Tom Smart is an author, gallery director and curator. He is currently Supervisor & Curator Art Gallery & Education Services, Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives. He has written about such artists as Rosemary Kilbourn, Alex Colville, and Mary Pratt. His latest book, Palookaville: Seth & the Art of Graphic Autobiography (Porcupine’s Quill) was released this past fall. Brad de Roo chatted with Tom about celebrated cartoonist Seth’s use of autobiography, his aestheticization of the past, and his sense of being in time.
Your book explores Seth’s use of autobiography. I wonder if you could give me a bit of your autobiography in relation to Seth’s work. How did you come to his art? Did your work as an art director and curator give you a different route to his books? Have graphic novels and comics been a central part of your life?
Graphic novels and comics were a big part of my childhood and early teenage years. I first started reading them in barbershops as a boy waiting for a haircut. The super hero stuff didn’t appeal to me very much, but I was very interested in a series that was known as “Classics Illustrated” that condensed big novels into densely drawn and well-paced comics. I found these to be totally absorbing in an almost magical way. They were my introduction to the world of literature too – “Moby Dick”, “Ivanhoe”, “A Tale of Two Cities”, “Man in the Iron Mask”. There weren’t many books around when I was a kid (in fact, few people I knew even read). So, in a way, comics lifted me beyond the limited horizons that defined my childhood.
When I went to art school in the ‘70s, one instructor put us on to Robert Crumb’s “underground” Zap Comix. Looking back this was an astonishing act of subversion because art school then was all about Conceptualism, Formalism and self-reference. The push was on to remove any “narrative content” from art. Zap was the complete antithesis of all this, and I found in Crumb’s work and the underground comics movement a refreshingly lively antidote to the crushing, boring orthodoxy of what passed as smart art.
Then there was a period of a few decades during which I did not pay much attention to comics until I saw the Carnegie International a decade or so ago that included Crumb’s work placed alongside some of the more advanced figurative painting of the time – Odd Nerdrum, Neo Rauch, for example. This bold juxtaposition opened my mind to the fact that something interesting was going on that prompted me to look again closely at cartoonists, illustrators, graphic novelists, and wordless narratives. I started to pay more attention, to re-visit a “subversive” past life that I felt was being validated by the art world.
When I came back to Canada a decade ago I found myself being invited into the studios of many graphic novelist artists who were then still working below the radar, but were doing what I felt was some of the most interesting work and creative explorations at the time. George Walker and Tim Inkster were my guides into this enormously rich scene that was being given thoughtful critical definition by the artists themselves. That’s where I was re-introduced to Seth’s work. I met him shortly afterwards, and this led to the book on autobiography and Palookaville.
Does the use of autobiographical elements in Seth’s work potentially lead readers to falling into interpretations bordering on examples of the intentional fallacy? How does one prevent against falling into such a fallacy in research?
I don’t think so. One of the reasons I find Seth and his contemporaries’ works so interesting is because it and they ask the reader to use a very different rubric when they are experiencing – reading – the art. For me, the critical debates in the visual arts seemed to dead end when the voices of anti-skilling, self-reference demanded that analysis always trumped emotion and humanity when confronting a work of art to determine significance. For me, there was always a whiff of intolerance toward visual art that explored humanity as a wide-spectrum project. Literature and music, in particular, had an expansiveness that was a property of the art forms themselves that had been stretched and given complex definition by the artists. Why, I asked, did this not hold in the visual arts? Alice Munro could get away with mining what seemed to be a kind of autobiographical vein in her work, but also rendering it meaningless because the truth and complexity of her stories allowed them to function almost entirely in the reality of the artform. Her art was also about the artistic conventions in which she worked.
I sensed in Seth’s work an analogous inquisition about the limits and scope of the forms and conventions in which he functioned as an artist, and the very close relationship his art had to his life. With Seth there is the added dimension of performance as an artist and how he conducts himself that I find immensely rich as a way to find meaning and truth. I guess my attraction to Seth’s art is the ultimate question he and it asks: How do we structure the chaos of reality into a human order that gives us identity and a reality in which to live a life?
Did you at any point find yourself searching for Seth in a way similar to the way his character searches for clues about the mysterious cartoonist Kalo in It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken? Presumably, being able to meet him in person gave you a chance to compare Seth the ‘sophisticated performance artist who cloaks his artistic practice in the garment of a cartoonist and illustrator’ (as you term him) with Seth the literary character? Was this chance to compare clarifying or further complicating?
Seth’s search for Kalo is an interesting, tight exemplum. It tells a story about a project that has a specific direction and yet which can translate into a larger significance. In the Kalo story it’s about finding self-definition vicariously through a mini-odyssey of tracking down whatever can be told about someone who lived and left a few traces of their life behind. Is there a moral to Seth’s story? I’m not sure Seth would be so neat as to tie up a narrative thread with a convenient moral. Rather, he leaves an open-ended place, almost a narrative void, that compels the reader to fill as a participant in the story. I find that the weight of loss that hangs over Palookaville has a deeper dimension that challenges us to understand our relationships to our “parents” – our mothers and fathers, for sure, but also our mythic parents, our heroes and villains, our needs and anxieties, and why we screw things up and fix them again and again and again. For me, Seth’s genius is in the way he gets me to continue to take the journey of eternal return until I get it right.
Issues of Palookaville readily included letters and comments (whether real or fictional or some combination) reviewing and historical situating Seth’s artwork. Is there any risk of your critical work becoming a feature of Seth’s world of autobiographical reference?
I hope so. I find that what Seth has done in Palookaville is true, astonishing in a wholly original way. I occupy his fictional world; I may even have taken a dive in a fight. But Seth has a gentle humanity I trust. So, I get back up and take on the bad guys.
We live in a world that often heralds progress as a defining force and piles many diverse styles on top of each other in all sorts of directions. What is about the retrospective Palookaville that appeals so much in this seemingly postmodern environment?
I go back to my feeling that in the humanity of his characterizations, Palookaville has a foundational truthfulness about it, and this is independent of whether the stories are told on a 1940s/50s stage. The relationship between brothers, mental deterioration and illness, economic and personal loss, parental abandonment, and all the other deeply human themes that Seth explores are appealing because in their very truthfulness (honesty?) he explodes what may be a quaint picture we have imagined of post-war southern Ontario. The other appealing element of Palookaville, particularly “Clyde Fans” is the wonderful metaphor Seth has developed for the minds and worlds of Simon and Abe – expressed as the cluttered, deteriorating guts of the ageing building that contained the business and their apartment. The panels of Abe wandering around in its hallways and rooms, and of Simon retreating to his office and postcard collection are just so fabulously and fully conceived, especially when contrasted with the frightfulness of the outdoors of Dominion’s lonely streets and the surreal putt-putt golf course. The inside is illustrated by depicting the outside. Postmodern? I suppose it’s the mashup of all the paradoxes that makes the art so richly textured, allusive, appealing and readable.
Does Seth’s aestheticization of the early part of the 20th century in Canada ever run the risk of romanticizing the past? Is there any sense in which this past is exclusionary?
That’s a good question, but I don’t think that Seth romanticizes the past at all. If anything, he looks at mid-twentieth century Canada in an unvarnished way that exposes some of the received myths about the times, and he illustrates them as they affect the characters of his stories – Abe and Simon, the narrator of Kalo story, for example. The way Seth adapts design aesthetics from the mid-century, and has his characters talk and act in the fashions of the day reflects a very clever and mannered mode of storytelling. Is it exclusionary? No, because remember Palookaville is written and drawn to be read by contemporary readers. So, any so-called “hidden biases” of the times will be plainly evident, and, therefore, not exclusionary. In an uncanny way, they are there on the pages, represented in the panels, in plain sight by virtue of the fact they’re invisible.
You discuss Seth’s conception of time quite deeply, even making a connection to Heidegger’s notion of being in time. What are the philosophical ramifications of Seth’s dramatizations of time? Are they meant to tap into a universal experience of time? Do they attempt to elevate the subjective into a sort of timelessness?
Part of Seth’s genius is in the way he can take such grand philosophical conceptions and distill them into such pithy aphorisms such as “you can’t fix yourself in time, no matter how hard you try.” This simple phrase (perhaps the moral of the story) belies a very complicated existential construction that goes to the heart of being. The stranger thing is, when I was growing up in the world that Seth depicts in Palookaville, I heard these aphorisms every day. Outside of the rules that were taught in church, they gave me my bearings about how to get on with life. They gave a sense of control when, really, we – my parents, friends, and everyone we associated with in the lower classes of that society actually had no control over our destinies at all. Forces beyond the edges of London (Dominion) determined our fates. But, even so, the “old sayings” gave us all some bearings. Nobody I knew ever traced the roots of these sayings to secular philosophy. To me, they were more like ritual chants – “whistles in the wind” – that spoke to the inevitability of death, the evident heartlessness of fate, and the real condition of the folks I knew who had no real control or even conception of the external conditions that governed how one lived or even could live. Palookaville was a very real place for them. If you messed up, tested fate, mocked the pagan gods, or blasphemed the real God, you were toying with your destiny, in essence, buying your one-way ticket.