An Incoherent Chat with George Horner

Working on an Incoherent in my Brooklyn studio 7.18.20

Some of the most unexpected and satisfying comics pages in recent memory have bypassed the well-trod indy/angsty trade route and emerged from the sunny Brooklyn painting studio of George Horner, under the genus of “Incoherents”. While not a cartoonist, George is an artist who tends to operate like one and for this project deploys liberated comic book tear sheets as the medium of choice. (His previous mediums have included neon tubing, drum heads, woodblock type and Silly Putty.) I first encountered George Horner via the US mails back in the early 1990s, while producing a weekly strip for the New York Press. He was an enthusiastic contributor to my intermittent “Found Objects” and “Public Toilet Paper Wrappers of New York City” features there, and I soon discovered a kindred connoisseur of the cheapest of cheap laffs. 

Horner’s art world creds include co-founding S.A.M.O.M.A., San Antonio Museum of Modern Art (the first artist-run gallery in San Antonio, Texas) and decades of exhibitions and accolades. He also managed Manhattan’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery for 32 years until his recent retirement. George grew up with and maintained a deep interest in comic book culture and began formally fiddling with his own collection’s overflow in 2016. While employing a “subtractive” method superficially similar to Garfield Without Garfield or How To Read Nancy’s deconstructions, his Incoherents operate more like a freewheeling archeological dig, randomly (yet surgically) exposing an unexpected composition or thematic sub-narrative long embedded in the crusty strata of an unassuming page of Mutt and Jeff or Little Dot. At their best, the results are alchemical.

While all of George Horner’s best work is both unexpected and unapologetically funny, the following chat focuses on the Incoherents and UBUs, which may be of most immediate interest to TCJ readers, especially those who are partial to comic book grids, relentless experimentation, and jokes gone terribly wrong.

Incoherent Skeleton with Red Hat 8.13.16

Mark Newgarden: You have apparently maintained a long-running fine arts career creating work with a distinct emphasis on humor. Wtf? Explain. 

George Horner: From Dada to contemporary artists making joke paintings, the art world has many artists that deal with humor in their work. That said, the Fine Art World does tend to have a huge stick up its ass and takes itself very seriously. I use weird art materials (Silly Putty, porn, comic books, neon, posters, plastic toy soldiers…) but try to use them in serious ways and at the same time not take myself too seriously. It’s a tricky business and it doesn’t always work. Perhaps working at a hotshot hoity-toity Manhattan gallery helped, but that world rarely opened up to me. I get dismissed, but I’ve learned to deal with it with a sense of humor. I just try to make art that I can live with and stick with it.

Who and what are your creative influences? 

Fine Art world: Cubism, Dada, Russian Constructivism, Surrealism, Pop, Contemporary Art.
Comic World: Addams, Wilson, Rodrigues, Gross, Roz Chast, Kirby, Ditko, Swan, Steranko, Crumb, Shelton, Williams.

Did you want to be a cartoonist at some point? (And if so, what stopped you?) 

I did want to be a cartoonist at a very young age. When I was around 14 I submitted a cartoon to Help! magazine. It had witches around a cauldron and one said “and it contains butter fat.”  I still have my rejection letter. Oddly enough, years later my first band was called The Butter Phattz. My grandfather was the publisher of a Hearst newspaper in San Antonio. They had the best comics. Dick Tracy and Popeye were my favorites. I loved the color black as used by Chester Gould. Popeye was the first thing I remember ever drawing. I read Mad, Cracked and even Sick. But Help! was my favorite and when I was rejected from them that sort of ended my dream. Teenagers are so easily crushed.

Incoherent FOLLOW ME, GENIUS 10.30.16
Incoherent Lettrism Girl-Boy-Tom-Boy with Large Shield 3.15.17

What is your relationship with comic books? Do you still read them? 

Started collecting comics when I was six. Definitely grew out of reading the newspaper comics. First it was the usual kid stuff from Harvey and then moved on to the superheroes, then the Undergrounds. I have every comic I’ve ever bought. I rarely buy new ones. Don’t care for the slick better quality paper it’s printed on. I prefer newsprint. I do buy old comics from eBay and flea markets and I read everything I buy.

What is an Incoherent? When and how did the project start?

The term comes from a little known and short-lived French art movement founded in   Paris in 1882, which anticipated many of the art techniques and attitudes later associated with the avant-garde and anti-art movements such as Dada and surrealism. The Incoherents presented work that was deliberately irrational and iconoclastic, used found objects, was nonsensical, included humoristic sketches, drawings by children, and drawings “made by people who don’t know how to draw.” They created the first monochromatic (black on black) artwork, titled “Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel by Night.” The group sprang from the same Montmartre cabaret culture that spawned Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi

Incoherent Fat Man 8.9.20

I discovered the French Incoherents when I first made the work on vintage comic book pages about four years ago, and the name seemed appropriate. I was using nothing but black Flashe to redact the pages, reducing them to their basic elements. There is a deliberate irrational, mysterious and humorous quality to the work. Back in the ‘80s I did a series using gouache on black and white photographs from pages of pre-AIDS ‘70s porn magazines, abstracting the very concrete act of sex. I called these “Porners” (Horner + Porn = Porners). These works have a similar look and are an ancestor of the Incoherents. 

Where do you locate the actual raw material for these pieces? What are the factors of a comic book page that make for an ideal candidate?

I have boxes of beat up comics so these were the original source materials. I’d go through each comic page by page and see if anything called out. It’s an odd process and I don’t fully understand it and the process has changed over the years. I do prefer to go back to the original Harvey comics that I first collected and read. The layout on the pages tends to be simple with lots of onomatopoeia. Don Martin was the supreme master. Harvey, Pine, Dell and Gold Key Comics work best for me because of the simplicity of the pages. Little Lulu and Tubby by John Stanley are some of my favorite comics to work with. Lately I’ve been using adult cartoon magazines and dot-to-dot books that have no panels at all and no onomatopoeia, so go figure. 

Incoherent Dots 4.21

How do you approach the page? Is there a plan? Are there “rules”? Do you know where you are going from the start? How do you know when to stop? 

I don’t really know what the final thing is going to look like. It’s always a surprise. I may have an idea but things always change during the making. It’s odd but I rarely if ever have destroyed an Incoherent because it “didn’t work.” I have gone back to some of the earlier ones and slightly re-worked them but I’ve always been able to know when to stop. Perhaps I’m reacting to something that is already there as opposed to staring at a blank sheet of paper and starting with nothing. The Yves Klein Void. Perhaps I’m just older, more experienced and confident with my abilities and limitations. I’m not sure and I don’t really want to know. I want the mystery to remain. Don’t want the magician to tell me how the trick was done or the joke explained if I don’t get it and don’t want the shrink to remove my demons.

Do you consider these paintings? Collages? What tools are involved in their creation?

I think of them as paintings because I use brushes and Flashe. Scotch tape and an X-acto blade are often used. 

Incoherent THERE MUST BE AN EASIER WAY! 11.11.16

How long does a typical Incoherent page take to accomplish? 

Usually six to eight hours to finish, scan, Photoshop, and post. I have carpel tunnel and arthritis so I have to stop often and shake out my hands. Getting old is rough.

What makes for a successful Incoherent? Do you ever reject any?

Successful when I learned or experienced something new while making it. That’s why I’ve been using different source material. I’ve come close to rejecting a few especially the collaged pieces. One time an image just wasn’t working. Had a figure I cut out and when I turned it over to glue it I realized that the other side was more interesting so I used that side instead. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t. 

Do you consider your practice as an improvement to the original? A transformation? A collaboration? An act of vandalism? A revelation? 

My work isn’t an improvement to the original. It’s more of a revelatory transformational act of collaborationist vandalism.

Three Incoherent Comic Book Covers

In creating these pieces what have you gleaned about the paper stock and inks of mid-20th century American comic books? Which score the highest your purposes? Lowest? 

The crummy newsprint paper and smudgy inks of the sixties are my favorites. The stuff that we were able to use with Silly Putty and lift images from the pages. You can’t do that with the slick paper used with new comic books and newspapers. For years I made artworks using Silly Putty so when I printed my comic books I made sure that they were printed on newsprint and that people could lift the images from them. That’s the litmus test.

Incoherents are essentially created by a subtractive process. Do you consider the Incoherents as narrative works? Are they still comics? If not, when do they stop being comics? 

The Incoherents aren’t very narrative because they’ve been reduced down to a visual oddness. I suppose they still operate as comics because it’s basically still there in form and reads sequentially even if there is little or nothing other than black panels. Often a page is chosen for the panel layout: Is it unusual? Do the word balloons go past the borders? Are there stars in it (something I use quite often)? Is there onomatopoeia? 

UBU Band 2.3.19

Where do the Incoherents and Jess’ Tricky Cad pages overlap and diverge?

Damn, I love Jess’ Tricky Cad work. I can only hope they overlap in some way. Perhaps the overlap is in an overall attempt to just make something truly strange and bizarre, an odd visual thing, poetic nonsense. We diverge by addition and subtraction. But Jess keeps the original look and feel of Dick Tracy with heavy collaging of images and text.

My work tends to be reduced to almost nothing with little of the original piece intact or what is left is altered into something else entirely. Jess’ work looks like Chester Gould on acid. My work looks more like Chester Gould with two long stainless steel pikes jammed into his eyes.

Where do these pieces live under ideal conditions?  The wall? The web? 

Ideally framed and on the walls of the The Museum of Modern Art or the Louvre, but I would be fine with them being in a spinner rack in some comic book nerd’s basement man cave.

Incoherent help 7.14.17

What was the impetus to (re) publish these pages in comic book format? Who is the intended audience? What sort of reactions have these comic books received from the fine arts audience and from comics readers?  

I liked the idea of these pages going full circle, from being in a comic book, torn out, made into Incoherents and then printed back into a comic book again. My comics and Incoherents have been shown in art galleries and art fairs and at Comic Arts Brooklyn at Pratt Institute. They’re sold at Printed Matter, Desert Island and Domino Comics, and on my website. So I inhabit both the fine art and comic worlds. Both audiences seem to appreciate the work.  

Can you tell us a little bit about the related UBU series, which was featured as the flip side of issue #2? 

Ubu Roi (or King Ubu or King Turd) is a fictitious character and a play by Alfred Jarry in 1896. The first word he uttered on stage was “Merdre!” which means “Shitr!” Alfred Jarry was influenced by the Incoherents. His character, Ubu represented all that was brutal, politically corrupt, and absurd. He wore a white robe and a hood looking very much like a KKK member and had a huge belly with a spiral on it. Ubu has continued to be used as a representation of all things politicaly corrupt, evil, murderous and absurd. Often use the covers of old Tubby, Fat Albert and Little Lotta comics for my UBU work because they often depict obesity and gluttony, which is a very Ubu characteristic. Jarry’s dying words were “Give me a toothpick.”

I wanted the second issue of Incoherents to be different from the first so I came up with the idea of two comics for the price of three.

Do you follow any cartoonists currently making comics, particularly that are making abstract or “experimental” comics? 

Here are just a few I follow but few make abstract or experimental comics. Most produce traditional comics but great stuff: Robert Sikoryak, Johnny Ryan, Chris Ware, Kevin Scalzo, Derf Backderf, Austin English, Mark Mulroney, Ivan Brunetti, Taylor McKimens, and of course, Mark Newgarden.

Incoherent OUCH OUCH OUCH OUCH OUCH 12.17.18

What have you been working on recently? 

More of the same, but I have been wanting to make the Incoherents larger so I’ve been having them printed onto wood panels. Also wanted to do something else with the pages and came across an old Bugs Bunny comic with Petunia Pig giving instructions how to make paper beads from comic book pages. So I’ve been making thousands of beads and stringing them onto wire and wrapping them around the Incoherents and spelling out “EL BATMAN NEGATIVO” and “MERDRE” and onomatopoeia words like “SPLOYDOING” and “POIT” and “PWOMPF.”

Hopefully sometime in the near future the work will be on display and people can go and point at it and say “PWOMPF!”

More of George Horner’s work can be seen at http://www.georgehorner.com

Mark Newgarden is a cartoonist and co-author (with Paul Karasik) of the Eisner-winning How To Read Nancy. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.