“Real Basic Reality, Like AAAAAAAAAARGHHHH!”: Notes from Mark Beyer: With/Without Text

Mark Beyer: With/Without Text, The Ohio State University Urban Arts Space, January 8-February 23, 2013.


Stepping out of With/Without Text I asked myself, What did I just see, an abattoir or heaven?

The temptation in looking back at this compelling exhibit, which the Urban Arts Space described as "the first in-depth retrospective" of Beyer's work, is to search for a trajectory, a progression from one aesthetic or subject matter to another concurrent with the artist's biography or history. Retrospectives encourage this, don't they? Well, it was there if you wanted it. Following the exhibit's route, you began in "With Text: 1975-2011," starting with mainly black-and-white comics, including a wall of original Amy and Jordan comic strips, and proceeding to the commercial art of New Yorker covers and commissioned album art and posters, where words became images themselves, and his animated series The Adventures of Thomas and Nardo, where words were only spoken. You concluded in "Without Text: 1975-2012" which was largely comprised of silkscreens and reverse paintings on plexiglas, absent of words or motion.
And yet, any argument the show might have made about the progression of Beyer's work by dividing it into "With Text" and "Without Text" was leveraged by the fact that each section covered Beyer's entire career. On the other hand, Beyer stopped publishing comics in the late 1990s and has returned to the form, so far as I know, only once.

So, yes, those contradictions and questions were there if you wanted them, but none of them seemed to matter much as I walked through the exhibit and none of them much interest me as I look back. With/Without Text told a story in fragments, suggestions and eruptions that was nonetheless held together by a considerably persistent vision, perhaps because all but one of the 130-plus items included here, seventy of them original works of art, were drawn from the private collection of the exhibit's curator, Thomas Arlen Wagner. Unified yet tumultuous, thoughtfully arranged yet loose and ambiguous, the show was as complicated as Beyer's work. The abattoir or heaven? Who says we have to choose? Who says we have a choice?

It matters that Beyer's illustrative style has not changed drastically over the years when it comes to figuration. The same misshapen, abused individuals in his early drawings and comics appear in his more recent single images. Whether they are human or animal or living geometry, their bodies are warped and savage. (Including the fish, and there are a lot of fish in these works.) What have changed are the environments in which those individuals find themselves. In the comics, rendered in black ink, they are besieged by urbanity; in the reverse paintings, they wander freely, if bewildered.

Death and the end of society run through these works like blood through a bird's heart.

The "With Text" portion of the show focused primarily on Beyer's most persistent characters, Amy and Jordan, featured here in covers from A Disturbing Evening, Dead Stories, and numerous originals from We're Depressed and the weekly strip version of their manic exploits, which ran from 1988-1996 in New York Press and was collected in 2004 as Amy and Jordan.
It had been a long, damp, sunless winter in Columbus, which made it a dangerous time to read or look at anything related to Amy + Jordan (Beyer usually substitutes the "and" with a plus-sign), and so these diminutive, claustrophobic wonders were a test of will power and antidepressant dosages. Flattened and stretched as if caught under the ant-killing hand of God himself, the duo looks like Lou Reed sounds in "Paranoia Key of E" from his album Ecstasy. To read the minute, framed, glass-encased images and text, I had to hunch and peer, grumbling to myself about the hitch in my back and the pain shooting up my spine, the kind of ache you get only in the winter—and this seemed to be precisely the right way to encounter the endless oppression that afflicts Amy and Jordan, and that they inflict upon each other.


Amy and Jordan's hapless misery grows tiresome pretty quickly, but Beyer's artistry energizes this tedium, especially the inventive, even disorienting panel layouts. In one strip from 1993, a horizontal funnel repeated across five panels squeezes the air out of each, and in another—this one included on a poster for a Beyer exhibit in 1994 in Berlin—a bulldozer shoves the panels off the page while Amy and Jordan lie in bed, as if the artist-author couldn't stand his own creations, at least that week. On one page from We're Depressed wherein Amy and Jordan attempt to disguise themselves with paint, the half-bubble panels are stacked one atop the other; it's a dramatic construction enveloping a farcical plot, and it redeems the farce.

Beyer's use of patterns—cross-hatching, dots, quilts, whorls, and striated, nervous textures sometimes worried to the point of near opaqueness—anchors the comics in enough detail that they never lose touch with the twisted reality they emerge from. Usually the patterns are purely expressive. As a rabbit named Jack (get it?) talks on the phone with Amy in "Fish City Airport," for instance, the woven diamond patterns behind him mock Amy's omnipresent checkerboard dress in sympathy with the rabbit's thoughts. The realist represents materials first—fur, terrycloth; the expressionist renders emotion first by coding it as material. That's probably why the New Yorker covers included here—a beach scene and a city sidewalk, both largely dependent on clean, almost confident lines, at least by Beyerian standards—seem incomplete and innocuous, merely odd instead of unnerving. Meanwhile, back in "Fish City Airport", the fingerprint swirls of the water morph easily into clouds, dirty and threatening. You can understand why Amy and Jordan are so damn anxious.

Walking through the gallery, I wondered if I was supposed to think this was very strange artwork: "outsider art"—a term that needles me—or even simply the soul-killing redundancy that is the term "art comics." Instead, Beyer's work was uncomfortably, compellingly familiar. Not in an "I've seen it all before" sense, you understand; only the most trite art historian could remain unnerved by Beyer's singular vision. And neither do I mean "familiar" in the sense of who Beyer has influenced, though you can trace that through RAW, Blab! and Kramers Ergot. No, this is the familiarity of a certain message: the world is not what it appears to be, but truer to what you suspect of it. The revelation in Beyer's work is not entirely unlike what happens when Nada puts on those special sunglasses in the John Carpenter film They Live: the veil of the world is lifted, fascist slogans are revealed, and you discover that a big chunk of the humanoid population is in fact comprised of skull-faced aliens. Only here, you realize you're an alien, too.

As With/Without Text transitioned from 'with' to 'without,' it made the case that the city and all its nightmares is one of Beyer's great subjects. In the Amy + Jordan strips, the city is the stage for a nihilist slapstick steeped in violence and crippling doubt about the worth of civilization, or what passes for it. In Untitled (Pooooo Drawing), a drive-by sparks helpless, guilty laughter. At its most benign, the city upends its victims with tilted, sharp perspectives, and they find themselves on the cover of Dead Stories, one of eight or possibly nine individuals ushered by the devil in a neat line toward what is either a row of apartment buildings or a prison. At this point in history, Beyer seems to ask, can we tell the difference, and do we care if we can't? At its most menacing—Three Jerks on Beach Umbrellas, from "Without Text," is a good example—the city prepares to consume you, or reflects your pleasure in consuming and then spitting your own body out onto the pavement. At least you've murdered yourself instead of letting someone else do it.

Fittingly, city living killed Amy and Jordan. In 2012 Beyer told Paul Gravett in an article for Art Review that he'd become "completely burned out on Amy and Jordan" even if he wasn't "burned out on the idea of making comics." And so he wrote a comic, also published in Art Review and Gravett's article, in which Amy and Jordan are shot dead by a loud neighbor, who then reflects, "I did what I felt I had to do, and I did it with passion, integrity, courage, and honor," amidst beer cans, the couple's feet, and what are possibly Cheetos. The comic mocks each one of those ideals, right down to the gnarled scrawl with which they're written, but you also sense that no one in Beyer's world would disagree with the man.

I'm glad Amy and Jordan are dead.

In truth, they were always dead. That is Beyer's other great subject, the one that extends through all of his work: death and its various animations, by which I mean how our existence becomes a living death. In Amy + Jordan, zombie-living is status quo. These two mopes were dead from their first panel, and the mistake others have made when writing about them is to write about them as if they were alive—as if any actions they took in the absurd "disaster!" plots Beyer concocted would have mattered; as if they were ever anything more than what Gravett describes as a "pair of eternal victims…," victims of life itself, at the mercy of ludicrous circumstances and forces ("enemies," one strip vaguely calls them) and each other's malevolence and relentless ennui; as if the idea of taking control of your life is anything other than a tremendous joke. Even if you wanted to, all you'd do is tear out your lover's eyes.

With/Without Text suggested that in Beyer's comics, when the veil of lies is lifted and the truth is revealed, everyone shrugs. "Nothing to be done," as Gogo would say. It's a late twentieth-century nihilism, another reason why the strips were arrestingly familiar. There is no point to social critique when the very notions of a "society" or "critique" are irredeemably corrupt, or if what those words refer to have already been obliterated, living replaced by merely existing. This quality infuses every anxious line and skewed perspective in the Amy + Jordan comics, every intentionally hackneyed plot and redundant piece of dialogue. This is not nihilism in the service of building something new; it says we are living in the aftermath of an Armageddon and witnessing the slow trickling away of humanity. That's why I can't see my way into thinking that these comics are "bleakly hilarious and life-affirming" and "a testament to how strong life is even in the face of a hostile environment" as Jeet Heer described them in 2004. Life is the hostile environment. We're just as hostile as anyone else, but we tell ourselves that we're not, and we get used to living by this lie.

In comparison to the mainly black-and-white "With Text" pieces, the silkscreens and reverse paintings of "Without Text 1975-2012" erupted with color: lime, midnight, blood, clay. More open, more traditionally the kind of objects you'd expect to see hanging on gallery walls, the "Without Text" works shifted the tone of the show, replacing claustrophobia with movement, history with myth, passivity with imagination. What critics have tried to dig for in Amy + Jordan, you couldn't miss in these standalone works: the ritual of art and the freedom of subjectivity are the only things that give us control over our lives, and thus the only things that give life-that-seems-like-death any worthwhile meaning.

In the course of a conversation for the August 1982 issue (#74) of the Comics Journal (reprinted in Art Spiegelman: Conversations), Kim Thompson and Gary Groth talked about Beyer with Spiegelman. Trying to articulate a criticism of RAW, Groth noted that Beyer's work was "so abstracted…from a naturalistic or realistic…," at which point Spiegelman interjected, "Oh, representational." A page or two later:

Groth: I see a greater sensitivity in your work than in Beyer's work. It's simply so abstracted and so divorced from any aspect of reality.

Spiegelman: But it's not. It's real basic reality, like AAAAAAAAAARGHHHH! is basic reality.

In With/Without Text, it certainly wasn't difficult to see what both were talking about, but at the risk of adjudicating a conversation that took place early in Beyer's career, Spiegelman wins by a landslide. The "basic reality" of Beyer's work at the time was indeed a cry of alarm and exhausted pain (Spiegelman refers to it as "raw nerve screaming"). The implication is that this basic reality is essentially emotion that can't be put into words, only sound, or 'soundless' images.

Beyer's single-image silkscreens, drawings, and reverse paintings would seem to be even more subjective, even more distanced or "divorced…from reality" than his comics. Calling to mind the late 1960s work of Hairy Who member Jim Nutt, who also painted in reverse on plexiglas, these wordless portraits and scenes of near-psychedelic intensity are populated by arcane figures more consistently abstracted than those in Amy + Jordan. But they are still figures, individuals, and—this fascinated me as I walked through "Without Text"—despite their wordlessness, they speak more compellingly than anyone in the comics.

Beyer's comics lampoon speech, exposing its dire inadequacies. Usually crafted in the hyperbolic language of a child, narration and dialogue are stiffened by image redundancy and heavy-handed exposition. On an earlier page in We're Depressed (one of three included in the exhibit), the narrator informs us, "Last episode, Jordan got infected by the same disease germs that infected Amy," the phrase "disease germs" sounding like all the realism an eight year-old can muster. In "Fish City Airport," Amy trawls what looks like the river Styx with the aforementioned rabbit named Jack, and after being tugged along by a flying fish, she lands in an airport and thinks to herself, "Nice airport, but I sense imminent danger." Immediately, armed men begin shooting their way through the crowd, to which Amy replies, "Ugh oh, terrorists!" Surviving, she telephones Jack, who thinks privately, against that mocking, checkerboard background pattern, "To [sic] bad, I had hoped that you would have been killed, I hate you, I hate you!" This sounds vaguely honest, since any eloquence in this world would be just one more fraud.

In the wordless images, Beyer's subjects speak eloquently by looking at you. Not always, but often. The eyes of the doll-like figure in Untitled (Clown/Magician), a silkscreen from 1991, stare just to your right. The children huddled next to him likewise are just barely avoiding eye contact with the viewer; same goes for the floating seahorse and the spitting bird and the dogs. In one untitled piece, a rotund figure actually waves at you, and in the 1995 reverse painting Untitled (The Office), desk-bound schlubs stare at you, waiting for your instructions. One of them prepares to dissect a human head with a fish bone.
So many of these individuals' eyes bulge, horrified, more convincingly human than Amy and Jordan ever were. The duo's stories were closed off and insular: you weren't welcome, and why would you want to be? In these single images, particularly beginning in the mid-1990s, urban society becomes the familial, the tribal. This would seem to be even more insular, but the effect is actually more inviting; these aliens who gaze at you have questions for you, warnings, premonitions, and lives of their own they dare to think might actually matter.

The reverse paintings appear brittle, though they are painted into what we would otherwise consider a hearty artifact of modernity: plexiglas. Still, the vivid colors and sheen of the surface make it seem like the individuals contained inside could break apart at any minute.

In that TCJ interview, just after Spiegelman refers to "basic reality," Groth responds, "Primitive art, you mean." Spiegelman relents: "Yeah, primitive…I'm trying to avoid that word. It's a whole other can of worms." Primitive, naïve, outsider—parse the terminology however you like, it's a troubled idea, and one that often rears up when comics are displayed in galleries or museums. As Bart Beaty points out in Comics Versus Art, "In a field in which so few cartoonists have been elevated to the status of art world insiders, it is not difficult to see how the conception of cartoonists in terms of outsider art might seem so appropriate." We know the dangers, mainly that the outsider artist is portrayed as an unsocialized, uneducated, genius-oaf whose raw talent and private visions are redeemed by an institutional art world that uses him or her to seem relevant and hip at the cost of derogating the artist's skill, craft, and effort. Jean Dubuffet saw art brut as a permanent resistance to the institutional art world, but arguably, that world simply made room for outsider art, which, after all, only reifies the long-standing concept of what literary scholar Jack Stillinger called the "myth of solitary genius." But does it always have to be this way? Is someone who's entranced by what's called outsider art obliged to call it that, and to enter into the cultural, aesthetic and political battlefield? By policing the borders of high and low culture, do we just maintain their division and the hegemony of the institutional art world? And if we avoid the question—which the Urban Arts Space did by never explicitly framing With/Without Text as an outsider art exhibit, presumably to let Beyer's work speak for itself—are we just as guilty of maintaining the status quo? And here's a more pertinent question: Is it necessary or valuable to think of Beyer as an outsider artist?
So, yeah, a can of worms. That's enough of that.

What is "primitive" in the majority of Beyer's silkscreens and reverse paintings presented in "Without Text" is actually progressive. Though a core idea in Beyer's comics is still in play—that, though we believe otherwise, we are living in a devolved society, staggering along in a radioactive haze, half-melted, devolved; there are few if any shadows in these works, as if the sun has gone out—the response to this idea in "Without Text" is, instead of a shrug, a question: Now that we have been stripped to our prehistoric marrow, what do we do now? The primordial nature of this question imbues these works with an affirming and surprising humanism, even in the Untitled (The Office), which, for all its bright grotesquerie, is contemplative and inquisitive. "[R]eal basic reality" in the comics is a scream trapped within a hopeless culture. In the silkscreens and reverse paintings, the nihilism of our society has created the opportunity to progress into a different kind of culture, one that is perhaps "real basic" but not solipsistic, one in which we are not victims but participants, grounded by a belief in the possibility of meaning.

Though Beyer's distortions would seem to breach the walls of reality, in actuality they push those walls farther afield, imagining into being a wider sense of what reality is.

In so many of the Amy + Jordan comics, culture, which is epitomized by the city, turns life and death into meaningless jokes told on each other. Though the exhibit made no claims about a systematic philosophy on Beyer's part, it seems significant that so many of his recent wordless images depict a culture more engaged with nature in the largest sense of the word, including the fundamental mystery of death and the possibility of what happens after. These images suggest that what we call the supernatural is just nature we hesitate to imagine out of fear, but if we have the courage to imagine it, living might become meaningful. This is captured most literally in Tunnel of Death from 1994. Here Beyer's compositional flatness recalls antiquity: cave paintings, hieroglyphs. As souls float by on black water, the boatsman Charon holds a candle that emits lines instead of light. His eyes are ambiguous: flat, vaguely malicious, grim, and alert. This seems to be Dante's version of Styx, the Fifth Circle of Hell, since we can spot the eternally hateful and morose Amy drowning in the water. But who is the soul being ferried across the swamp? He stands there passively, the size of a child, mummified and glowing, possessing both guilt and innocence, and engaged with life even if it's slipping away.

All images courtesy Ada Matusiewicz, with the exception of "Clown/Magician", courtesy Courtney Williams.”