Friday, June 12, 2009

Nina Roos and the suggestion of narrative

I've mentioned Nina Roos's drawings before. I love them. Here's another one:

In the comments for this particular drawing, a reader (Sarah from Everyone Can Draw)--besides mentioning this very blog--writes: "You are so good at simultaneously suggesting a narrative whilst denying it. Amazing."

Reading that, I realized that it can be seen as, more generally, a quality of all abstract comics--one of the ways in which abstract comics function: the suggestion of a drive forward, a movement, something that tells you something is happening, but without really stating or explaining what. Long before I had read that comment I subtitled one of my pieces (now in Nautilus) "a vague epic," and I realize now I was getting at the same kind of quality.

If I'm not mistaken, this is not far from what Roland Barthes called (for the literary text), "signifiance" rather than "signification." Not settled meaning, but the active process--in poetry, for example--of words bumping into words, sounds against sounds and connotations against connotations, from which meaning arises. One of the things that abstract comics can do is isolate and foreground this "signifiance" in comics.

This can be expanded, leading the way to an even more complex understanding of what abstract comics can do (and, in the process, hopefully addressing Draw's wishes for more writing on Ab Cmx); I'll save that for a later post. Let me just say that I've always thought of Barthes' notion of "signifiance" as somehow related to instrumental music--the way instrumental music can have a (formal) narrative, without ever exactly stating what the story is about. There are many other parallels between abstract comics and music that need to be drawn out and investigated, and this would be a good starting point.


  1. I am really looking forward to reading (and debating about!) more of the theory on abstract comics in the coming anthology.

    I would raise the point here, on this particular piece, that it brings to mind a surveyance of a landscape, albeit an abstract landscape, more than signifying internal movement. I would agree that it falls under abstract comics because it uses partially the comic form (panels, suggestion of sequence) while abstracting visual content. Very much looking forward to better understanding the space as you have laid it out in the book.

  2. I'm not sure about that, Alexey--it looks to me like something actually moving in front of a foreground--something being shot out and up, so to speak, plus a kind of "camera" movement, a zooming out, perhaps. But then, hey, that's why I said "suggestion" and not "denotation."

    BTW, I was looking for you at MoCCA, but I guess you weren't there?

  3. All images imply a narrative. Sequentiality is an explicit engagement with narrative.

    Explicit and implicit narrative is something I've played with considerably in much of my own work...the use of panels as a signifier for narrative is often dependent on the imagery associated with it, as well as the arrangement, and...something else. Mondrian was referencing the same graphic art grid that comics always has, (his panels are "empty"), but it was arrived at by extension of the logic of painterly abstraction.

  4. Jason--from your first paragraph, I assume you meant to say "all sequential images imply a narrative"? That would work with your mention of sequentiality in your second sentence.

    As for Mondrian, I'm not sure that's not a coincidence. For him, the grid is not a grid of gutters surrounding panels, but rather the verticals and horizontals are the content of one single picture, creating a unified composition. On the other hand... I don't know if you saw the Mondrian retrospective at the MoMA, years ago. What was interesting in there was that the paintings were displayed strictly chronologically, and you could see how he established a formal logic for himself, and each small change in that logic was like a major pictorial event. So all the paintings functioned almost like a sequence (a sequence of historical development, but also a sequence of formal development)--and each painting was almost like a "panel" in that sequence, like a "panel" in the "abstract comic," if you will, formed by Mondrian's entire oeuvre.

    I do agree fully when you say that "the use of panels as a signifier of narrative is often dependent on the imagery associated with it, as well as the arrangement, and... something else." That's why simply juxtaposed images do not necessarily form a comic, a "narrative" sequence. The representational elements in the panel may, most clearly, suggest a story; for our purposes, it's more of a matter of arrangement, as you say--the notion I discuss of "sequential dynamism," how the compositional force vectors in each panel lead from one panel to the next; or some other kind of formal development (e.g., one shape in the first panel, two shapes in the second, three in the third, etc.)--or, yes, "something else."

  5. I was really sad to miss out on MoCCA this year! I had a trip planned out of the country that ended up falling on the same dates. Are you soon coming back to New York?

  6. Hey Andrei, your comment about the Mondrian retrospective reminds me of an idea I have often pondered on. That art galleries can function a bit like comics. When you see a sequence of art works in a gallery they can create 'signifiance' in the view creating even a narrative.

  7. The interpretation of abstract comics is a field ripe for a cultural studies/literary theory/PoMo big word fest. Look forward to some horrid essays on this area by word-mad brainiacs.

    I'll try to explain what regular comics do to me, then what abstract art does to me, & then add some of that together.

    Reading regular comics or graphic novels, I'm pulled in one of 2 directions:
    1) if there's a lot of text, I spend more time in "word-reading" mode, & give less attention to the illustrations, & feel a sense of effort, in switching from reading to looking mode;
    2) if it's wordless or has sparse text, I pay more attention to the image in each frame, & am more relaxed.

    Jessica Abel's "La Perdida" includes text in both Spanish & English. Reading the Spanish slows me down, as if I'm wading through deep water, & requires a lot of mental processing. Then I look at the image, & in a split second, I can see who's there, where they're standing, where the location is (in a room/streetscape/park/on a river), & who's doing what to whom.

    After reading La Perdida once, I was aware that I'd neglected the pictures, & returned to see if any of them grabbed my attention.

    Billy Mavreas's "Inside Outside Overlap" has simple illustrations & few words. Reading his book from cover to cover is a breeze. (What you understand from reading it is another story.)

    Broadly, we can divide images into 2 categories: recognisable & abstract. But... abstract shapes can still suggest recognisable things, although a different thing might be suggested to a different person viewing it. An inkblot might suggest a clown's face to person A, a dog's face to person B & a random ink splotch to person C.

    Abstract comics, which often use abstract shapes inside the frames, allow the reader to remain in picture-looking mode.

    If different readers receive completely different suggestions from abstract shapes, it woud seem that abstract comics which use abstract shapes are extremely open-ended, in the meaning they give to a reader.

    I'm dealing with one level of meaning/interpretation. Some of you are already talking about different layers of depth/precision in the interpretation process.

    A scientific way to study how people read abstract comics would be to map their eye movements (saccades), time how long they spend on each panel, & ask for verbal descriptions of what they got from the comic. You could even use medical brain-imaging machines to observe which regions of the brain are stimulated, & to what degree. This is in line with the emerging area of Cognitive Poetics.

    Eventually, we might end up with:
    Molotiu's "Nautilus" has a plasti-semanticity rating of 7.8, saccade velocity variance of 3.2 & overall hedonic index of 8.9.

  8. Angel--are you an Angel that I know in real life? I used to have a good friend of that name, who was also into comics (actually, he was the one who got me into Love & Rockets and Watchmen back in college)--but I've long since lost track of him. To answer your question, I'll probably be in NYC in September for the opening of the show, and I'll try to arrange a signing with all the area contributors to the book.

    Draw--our own Janusz Jaworski (just wait till you see his strips in the book!) actually writes in his artist's statement that he got the idea of doing abstract comics after seeing his pictures on the wall, in a row, in a gallery.

    Tim--yeah, they'll be starting to interpret them soon. Actually, they already have. If I may mention my own comics, Jog has done a pretty insightful reading of "Expedition":

    (It's nominally about BV 4, but it's mostly about my piece...)

    And here's Derik Badman on "Alcoholalia"--

    I guess Derik was convinced, in the end--now he's a contributor to the anthology. I like how he gets the musicality of panel-to-panel rhythm that I was going for. (Actually, I've been planning to write about the relationship of ab cmx and music for my next "toward a theory" post).

    On the other hand, I'm NOT looking forward to the cog science guys getting their hands on it. I've honestly never felt that anything I read by some cog sci person on a piece of art ever had any bearing on the actual *art* in the piece... They probably would claim that it doesn't need to, but in that case I'm really not that interested.

  9. On the other other hand, if anyone wants to give me (or, ok, one of my books..) an "overall hedonic index of 8.9," hey, I'll take it!

  10. Ack, Angel was me. That's what I get for sharing the computer...

  11. Highlow there! Maybe I can contribute.

    Andrei said: "There are many other parallels between abstract comics and music that need to be drawn out and investigated"

    Generating Robukka at is my Comic of Abstraction of Soundtrack.

  12. Those are great, Robukka. How do you make them? I.e.--how do you make them on StripGenerator, which has always seemed to me in the past to be pretty limited in what one can do--but not for you, obviously. Also, do you have a specific way of translating music into images, or is it just based on your impressions of the music?

  13. Actually the restrictions in SG (and Me) make mine nonrepresentational.
    If I managed to produce a likeness of some singer I really would not mind!
    Though these are closer to album art than promotional band pictures.
    Ideally the strips would relate to each other the way the songs do.

  14. Big update with Stripgenerator 1.0.4, with new functions: with mask, opacity, blur.


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