoured. The comic knows that it must never attempt to say what it means, that its simplicity, its vacuity, its puerility are the essential masks by which it is able never to claim to be what it is.

And in this series de Vries intrudes upon the serious business of his painterly painting with these linear, static emblems of a silent and always-inchoate rebellion against all that would pretend to seriousness. They are introduced into the logic of an unavoidably scholastic enterprise (the quest for letters after a name), which cannot but seek to announce itself immanently; which requires of itself an articulation of some internal economy of significance amid signification. They lie beneath and upon and within the marks made by the serious painter, yet they purport to an existence uncoloured by texture, unassaulted by the day, while around them – in the limited spaces afforded by a frame – the business of real painting is going on, all the while having the mickey taken by this tradition that, like the poet’s, knows the foolishness of seeking attachment to its speech.

And whether the comic-world flavours here impose denotative content upon the paintings, or whether they are abstracted into them through disembodiment and decontextualisation, they evince, regardless, a refusal to assimilate, an insistence upon denial, and a silent mockery of the horizons we might expect and the depths we might imagine.

With these variously-layered works, painted upon billboard sticker or canvas, the painter – through a capricious, anti-palimpsestic process – works to deny or to undermine or to question stable notions of surface and precedence and linearity. But these comic-book subjects that he invites into the fold infect his work with their insistent, timeless and pure surfaces, wielding an immutably mute statement that cannot be made to be either more or less than it is – a stillness that bespeaks, but does not speak, an answer to the questions of the day. These are the questions of the academy, and their very articulation imposes a rigidity of conceptual structure that leaves them unable to imagine the solutions they might require.

 

Creon Upton