As an editor of the Lagon anthology with Alexis Beauclair, Bettina Henni, Séverine Bascouert, and Jean-Philipe Bretin, Sammy Stein is at the forefront of the new French Abstract Formalist Comics (or French Structural Comics), which employ minimalist, geometric, and graphic style with abstract narratives focusing on the formal structure of comics, similar to Structural Films from the 1970s.
Sammy Stein’s oeuvre can be divided into two categories. The first group is quintessential French Abstract Formalist Comics, exploiting the poetics of transformational and processional comics language. The second group features art objects in exhibitions. They all share the central theme of how the human creation of art/ificial objects mediate the dialectics of the real (immortal truth) and the virtual (fiction).
But first, I want to talk about a work that does not belong to either group.
0. Adieu (2015, with Séverine Bascouert)
Adieu is a zine made of sheets of wood. The cover shows a hand writing on a sheet of paper. There is a wooden shed. Inside, there is a sheet of paper with the word ‘adieu’ written on it, lying on a wooden table. Entering the basement cave through the wooden floor, we see a hand scratching the wall with a rock and the word ‘Adieu’ on the wall. Going down to another basement of the wooden structure, we see a hand with fire. In the end is the word ‘adieu,’ written on the wood, the zine itself.
We can read this as signifying the immortality of the material or nature (wood), contrasted to the mortality (‘adieu’ means goodbye) of the artifacts (the wooden structure). Humans keep producing the message again and again (‘adieu’ appears several times in different places). The cyclical nature of Adieu emphasizes this continuous struggle. The last page (the back cover) only shows the word ‘adieu,’ and it recalls the image of writing hands on the first page (the cover). Some of these messages persist, as we have the zine in our hands, in the same way that we appreciate and study the remains, ruins, and artifacts from the past in the museum. Stein’s oeuvre explores creating and studying art as constant human endeavor against the linear passage of time: the former for the present and the future, and the latter for the past.
The unique materiality of Adieu — wood — highlights another of Stein’s motifs blurring the real (the truth) and the virtual (the fiction). Stein often creates the physical manifestation of virtual objects referred in his comics. While the story is a fiction, we have an object in the zine. This object works as the evidence of the truthfulness of the story and the reality itself by existence. On the last page of Adieu, the word ‘adieu’ is produced in a way that looks like someone physically scratched the wood — the zine itself — to leave the message. It does not look like a representation, rather the reality itself. This examination of ontology and epistemology of representational image is another of Stein’s central themes.
The first group — Moving Sculpture (2016), Sculpture (2016), Chondrite (2016), Crayon #1-2 (2016), Pyramid (2017), and Hatch (2018) — shows the process of the transformation or the creation of art/ifacts. The process is often not linear or causal. After Moving Sculpture and Sculpture, Stein developed his own comics language, blurring the line between repetition/difference and transformation by exploiting the sequential nature of comics. Usually, comics language works as a dialectic of repetition and difference as Theirry Groensteen argued in System of Comics (1999). The similar object which appears later in the comic is the same object (repetition), only with a bit of difference. However, the sequentiality of the image does not need to be limited to one possibility. Indeed transformational potential of the sequentiality has been studied previously, in both comics and art, for example in David Weiss’ Die Wandlungen [The Metamorphosis] (1975-9). The difference between repetition/difference and transformation is that for the former the object is the same, while in the latter it has a different identity.Often the process of creation includes destruction, or the destructed relic is the end product, not a clean, finished product. We exhibit these relics in museums (the second group, especially Return to the Center (2014), and the image  above). We write history and stories about them (the image  above).
Stein’s processional and transformational comics language evokes the sense of time in the static world of comics, and the passage of time reminds us of mortality. Stein shows how humanity tries to defy mortality and the passage of time by creating and studying art (Moving Sculpture, Crayon, and Pyramid) and writing history. This is also why we make and read comics. Ars longa, vita brevis (Life is short, but art is forever).
However hard we try, we can’t reach the truth, and a history can’t be the history, because histories are always subjective just as art is. In this way, Stein’s oeuvre examines the relationship between the reality, truth, history, and fiction.
But Stein is not pessimistic. Just as an artifact can become art after being used or destroyed, Stein’s objects keep transforming into other objects and continue in a new life. Destruction as creation. The transformation as transmigration. This cyclical nature of creation and destruction and the persistent pursuit of production is underlined by the fact that most of Stein’s first group of works are cyclical.
The second group — Return to the Center (2014), The Turtle Museum (2017, with Séverine Bascouert), Multimonde (2017), Salut Marcel (2018), Visages du temps (2018), and Galerie 128: Souvenirs de l'âge d'or (2018) — features art objects in exhibitions. While they have words and dialogue (English translations are included), there is no character psychology, conflict, or storyline. The narrative is actionless. We only see artworks and surroundings and hear (or read) the information about them. Characters who are talking are not depicted.
The extraordinarily printed Turtle Museum shows the imagined museum inspired by the real El Museo de la tertulia in Cali, Columbia. We follow an elf who introduces the museum to visitors. The Turtle Museum includes an immaculately printed ticket and souvenirs (postcards and name card). Just as the diegetic visitor keeps souvenirs as memory (in French, “souvenir”) materialized, the reader does too. While the reader’s visiting experience is secondary via the art (the zine), the physical result afterward — souvenirs — is the same. Both the reader and the diegetic visitor have the same souvenir and thus the same materialized memory, even though the reader’s experience was virtual, not real. For the external observer, there is no evidence to distinguish whose experience is real and whose is not real.
Visages du Temps states that it is a catalogue by Sammy Stein. The diegetic character visits an exhibition of THIRTY artists. One of the artworks, (Artist #20) Salut Marcel, appeared in the zine Salut Marcel as one of the real figure Marcel Bascoulard’s imagined sculptures. Moreover, Reading Stand + Books (Artist #27) represents the actual sculpture this zine was shown on in the exhibition.
While these intertextualities add to the credibility of the story, many artworks in Visages du temps are indeed imagined and were not displayed in the exhibition the reader is visiting. By fusing the real and the virtual, Stein encourages the audience to actively seek out where the reality stops and the fiction starts.
Galerie 128: Souvenirs de l'âge d'Or was made for Sammy Stein’s solo exhibition in Galerie 126 (Notice “6”). The zine tells the story of two friends visiting the Galerie 128 a century later, after it has become a ruin. It was made with two colors, the black showing the exhibition held 100 years earlier, and the red depicting the ruin of the gallery of the present. In reality, the ruin was the actual artwork, and the exhibition Stein created (as we can see from the photographs attached) and the black artworks are imaginary.
The use of photography here is intriguing when compared to Chondrite, a two-panel comic of 3D modeling images published on photography paper.
Photography is usually used as evidence of the existence. As Barthes wrote, “Every photograph is a certificate of presence.” However, in Galerie 128, the photography is used as a proof of the imagined story. In comparison, digital images lack indexicality. There is no existence to prove. By proving the existence of the nonexistence and the truthfulness of the fiction, Stein exploits the paradox of ontology of photographic and representational images. Stein questions how we describe the reality and how our method to reach the truth is inadequate.
The universe is chaotic and nonlinear, just like Stein’s first group, but humanity strives to understand it by making and appreciating art in the way that we are reading and analyzing Sammy Stein’s works. That human yearning to defy nature is improbable in the way that Stein’s catalogue includes real and imagined artworks, but it does not mean that it is worthless. Just as we appreciate the “process” of transformation in Sammy Stein’s first group of works, the struggle itself — the art, history, study, and fiction — is invaluable.