You know, it’s funny — I was just remarking to a couple of friends/fellow critics on Twitter earlier today that “understated and contemplative” just aren’t where my reading interests are at these days. It’s not only that they’ve been done done to death in contemporary “alternative” comics (although that surely plays a large part), either : it’s also that they’re a pretty cheap and easy pose for people without a whole hell of a lot to say if they want to try and come off as more profound than they actually are. Disappointed about where you are in life? Confused about the future? Feeling isolated, alone, and disconnected from humanity? Hey, that’s too bad and all, but how about you tell us something about yourself that actually sets you apart from the overwhelming majority of people in late-stage capitalist society?
Speaking of which, a lot of books that indulge in the kind of navel-gazing I’m bored to death with reek of privilege — after all, folks who are clocking 60 hours a week (or more) at back-breaking, dehumanizing menial jobs, or struggling to figure out how they’re going to feed their kids, simply don’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves even though they surely have every right to do so. After all, reflecting on the admitted bummers of unrealized dreams, unfulfilled potential, and unrequited love is only something you can do if you’ve got the free time to do it with.
The simple fact that Vancouver-based artist Karen Shangguan’s Quiet Thoughts (Avery Hill, 2021) was able to impress me, then, given my current negative disposition toward all things blatantly introspective, is something of an achievement in and of itself. I mean, the title gives away what sort of work this is from word go, and it doesn’t lie : collected in this slender volume are visually lyrical musings, ruminations, and illustrations that, fair enough, present one person’s interpretation of various aspects of the human condition from the inside out, but Shangguan goes about her business with a deft enough touch that nothing on offer here will remind you of your annoyingly “angsty” friends — assuming you’re foolhardy enough to still keep any around.
Crucially, while her art and sparse prose are uniformly delicate — sometimes to the point of being downright ethereal — they’re imbued with enough earnestness to give them a conceptual weight that both accentuates, and creates a kind of aesthetic tension by default with, their formal presentation. Shangguan’s use of space and intuitive understanding of sequential rhythm are keys in this regard, communicating at all times the fleeting and transitory nature of, well, pretty much everything, but doing so in a way that manages to be instantly memorable while grasping for ideas and feelings that come and go like a summer cloud. Change is the only constant, as the old cliche goes, but hidden within that is something both inherently more haunting and more wondrous that Shaungguan’s work captures with disarming alacrity : impermanence is the only thing a person can actually count on.
Okay, yeah, there’s still something a bit plastic-bag-in-the-wind about all this, but unlike that infamously vapid scene from an infamously vapid film (American Beauty, in case you’d mercifully forgotten), Shangguan doesn’t hold your hand through the process of interpreting and understanding how she feels about what she’s poetically expounding upon. She establishes a flow from the outset and trusts in your ability as a reader to go with it. This takes more confidence than the tone of many of these pieces would at least imply this artist to be in possession of, but have it she does, and the end result is something of a gently bumpy glide through the semi-turbulent air of life itself — by turns almost too painful to contemplate and too beautiful to ever want to let go of.
And I guess that’s my cue to hop off before I get more pretentious than I’m comfortable with here, but kudos to Shangguan for making me look at things in a way that would normally work my nerves and not only get me to see the value in doing so, but even to enjoy it. There are some raw wounds to be found in this book, no doubt, but even they’re presented as exactly what they are : part of the rich overall tapestry of an existence that will be over with all too soon however one measures it. And I’ve got a sneaky feeling that when it’s all said and done, those contemplative moments of introspection that I claim to be so over and done with will turn out to be what life’s really been about all along — so hey, as Dave Gahan said, “enjoy the silence.”
Quiet Thoughts can be ordered directly from Avery Hill Publishing at https://averyhillpublishing.bigcartel.com/product/quiet-thoughts-by-karen-shangguan
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