As far as thought-provoking and challenging exercises in formalism and sub-minimalism go, they don’t come much more formalist or sub-minimalist than prolific cartoonist Sean Christensen’s 2019 self-published mini Performance Video, an admittedly curious contemporary artifact that’s as notable for what it does as what it is — although by the end, whether or not there’s any distinction between the two is very much an open question.
And, in fairness, open questions are rather at the core of what Christensen is getting at in this work, for which the antiquated term “avant-garde” is woefully inadequate. Christensen starts and ends with the most basic of basic linework that wordlessly refers either forward and backward to the text, respectively — but that text is the backbone of the project, blue-rendered hand lettering split, like the art, into six-panel grids on each page, with four lines of wording per panel being the standard — barring the occasional panel with just a line or two breaking things up for reasons of emphasis. To call this a series of “blank pages” is too easy, though — rather, Christensen is exploring the very nature of the relationship between words and images by either obliterating one or the other entirely.
Spatiality and its negative are both in a kind of silent tug of war here, as Christensen consciously or not invents what we’ll call, in a pinch, “visual haiku,” but again, it’s probably a cop-out to say this is “comics poetry” — not least because it really doesn’t fit the standard definition of “comics” at all. It’s more a pristine example of hermeticism than it is anything else, establishing itself as having a tempo, methodology, and purpose both entirely its own on a “macro” level and unto itself, an internalized, self-referential “loop” confining the work within a set of distinct “borders,” but in no way limiting its ability to communicate with readers once those strictures are fully grasped. That, however, is more a process than it is automatically a given.
Which is, I suppose, my (hopefully) polite way of saying that this comic will likely alienate a good number of folks from jump. That’s not a bad thing, by any means, but it does mean that Christensen give populism no quarter with this one. It’s his show, and it’s incumbent upon you to decide whether you wish to “buy in” or not. Which sounds more absolutist than it actually is, though, when one considers that the fact that this is a highly accessible book — provided one is willing to play by its rules.
So, if you’re game to tough it out, so to speak, what can you expect? A highly immersive internal monologue laid out in extremely deliberate fashion that belies its sparse — even austere — trappings by dint of its expressive form and imaginative approach to function. An experimental piece of sequential art, sure, but one that has a disarmingly linear trajectory and isn’t just “easy to follow,” but frankly impossible not to. A comic that looks something well beyond simple but is actually complex but is actually, at the end of the day, simple all over again. And if you think that means it has to be pretentious, guess again — because Christensen only succeeds here precisely because he eschews pretense altogether and embarks on a path entirely his own.
I’m still processing it all myself — as is probably (maybe even painfully) obvious by now — but the fact that Christensen was able to get me to do so with just a handful of words and an even smaller handful of stark, basic images is proof positive that whatever he was looking to achieve with this one, he pulled it off.
Performance Video is available for $5.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/performancevideo.html
Review wrist check – I was wearing my Squale “1521 Onda Azzurro” white I wrote this one, riding a BluShark “Bond Reverso” seat belt NATO strap from their “AlphaShark” collection. On a 90-plus degree summer day like today, this is the closest thing to a “perfect” watch/strap combination as you’re likely to find, even if I do only say so myself.
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Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.