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Cautionary tales, Allegories + a Dizzying Array of Zines: Something Unusual is Happening at Printed Matter

A new exhibition in Manhattan explores unconventional visual storytelling in comic arts.

A host of unlikely guests have materialized among the crammed white bookshelves lining Manhattan’s notorious cavern of artistic ephemera, Printed Matter. Spiked dragons are nesting between the bookstands; figures made from shadow frolic toward the cashier; gray stones transform into hatching eggs right before the customer’s eyes. It’s safe to say that something unusual is happening.

Fear not though, these metamorphoses aren’t an Ovidian rift or a mysterious wrinkle in time, but designs in an exhibition of comic arts called Something Unusual is Happening, curated by Printed Matter staffers Cory Siegler and Leslie Lasiter, and on display until July 31st.

The show brings together an international group of comic artists and illustrators who update ideas of fantasy and allegory whether through the use of traditional mythological characters (ghosts, witches, grinning goblins) or a fascination with world building and themes of transformation. What formally binds the work is a common interest in unconventional, often non-linear storytelling, and an urge to transform the traditional comic format.

The illustrations explore a range of fixations; allegories of personal development, cautionary tales of advanced technology, and self-referential meditations on the act of comic drawing itself.

For a show about transforming—both figuratively and conceptually—Printed Matter has decided to also include related rough sketches, notes, ink-drawings, and mock-ups; the physical traces of a work undergoing transformation and development. These sit aside finished comics, zines, posters, and prints by artists including Sammy Stein, Brie Moreno, Patrick Kyle, and Lala Albert.

The exhibition also crucially displays a copy of experimental comics anthology GOUFFRE, published by Lagon Revue this year, and a collection that charts the use of abstraction, anti-narrative, and graphic dynamism in contemporary comic arts. Printed Matters’ exhibition can be seen as rooted in and branching off from Lagon’s tome.

Today, the curators of the show Siegler and Lasiter take us through a few of the beguiling works on display.

1
Gaylord Phoenix #7, by Edie Fake

“I know us best when our borders fly open”: a psychedelic allegory for sexual transformation.

“Made after a 7-year hiatus, Gaylord Phoenix Issue 7 is the latest issue in Edie Fake’s award-winning comic series. It was published earlier this year by Perfectly Acceptable Press, based out of Chicago, and it’s a beautiful three-color risograph zine, with a foil-stamped and die-cut cover.

“The series follows the story of our hero, the Gaylord Phoenix, who travels through beautifully-patterned and colored worlds, on a quest filled with self-discovery, sexual awakening, and transformation. Edie is a trans artist, and the series can be seen as an allegory for navigating the world and occupying space as a queer person.

“With minimal, block letter text, the story is mostly told through bold and ornate illustrations, inviting the viewer to become immersed in the Gaylord’s wondrous world. In issue 7, the Gaylord Phoenix and his lover awake to find that a storm has developed overnight, threatening to destroy the life that they have built. At first scared of what’s to come, they find magic in each other, and know that they are endlessly stronger together than apart.

“In today’s political climate, which puts so many communities under attack, this message rings through loud and clear.” — Cory Siegler.

2
The Flower Was Not Made For Us to Look At and Two, by Maren Karlson

A pair of silk prints that are like curtains into a mysterious realm.

Maren Karlson is a Berlin-based artist working across a variety of media. The Flower Was Not Made For Us to Look At and Two were originally colored pencil drawings, which she had digitally printed on silk.

“For the exhibition, we hung them together, as the imagery in each is telling part of the same story—both feature the same mysterious robed figures, engaged in what appears to be some sort of mystical ritual. The richness and elegance of the drawings is echoed in the choice of the silk fabric.

“In The Flower Was Not Made For Us to Look At, we see a seated, hooded figure with a cobra peeking out from under their robe. The figure is turned away from a bright pink cherry blossom branch, and a red vapor permeates the air.

“In Two (which you can see on her Tumblr), the cobra figure reappears with a robed companion. The red vapor emanates from their joined palms, and a cherry blossom is seen at their feet. As a viewer you feel as though you are getting a little glimpse into another realm—you don’t exactly understand what is going on, but whatever has just transpired seems dark and magical.

“Entering Maren’s world is like learning the real version of the fairytale that your parents didn’t tell you as a child, or unearthing an ancient mythology of an unknown people. You can lose yourself in the labyrinthine stone-laid castle chambers, archways, and staircases—it almost feels like you need to leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs, or you might not be able to get back.” — Cory Siegler.

3
Don’t Come in Here, by Patrick Kyle

The brain has corridors: An architectural allegory for a splintering mind.

“Patrick Kyle is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist who self-publishes zines and comics under the imprint Mother Books. Published by Koyama Books (Toronto) in May 2016, Don’t Come in Here follows a reclusive protagonist as he inhabits an apartment with endless rooms that continually evolve, perhaps according to his mental state, or whether he is asleep and dreaming.

“The narrator peers through a hole in his bathroom wall and finds a forest scene of dense foliage, organic matter drawn with fine, painterly lines that depart from the abstract geometric compositions that comprise the apartment’s sparse interiors. The protagonist’s view of the natural environment is limited to the peephole’s parameters, and eventually a creature living in the wall approaches the hole from the other side and gravely warns, ‘Don’t come in here.’

“The apartment and its mysterious inhabitants exist outside the confines of temporality and natural law. Our protagonist undergoes a series of corporeal transformations on his jog to answer a ringing telephone (or doorbell); In one frame his legs are lengthened, toes pointed like the tip of a pencil; in another his head is enlarged, feet swollen several sizes, arms like noodles; eventually he returns to his original form, with no distance gained and the ringing still sounding in the distance. He sticks his head into an open window that looks into an abyss of parallel lines that change in texture. When he removes his head from the window, the face of his wristwatch has gone black, as if some part of the abyss attached to him on the way out.” — Leslie Lasiter.

4
Travel, by Son Ni

A whole new ball game: a formal play with silence, narrative, and interruption.

“Taipei-based artist Son Ni self-publishes under the artists’ book imprint nos:books, which she founded in 2008 and now co-runs with Hong Kong-based artist Chihoi.

“Ni’s wordless comic Travel, published in February 2016, follows the journey of a ball set in motion after colliding with another, with each panel depicting a new moment in the ball’s trajectory: disrupting a game of badminton, knocking over a statue, interrupting a couple as they embrace. We vicariously follow the ball through a series of private and public spaces, altering the various narratives or simply acting as a passing voyeur, our presence unwelcome but fleeting.

“Ni’s minimal, intimate line drawings of human figures, objects and seeming hybrids of the two encourage you to peer in and look closely at the microcosms on the page.

“Printing primarily with risograph, Ni uses color precisely, setting the variable (the ball, the reader) in gold, and the remaining figures in black. Ni’s considerations as a publisher and printer are especially evident in Travel, which is leatherette-bound with loop staples, evocative of a passport or journal, durable despite its delicately rendered contents.” — Leslie Lasiter. 

Something Unusual is Happening is on at Printed Matter, 231 11th Avenue, New York, NY 10001 from June 30 – July 31.

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